Post Author: Bill Pratt
Most historians agree that the four Gospels were not written until at least a couple of decades had passed after Jesus’ death and resurrection, if not more. Even the apostle Paul’s letters were written 10 or more years after Jesus died. Likewise with the other letters in the New Testament.
If this is the case, then the sources for the facts about Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection (the sources that the Gospel writers used) are either written documents that have been lost, oral traditions, or a combination of the two. Assuming that oral traditions were part of the source material for the Gospel writers, how did this process of oral transmission work?
Christian skeptics like to claim that oral traditions are unreliable, that human memory is simply incapable of accurately remembering facts about people, places, and events. Oral traditions, by definition, simply cannot be trusted. Is this true?
Biblical scholar Richard Bauckham disputes this view of oral transmission in the ancient near east. In his book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, he argues that memorization was a crucial skill that teachers and students would have mastered.
[M]emorization would not always entail completely verbatim learning by rote, but some degree of memorization was indispensable to any deliberate attempt to learn and transmit tradition faithfully. It was the necessary alternative to trusting the unreliable vagaries of undisciplined memory. It is sometimes supposed that in predominantly oral societies the faculty of memory is better developed than in our own. It would be better to say that, in societies where reliance on memory is essential in large areas of life in which it no longer matters much to us, people took the trouble to remember and used techniques of memorizing. Memory was not just a faculty, but a vital skill with techniques to be learned.
Bauckham then gives two examples from ancient literature of the importance of memorization:
In a revealing passage in the Apocalypse of Baruch, God says: “Listen, Baruch, to this word and write down in the memory of your heart all that you shall learn” (2 Baruch 50: 1). Here the memory is pictured as a book in which the owner writes memories down (so also Prov 3: 3; 7: 3). In other words, committing to memory is a deliberate and skilled act, comparable to recording words in a notebook. Later Baruch would transfer these remembered words from the notebook of his memory to the literal writing of a book. Similarly, Irenaeus says, of the traditions he heard from Polycarp, that he “made notes of them, not on paper but in my heart” (apud Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. 5.20.7).
Along these same lines, Bauckham points to a well-known example of oral tradition in the New Testament:
The longest Pauline example of rehearsing Jesus tradition — to which, because of its demonstrably early date, we have already referred more than once — is here again instructive. The close verbal parallelism between 1 Cor 11: 23-25 and Luke 22: 19-20 cannot plausibly be explained by a literary relationship between the texts, since Luke’s Gospel cannot have been available to Paul and Luke shows no acquaintance with Paul’s letters. Only strictly memorized oral tradition (memorized in Greek) can explain the high degree of verbal resemblance. We should note that, although Paul seems to expect his hearers to know the memorized oral text, it is entirely possible that he expects only a general familiarity on the part of the community as a whole, while the exact form, with a high degree of memorized wording, would be preserved by teachers specifically commissioned to be guardians of the tradition.
Bauckham’s point is that although there may have been written documents that were circulated before the Gospels were written, memorization of key facts about Jesus would have occurred, and those facts would have been preserved by the early believers. Therefore, one cannot simply dismiss oral transmission as being completely unreliable. It was a way of life for those who lived in ancient Palestine.