There can be little doubt that the first Christians
(many of whom thought of themselves as Jews) were missionary minded. Those
based in and around Jerusalem seem to have wanted to tell their fellow
Jews about Jesus the Messiah. Those who were reached by Paul were mostly
non-Jews. But they too appear to have had a powerful motivation to tell
others what they believed Jesus had done for them.
Paul's letters and the Acts of the Apostles relate much
of the early story of Christian missionary endeavour. The proof of the
pudding is in the eating, however. Christian mission, sometimes organised,
sometimes more ad hoc, succeeded spectacularly. Within a relatively
short time, Christians were a numerous and powerful sector of the Roman
Empire. By the middle of the fourth century, Christianity had become the
official Roman religion.
This strong desire to convert others to the Christian
religion was certainly thought of by the early Church as supported if not
commanded by Jesus as recorded in the gospels. That conviction has fueled
Christian mission for millennia.
The conviction was based on a number of passages - read
and understood as God's command to Christian people.. In particular, Mark
16.14-18 ( which Matthew used for his commissioning story in 28.16-20) has
been quoted as the missionary's authority. A problem for this position is
that a large majority of scholars conclude that these verses in Mark were
added later. They are therefore not the words of Jesus but those of
the early Church. (Mark's gospel ends at 16.8.)
Matthew 10.1-15 and 28.19, Mark 6.8-11, Luke 9.1-6,
10.1-12, 24.47, Acts 1.8 and Thomas 14.4 have been other passages quoted
in support of the drive to convert the unbelievers of the world.
From an historical point of view, however, Matthew 10
has little in it which can be traced back to Jesus with any great degree
of probability. The primary reasons for this are:
The author of Matthew's Gospel did not perceive the past as we
do. We analyse it in terms of evidence. Some evidence may support a
certain conclusion, other evidence may contradict it.
In the end, all "history" comprises for us today an estimate of what
"most probably really happened". The degree of probability may reduce or
increase from time-to-time according to new evidence or new insights
into the evidence. The final test of good history is an enduring
consensus among those whose specialty is the study of the past.
The upshot is that the author of this Gospel felt free to insert material
because he "knew" it was true - a knowledge founded on what were for him
authoritative sources like the Old Testament, and the revelation of
God's will and wisdom to certain holy individuals.
A majority of reputable scholars today acknowledge that [a] Matthew's
author moved and rearranged material to suit perceptions of the meaning
of Jesus to him and the Christian community of which he was part (no
earlier than about the year 80); [b] he rewrote material gathered from
his sources; and [c] he inserted new material formulated by him on the
basis of what he considered sound authority.
One of the author's methods was to (as we would interpret it)
invent words which he regarded as the truth and which reflected the
nature and priorities of his community. There are very few sayings of
Jesus which we can be sure are word-for-word what he said, if only
because it's so difficult to reproduce exactly what anyone says without
a tape recording.
Another critical reason why original words get distorted is the loss of
accuracy which takes place when they are passed by word-of-mouth from
person to person, as were the sayings of Jesus in the early days.
For these reasons, any saying which appears to reflect the concerns of
the early Christians must be regarded as suspicious from an historical
point of view. They may
be what Jesus said. Anyone is of course free to draw their own
conclusions. But I'm here concerned with "bare bones" history, those
parts of the gospels which have a very high probability of being "what
really happened" and in this case "what Jesus really said".
Did Jesus urge his followers to spread the "good news"?
If we rest a positive answer to that question on Mark's
Gospel and its parallels, we're on weak ground. The evidence of the
gospels in this matter is not strong.
However, that Jesus himself travelled around Palestine
meeting people and telling them what he thought about God and God's coming
kingdom is almost certain in historical terms.
Matthew 10.5 states that Jesus sent out the "Twelve" -
presumably to help him spread his message. We don't know exactly who the
"Twelve" were because none of the lists tally enough to provide high
historical probability. The lists of the Twelve in the gospels occur in
very different contexts. So we have to assume that the "Twelve" here
refers to followers of Jesus who were enlisted to help him and not to
those who later became known as the Twelve Apostles.
Most of the advice and instructions Jesus is supposed to
have given these first "missionaries" seem to be just the kind of thing
early Christians might have been taught.
That doesn't automatically mean that Jesus didn't
say these things, but rather that we can't be historically certain he did
say them because it's possible that the author reproduced authoritative
guidelines which he and others believed had come from Jesus.
Why then have I retained any of these sayings which
occur in the gospels?
"Don't take a bag ..." Scholars can't be
certain that these are the exact words of Jesus or that they were
definitely instructions given to early missionaries. But they do match the
way Jesus seems to have thought and taught about having too much concern
with security and wealth (Matthew 6.25).
They also match what he said about himself and and his
attitude to possessions (Matthew 8.20). On balance this is likely to have
been the kind of thing Jesus would have said to his followers.
"Be as astute as a snake ... We know that
Jesus used concrete, ordinary pictures of daily life to get his points
across to listeners. This may well have been a proverb in common use in
his time. It's certainly concrete. It also lacks specific application to
early Christian mission endeavour (even though it might once have been
interpreted in that way).
It's reasonable, therefore, to hold that that Jesus
probably used it and that it survived in much its present form to be
inserted by Matthew into this context.
"Isn't it a fact that two sparrows ..." One
could hardly imagine a use of image more typical of Jesus than this. This
section is close to sayings about anxiety in Matthew 6.25, Luke 12.22 and
Thomas 36. We know that Jews regarded God as caring for the creatures of
the earth (Psalm 8.3).
A Rabbinic saying goes: "If a bird is not captured
without the will of heaven, how much less we!" The balance of probability
is high that Jesus quoted this saying from a contemporary source and less
high that it was his own invention.
"The person who lives for himself ..." This
piece is particularly hard to translate so that it makes sense today. The
usual version goes something like, "Whoever tries to gain his own life
will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake will gain it."
I think my version renders the sense of the original
Greek soundly enough. Whatever the case, the saying appears six times in
the Gospels and there is no discernable reason why this should necessarily
have been attached to early Christian missionary effort. On balance, it
only just survives as probably reflecting original words of Jesus.
Whatever may have been the case for early Christians and
for dedicated missionaries over the millennia, this gospels provide
less-than-certain support for missionary endeavour as a binding and
motivating Christian norm.
There can be little doubt that Jesus himself took pains
to spread his views abroad at some risk to himself. But there must remain
substantial doubt that he encouraged others to spread his message on his
behalf in the militant terms most missionaries today seem to adopt.