First off, a Happy Easter/Pascha to everyone. Christ is Risen!
I was going through E.P. Sanders’ The Historical Figure of Jesus. Now I actually find it kind of interesting that Sanders is one of the few scholars who doesn’t directly mention Q when discussing the gospels. Funnily enough, many of the historical Jesus/New Testament scholars and theologians who hail from Oxford (Sanders, Rev. N.T. ‘Tom’ Wright, Austin Farrer, Michael Goulder, Mark Goodacre, Rev. John Fenton, to name a few) are actually doubters of the majority Q theory, or at least the standard ‘textbook’ form of it. (Austin Farrer, followed by Goulder and Goodacre in fact proposed an alternative theory which did away with the Q source altogether.)
But that isn’t really what caught my eye, but this quote (p. 60-62):
I have offered a sketch of four stages: (1) units used in homiletical or pedagogical contexts; (2) collection of related units into groups of pericopes (perhaps circulated on individual sheets of papyrus); (3) proto-gospels; (4) our gospels. It is not necessary to believe in this four-stage process in order to understand the material. Some scholars, in fact, doubt (2) and some doubt (3). What is necessary is to comprehend the general development of the tradition. Jesus said and did things in a context, the context of his own life; he responded to the people he met and to the circumstances as he perceived them. But we do not move directly from his life to the gospels. We move, rather, from his life to early Christian use of individual incidents as examples to score some point or other. Only gradually were pericopes assembled in books that purport to describe his career. But decades had passed, and the original context that inspired a given saying or action had been lost.
I have been writing as if all the early Christians did to the material was to move it around and write brief introductions such as ‘at that time’. But they also revised it. Revision of material that is reused is inevitable. The alternative to introducing minor alterations to make a pericope relevant to a new audience and a new situation would be embalming it. The Christian material was kept alive and fresh, even though it was used over and over again, by being applied to living issues – not all of which were the issues of Galilee between 25 and 30 CE.
Moreover, the early Christians also created new material; they made things up. This sounds like an accusation of fraud or dishonesty, but it is only a sharp way of putting a procedure that they saw quite differently. Christians believed that Jesus had ascended into heaven and that they could address him in prayer. Sometimes he answered. These answers they attributed to ‘the Lord’. We now want to know which Lord: Jesus before he was crucified or the risen Lord, resident in heaven? The Christians thought it was all the same Lord. In the letters of Paul there is one clear instance of hearing the Lord answer prayer, though this must in fact have happened numerous times. Paul suffered from a ‘thorn in the flesh’, some unspecified ailment. Three times in prayer he asked the Lord to remove it. ‘[The Lord] said to me,’ Paul wrote, ‘“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness”’ (I Cor. 12.7-9). Here is a direct quotation of the heavenly Lord. We have Paul’s letter, and so we can tell that he heard this in prayer. But some other Christian, or even Paul himself, might have repeated the saying without specifying that it came from the risen Lord. The consequence might have been that ‘my power is made perfect in weakness’ ended up in a gospel, attributed to the historical Jesus. In this case that did not happen, but it could have happened, and we must assume that sometimes such things did happen. Some of the early Christians thought that the heavenly Lord communicated quite freely with them. I cite again Paul, whose letters are the earliest surviving Christian literature: he claimed to ‘impart … in words’ things that were ‘not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit’ (I Cor. 2.13). As he wrote elsewhere, ‘the Lord is the Spirit’ (II Cor. 3.17). In other terms the Spirit that freely communicated with Paul and other Christians could be thought of as the Spirit of the risen Lord, who was in some way or other continuous with the historical Jesus.
I am not proposing that the early Christians engaged in wild flights of fancy, in which they created all sorts of things and attributed them to the Spirit = the Lord = Jesus. When we study the sayings in the synoptic gospels, I shall frequently point out how limited was early Christian creativity. I think it likely that the major changes in the material were those involved in altering context and making minor adjustments. But we also must accept that some material was created – that is, that Christians heard it in prayer.
I really find this intriguing. On the one hand, one could IMHO draw a parallel between these putative revelations from the risen Christ with the inner locutions and the apparitions experienced by later saints and mystics, but on the other hand, you can argue that this explanation is too convenient: ‘Oh, that isn’t really historical - the Christians just received that from later revelation and then just retroactively inserted it in the context of Jesus’ (earthly) life’. That’s why I’m not entirely convinced by it.