Category Archives: Historical Christ

Was Jesus a Miracle Worker?

There continue to be liberal Christians, and even non-Christians, who really like the moral teachings of Jesus (e.g., “Love your neighbor”), but who set aside the accounts of his miracles (e.g., raising Lazarus from the dead). They chalk them up to legend or they insist that the miracles were not what his ministry was about. In their mind, a serious Bible student can ignore the miracle accounts in the Gospels and just focus on the Sermon on the Mount or Jesus’s other ethical discourses.

But are you a serious Bible student if you ignore the miracle accounts? Are the wonders Jesus performed peripheral to his mission, a sideshow that can be carved out?

Setting aside the issue of whether you believe miracles can occur, there is absolutely no doubt that Jesus and the people who witnessed his ministry thought that they could and did occur. Craig Keener, in his book Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (2 Volume Set), teaches us that a modern person simply cannot ignore this part of the Jesus traditions.

Although limited in kind (i.e., no artifacts), the available evidence for Jesus as a miracle worker is substantial. Although the evidence is limited concerning most particular miracles, all of the many ancient sources that comment on the issue agree that Jesus and his early followers performed miracles: Q, Mark, special material in Matthew and Luke, John, Acts, the Epistles, Revelation, and non-Christian testimony from both Jewish and pagan sources. . . .

Most scholars today working on the subject thus accept the claim that Jesus was a healer and exorcist. The evidence is stronger for this claim than for most other specific historical claims that we could make about Jesus or earliest Christianity. Scholars often note that miracles characterized Jesus’s historical activity no less than his teaching and prophetic activities did. So central are miracle reports to the Gospels that one could remove them only if one regarded the Gospels as preserving barely any genuine information about Jesus.  Indeed, it is estimated that more than 31 percent of the verses in Mark’s Gospel involve miracles in some way, or some 40 percent of his narrative! Very few critics would deny the presence of any miracles in the earliest material about Jesus. (emphasis added)

Where is the consensus of historical scholarship on the issue of miracles in Jesus’s ministry?

It is thus not surprising that most scholars publishing historical research about Jesus today grant that Jesus was a miracle worker, regardless of their varying philosophic assumptions about divine activity in miracle claims. For example, E. P. Sanders regards it as an “almost indisputable” historical fact that “Jesus was a Galilean who preached and healed.” Using traditional historical-critical tools, John Meier finds many of Jesus’s reported miracles authentic. Raymond Brown notes that “scholars have come to realize that one cannot dismiss Jesus’s miracles simply on modern rationalist grounds, for the oldest traditions show him as a healer.” Otto Betz regards it as “certain” that Jesus was a healer, arguing “even from the Jewish polemic which called him a sorcerer.” The miracles, he notes, are central to the Gospels, and without them, most of the other data in the Gospels are inexplicable. Even Morton Smith, among the recent scholars most skeptical toward the Gospel tradition, argues that miracle working is the most authentic part of the Jesus tradition, though he explains it along the magical lines urged by Jesus’s early detractors.

Keener continues:

These observations do not resolve the question of individual miracle stories in the Gospels, but they do challenge one basic assumption that has often lodged the burden of proof against them: against some traditional assumptions, one cannot dismiss particular stories on the basis that Jesus did not perform miracles. One need not, therefore, attribute stories about Jesus’s miracles purely to legendary accretions. Nor should one expect that the church’s later Christology led them to invent many accounts of Jesus’s miracles; it may have influenced their interpretation and shaping of the accounts, but there was little reason to invent miracles for christological reasons. We lack substantial contemporary evidence that Jewish people expected a miracle-working messiah, and nonmessianic figures like Paul were also believed to be miracle workers (2 Cor 12: 12). Rather than Christology causing miracle claims to be invented, claims already circulating about Jesus’s miracles, once combined with other claims about Jesus, undoubtedly contributed to apologetic for a higher Christology. (emphasis added)

Where does this evidence leave us? It would seem that the miracles Jesus performed were an integral part of his ministry. The hope that historical Jesus can be separated from the wonders he performed is a lost cause. It’s really a package deal. Jesus loved his neighbors not by talking to them about good morals, but by miraculously healing them.

