Oral traditions not enough-says who?

Favorite fishing stories, songs, poems, jokes (usually off-color), tall-tales and ghost stories are all passed down from generation to generation through repetition or more officially known as ORAL TRADITIONS. Often these stories appear to be exaggerated or changed over the course of time and non-believers have a tendency to use this concept to claim that the Bible is also subjected to these problems as it was passed down at times orally.   Unfortunately, they do not think beyond the satisfaction of proving their own beliefs. If they had, they would come to understand that today’s oral traditions are considerably less stringent than those of some 2,000 years ago were.


Not what I am talking about!


Part of what I am talking about!

Non-believers try using two main points about the word of mouth transmission of the Gospel: 1) That short sayings of Jesus were the only ones recorded; and, by implication, are the only ones that we may reasonably assess as having been passed down to us from Him with any accuracy; and, 2) That these short sayings circulated by word of mouth for some 20 years before being written down.

These same non-believers do not apply the same standards to the Vedas, African folklore or Native American traditions that have been passed down for thousands of years.

Each of these assumptions is highly questionable in light of what we know of the early Christian community. To begin with non-believers do not accept as genuine any words of Jesus that are not recorded as aphorisms or parables. Sermons and stories are therefore considered “out of bounds,” probably creations of the early church. This is an arbitrary restriction; I know of no other sage or wise man or philosopher in the history of the world that has had so many restrictions put on the forms of speech he or she could have used to teach others.[1]

Second, this in itself is a supposition without evidence, used with the presuppositions that only sayings that have been determined to originate in the so-called oral period (30-50) could possibly have come from Jesus[2], and that oral transmission is so primitive that it cannot reliably transmit anything except short, memorable phrases.

This presumption ignores any possibility that sayings, stories and sermons were put in some kind of written form early on and it ignores the considerable importance given to rote memorization in Jewish society of the time, which would have permitted reliable oral transmission even for longer material.

Non-believers often think, for example, that the communal, anonymous and changeable nature of oral transmission makes the Bible errant[3]. This is far from an accurate description of the actual process under consideration during that period. It is true that oral tradition was communal but the communities had leaders who exerted control over the tradition, and that was the way it usually worked in an oral-based community.

Why has this aspect been neglected? It is rather hard for us, in our day of computers that save data and yellow post-it notes pasted everywhere to remind us to do difficult-to-remember things, to imagine the capacity of the original memory. Many studies show that modern adults only use listening skills sparingly, with as little as 25% accuracy. In my own experience, I have memorized nothing longer than a few choice Bible passages. I doubt that many others do much better recalling things but they seem to remember video game levels and lyrics to raunchy songs.

Lentz, commenting on similar lack of regard for oral transmission in classical studies, laments: “Western academic measurement of success by literary and printed research colored the expectation of classical scholars as they considered writing in ancient culture. Writing was so important to their world that they assumed it was the key to the growth of ancient culture”.[4]

And Samuel Byrskog in Story as History (on p.116) comments: “Writing was usually seen as supplementary to the oral discourse. Orators should avoid note-books that were too detailed. One is reminded of Quintillian’s criticism of Laenas’ dependence on such notes and his clear-cut advice: “For my own part, however, I think we should not write anything which we do not intend to commit to memory.” Writing was not avoided, as such, but functioned mainly as a memorandum of what the person already should remember from oral communication — not the other way around!”

Oral recall was certainly far more important in ancient societies, particularly Judaism, than we commonly allow for and the techniques used for memorization by those in the ancient societies as a whole have a remarkable similarity to techniques we pay large amounts for in today’s “memory improvement” seminars. Byrskog notes that “…as we know today from modern studies of visual memory, most people recall — correctly or not — the past through images impressed on their memory. The ancient people were aware of this basic, human characteristic.” He also reports exceptional (and highly likely exaggerated, in some cases) examples from ancient texts of memory feats [on p.162-3]:

  1. Plato says that the Sophist Hippias of Elis “was able to repeat fifty names after hearing them only once.”
  2. Pliny the Elder reports that Cyrus was able to name every man in his army, and that Lucius Scipio remembered the names of every person in the Roman Empire, and that one named Charmadas “recited by heart any book in the libraries.”
  3. Seneca boasted of being able in his youth to repeat 2000 names read to him “and recite in reverse order over two hundred verses his fellow students told him…”. However, he does regard this as miraculous!

