I’m reading Helmut Koester’s book, “From Jesus to the Gospels: Interpreting the New Testament in it’s Context,” and trying to get my mind around a fact I’ve long known but never internalized, that the oldest sayings we have of Jesus do not come from the gospels. They come from Paul’s letters (written decades before the gospels), Deutero-Pauline letters (written around the same time as the earliest gospels), mysterious sayings of Jesus traditions that are lost, and even Clement (96 A.D.) written after the Synoptics but before John. None of these are drawn from the gospels. In fact, one imagines the gospels could have drawn from them.
Further complicating things is the fact that we have no copies of the Synoptic Gospels prior to 150 A.D. we have only a fragment of John (p52) from the first half of the second century. What this means is technically the saying of Jesus from Ignatius (110 A.D.), Papias (130 A.D.), Polycarp and Marcion (140 A.D.), and Justin Martyr (150 A.D.) are technically older than the gospel quotes we have.
And then the apocryphal gospels complicate things even more. most can ignore them. I cannot. And Koester ups the ante. In the “Gospel of Thomas” 17 Jesus says, “I shall give you what no eye has seen and what no ear has heard and what no hand has touched and what has never occurred to the human mind.” Paul quotes this as well in 1 Corinthians 2:9, and indicates that it is Scripture. Sigh. Are Thomas and Paul quoting from the same source (Q?)? Do they consider it Scripture? Or even scripture? Is it sacred? Is it actually written down?
The Gospel of Thomas also has quotes strikingly familiar: “Come unto me, for my yoke is easy, an my lordship is mild, and you will find rest for yourselves.” (Gospel of Thomas 90) Since most scholars date Thomas before John, it appears John is either quoting Thimas’ gospel as authoritative, or more likely, they are both copying another source we no longer have, likely Q, which we learned about in seminary.
A previously unknown gospel was discovered in 1935, Papyrus Egerton 2. It has saying of Jesus that are similar to the canonical gospels but clearly not quoted from them. This gives us a window into the mysterious pre-canonical sources for Jesus sayings that Matthew, Luke and John seems also to be quoting. There may be more than one source. Koester calls them the “free sayings of Jesus.”
In my mind I have always thought of the gospel writers’ quoting Jesus as more authoritative than Paul’s quoting Jesus. I have to get this out of my head. Yet I still consider Paul’s accounts of his missionary journeys more authoritative than Luke’s (in Acts).
It all makes me want to go through Paul’s letters and reconstruct his unique take on what Jesus had to say.
Helmut Koester has been editor of the Harvard Theological Review since 1975. A former president of the Society of Biblical Literature, Koester is also a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He wrote Trajectories Through Early Christianity (with James M. Robinson) and a two-volume Introduction to the New Testament and Ancient Christian Gospels. Koester studied at the University of Marburg. His doctoral supervisor was Rudolph Bultmann. He received his doctorate in 1954; he was ordained to the Lutheran ministry in 1956, and began teaching at Harvard Divinity School two years later in 1958.