Oral Tradition and the Gospels
I recently had an interesting conversation with someone concerning the lack of intellectual honesty amongst scholars who write books on a popular level. The allegation being that in order to persuade the reader to find the authors arguments convincing they may intentionally ignore or push aside evidence that could pose a problem to the view they are advocating. After reading an excerpt from Dr. Bart Ehrman’s Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium I could not help but wonder if this New Testament scholar was perhaps guilty of such a thing. Having said that, I do not want to get into an ad hominem argument but would rather look at what he had to say to determine the strength of his position.
What I wish to address here is Ehrman’s view that the Gospels are unreliable due to the fact that there was a considerable interval of time between the actual events of Jesus life to when those events were written down (35-65 years, p.48). The problem as Ehrman sees it is that prior to having any written account of Jesus’ life, His story was passed down orally. Even eyewitness accounts are unreliable since these accounts still had to be passed on orally. As Dr. Erhman states, “My point is that even stories based on eyewitness accounts are not necessarily reliable, and the same is true a hundredfold for accounts that-even if ultimately stemming from reports of eyewitnesses-have been in oral circulation long after the fact” (p.47). In relation to the amount of time between the actual events of Jesus’ life and the written record of those events Ehrman comments:
“Perhaps the most striking thing about these dates for the historian is the long interval between Jesus’ death and the earliest accounts of his life. Our first written narratives of Jesus appear to date from thirty-five to sixty-five years after the fact. Perhaps the most striking thing about these dates for the historian is the long interval between Jesus’ death and the earliest accounts of his life. Our first written narratives of Jesus appear to date from thirty-five to sixty-five years after the fact. Thirty-five to sixty-five years. This perhaps does not seem like a long time; after all, these books and Jesus all come from the first century.
But think about it in modern terms. For the shortest interval, this would be like having the first written record of John F. Kennedy’s presidency appear today, thirty-five years after the fact (the gap between Jesus and Mark). Imagine having no other written records — for example, no newspaper or magazine articles to go on, but simply oral traditions! For the longest interval, between Jesus and John, it would be like having stories of a famous preacher from the height of the Great Depression, say 1935, show in print for the first time this week (p.48, emphasis mine).”
In the last quote Ehrman begs the question (or questions). Is oral transmission in the first century comparable to oral transmission in our modern world? Should we think about this in modern terms when the events took place in ancient times? Essentially what Ehrman is telling us to do is take the events out of their cultural context and interpret them in our cultural context. Is this justified? In what follows it should become clear that it is not. Further, after looking at the nature of oral transmission in a first century culture, we will see that this actually lends support to the accuracy of the accounts of life of Jesus in the Gospels.
In trying to not be too exhaustive, yet comprehensive, with a little bit of memory aid (fitting for our discussion) I have come up with the acronym AIM (Accuracy, Impact, Method) to unfold the elements of oral transmission in the first century.
Ancient historians felt it was necessary to give an accurate account of an event but not necessarily a word for word recollection of what took place. For example, the ancient Greco-Roman historian Thucydides states:
“I have given speeches in the manner in which it seemed to me that each of the speakers would best express what needed to be said about the everprevailing situation, but I have kept as close as possible to the total opinion expressed by the actual words” (History of the Peloponnesian War, 1.22.1).
The importance was in getting the “gist” of what was said (The Words of Jesus Live, Jive, or Memorex?, 79). Ancient historians never felt free to create history but they did feel free to summarize, or perhaps leave out certain content but never to the detriment of the essential message (Ibid., 79). According to historian Charles Fornara, Tacitus (1st century historian), “. . .presented speeches responsibly, refused to invent them, and searched them out when it was possible to do so”. He concludes that, “We are not entitled to proceed on the assumption that the historians considered themselves at liberty to write up speeches out of their own heads.”
I believe this is important because we have to understand what was being passed down orally. Passing down the essential message, especially in light of the method used (below) to deliver traditions orally gives credence to the idea that we have an accurate recording of the original events.
The following are examples provided by Bock showing how the Gospel writers recorded the gist of the event:
Matt.3:17, Mark 1:11, Luke 3:22
Matt.16:13, Mark 8:27, Luke 9:18
Matt. 16:16, Mark 8:29, Luke 9:20
(Darrell Bock, p.86-87)
When you read these you will quickly notice the difference in wording yet the same essential message is there in all of them.
