Can We Trust the Gospels?

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The Process of the Oral Tradition about Jesus

By Mark D. Roberts | Sunday, July 1, 2007

Today’s post, as well as several posts to come, are excerpts from my new book, Can We Trust the Gospels? Investigating the Reliability of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

The Telephone game assumes that the communication of the key sentence will be done secretly, with players whispering to each other.

Think of what would happen in Telephone if somebody changed the rules. Rather than whispering the sentence, the first player says it out loud to the person next in line. This person says the same sentence out loud to the next person, and so forth and so on. This would be a boring game, to say the least, because all players would hear what was being passed around.

That’s more or less what happened in the early Christian community when it came to passing down the teaching of Jesus. It was not done secretly, but openly. Remember that Luke got his information from eyewitnesses who were also “servants of the word” (Luke 1:2). They were teaching about Jesus in the public square and in the church. Their stories about Jesus and their accounts of his sayings were part of the public record, if you will, or at least the public church record.

When you think of how little material actually appears in the Gospels compared with all that Jesus would have done and said, it’s obvious that the “servants of the word” tended to repeat themselves a lot. The same stories about Jesus were told and retold. Given the variation we see in the Gospels, these stories and sayings weren’t delivered in exactly the same words every time. This would be especially true when the original Aramaic of Jesus was translated into Greek. Nevertheless, the members of the earliest churches would have heard the same stories and sayings again and again in much the same way they were first told by the eyewitnesses.

Repetition facilitates memory, even precise memory. I can say the Lord’s Prayer, the 23rd Psalm, the Pledge of Allegiance, and even my VISA card number because I have repeated them so often. I can sing more than a hundred hymns and songs, not because I’m so musical but because I’m in four worship services every weekend and I rarely miss church! The early Christians came to know a core of Jesus’ sayings and stories about him because they heard them and repeated them so frequently.

Curiously enough, there was one tradition in early Christianity that prized itself on having secret teachings from Jesus, ones that were not widely known among most Christians. This was a core feature of Christian Gnosticism. When orthodox Christians objected that Gnostic theology didn’t come from Jesus, the Gnostics claimed that the divine Christ had revealed secret information to a few select disciples. They were the only ones privy to the secret, and they passed it on only to the few elites who could receive the revelation. But this essential element of Gnostic tradition, its secrecy, counts strongly against the possibility that it truly represents the teachings of Jesus.

Topics: Can We Trust the Gospels? |

2 Responses to “The Process of the Oral Tradition about Jesus”

  1. ChrisK Says:
    July 1st, 2007 at 4:59 pm

    There’s a funny scene in the movie “Fast Times At Ridgemont High” where in the morning Spicoli calls Mr. Hand an obscenity, because Mr. Hand ripped up his “red card” admittance to the class. By lunchtime, schoolgirls are discussing how Spicoli pulled a knife on Mr. Hand.

    The movie has several scenes showing how some groups of students compete with their own stories of events. Spicoli’s rendition adds on how he grabbed Mr. Hand’s class notes and ripped them up. Linda Barrett, the school newspaper editor, believes the knife version. Naive freshman Stacy actually is the only one shown that accurately retells what happened.

    I think there’s a real life truth to this fictional example of oral tradition. The emotional significance of the incident is the very reason the accuracy is quickly lost.

    Something of emotional interest to students—a student standing up to a teacher—gets exaggerated. A confrontation did occur, and that’s not lost in the oral tradition, but the emotional overtones gets stretched. As the emotion stretches, the accuracy is lost.

    As an agnostic, I don’t doubt kernels of truth came through decades of first century Christian oral tradition. But to believe important details are historically accurate under such emotional circumstances does not fit my experience of human nature and oral story telling.

  2. Bill Goff Says:
    July 6th, 2007 at 10:58 pm

    What is the evidence that Jesus spoke Aramaic? When I was on a sabbatical in Israel for ten months in 1975-1976, I encountered scholars such as Robert Lindsey who cited a lot of evidence that Hebrew was a living language during the lifetime of Jesus, but that some popular Aramaic words were still used. (Perhaps there is a parallel for those of us who live in communities in Southern California with Spanish language names -like Los Angeles- and who know a smattering of Spanish, yet our spoken language remains English.) One of the many evidences for Hebrew being living language in the first century was the Hebrew writing discovered on the underside of a sarcophagus (sorry if my spelling is incorrect) made by a workman. They also pointed out that the Greek word for Hebrew in the New Testament is Hebrew, not Aramaic, yet our English translations seem to be all but uniform in stating something in a footnote such as “Hebrew, i.e. Aramaic”.
    As I have commented before, Dr. Lindsey discovered that when he was translating the Gospel of Mark into Hebrew, passages where there were exact parallels with Luke easily translated into idiomatic Hebrew, but when Mark stood alone, it was difficult to translate the Greek into Hebrew. Dr. Lindsey concluded that Luke’s written sources must have been written in Hebrew. If Jesus spoke Hebrew rather than Aramaic and the written sources maintained by the early Church were in Hebrew, that reinforces the reliability of the Gospels.
    I have never made a systematic study of this issue, but I have also never encountered any evidence that Jesus spoke Aramaic. It is always simply asserted as fact. I suggest it is time to examine any evidence for this widely accepted belief.


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