Historians believe that what we know of Jesus today has come about through not only word of mouth, but also by virtue of what was memorable, useful and adaptable to needs as they arose.
Here is one historian’s synopsis.
Since the end of the eighteenth-century, historians have been asking how those portraits [of Jesus and the disciples] developed. After long and painstaking investigation, they have constructed the following picture: Jesus said and did some things that were remembered and passed down orally. People did not repeat everything he said and did, but only what was particularly memorable or distinctive, especially what was of use in the early churches for preaching, teaching, ritual practices, and other aspects of community life. … … In the process of being passed down, his words and deeds were interpreted and elaborated. … … Some materials were adapted to fit the needs of developing communities for worship or mission, others were elaborated to address new situations that arose. Some sayings attributed to Jesus in the gospels came from early Christian prophets who claimed to have received revealed teaching from the Lord in the Spirit — for the early churches did not necessarily distinguish between the words of the historical Jesus and the revelation of the risen Christ to inspired prophets. Traditions about Jesus were used and passed down primarily in oral form as part of the living practice of early Christians. … … Gradually various elements of oral tradition were frozen in writing, sometimes as a collection of Jesus’ words like the Gospel of Thomas or Q, sometimes in a narrative like the Gospel of Mark.
(The Gospel of Mary of Magdala, Karen L. King, p.93-94)
Paraphrasing and condensing, I get this.
- Jesus said and did some memorable things.
- Those sayings and acts were passed down orally.
- Not everything was repeated.
- His words and deeds were interpreted, elaborated and some adapted to the needs of developing communities to address new situations.
- Some sayings attributed to Jesus are from prophets repeating what was revealed to them by His Spirit.
- Eventually, and not until several decades after the crucifixion, some of these things as they had become known by then were written down.
- Some, such as the Gospel of Mark, are included in The Bible but others were specifically excluded for reasons we don’t know.
In the first centuries after Jesus, stories and practices were passed on verbally. According to historians, it is likely that only the memorable stories and practices that were useful were likely to be passed on.
Such a process of selection, based on memorability or usefulness, would be very human. Others would claim that God’s hand was guiding the selection process.
From many sources, we know there were considerable differences from one church to the next in those first centuries and that those differences led, through many contentious years of discussion, to the selection in 367 AD of the 66 official books of The Bible we know today.
Some would claim that the early church selected those books which best represented their beliefs (in 367 AD) and rejected those that were divisive. Others say that God guided the process so that the end result, The Bible, truly represents His Word.
Faith, in my experience, evolves.
What I believe today is not what I believed twenty years ago, and by that same token it is not what I will believe in another twenty years, or perhaps only one, or maybe even tomorrow.
You could say that I am adapting what I know of Jesus and applying it to the needs of today. And it is likely that my needs tomorrow will be different and may require yet another adaptation.
For me, there is no fixed answer. Instead, it’s fluid.
We can apply the principles, but there are few, if any, absolute rules.
And that’s what He said.
29 “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”