Though indeed these from Pliny are undoubtable exaggerated, “it is evident that the more detailed and the more voluminous the scope of information stored in the memory could be shown to be, the more impressive it was.” The ideal was to recall exactly, “as detailed as possible,” though obviously the ideal would have limits. Among the Jews, rabbis were encouraged to memorize entire books of the OT, indeed the whole OT, and all of Jewish education consisted of rote memory. Students were expected to remember the major events of narratives – although incidentals could be varied, if the main point was not affected.[5]

This is shown by the differences in verbiage that we find in the Gospels, there we find an 80% agreement in the words of Jesus.[6]

Many of the disagreements are cultural variations of the kind we would expect from such a diverse group, such as when Luke, out of consideration for his Gentile readers, did not use the Jewish term “Son of Man” where Matthew or Mark do. This was a society well-attuned to preserving oral tradition and as Charlesworth notes: “Oral tradition is not always unreliable, in fact, sometimes it is more reliable than the written word.[7] Skeptics who compare oral transmission to the children’s game of “telephone” are engaging in an anachronism- one would not expect accuracy in that situation.

This also ignores the general Jewish regard for the work of respected teachers. Witherington, writing of the Jewish tendency and capability to preserve such material, says[8]: “In view of the fact that the earliest conveyors of the Jesus tradition were all, without exception, Jews, we would naturally expect them to treat the teachings of their master with as much respect as did the disciples of other Jewish teachers such as Hillel and Shammai. This is all the more likely if, as happened with Jesus of Nazareth, the teacher suffered an untimely and unexpected end and was highly criticized by some Jews. The need to remember, preserve and defend him against false charges would be acute…

Disciples in early Jewish settings were learners, and, yes, also reciters and memorizers. This was the way Jewish educational processes worked. In fact it was the staple of all ancient education, including Greco-Roman education….those who handed on the tradition would not have seen themselves primarily as creators but as preservers and editors.”

In this regard, many have cited the work of Scandanavian scholar Birger Gerhardsson, who argued some years ago that “based on clear parallels of oral transmission processes between early Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism, one could conclude that the oral Jesus tradition was passed along with a high degree of care and continuity.” [9]

Gerhardsson’s work still is, attacked on the basis of his concentration on Rabbinic practice after 70 AD, which may or may not have had any bearing upon the time of Jesus c. 30 AD.[10] However, such Rabbinic practices certainly had their precedents, and these may be found in the general Jewish system of education in the first century:[11]Here, it is important to recognize the place that ancient Jewish educational practice gave to the memorization of both oral and written tradition…

…Reisner has done a thorough study both of educational practices within the first-century Judaism, as well as the evidence within the Gospels’ tradition related to Jesus and his teaching methods. He has concluded – quite apart from a dependency on Rabbinic parallels – that memory of sacred teachings and traditions was a vital part of both Jewish life in general and Jesus’ teaching program in particular.”

And Glenn Miller has added in this regard: “Part of this growing confidence in the accuracy of oral transmission, is the growing awareness of the easy-to-memorize structure of many of Jesus sayings. It is now clearer than ever before that Jesus was a teacher. In fact, the Gospels describe him as a teacher forty-five times and the term ‘rabbi’ is used of him fourteen times. One of his prominent activities was teaching. Like the rabbis, he proclaimed the divine law, gathered disciples, debated with the religious authorities, was asked to settle legal disputes, and supported his teaching with Scripture. He also used mnemonic devices, such as parables, exaggerations, puns, metaphors and similes, proverbs, riddles, and parabolic actions, to aid his disciples and audience in retaining his teachings. Above all he used poetry, “parallelismus membrorum”, for this purpose.