Darrell Bock brings up the importance of addressing the way history works and how that applies to the ordering of events and perspectives found in the Gospels (p. 81-85). When looking at the Gospel accounts it does not take long to notice that there are times when the same events recorded in different Gospels are told in a different order (question of fasting Matt. 9:14-17, Mark 2:18-22, Luke 5:33-39, etc.), or the events are not described in exactly the same way (temptation of Christ in Matt. 4 and Luke 4, etc.)
Is this evidence of the kind of inconsistency and/or inaccuracy you get when you decide to write about an event thirty-five to sixty-five years later? Does this show how unreliable oral transmission was in the first century?
It was mentioned that historians never felt they had freedom to create an event but they did at times reorder the events to make an impact on their audience.
Since I can’t seem to get enough of Darrell Bock I’ll let him explain:
“History is not a static entity. Neither are the sayings that belong to it and describes its events. Historical events and sayings do not just happen and then sit fossilized with a static meaning. As events in history proceed, they develop there meaning through the interconnected events that give its history its sense of flow. Later events impact how previous events and sayings are understood, seen, and appreciated. Even when those earlier events had conscious intentions tied to them when they occurred, what takes place later influences how these earlier events and the things said about them are seen and understood. . .Because history in its essence involves a sequence, sayings and events have the capability of being pregnant with meaning. Sometimes events and sayings are understood better after reflection than when they first took place. The wording of a saying may not change, but what is perceived about it may change. On the other hand, a saying’s meaning may be better summarized in descriptive terms because the events that follow it reveal its full import. . .This same kind of historical interaction and interconnectedness influences how the Gospels work. In an ancient oral culture where events surrounding Jesus involved great reversals of emotion and understanding, the variety of perspectives seen in the Gospels is nothing but a reflection of the presence of complimentary perspectives that are inherent in a presentation of a linked sequence of events in history.”
Accuracy in oral transmission was important to the people of ancient times, which include the Jewish people. But how did they ensure accuracy? Gerhardsson provides us with eight ways the Jewish people maintained an accurate oral transmission of their tradition:
1. Memory- Almost all important information was learned by way of sayings or texts that were ingrained in one’s memory so they knew it by heart.
2. Text and Commentary- The text refers to memorizing the text (text can be either what is written on the mind or in a book, p.4), while commentary refers to understanding the text. “First learn, then understand” (p.10).
3. Concise- Terms are concise and to the point in order for effective memorization to take place.
4. Didactic and Poetic devices- Things like pictorial imagery, alliteration, rhythmic phrases, and repetition (verbatim) were used to aid in memory.
5. Repetition- Jewish teachers would repeat word for word their main points, over and over followed by the students repeating those words over and over until they knew them by heart.
6. Recitation- When the texts were read repeatedly it was done rhythmically, partially sung.
7. Writing- Writing may have played a role in preserving tradition but this is debatable.
8. Living the Lesson- The Rabbi’s of the day were concerned with not only memorizing, and understanding but living the lesson.
(Birger Gerhardsson, The Reliability of the Gospel Traditon, p.9-14).
Where tradition shows up in the New Testament:
1st Paul was trained in the Jewish oral tradition (Acts 22:3, 28:17, Gal.1:14)
2nd we see this tradition in the Gospels (Mark 7:3,5, 8,9,13, Matt.15:2)
3rd in the early creeds of the church that were repeated verbally before being written down (Luke 24:34, Phil.2:6, 1John 4:2, Rom.1:3-4, etc.).
“whoever forgets a word of his mishnah, scripture accounts it as if he had lost his soul”
(Pirqe ‘Aboth 3.9, on the importance of accuracy in oral tradition)
More could be said but I hope a brief look into these areas (accuracy, impact, method) clearly shows the importance of considering the cultural context and how this consideration should influence our thoughts about the reliability of the Gospels. Rather than weakening the position that the accounts of Jesus’ life are reliable, ancient oral tradition strengthens the idea that we have an accurate portrayal of Jesus’ life.
Barnett, Paul. Jesus and the Logic of History. Edited by D.A. Carson
Bock, Darrell L. Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus.
Edited by Michael J. Wilkins, and J.P. Moreland.
Ehrman, Bart D. Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium
Gerhardsson, Birger. The Reliability of the Gospel Tradition
Habermas, Gary. The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ
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