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Jesus Traditions

The reader’s patience is requested in the fact that these Jesus pages are in effect a kind of sub-Web, “piggy-backing” on the principal Web,, and thus that the As Paul Tells It . . . designation at the top of each page is not quite accurate. The Jesus Traditions Home Page is readily accessible by clicking on Contents, to be found at the top and bottom of each page.

Material in red = Mark .. in blue =   Q   .. in green = Special Matthew .. in fuchsia = Special Luke


  Contents of Jesus Traditions

Narrative Material



“The Kingdom of God Has Come Near” (Mark 1:15) 

As important as Jesus’ word and work were for the actualization of the Kingdom, it is both noteworthy and paradoxical that he should be remembered as proclaiming, not himself, nor the restoration of the Davidic kingdom, but as proclaiming God, his reign or kingdom. The Kingdom of God is already familiar in Jewish teaching, where it often has a future reference. What distinguishes Jesus’ proclamation about the kingdom is his declaration that they are living in a time of fulfillment, that a new force is at work.

Matthew 4:12, 17

Mark 1:14-15

Luke 4:14-15

      14Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. 
12Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee... .       
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, 
From that time Jesus began to
 “Repent, for the kingdom of
heaven has come near.”


proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” cp. Luke 4:21
15He began to teach in the synagogues and was praised by everyone.   

Other texts make clear that the kingdom has in fact become a present reality (Matthew 12:28 || Luke 11:20), particularly in dealing with mental illness (see the section below). The transition from the present age to the coming age has happened, and the signs of its coming are evident.


“Prof. Jesus”

Jesus was widely acknowledged as teacher, or as we might say today, “professor.” He was respectfully addressed as “Rabbi” (master teacher). There is evidence that he not only was learned in the scriptures but was skillful in rabbinic discourse and debate as well. But to say this is not to do him justice, for he was a marvelous combination of rabbi, wisdom teacher, and prophet; as wisdom teacher, skillful in speaking in parables and proverbs; as prophet, speaking out against evil and injustice, and proclaiming God’s salvation and judgment.

His sayings will be the subject of later pages.


“Dr. Jesus”  

The gospels are full of healing narratives, in which Jesus cures all sorts of diseases, both physical and mental (though this kind of distinction should not be pushed too far, whether in ancient or modern terms). We may also note that Jesus was remembered in the tradition as being motivated in his healing (as in meeting other needs) by compassion: Mark 1:41 (the healing of the leper); Matthew 20:34 (the healing of the two blind persons); and Luke 7:13 (the raising of the widow’s son at Nain).

   §  Physical Disease

We find accounts of people being healed of a considerable variety of diseases which are clearly physical: lepers, the blind and deaf, an epileptic child, and others. Click on Physical Disease, for a listing. 


Most of these are what we would call organic disorders. In a few cases there is the possibility of a functional disorder, as with the paralytic whose sins are forgiven, and the woman who is bent over and crippled by a spirit. But in most of the cases listed, with no natural or functional explanation available, one is left with a decision between the following kinds of choices: 

    Recognizing spontaneous remission; 
       acknowledging miraculous healings; better, “deeds of power, wonders, and signs,” as the New Testament would say (Acts 2:22); or 
           attributing these accounts to a tendency to heighten the miraculous. (Click on Miracles?”.)

   §  Mental Disease

The gospels also contain abundant examples of people with mental disease who are healed by Jesus: a man in the synagogue with an unclean spirit, “Legion,” The Gerasene demoniac, and others. In ancient times, abnormal personality disorders were thought to be caused by demon possession.  Click on Mental Disease, for a listing of exorcisms, and a more detailed discussion. It is clear that helping people with mental disease was a high priority for Jesus. 

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   §  Befriending Sinners

Yet another sort of healing is evident in the “cure of souls,” a part of Jesus’ practice of which we get a glimpse in the varied traditions that have survived. He seems to have been helpful to people by virtue of being accessible, non-judgmental, and straightforward, their well-being his only  thought.

Jesus acquired a reputation not only as a glutton and drunkard [a bit of a caricature] but also as a friend of tax collectors and sinners [and of respectable people, too!]. He took this insulting characterization and wore it as a badge of pride.

Q = Matthew 11:18-19 || Luke 7:33-34, “For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”

He defended his policy of associating with people who had been marginalized, with the perfectly reasonable observation that “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (Mark 2:17).

