Is Jesus’ Itinerancy a Secure Fact or a Narrative Device?
by Tim WidowfieldScholars who study the historical Jesus will sometimes compile lists of minimal “secure facts” — the few things we can be reasonably certain “must be” true about the life of Christ. At the barest minimum, we have: “An itinerant Jewish teacher or preacher from Galilee who was crucified by Pilate.”
In the words of E. P. Sanders:
We have seen that the gospels depict Jesus and his disciples as itinerant. Some or all of them had homes and families, but they spent a lot of time on the road, and there is no mention of their working during Jesus’ active career. In part they were busy proclaiming the kingdom; in part the condition of the call of the close disciples was that they give up everything. (Sanders 1993, p. 107)
Bricks and mortar
The overwhelming number of NT scholars today would likely tell us that the reason the gospels portray a traveling Jesus is that such a portrayal reflects reality. But recently, while reading Redactional Style in the Marcan Gospel by E. J. Pryke, it struck me that many of the key redactional elements in Mark, our first narrative gospel, have to do with time and place. In other words, when Mark joined his stories together he needed some brief connecting language to create some sort of flow. Changing the time and place provides an implicit explanation for a change in subject and audience.
Mark, as you know, frequently didn’t care to elaborate on these shifts in place and time. In fact, quite often he barely takes the time to say Jesus and his cohorts “immediately” went from location A to location B.
And immediately after they came out of the synagogue, they came into the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. (Mark 1:29, NASB)Redaction critics look for linguistic markers (peculiar usage, telltale vocabulary, etc.) that would tend to signify the parts of the gospels that are probably redactional. In other words, they look for indicators that help discriminate between the story-bricks and the redaction-mortar that holds them together.
Each evangelist had his own set of quirks. Pryke notes that Mark, for example, had a habit of using the genitive absolute when introducing a new pericope. In a nutshell, the genitive absolute is a short participial phrase unrelated to the main clause except, in Mark’s case, as a kind of introductory scene-setting device. In Mark 5:2, for example, we have:
καὶ ἐξελθόντος αὐτοῦ ἐκ τοῦ πλοίου . . .All of the words above other than “kai” and “ek” are in the genitive case. The marker here is exelthontos, which is an active aorist participle in the masculine genitive case.
kai exelthontos autou ek tou ploiou . . .
And having-gone-forth him out of the boat . . .
The genitive absolute occurs rarely in Mark’s source material (5 times), but much more frequently in his redactional glue (24 times). Pryke explains:
The fact that most of these genitive absolutes are to be found opening the pericope, and that their subject matter is chronological or topographical or comments on the ‘progress of the gospel’, as well as the literary nature of the genitive absolute, suggest that the editor is opening his pericope with a linking phrase, and thus developing material which was originally without time or place references, so as to make of it a continuous narrative.In the view of Pryke and all other redaction and form critics, Mark’s source material consisted of some combination of oral and written tradition. Mark created the first narrative gospel from these scattered traditions, which, if they were written down at all, looked a lot like the Gospel of Thomas or the hypothetical sayings gospel, “Q.” That is to say, the community of believers collected brief snippets of events, sermons, sayings, etc., which in themselves rarely contained any reference to time or place.
A few examples will illustrate the function of the construction.
4:35, commencing a new section, reads — ‘That day, when evening came . . . ‘;
5:2 — ‘When He came out of the boat . . . ‘;
5:21 — ‘When Jesus had crossed over in the boat . . . ‘;
5:35 — ‘While He was still speaking, they came . . . ‘;
6:2 — ‘And when the sabbath came He began to teach . . . ‘;
6:54 — ‘And when they disembarked from the boat . . . ‘;
8:1 — ‘In those days the multitude again being great, and having nothing to eat, . . . ‘;
9:9 — ‘On their way down the mountain, . . .’;
10:17 — ‘And as He was going forth for His journey . . . ‘;
10:46 — ‘And as He was going forth to Jericho, and His disciples and much people . . .’;
11:12 — ‘And on the morrow when they came out from Bethany . . .’;
11:27 — ‘And in the temple as He was walking about, there . . .’;
13:1 — ‘And as He was going out of the temple . . .’;
13:3 — ‘And as He was sitting on the Mount of Olives over against the temple . . .’;
14:3 — ‘And when He was in Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as He lay at table . . .’;
14:17 — ‘And when it was evening . . .’;
14:22 — ‘And as they were eating . . .’;
14:43 — ‘And forthwith, as He was still speaking . . .’;
14:66 — ‘And whilst Peter is below . . .’;
15:42 — ‘And when it was already evening, since it was the preparation . . . ‘
All these short clauses, constructed in the participial genitive absolute, link the previous pericope to the new section which originally existed independently of them, their presence being superfluous to the story, and their only raison d’être to move on the ‘Gospel’ narration with a semblance of time and place. (Pryke 1978, pp. 62-63, bold emphasis and reformatting mine)
The invention of the gospel and the re-invention of Jesus
Mark, then, invented the narrative gospel form by joining these traditions into a semi-coherent whole. But did he invent more than just the gospel? Paul, as we’ve noted many times here at Vridar, never refers to Jesus as a teacher, healer, or exorcist. NT scholars will point out that the oral traditions about Jesus — presumably, Mark’s source materials — have many cases in which Jesus teaches his disciples, heals the sick, and casts out demons. However, as we see from the results of redaction criticism, the first secure evidence of Jesus and his followers wandering about comes from Mark.
So now we should ask, where did the itinerant tradition come from? Did Mark “reconstruct” an authentic narrative forgotten in the Rich Oral Tradition™? Or did he invent it to tie disparate stories and sayings together?
Recall as well that Paul describes Jesus as lord and master, but never as prophet. By the time Christians began creating the narrative gospels, however, the character of Jesus took on the aspect of OT prophets. He teaches, he heals, and — just like the itinerant prophets of old — travels from place to place. In fact, there seems to be little rhyme or reason to Jesus’ path, as if he and his traveling Twelve are wandering like Moses and the twelve tribes. Yet, despite the admission that Mark invented the gospel form and the fact that redaction critics have clearly shown that Jesus’ itinerancy happens within Mark’s editorial mortar, the vast majority of historical Jesus scholars would probably agree that the Jesus-on-the-Move presented in the gospels is authentic.
I have argued that before the gospels, most Christians conceived of Jesus as a priestly or royal messiah. Only after the war with Rome and the destruction of the Temple did they begin to refashion his image into a prophetic messiah. One of the defining characteristics of a prophet, of course, is the tendency to move from place to place, especially in the countryside — sometimes alone in the wilderness or on mountaintops.
I have also argued that the evidence we have can support neither the historicity of Jesus nor the outright denial of his existence. The best a historian can do is to ask, “If Jesus existed, what can we know about him?” Given the above evidence, I think we have to say that we can’t know that Jesus was an itinerant figure. It’s just as likely, if not more likely, that Mark invented the traveling Jesus while inventing the narrative gospel form and while re-imagining Christ as an Old-Testament prophet type.