Did Jesus Expect His Disciples to Memorize His Teaching?

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

Memorization of important traditions was an essential part of life in ancient Palestine, when Jesus was alive. Is there any evidence that Jesus structured his teachings to facilitate memorization by his followers, or was he just flying by the seat of his robes during his public speeches? Did he expect his followers to remember what he said and to tell others?

Biblical scholar Richard Bauckham, in his book Jesus and the Eyewitnessesargues that there is indeed evidence in the New Testament that Jesus was passing along teaching that he expected to be memorized by his listeners.

In a predominantly oral society, not only do people deliberately remember but also teachers formulate their teachings so as to make them easily memorable. It has frequently been observed that Jesus’ teaching in its typically Synoptic forms has many features that facilitate remembering. The aphorisms are typically terse and incisive, the narrative parables have a clear and relatively simple plot outline. Even in Greek translation, the only form in which we have them, the sayings of Jesus are recognizably poetic, especially employing parallelism, and many have posited Aramaic originals rich in alliteration, assonance, rhythm, rhyme, and wordplay.

These teaching formulations were certainly not created by Jesus ad hoc, in the course of his teaching, but were carefully crafted, designed as concise encapsulations of his teaching that his hearers could take away, remember, ponder, and live by. We cannot suppose that Jesus’ oral teaching consisted entirely of such sayings as these. Jesus must have preached much more discursively, but offered these aphorisms and parables as brief but thought-provoking summations of his teaching for his hearers to jot down in their mental notebooks for frequent future recall. (Obviously, therefore, it was these memorable summations that survived, and when the writers of the Synoptic Gospels wished to represent the discursive teaching of Jesus they mostly had to use collections of these sayings.)

. . . Jesus’ hearers would readily recognize this and would apply to memorable sayings the deliberate practices of committing to memory that they would know were expected. To suppose that memorable sayings merely happened to stick in the memory, like politicians’ “sound-bites” in the undisciplined memories that characterize the oral dimension of our own culture, would be to mistake the cultural context of Jesus and the tradition of his sayings.

If this is the case, do the Gospels record Jesus specifically telling his followers to memorize his words? How do we know that he intended his disciples to pass along his teaching? Bauckham explains:

From the argument so far it should be clear that Jesus must have expected his sayings to be deliberately learned by hearers who took his teaching seriously, especially his disciples. That nothing is said in the Gospels about his requiring his sayings to be memorized or teaching by repetition is no argument to the contrary. Something that would be so self-evident in the cultural context of the texts did not need mentioning. (However, Rainer Riesner has shown that Luke 9: 44a probably refers to memorization.) Still, it is a further question whether Jesus expected his disciples to transmit his teaching to others.

The evidence for an affirmative answer to this question lies in the strong tradition within the Gospels that Jesus sent out his disciples to spread his message during his ministry (Matt 9: 36– 10: 15; Mark 6: 7-13; Luke 9: 1-6; 10: 1-16), supported especially by the saying that equates their mission as his messengers with that of himself as their sender: “He who receives you receives me  .  .  .” (Matt 10: 40, with variant versions in Mark 9: 37; Luke 10: 16; John 13: 20). The Evangelists characterize the message of the disciples of Jesus very briefly, but in the same terms in which they summarize Jesus’ own proclamation (Matt 10: 7; Mark 6: 12; Luke 9: 2; 10: 9). For this same message the disciples must have employed the same sayings in which Jesus himself had crystallized his teaching. In that sense a formal transmission of Jesus’ teaching by authorized tradents, his disciples, began already during Jesus’ ministry.