#7 Post of 2014 – Did Christians Steal from Egyptian Mythology?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Generally I don’t post videos as I’m more of a fan of the written word, but sometimes I run across something that is just too good to not post. Check out this video from Lutheran Satire that does an accurate and funny debunking of the folks out there who claim that Christianity was just copied from older Egyptian myths.

How Do Palestinian Names Lend Credence to the Gospels?

Are the Gospel accounts of Jesus’s life rooted in first century Palestine or are they legendary accounts written more than a hundred years later? What of the so-called apocryphal gospels (e.g., Gospels of Thomas, Mary, Judas) that also claim to be true accounts of Jesus’s life? A few biblical scholars claim that the apocryphal gospels deserve as much attention as the four canonical gospels.

Biblical scholar Craig Hazen, in a blog post, brings to our attention new archaeological evidence that bolsters the authenticity of the canonical gospels and undermines the authenticity of the apocryphal gospels. What is this new evidence that roots the canonical gospels firmly in the first century?

Over the last decade, a new area of research has confirmed that the writers of the Gospels did indeed have the kind of intimate and detailed knowledge of life in that time and place. And this new research comes from an in-depth study of personal names.

In 2002 an Israeli scholar by the name of Tal Ilan did some seemingly boring work that has yielded some important dividends for New Testament authentication. She sorted through documents, engravings, scraps of papyrus, ossuaries and the like from the time period surrounding Jesus and the apostles in order to make a list of over 3,000 personal names — along with whatever bits of information she could find about those names. It was as if she were compiling a phone book from ancient trash heaps.

So what? How could this list of ancient names have anything to do with the historical authenticity of the Gospel accounts?

Because of her work, it became possible for the first time to find out what personal names were the most popular during the time of Jesus and how those names were used. Why is this important? Well, if the Gospel writers really had no solid contact with the characters in the stories, if they were writing decades later and had never visited the lands about which they were writing, getting the names right would be unlikely to the point of impossible.

Hazen offers this example to drive the point home:

It would be as if a person who had never set foot out of California were attempting to write a story about people living in Portugal 60 years ago and the writer perfectly captured all the details of the personal names of the day without traveling, without the Internet, without encyclopedias or libraries. Clearly, guesses and intuitions about Portuguese names from over a half-century earlier are exceedingly unlikely to match the real situation on the ground.

So how does Ilan’s list match the names used in the four New Testament Gospels?

But this new research shows that the Gospel writers were “spot on” in regard to the popularity, frequency, proportion and usage of personal names in the text of Scripture, indicating very deep familiarity with life in the exact area and timeframe of Jesus and his earliest followers. British New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham did some exhaustive work correlating New Testament names . . .  with the list of 3,000 names compiled by Ilan and concluded the following:

  • The Gospels were nearly perfect in how they captured the frequency of names among Palestinian Jews of the time. For instance, Ilan’s list of the 10 most popular names matched rank for rank the list of the most frequent names in the Gospels and Acts. This is an extraordinary confirmatory correlation.
  • By contrast, if you examine the most popular Jewish names in a different region (such as Egypt) at the time, the list is dramatically different. The pattern of names does not match what we know the pattern to be in Palestine.
  • Also by contrast, if you examine the names that appear in the Apocryphal Gospels (such as the Gospels of Thomas, Mary, Judas), you discover that the frequency and proportion of names in these writings do not match what we know to be true of names from the land and time of Jesus. Hence the Apocryphal Gospels do not have the ring of authenticity with regard to personal names and are rightly called into question.

Fascinating results! If you want to learn more about these names, I would recommend reading Richard Bauckham’s book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, where he provides a lot more detail.

Were the Gospels Written and Circulated Anonymously? Part 4

Post Author: Bill Pratt

In part 3 we finished looking at Richard Bauckham’s second reason for rejecting the anonymity of the Gospels. Bauckham concludes with the third of his three reasons. About the first two reasons, Bauckham explains that these

two lines of argument establish that as soon as the Gospels circulated around the churches they had author’s names attached to them, even though such names were not part of the text of the Gospels. Our further question about anonymity concerns the contents of the Gospels: do the Gospel-writers present the traditions they preserve as derived from named eyewitnesses or as anonymous community tradition to which no specific names could be attached? Here we need only to resume the evidence we discussed in chapters 3– 8:

(i) Where the names of relatively minor characters are given in the Gospels, the reason is usually that the tradition to which the name is attached derived from that person.