There are several anecdotes which show in one way or another that Jesus was remembered as helping people find forgiveness:

    The paralytic in Mark 2:1-12, to whom Jesus pronounces forgiveness of his sins;

    The woman in Luke 7:36-50, whose reputation as a sinner does not discourage her from anointing Jesus’ feet, and receiving his declaration of forgiveness;

    The episode of Zacchaeus, in Luke 19:1-10, whose career as a tax-collector for the Romans had effectively excluded him from respectable society, but who is brought to repentance when Jesus invites himself to his house for dinner; and

    The woman caught in adultery (John 7:53 – 8:11), who is rescued from stoning by Jesus, when he invites the one who is without sin to cast the first stone. (Though probably not a part of the original Greek text of the Gospel of John, and though it did not find its way into most manuscripts of the synoptic gospels, this story nevertheless has a reasonable claim to being derived from good tradition.)

We do not know how much these stories reflect the later teaching of the church, or how much they represent actual episodes; but they likely reflect at least the character of Jesus, as one who was concerned to restore the relationship of people to each other, and to God. 


Jesus in Controversy

   §  A glance at the listing of controversial or adversarial episodes or sayings of Jesus will bring to light several points (click on Controversy):

  •  The controversial units tend to be arranged in groups, especially Mark 2:1–3:6 and 11:27–12:37, and Matthew 23:1-36. (The fact that the two blocks of such material in Mark are each followed by plots on the life of Jesus may or may not be historically grounded, but this phenomenon may point to the area or areas of irreconcilability which eventually led to his death.)

  •  The opponents or adversaries are mostly the religious establishment (Pharisees, scribes, and Sadducees); there are words of denunciation for the towns of Galilee; and derisive words about Herod (Antipas).

  •  The points of contention have to do mostly with Torah (the Jewish Law), and religious belief and practice, though issues like paying taxes to Rome also come up. Sometimes Jesus is obliged to defend himself against personal attacks (the Beelzebul controversy).

  •  One cannot avoid observing that disputes between the followers of Jesus and the Jewish leaders did not cease with the execution of Jesus. Early Christians would likely have debated many of the same questions with the Pharisees of their day, as Jesus did in his time. Nor can we avoid inquiring whether the urgency of countering the objections of the Pharisees in their day may have kept the memory of Jesus’ sayings and actions alive in the tradition, even as it became more and more difficult for the early Christians to differentiate between genuine sayings of Jesus and sayings which may have originated with the community. So we must be cautious that we not over-interpret these controversy sayings and actions, as if we could be certain that they do in fact go back to Jesus.

   §  Inevitably the question arises over how to account for the considerable animosity between Jesus and the religious establishment. The answer is probably both simple and complicated. Simple, because differences in attitudes toward Torah were fundamental and irreconcilable (click on Torah); and complicated, because:

  •  The Judaism of Jesus’ day was more pluralistic and diverse that in the post-70 period. While there was little love lost between Sadducees and Pharisees on quite a number of issues (click on First Century Judaism), with differences rooted in a fundamental disagreement over the validity and finality of oral law, they apparently had adopted a live-and-let-live policy which they were not willing to concede to Jesus.

  •  We cannot be sure that the resentment toward Jesus would have been so intense, and the Jewish leaders so desperate to be rid of him, had he not enjoyed so great a popular following, and had he not in effect publicly and unmistakably challenged them to reform their institutions, when he disrupted Temple commerce during his final visit to Jerusalem.

  •  For all of his compassion and willingness to deal generously with wayward types, Jesus may well have marked the leaders of Judaism in his day as serious obstacles to reforming and renewing the religious life of his people. In step with the great prophets of his people in the eighth and seventh centuries B.C.E., he had little patience with a formalism and legalism which would block free and life-giving access to God.


Calling Disciples

It would seem fairly straightforward to list the names of the disciples, comment on the significance of their number, twelve, and differentiate the terms disciple and apostle

   §  As the chart will show (click onThe Twelve), there are complications. The roster of disciples includes at least thirteen names; fourteen, if we count Nathanael, from the Fourth Gospel; and fifteen, if Matthew and Levi the son of Alphaeus are not the same person. We may reasonably suppose that on any given day the composition of “the twelve” may have varied.

   §  For the early church, which understood itself as the “new Israel,” the twelve disciples, representing the twelve tribes of Israel, would have signified the leadership of this new chosen people. There does not seem to be any convincing reason why Jesus himself could not have appointed twelve companions who would have symbolized a newly constituted people of God, especially as the gap widened between Jesus and the Jewish religious establishment. 

The listing in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 of a resurrection appearance to “the twelve” gives rise to a few comments: a) it shows how early and how persistent “the twelve” is for its symbolic importance, even though the same passage indicates that there were other apostles (15:7), including probably James the brother of the Lord; b) this symbolic value is evident in the persistence of “the twelve” even though, according to some traditions, “the twelve” was diminished by the suicide of Judas Iscariot. (It is beyond the scope of this discussion to determine whether the tradition behind 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 “trumps” the traditions of Matthew and Acts and brings into question the authenticity of popular anecdotes about his suicide.) 

