Tag Archives: oral 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.