(ii) In all three Synoptic Gospels, the explanation of the care with which the list of the Twelve has been preserved and recorded is that they were known to be the official body of eyewitnesses who had formulated a body of traditions on which the three Synoptic Gospels depend.

(iii) Three of the Gospels — Mark, Luke, and John — deploy a literary device, the inclusio of eyewitness testimony, to indicate the most extensive eyewitness source( s) of their Gospels. Mark’s use of the device points to Peter (indicating that Mark’s traditions are those of the Twelve in the form that Peter told and supplemented). Luke also acknowledges Peter as the most extensive eyewitness source of his narrative, but by making also a secondary use of the device he indicates that the group of women disciples of Jesus were also an important eyewitness source of his Gospel. John’s Gospel plays on Mark’s use of this device in order to stake its claim for the Beloved Disciple as an eyewitness as important as — even, in a sense, more important than — Peter.

What do all of these arguments prove about the Gospels?

These arguments show not simply that, as a matter of fact, the traditions in the Gospels have eyewitness sources but, very importantly, that the Gospels themselves indicate their own eyewitness sources. Once we recognize these ways in which the Gospels indicate their sources, we can see that they pass on traditions not in the name of the anonymous collective but in the name of the specific eyewitnesses who were responsible for these traditions.

What Bauckham has said is incredibly important. He has made persuasive arguments that the contents of the four Gospels derive from eyewitness sources and that these sources were well-known by the early Christian community. The idea that the Gospels are an anonymous collection of legends and tales that were eventually compiled into written accounts just does not stand up from the evidence.

Were the Gospels Written and Circulated Anonymously? Part 3

Post Author: Bill Pratt

In part 2 we finished looking at Richard Bauckham’s first reason for rejecting the anonymity of the Gospels. Bauckham continues with the second of his three reasons, the traditional titles of the Gospels.

Throughout the early manuscript tradition, from c. 200 onward, the only titles for all four canonical Gospels are in the form “Gospel according to  .  .  .” (euangelion kata  .  .  .), with the exception of manuscripts Vaticanus and Sinaiticus which have the short form “According to.  .  .  .”

Martin Hengel has argued persuasively, not only that the longer form was the earlier form, but also that the meaning is not “the Gospel writing written according to the tradition that derives from Mark,” but “the Gospel (i.e., the one and only gospel message) according to Mark’s account.” The usual genitive for the author’s name has been avoided in favor of the very unusual “according to  .  .  .” (kata  .  .  .) formula, in order to “express the fact that here the gospel was narrated in the particular version of the evangelist in question.”

So why is this fact important?

Each of these titles therefore presupposes the existence of other Gospel writings (not necessarily all three of the other canonical ones), from which the Gospel in question needed to be distinguished. A Christian community that knew only one Gospel writing would not have needed to entitle it in this way. Even a Gospel writer who knew other Gospels to be circulating around the churches could have himself given this form of title to his work. (In the first century CE, most authors gave their books titles, but the practice was not universal.)

Why would the early Christian communities need or want to distinguish between the different Gospel accounts?

Whether or not any of these titles originate from the authors themselves, the need for titles that distinguished one Gospel from another would arise as soon as any Christian community had copies of more than one in its library and was reading more than one in its worship meetings. For the former purpose, it would have been necessary to identify books externally, when, for example, they were placed side-by-side on a shelf. For this purpose a short title with the author’s name would be written either on the outside of the scroll or on a papyrus or parchment tag that hung down when the scroll was placed horizontally on a shelf.

In the case of codices, “labels appeared on all possible surfaces: edges, covers, and spines.” In this sense also, therefore, Gospels would not have been anonymous when they first circulated around the churches. A church receiving its first copy of one such would have received with it information, at least in oral form, about its authorship and then used its author’s name when labeling the book and when reading from it in worship.

So when did the titles start getting attached to the various Gospels?

Hengel argues that, given that the Gospels must have acquired titles at a very early stage, the titles that survive in the earliest manuscript tradition (c. 200 onward) are these “original” titles.  In favor of this is the fact that no evidence exists that these Gospels were ever known by other names. The unusual form of the titles and the universal use of them as soon as we have any evidence suggest that they originated at an early stage.

