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Closing Thoughts on Oral Tradition

By Mark D. Roberts | Monday, July 2, 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.

When my daughter, Kara, was four years old, I decided to teach her the Lord’s Prayer. Did I simplify the language so she might understand it? Of course not. I wanted my daughter to learn the “real words” of the Lord’s Prayer. So I taught Kara the old-fashioned words that my parents had once taught me (except I used my Presbyterian “debts” instead of their Methodist “trespasses”).

Kara didn’t understand what many of the words meant. Fancy that! But she tried her best to imitate my sounds. Some of her efforts were delightful. When I said, “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name,” she said, “Our Father who art in heaven, Hollywood be my name.” Or when I prayed, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” she said, “Forgive us our dents, as we forgive our dentist.” How logical! Yet because I cared that Kara learn the real words, I gently corrected her and helped her get both the sounds and the meaning right. Today, my eleven-year-old daughter says the Lord’s Prayer flawlessly. I expect that someday she’ll pass it on to her children.

Similarly, the early Christians, and especially the teachers, made sure that the words of Jesus were carefully though not slavishly preserved. They had their transitions from “trespasses” to “debts,” or from the Aramaic abba to the Greek pater. But the community made sure that innovations like “Hollywood be my name” never made it into the authoritative tradition! Rather, they remembered what Jesus said and made sure this was passed down accurately.

The idea of early Christians memorizing substantial traditions about Jesus may seem unrealistic, even given what I’ve said about the context, people, content, community, and process of the oral tradition about Jesus. But consider the following contemporary analogy.

All Muslims are expected to memorize portions of the Qur’an. But many go on to memorize the entire book, which contains more than 80,000 Arabic words. The one who does this is called a Hafiz and is highly regarded among other Muslims. Muslims claim that millions of the faithful have achieved this status, even today.

What enables a Muslim to memorize the entire Qur’an? Context helps, in that even though most Muslims can read, their religious life is inundated by the recitation of the Qur’an. This repetition is reinforced by the poetic nature of the Qur’an itself, and by the way it is chanted. Of course the respect given to the Hafiz encourages Muslims who are trying to memorize the whole book. But the greatest motivation of all for a pious Muslim is the belief that the Qur’an contains Allah’s own words. To memorize the Qur’an is to internalize the very words of God.

In a similar vein, the early followers of Jesus had both the ability and the motivation to pass on oral tradition with accuracy. The combination of context, people, content, community, and process helped them to faithfully recount what Jesus did and said. A study of the Gospels shows that the early Christians did this very thing with considerable success. Thus the first-century dating of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, combined with their use of earlier oral traditions, combined with early Christian faithfulness in passing on these oral traditions, add up to a convincing rationale for trusting the Gospels. What we find in these books accurately represents what Jesus himself actually did and said. We may not have the original Aramaic words of Jesus, except in a few cases, and we may not have the first Aramaic stories about him, but we have Greek translations that faithfully reproduce Jesus’ actual words and deeds.

Topics: Can We Trust the Gospels? |

2 Responses to “Closing Thoughts on Oral Tradition”

  1. ChrisK Says:
    July 2nd, 2007 at 6:59 am

    Muslims accurately memorizing a written document is not a reasonable analogy to a theory that Christians accurately pass on a description of historical events through the decades without a written document.

  2. Mike Says:
    July 12th, 2007 at 4:46 pm

    The proof of the pudding is in the eating. By the time the bible was published there were more than 20 gospels with considerable differences in their content. Presumably they were all being accurately memorisied by their devotees. All presumably being able to lay claim to the same argument you made.

    Also, it may be worth mentioning that we all know that president Bush greeted Tony Blair saying “Yo Blair”. Except he didn’t. These myths enter the public conciousness very easily when we want to believe them.


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