Mind the Gap: The Gospels and Oral Transmission

Image credit: Pixabay

In recent posts (e.g., here and here), I’ve been writing about the authorship of the Gospels, and the degree to which Gospel content may be traced back to eyewitnesses of Jesus.

The point of the work has been to counter Bart Ehrman’s view (in How Jesus Became God, pp. 90-91) that the authors of the Gospels were not eyewitnesses or close disciples of eyewitnesses (as traditionally claimed) but rather were Christians of a later generation, whose writings are thereby less historically reliable. I have resisted Ehrman’s view and claimed that, in fact, there is decent (though perhaps not conclusive) evidence for the traditional view.

Mind the Gap

However, even if I’m right, there is still a problem for the historicity of the Gospels, namely the gap between the time of Jesus’s ministry and the writing of the Gospels.

For example, if we assume that Jesus died around 30 CE, then the time between his ministry (late 20s CE) and the composition of Mark (late 60s or early 70s CE), is at least 40 years. Given the apparent reliance of Matthew and Luke upon Mark (discussed in this post), those two Gospels would entail an even longer gap—maybe 50 years. The Gospel according to John is thought to have been written in the 90s CE, suggesting a still longer gap for that Gospel.

Scholars generally agree that during this in-between period the stories and teachings in the Gospels would have been passed on orally. Ehrman claims that such oral transmission would be unreliable, leading to distortions that further call into question the historicity of the Gospels. For example, he writes,

The stories were being told by word of mouth, year after year, decade after decade, among lots of people in different parts of the world, in different languages, and there was no way to control what one person said to the next about Jesus’s words and deeds. Everyone knows what happens to stories that circulate this way. Details get changed, episodes get invented, events get exaggerated, impressive accounts get made even more impressive, and so on (p. 92).

In Ehrman’s view, the Gospel writers stood at the end of the line in a forty-to-fifty-year game of “telephone,” which does not seem promising if you are interested in preserving the original message.

The Practice of Oral Transmission in First-Century Palestine

Is Ehrman’s characterization fair? As a preliminary matter, his point that the accounts were being told and retold by “lots of people in different parts of the world…” is a red herring. It doesn’t matter what “lots of people in different parts of the world” were doing. All that really matters to the historicity of the Gospels is whether the lines of oral transmission between Jesus and the Gospel writers was reasonably reliable.

And, if traditional accounts of the Gospels’ authorship are plausible (as I’ve argued), the lines of transmission involved one or two people, not a whole crowd. So, the transmission was as much about a few people remembering Jesus’s teachings as it was about telling and retelling. Would this process have been historically reliable?

First, it is important to remember that Jesus was effectively at the center of a quasi-traditional rabbi-disciple community. In first-century Palestine, it was commonplace for such communities to take as their main task the learning and passing on of the rabbi’s teachings. Mandatory education of boys up to age twelve almost exclusively involved rote memorization. As a result, Jewish students following Rabbis often had prodigious memorization skills, allowing some to memorize even the entire Hebrew Bible (Blomberg, “Form Criticism,” in the Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels).

Craig Blomberg suggests that Jesus himself may have given his disciples the task of memorizing some of his most important teachings (e.g., the Lord’s Prayer). After all, he sent them out to preach and teach his message during his lifetime (Mark 6:7-13, Luke 10:1-16). As teachers, they would have begun to preserve and memorize his teachings early on. Moreover, Blomberg points out that over 90% of Jesus’s sayings as we have them in the Gospels are in quasi-poetic language, which would aid memorization.

In addition to the cultural practice of memorizing and passing on specific teachings, the oral folklore model of passing on sacred stories was part of first-century Jewish practice. On this practice, specialized storytellers memorized and retold epics of 100,000 words or more. Plot, characters, main events, and many details were fixed, but there was some flexibility in retelling around those fixed points. Between 10% and 40% variation in precise wording might sometimes be expected. This level of variation is seen in the Jewish Targums—Aramaic paraphrases of Old Testament texts with explanatory elaborations. This looser story-telling tradition may account for some of the variation between Gospel accounts. 