Once the Gospels were widely known it would be much more difficult for a standard form of title for all four Gospels to have come into universal use. Helmut Koester, who thinks Marcion was the first person to use the word “Gospel” for a book, rejects Hengel’s argument that the full form “Gospel according to  .  .  .” could have been used to entitle the Gospels already early in the second century, though he does not necessarily deny that the ascriptions to authors may be early. However, Graham Stanton supports Hengel’s argument on the basis of other early instances of the term “Gospel” (euangelion) used for a written Gospel.

Whether or not the actual form of title, “Gospel according to  .  .  .” was already used when the Gospels first circulated around the churches, it is very likely that the ascription of the Gospels to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John dates from this very early stage, since this is the only way that one of the Gospels could have been distinguished from another. Our evidence offers no alternative way in which this could have been done. Again the universality of these ascriptions of authorship and the fact that they seem never to have been disputed indicate that they became established usage as soon as the Gospels were circulating.

In part 4, we will look at Bauckham’s third reason for rejecting the anonymity of the Gospels.

Were the Gospels Written and Circulated Anonymously? Part 2

Post Author: Bill Pratt

In part 1 we started looking at Richard Bauckham’s case against the anonymity of the Gospels. He offered three main reasons for rejecting this view. We were right in the middle of the first reason, and that is where we pick up. Bauckham explains why the Gospel of Luke could not be anonymous:

The clearest case is Luke because of the dedication of the work to Theophilus (1: 3), probably a patron. It is inconceivable that a work with a named dedicatee should have been anonymous. The author’s name may have featured in an original title, but in any case would have been known to the dedicatee and other first readers because the author would have presented the book to the dedicatee.

Of course, this in itself does not guarantee that the author was named Luke; the attribution to Luke could be later and erroneous. But we are not, at this point, concerned with establishing the real authorship of each Gospel, only with refuting the idea that the Gospels were presented and received as anonymous works whose contents would have been taken as coming from the community rather than from known authors.

Bauckham then examines the Gospel according to John:

In the case of John’s Gospel, 21: 23 is important in showing that the Beloved Disciple — ostensibly, at least, the author (21: 24) — was an identifiable figure, someone about whom a rumor could circulate, at least in some circles. Although he remains anonymous within the Gospel, its first readers must have known his name.

Finally, the Gospel according to Matthew:

The case of Matthew is more complex. It requires the connection of two facts about the Gospel. One is that the figure of Matthew, who in the other Gospels appears only as a name in the lists of the Twelve in Mark and Luke, acquires a higher profile in the Gospel of Matthew. In this Gospel, he is dubbed “the tax collector” in the list of the Twelve (10: 3), while in the story about the call of a tax collector, whom Mark and Luke call Levi, the tax collector is named Matthew (9: 9). This definite, albeit quite small, emphasis on the character Matthew within the Gospel cannot be unconnected with the other relevant fact: that the title of the Gospel associates it with Matthew (“ according to Matthew”) in a way that, while it may not necessarily indicate authorship as such, certainly treats the apostle Matthew as in some way this Gospel’s source.

We shall consider the titles of the Gospels shortly, but here we need take the title of Matthew simply as evidence from some early stage of the Gospel’s transmission. It is hardly likely that the Gospel came to be associated with Matthew on the basis of the references to him in 9: 9 and 10: 3. These references are surely not prominent enough to have made readers think Matthew must be the author. Much more likely, the author was responsible both for these references to Matthew and for the attribution of the work to Matthew, which would therefore have been original, presumably included in a title.

In part 3, we will look at Bauckham’s second reason for rejecting the anonymity of the Gospels.

Were the Gospels Written and Circulated Anonymously? Part 1

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

One of the most common refrains we hear from skeptics is that the Gospels are anonymous community documents that are simply collections of folklore and legend. They were never meant to record eyewitness testimony about the life of Jesus. Are they correct?

Not according to biblical scholar Richard Bauckham. In his book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, Bauckham builds a strong case against this view. First, he summarizes the skeptical view:

The assumption that Jesus traditions circulated anonymously in the early church and that therefore the Gospels in which they were gathered and recorded were also originally anonymous was very widespread in twentieth-century Gospels scholarship. It was propagated by the form critics as a corollary of their use of the model of folklore, which is passed down anonymously by communities. The Gospels, they thought, were folk literature, similarly anonymous.

