The early years, from person to person
Man with a message
Trained in the rabbinic tradition, the apostle Paul is known for his work in spreading the news about Jesus amongst the gentile (non-Jewish) nations. Initially Paul served as partner to Barnabas, cousin of the gospel writer Mark, who also travelled with the pair, until a dispute over his reliability saw them part company. Paul was accompanied by the gospel writer Luke on his journey to Rome, where a reinstated Mark later joined them during Paul’s final imprisonment (2 Tim 4:11, Phil 24).
As with other important Rabbis of that period, Jesus had an entourage of disciples who accompanied him and learned from his teaching and example. Matthew’s account suggests that the Sermon’s teaching was given primarily for their benefit, although it seems that a crowd of others were also listening in. But the reason that a disciple learned from his master was not simply so that he could practice the teaching for himself,
As was the practice amongst many ancient cultures, first-century Judaism already had a large body of oral tradition that was routinely preserved and handed on in that manner. These traditions were later documented as the basis for Judaism’s various bodies of teaching and commentary. A Rabbi’s disciples were expected to commit such key teaching to memory, then pass it on accurately by word of mouth. This was probably less of a challenge that we might think, for in antiquity individuals were often more adept than us at memorising information and reporting it accurately. This is particularly evident in texts like Matthew’s Gospel, where many of the nuances in the text would only be apparent to a reader with an extraordinary (by modern Western standards) recall of the scriptures, or the benefit of modern electronic aids.
A Rabbi would often re-use certain stock sayings, in part to aid their memorisation and in part because they were the carefully crafted tools of a Rabbi’s trade. Jesus certainly seems to have re-used parts of the Sermon on the Mount, as with his saying concerning the use of a lamp (Matt 5:14-15, Luke 8:16, 11:33)., but he may also may have taught the whole of it on several occasions, or produced variants of it to fit specific circumstances, as in the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:17-49) or Mark 9:36-50. Thus, whilst only Matthew’s Gospel records the Sermon, most of its sayings occur elsewhere amongst the canonical gospels in parallel passages. This has led some to suggest that Jesus’ words survived as a body of short sayings, which were later drawn together into their current Sermon form by an editor. Yet, the Sermon’s component sayings seem to fit together rather too conveniently for that. Moreover, James, traditionally considered to be writing within about thirty years of Jesus death, shows signs of being aware of the key points of the Sermon (e.g. see notes on the Beatitudes).
Initially Jesus relied upon his disciples to perpetuate and spread his message, at times sending out as many as seventy (Luke 10:1). However, after Jesus’ resurrection, other believers would take up the same task. Paul was prominent amongst these and, whilst he did not leave a gospel himself, two of the gospel writers appear occasionally amongst his entourage.