As Achtemeier, Green, and Thompson observe in Introducing the New Testament, we moderns depend so heavily on computers and books to preserve our memories that it’s hard for us to imagine a culture in which memory and oral transmission could be reliable (p. 67). But, the fact is, first-century Palestine was just such a culture. Thus, the period of oral transmission between the time of Jesus’s ministry and the writing of the Gospels need not make us think of the telephone game.

Motivated to Remember

Now, not only were these cultural practices in place, but Jesus’s disciples likely would have taken the task of transmitting his stories and teachings very seriously. For example, Jesus’s words were received as those of a prophet by his disciples (e.g., Mark 13:31). And, more generally, the Messiah was expected to be a teacher of wisdom whose words should be preserved (Blomberg, “Form Criticism”). Thus, his disciples would have been concerned to pass on his words with care, especially since the twelve viewed themselves as authoritative leaders tasked with carrying on Jesus’s teachings.

The New Testament seems to bear out this concern to pass on Jesus’s teachings carefully. Blomberg points out that Paul seems to refer to a tradition of words “handed on to him” in 1 Corinthians 11:23 and 15:1-5 (p. 247). The fact that the tradition was “handed on” suggests the concern the disciples had to preserve Jesus teachings with care.

Moreover, in his article, “Gospels (Historical Reliability)” (again in the Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels), Blomberg argues that the absence of material in the Gospels pertaining to later church controversies (e.g., over circumcision or speaking in tongues) suggests that the disciples did not freely “invent material and read it back onto the lips of Jesus” (p. 294). If they had been inclined to invent, these controversies likely would have shown up in the Gospels in order to settle disputes. Instead, it seems they restricted themselves to reproducing Jesus’s actual teachings.

Ehrman’s Final Objection

In a final passage on the topic, Ehrman doubts more generally the idea of reliable oral transmission of Jesus’s teachings and stories:

Some people today claim that cultures rooted in oral tradition are far more careful to make certain that traditions that are told and retold are not changed significantly. This turns out to be a modern myth, however. Anthropologists who have studied oral cultures show that just the opposite is the case. Only literary cultures have a concern for exact replication of the facts “as they really are” (p. 93).

Ehrman makes two mistakes, here. First, he seems to characterize first-century Jewish culture as an “oral culture” and not a “literary culture.” By “literary culture,” I take it he means a culture in which the written word is important. While first-century Jewish culture certainly owed something to oral traditions, Ehrman strangely misses that the culture also had a strong written tradition. The Jewish concern for written precision with respect to the Hebrew scriptures is only the most obvious example. As a result of this first mistake, Ehrman makes a second error: underestimating the concern of Jesus’s first Jewish disciples for reliably preserving and transmitting his teachings.

In the end, Ehrman’s critique of oral transmission doesn’t stick. Jesus’s early disciples had both the motivation and the cultural practices in place to remember and pass on the content of the Gospels in a reliable way, even before the content was written down. The temporal gap between Jesus’s ministry and the writing of the Gospels need not pose a problem for the historicity of the Gospels.

2 thoughts on “Mind the Gap: The Gospels and Oral Transmission

  1. The evidence which you present is compelling. When I read the ” Heart “of the gospels I am struck by the consistency and aliveness in what is attributed to Jesus the person. If this was a made up Jesus, orally mistreated, there would not be the consistent theme of Love and of the method of presentation. What is essential to me is that the message is coherent, deep and speaks to an overwhelming truth of who we really are can can deepen into being. I would even countenance considering that Jesus the man was not himself that attached to being the sole copyrighted source of this teachings, as long as those teachings held the deep and transformative effect he/God intended. (How many philosophers can sit on the head of a pin and argue the detail of what they all deeply believe in anyway. No people I now anyway) Thank you Aaron for your delicious perspective.

What do you think?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.