This use of the model of folklore has been discredited, . . . , partly because there is a great difference between folk traditions passed down over centuries and the short span of time — less than a lifetime — that elapsed before Gospels were written. But it is remarkable how tenacious has been the idea that not only the traditions but the Gospels themselves were originally anonymous.

Bauckham argues that there are “three main reasons for rejecting this view of both the traditions and the Gospels:”

(1) In three cases — Luke, John, and Matthew — the evidence of the Gospel itself shows that it was not intended to be anonymous. All four Gospels are anonymous in the formal sense that the author’s name does not appear in the text of the work itself, only in the title (which we will discuss below). But this does not mean that they were intentionally anonymous.

Many ancient works were anonymous in the same formal sense, and the name may not even appear in the surviving title of the work. For example, this is true of Lucian’s Life of Demonax (Dēmōnactos bios), which as a bios (ancient biography) is generically comparable with the Gospels. Yet Lucian speaks throughout in the first person and obviously expects his readers to know who he is.

Such works would often have been circulated in the first instance among friends or acquaintances of the author who would know who the author was from the oral context in which the work was first read. Knowledge of authorship would be passed on when copies were made for other readers, and the name would be noted, with a brief title, on the outside of the scroll or on a label affixed to the scroll. In denying that the Gospels were originally anonymous, our intention is to deny that they were first presented as works without authors.

In part 2 of this series, we continue with Bauckham’s case against the anonymity of the Gospels.

Were There Written Sources for the Gospels?

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

We can surmise that the acts and sayings of Jesus were memorized and transmitted orally for many years after his death and resurrection, but before the Gospels were written. Another question to ask is this: Were there written documents that the Gospel authors also used as source material?

Richard Bauckham, in his book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, believes that there likely were written sources for the Gospels that supplemented the oral traditions. Bauckham first explains the practices of rabbis in ancient Palestine:

Any discussion of this issue must recognize that in the predominantly oral culture of the ancient world, including the early Christian movement, writing and orality were not alternatives but complementary. For the most part writing existed to supplement and to support oral forms of remembering and teaching. But as a supplement to orality, more for the sake of reminding than of remembering, it had a place even among the later rabbis, those who insisted on the necessarily oral character of the Oral Torah, as Gerhardsson already explained. Martin Jaffee has recently argued for a thorough “interpenetration” of oral and written composition in the rabbinic traditions behind the Mishnah. But what we know the rabbis used were not so much books as private notebooks. They were notes of material known in oral transmission and were not in any sense intended to replace the oral traditions but rather to serve as aids to memory precisely in learning and recalling the oral traditions.

How might these private notebooks played a role in the early Christian movement?

Such notebooks were in quite widespread use in the ancient world (2 Tim 4: 13 refers to parchment notebooks Paul carried on his travels). It seems more probable than not that early Christians used them. It is true that the extent of literacy in Jewish Palestine is debated and may have been very small, but we should also notice that the followers of Jesus, both during his ministry and in the early Jerusalem church, were drawn from all classes of people.

There would undoubtedly be some who could write and more who could read. These would be not only members of the educated elite but also professional scribes and copyists. The old suggestion that, among the Twelve, it would be Matthew the tax collector who would most likely, owing to his profession, be able to write might after all be a sound guess and a clue to the perplexing question of the role he might have played somewhere among the sources of the Gospel of Matthew. We can be fairly confident that some quite sophisticated scribal activity, in the form of intensive work on expounding the biblical prophecies with reference to Jesus and his followers, akin to the learned commentaries produced by the Qumran community, went on at a very early date, presumably in the Jerusalem church, whence its influence can be seen throughout the New Testament writings.

Bauckham continues to explain why he believes that the early church contained at least some educated Christians who could both read and write.

The first Christians were not all illiterate peasant laborers and craftsmen, as the form critics supposed, but evidently included people who studied the Scriptures with current exegetical skills and could write works with the literary quality of the letter of James. Leaders who were not themselves literate could employ the services of other believers who were. Moreover, as Martin Hengel has proposed, it would surely have been in Jerusalem, where Greek-speaking Jews from the Diaspora became prominent in the Christian community, that Jesus traditions were first translated into Greek. In such a context it does seem unlikely that no one would have even noted down Jesus traditions in notebooks for the private use of Christian teachers.