   §  As for the terms disciple and apostle, the latter for the most part is reserved for the post-Easter period for those sent out in mission, and endowed with special authority for leadership in the church. It is rarely used in Matthew and Mark (Matthew 10:2; Mark 3:14; 6:30), and more frequently in Luke (6:13; 9:10; 11:49;  17:5; 22:14; 24:10). The term disciple refers to a committed follower of Jesus, especially during the years of his public activity. It is used both of a wider circle of followers, and of an inner circle of “the twelve,” members of which had been specifically called by Jesus. The latter in particular spent their time as companions of Jesus, learning from him and assisting him. Mark represents their call as one in which they were appointed “to be with him, and to be sent out to proclaim the message, and to have authority to cast out demons” (Mark 3:14-15), that is, to replicate in some degree Jesus’ own ministry of the word and of healing.

It would be hard to over-estimate the importance of the relationship of “the twelve” with Jesus, over a quite extended period of time.


“. . . Even the wind and the sea obey him” (Mark 4:41)

In addition to the healing narratives, many of which could be described as miraculous cures, there are also episodes which qualify as nature miracles: stilling the storm (Mark 4:35-41 || Matthew 8:23-27 || Luke 8:22-25), walking on the water (Mark 6:45-52 || Matthew 14:22-33), feeding the multitude (Mark 6:30-44 || Matthew 14:13-21 || Luke 9:10-17; and Mark 8:1-10 || Matthew 15:32-39), and killing the fig tree (Mark 11:12-14, 20-21; Matthew 21:18-22). Miracles such as these function for people in different ways: 
   •  For some people, these miracles function as a support for their beliefs (e.g., because Jesus performed miracles he must be the Son of God); this approach to miracles was not uncommon in ancient times, and it is one which persists today. 
   •  Others may find these miracles troublesome (e.g., if you cannot believe these stories, how can you accept the teachings and theology of the gospels?). 
   •  Yet others will recognize that, in a pre-scientific period, these stories were the way the early Christians celebrated God’s power working through his Son. 
Click on Miracles?” for further discussion.


One of the most curious and perplexing of the synoptic stories is the account of the fig tree which Jesus killed. When he went up to the tree he found no fruit to satisfy his hunger, whereupon he said, as reported in Mark, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” The next day, when they passed by, they saw that the tree had withered away to its roots (Mark 11:14, 20). Was this a peevish and capricious use of his power, especially since “it was not the season for figs”?

Apart from denying its authenticity, the best way of approaching this text is to treat it as an independently flowing piece of tradition which unfortunately got connected with the Passion narrative. Once it is freed from its immediate context in Mark it becomes more intelligible. Click on The Fig Tree for further discussion.


The Birth Narratives

It seems that many people, including Charlie Brown, are familiar with “the Christmas story” in the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke, but remain uninformed about some of the most basic things in this material. The information in the two gospels has quite innocently been harmonized, often in the interests of a Christmas pageant; while problems in the stories go unnoticed.

    §  Sources

Regrettably, neither of our oldest and best sources have birth narratives. Q was mostly a sayings sources, with very little narrative material. Mark begins not with the birth of Jesus, but with his baptism. There is no evidence that Matthew and Luke used written sources. They were probably dependent for the most part on anecdotal material, which may have come to them as long as seventy or eighty years after Jesus’ birth.

   §  Similarities between Matthew and Luke

   •  Both gospels include genealogies (Matthew 1:1-17, and Luke 3:23-34), which though differing in some details take pains to trace the ancestry of Jesus back (through Joseph) to David.
   •  Both gospels locate the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:1; Luke 2:4-7).
   •  Both gospels date the birth of Jesus during the reign of Herod the Great (Matthew 2:1; Luke 1:5).
   •  Both gospels affirm the virginal conception of Jesus (Matthew 1:18-25; Luke 1:26-38).
   •  In both there is an emphasis upon the messiahship of Jesus, probably more in Matthew than in Luke (Matthew 2:1-6; Luke 2:11-12). This emphasis explains in part the interest of the authors in the genealogies and in a birth in Bethlehem.

   §  Differences between Matthew and Luke

   •  In Luke, the home of Joseph and Mary is Nazareth, and they travel to Bethlehem because of the (presumed) census (2:4-6), while it appears in Matthew that they were already resident in Bethlehem, but later (after the return from Egypt) moved to Nazareth (2:22-23).
   •  It is in Luke that the shepherds visit the newborn infant (2:8-18), and in Matthew, that wise men visit the child (2:1-12).

(Other issues are discussed in Birth Narratives.)

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