Jeremias has listed 138 examples of antithetical parallelism in Jesus’ teaching that are found in the synoptic Gospels alone, and to these over fifty other examples of synonymous, synthetic, chiasmic, and step parallelism can be added.

In light of all this, it is evident that Jesus ‘carefully thought out and deliberately formulated [his] statements’.

Regarding poetic material and oral transmission in societies attuned to this practice, Vansina has written[12]: “Poetry is of necessity memorized, if it is to be reproduced exactly. Variations do occur over time when one word or group of words can be replaced by another which respects the metric form.”

But even these variants, Vansina adds, are minor, and seldom occur, so that even within one or two generations “beyond the eldest living members of a community,” there is little change. Then even when changes do occur, there is “no doubt as to the actual message and the wording of the tradition.” How much better, then, would the Gospels reflect the words of Jesus in this regard, with the short span between their composition and publication, even by late-date standards?

Boyd also notes that general studies of oral transmission have shown it to be more reliable than critics would presuppose: “Studies by anthropologists such as Albert B. Lord and Jan Vansina have demonstrated that the transmission of traditions in oral societies follow a generally fixed, if flexible pattern – similar to the type witnessed to in the Gospels themselves. Related to this, contemporary psycholinguistic studies have served to confirm that the techniques that characterized Jesus’ oral teaching methods would have made for ‘very accurate communication between Jesus and his followers’ and would have ‘ensured excellent semantic recall.’

Currently, Boyd notes, some NT critics are beginning to acknowledge this kind of data, reluctantly. Kloppenborg[13] dismisses this argument by claiming that there is “no evidence that Jesus himself taught by memorization” – which is obviously false, as we have seen from the above that Jesus routinely used teaching forms that encouraged memorization and the very nature of the Jewish society within which Jesus taught would still preserve through memorization.

Moreover, we should keep in mind this suggestion by Wright[14]: “If we come to the ministry of Jesus as first-century historians, and forget our twentieth-century assumptions about mass media, the overwhelming probability is that most of what Jesus said, he said not twice but 200 times, with (of course) a myriad of local variations.”

Thus, even if we dismiss the mnemonic nature of Jesus’ teaching, even if we ignore (the tremendous capacity of the concept of original memory, we still have to consider that whatever Jesus taught, He would, like any teacher, have taught it many, many times – enough times so that His disciples would have the entire set of lessons committed to memory! Given the data above, we have every reason to believe, in this regard, that the material within the Gospels is historically reliable.


Acts 4:13 tells us that John and Peter were illiterate is the next fallacy the non-believers come up with and we will dispel.

All of these references are available online from various websites – just hunt for them

[1] Wilkins, Michael J. and J. P. Moreland, eds. Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995.

[2] Funk, Robert W., et al. The Five Gospels. New York: Macmillan, 1993

[3] Henaut, Barry W. Oral Tradition and the Gospels: The Problem of Mark 4. Sheffield Academic Press, 1993

[4] Lentz, Tony M. Orality and Literacy in Hellenic Greece. Carbondale: Southern Illinois U. Press, 1989.

[5] Wilkins, Michael J. and J. P. Moreland, eds. Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995.

[6] Linnemann, Eta. Is There a Synoptic Problem? Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992

[7] Charlesworth, James H. Jesus Within Judaism. New York: Doubleday, 1988.

[8] Witherington, Ben. The Jesus Quest. Downers Grove: IVP, 1995

[9] Boyd, Gregory A. Cynic Sage or Son of God? Chicago: Bridgepoint, 1995

[10] Kloppenborg, John S. The Formation of Q. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987.

[11] Boyd, Gregory A. Cynic Sage or Son of God? Chicago: Bridgepoint, 1995

[12] Vansina, Jan. Oral Tradition as History. Madison: U. of Wisconsin Press, 1985

[13] Kloppenborg, John S. The Formation of Q. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987.

[14] Wright, N. T. The New Testament and the People of God. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992


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