Bauckham concludes:

Such notebooks would not be a wholly new factor in the process of transmission through memorization that we described in the last section. They would simply have reinforced the capacity of oral transmission itself to preserve the traditions faithfully. . . . Whether or not writing already served as a control on the transmission of the tradition before the writing of the extant Gospels, there is no doubt that with the composition of these Gospels writing came into its own as means of ensuring the faithful preservation of the Jesus traditions.

Did Jesus Expect His Disciples to Memorize His Teaching?

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

Memorization of important traditions was an essential part of life in ancient Palestine, when Jesus was alive. Is there any evidence that Jesus structured his teachings to facilitate memorization by his followers, or was he just flying by the seat of his robes during his public speeches? Did he expect his followers to remember what he said and to tell others?

Biblical scholar Richard Bauckham, in his book Jesus and the Eyewitnessesargues that there is indeed evidence in the New Testament that Jesus was passing along teaching that he expected to be memorized by his listeners.

In a predominantly oral society, not only do people deliberately remember but also teachers formulate their teachings so as to make them easily memorable. It has frequently been observed that Jesus’ teaching in its typically Synoptic forms has many features that facilitate remembering. The aphorisms are typically terse and incisive, the narrative parables have a clear and relatively simple plot outline. Even in Greek translation, the only form in which we have them, the sayings of Jesus are recognizably poetic, especially employing parallelism, and many have posited Aramaic originals rich in alliteration, assonance, rhythm, rhyme, and wordplay.

These teaching formulations were certainly not created by Jesus ad hoc, in the course of his teaching, but were carefully crafted, designed as concise encapsulations of his teaching that his hearers could take away, remember, ponder, and live by. We cannot suppose that Jesus’ oral teaching consisted entirely of such sayings as these. Jesus must have preached much more discursively, but offered these aphorisms and parables as brief but thought-provoking summations of his teaching for his hearers to jot down in their mental notebooks for frequent future recall. (Obviously, therefore, it was these memorable summations that survived, and when the writers of the Synoptic Gospels wished to represent the discursive teaching of Jesus they mostly had to use collections of these sayings.)

. . . Jesus’ hearers would readily recognize this and would apply to memorable sayings the deliberate practices of committing to memory that they would know were expected. To suppose that memorable sayings merely happened to stick in the memory, like politicians’ “sound-bites” in the undisciplined memories that characterize the oral dimension of our own culture, would be to mistake the cultural context of Jesus and the tradition of his sayings.

If this is the case, do the Gospels record Jesus specifically telling his followers to memorize his words? How do we know that he intended his disciples to pass along his teaching? Bauckham explains:

From the argument so far it should be clear that Jesus must have expected his sayings to be deliberately learned by hearers who took his teaching seriously, especially his disciples. That nothing is said in the Gospels about his requiring his sayings to be memorized or teaching by repetition is no argument to the contrary. Something that would be so self-evident in the cultural context of the texts did not need mentioning. (However, Rainer Riesner has shown that Luke 9: 44a probably refers to memorization.) Still, it is a further question whether Jesus expected his disciples to transmit his teaching to others.

The evidence for an affirmative answer to this question lies in the strong tradition within the Gospels that Jesus sent out his disciples to spread his message during his ministry (Matt 9: 36– 10: 15; Mark 6: 7-13; Luke 9: 1-6; 10: 1-16), supported especially by the saying that equates their mission as his messengers with that of himself as their sender: “He who receives you receives me  .  .  .” (Matt 10: 40, with variant versions in Mark 9: 37; Luke 10: 16; John 13: 20). The Evangelists characterize the message of the disciples of Jesus very briefly, but in the same terms in which they summarize Jesus’ own proclamation (Matt 10: 7; Mark 6: 12; Luke 9: 2; 10: 9). For this same message the disciples must have employed the same sayings in which Jesus himself had crystallized his teaching. In that sense a formal transmission of Jesus’ teaching by authorized tradents, his disciples, began already during Jesus’ ministry.

How Important Was Memorization in Ancient Palestine?

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.