Tradition: The Source of the Written Gospels

Years ago, when I was first reading the Epistle of James, a couple of verses in chapter five jumped out at me. James didn’t give any indication that he was quoting Jesus, but I clearly recalled the same words in Christ’s Sermon on the Mount:

Epistle of JamesGospel of Matthew
But above all, my brethren, do not swear either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath, but let your yes be yes and your no be no, that you may not fall under condemnation. (5:12)Do not swear at all, either by heaven…or by the earth…Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from the Evil One. (5:34-37)
Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted and their rust will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. (5:2-3)Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal (6:19)

Huh. Why didn’t James identify his source? Over the years, as I dug deeper into James’ epistle, I saw other places where he appeared to use Jesus’ words without any attribution. (Compare James 1:22 and Matthew 7:24; or James 3:12 with Matthew 7:16 and Luke 6:44.) What was going on here?

A couple of things occurred to me. The first was to realize that James, who was martyred in 62 A.D., probably composed his epistle in the late 40s or very early 50s – likely before Paul penned his first epistle and more than a decade before any of the gospels were written. Ironically, if I didn’t have those later gospels with which to compare James, I would never have known James was quoting the Lord! This leads to a second important realization: James wrote at a time when the Gospel existed purely in oral form, in Tradition

That is extremely important, because Christianity was constituted, not as a religion of the book, but of the Word made flesh—alive and active in the ministry of the apostles. Jesus did not record his moral teaching or parables, nor write a monograph about the significance of his death and resurrection. Nor did he send forth the apostles with a command to write. Rather, his command was to make disciples of all nations, baptizing and teaching them to observe all that He had commanded (Mt 28:18-20).

When the apostles preached, each drew from the Tradition those words and actions of Jesus that best met their individual audiences’ needs. It wasn’t necessary to stop and identify every time they quoted Jesus’ earthly teaching; because when James and the other apostles preached, it was received by the Church as Christ speaking in and through them (Lk 10:16). 

Initially, their preaching focused upon Christ’s redemptive sacrifice and resurrection. But those required an explanation, and that was found in what preceded it—Christ’s life, teaching and miracles. Each apostle had his own recollections of Jesus and manner of recounting them, his own personality and theological emphases.

We must keep this apostolic preaching in mind when reading the gospels, since the same principles hold true. Sacred Tradition—the deposit of truth entrusted to the apostles – was the source from which the four evangelists drew Christ’s words and actions in the construction of their narratives. Luke, who was not an eyewitness to Christ’s life, began his gospel by stating, “I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning…just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word” (Lk 1:3,2). Even though the four evangelists were inspired, the Spirit did not spare them the effort required of all authors; and that meant digging into the Tradition Christ had entrusted to the Church. 

Each gospel bears the mark of its human author. “Of the many elements [the four evangelists had] at hand they reported some, summarized others, and developed still others in accordance with the needs of the various churches.”  This accounts for many of the so-called contradictions between the four gospels. The sequence, for instance, in which the evangelists narrate Christ’s life differs in some respects. This is not a challenge to a Catholic’s faith in the inerrancy of Scripture. The Church has always understood that the order in which the evangelists recounted Christ’s words and actions were not meant as a rigid assertion of chronology. Catholics are also not shocked to discover subtle differences in the wording of Christ’s sayings. We are used to reading modern historical texts, but the evangelists were inspired to write according to the conventions of their time. There were no audio recorders in the first century, and the apostles were not stenographers. When the sacred writers drew from the Tradition, they sometimes communicated the sense of Jesus’ words instead of exact quotations:

James 3:12Matthew 7:16Luke 6:44
Can a fig tree, my brethren, yield olives, or a grapevine figs?You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles?…for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush.

The meaning asserted by each of the inspired authors is the same, even if the phrasing differs. Another example: When Jesus sends out the Twelve in Matthew 10:9-10, he tells them to take nothing for the journey, “no gold, nor silver, nor copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, nor two tunics, nor sandals, nor a staff; for the laborer deserves his food;” and yet in Mark 6:8-11 we read, “[Jesus] charged them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belt.” Admittedly, there are different ways to explain the difference; for example, perhaps “staff” in Mark’s Gospel is symbolic of their apostolic authority. I would suggest that, whether Jesus said to take a staff or not, the memory drawn from the Tradition, and positively asserted by both inspired authors, was that Christ instructed the Twelve to look to God to supply their material needs. There is no true contradiction. Both authors asserted the same truth.

It’s funny how a couple of verses in James can lead to such heady subjects as inspiration and inerrancy and how Scripture is dependent upon Tradition—not just to be correctly interpreted, but to be written! That’s the way it was with God’s Revelation, though; it is all connected. 

This article was adapted from Shane Kapler’s James: Jewish Roots: Catholic Fruits (Angelico Press, 2021). Learn more by visiting his site, ExplainingChristianity.com.

Photo by Greg Willson on Unsplash

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