Can We Trust the Gospels?

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Can We Trust the Accuracy of the Oral Traditions About Jesus?

By Mark D. Roberts | Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Today I did an hour’s interview with Greg Koukl, president of Stand to Reason, a Christian apologetics ministry. Greg is one of my favorite apologists, not only because he’s very smart, but also because he believes in careful and calm discourse. Over the years I’ve enjoyed listening to him on the radio.

The focus of the interview was the subject of my book, Can We Trust the Gospels?. This was an valuable interview, partly because Greg is an engaging interlocutor, and partly because he had actually read the book. (I do quite a few radio interviews, and it’s often obvious that those who are asking questions have little idea what’s actually in the book.)

In the course of our conversation, Greg focused on one of the crucial issues when it comes to the Gospels: oral tradition. It’s clear that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are based, at least in part, upon stories and sayings about Jesus that were passed down orally among the early followers of Jesus. This isn’t something scholars have made up. In fact, in the beginning of the Gospel of Luke, we read that the events concerning Jesus were “handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word” (Luke 1:2). The language of this verse describes the process of oral tradition.

Skeptics often use this situation to undermine confidence in the Gospels. “See,” they say, “the Gospels are based on hearsay, on faulty memories and imagination. How well do you remember what happened twenty years ago?” Most of us, especially if we’re over fifty, agree that our memories are not all that good. Does this mean we shouldn’t trust the Gospels?

Skeptics sometimes add fuel to their fire by using the analogy of the game of Telephone. That’s a game where one person writes out a sentence, and then whispers it secretly to the next person, who whispers it secretly to the next person, until it comes to the end of the line. The sentence uttered publicly by the last person is usually an obvious and humorous corruption of the original. “There you have it,” the skeptics conclude. “The Gospels can’t be trusted.”

In Can We Trust the Gospels? I explain why the Telephone analogy is a bad one. But during my conversation with Greg, I thought of an analogy that is much more appropriate if we’re going to understand why the oral tradition about Jesus is, in fact, reliable. Consider the following scenario:

You are diagnosed with terminal cancer. But your doctor gives you a ray of hope. If you can go and hear a lecture by a famed cancer researcher, you will receive information that will lead to your healing. So you go to hear the lecture. As it turns out, you’re the only one at the lecture. And you forgot to bring your notebook. When you ask if recordings or transcripts of the lecture will be made available, you’re informed that no recordings are permitted. So your task is to listen to the lecture and remember as much as you can. It’s your only hope.

So, how do you think you’d do? My guess is your mind would be finely tuned to what the lecturer says. Though you wouldn’t remember every word, you would certainly remember the main points and themes. After all, your life depends upon it.

This analogy helps us understand why the early followers of Jesus would have been inclined to remember accurately what He said and did. After all, they believed that He was not only Israel’s Messiah, but also the Savior of the World. They believed that His words were, literally the words of God. They would, therefore, be highly motivated to remember what Jesus said and did because, in a real sense, their life depended on it. This wasn’t some silly game of Telephone, but a life and death matter.

I think this analogy can help us grasp why the earliest Christians would have remembered and passed on the sayings and deeds of Jesus accurately. But the analogy needs some tweaking. I’ll expand it in my next post.

Topics: Can We Trust the Gospels? |

9 Responses to “Can We Trust the Accuracy of the Oral Traditions About Jesus?”

  1. real live preacher Says:
    August 22nd, 2007 at 9:25 am


    I think there is another piece of this puzzle. The oral tradition period existed in the ancient world, a world steeped in the story telling tradition. Certain gifted storytellers remembered the stories and told them to the community. People of the ancient world had astonishing memories. Not having extra-somatic memory holding devices (ie pen and notepads) they were pretty good at remembering. The stunning truth is how well stories were kept intact and handed down in this period.

  2. Mark Goodyear Says:
    August 22nd, 2007 at 10:12 am

    Interesting analogy! Although no recording or transcripts of the lecture will be made, wouldn’t the person attending the lecture get to review the details of with lecturer over the course of several weeks and months (maybe longer)?

    I could be wrong. My knowledge of oral literature is limited to one lecture from a college class I took on the Iliad and the Odyssey.

    And my life didn’t depend on it.

  3. Ron Says:
    August 22nd, 2007 at 1:05 pm

    Even more persuasive (at least to me) is the reverse of the argument you’ve given. Why do you trust your doctor? Well, because he went to school where he attended lectures and read books given and written by others who attended lectures and read books by still others who were themselves not the original source of a technique or researched procedure. Sure they had books, but aren’t books just the written down words of those that came before? And the books aren’t lab work. You can’t teach surgery from a book - anatomy, sure - but surgery is a series of techniques taught by watching and practicing and ultimately doing. And we do trust our surgeons to perform complicated surgeries on our brains and our hearts using techniques learned from others, who learned from yet others, etc. etc.

  4. Deloy Sterns Says:
    August 22nd, 2007 at 1:56 pm

    i totally agree with your remarks regarding Greg k.i know this from personal experience.Because I was the regular board op on the Stand to Reason Broadcast from 1999-2002,when I went to another Christian station here in the Orange County.And yes Greg and his producer and I do still keep in touch with each other to this day.

  5. SteveA Says:
    August 22nd, 2007 at 2:31 pm

    I think a more accurate version of the telephone game (especially in the context of oral traditions), is if everyone in the circle said the sentence out loud (instead of only whispering it to their neighbor), and people were expect to correct the statement if there were any errors. The likelihood of the statement being incorrect after being repeated aloud (and corrected if necessary) by everyone in the group is very low. Ken Bailey and others have written about the way oral traditions actually work in cultures in the middle east, and this is a much more realistic version of events than our telephone game–and it strongly supports trustworthy versions of events being maintained by oral transmission.

  6. Shmuel66 Says:
    August 22nd, 2007 at 8:02 pm

    If I may add to the observation of Real Live Preacher, there is additional information to be found within the Jewish world of the first century - from where the Gospels originate. Not only was literacy unusually high among the lower classes (compared to other cultures at that time), but the children were often required to memorize large sections of the Torah and significant portions of the Jewish oral traditions which had been extant for close to 500 years, but were not to be written down until well after the destruction of the Temple. Thus, it is not surprising that Jewish believers would be able to retell with accuracy the words and deeds of Yeshua.

  7. links for 2007-08-27 at Dwight::Knoll Says:
    August 29th, 2007 at 1:01 pm

    […] Can We Trust the Accuracy of the Oral Traditions About Jesus? | (tags: article blog theology) […]

  8. Jeffrey L. Curry Says:
    October 4th, 2007 at 10:44 am

    The Practice of Jewish Oral Tradition is very important here. The words and deeds of Jewish Sages and Rabbis (of which Jesus was one) were remembered and used for wisdom teaching among the Hebrews. The vignettes were always carefully worded so as to make them easy to memorize (see also the Gospel pericopes) and to accentuate the teaching associated with them. In this way they could also be faithfully passed on, not for historical sake as many wrongly think, but for teaching purposes. This way the stories of the Rabbi resided in their hearts and minds rather than on a scroll, or a Bible as we would have today. The truth is that the Jesus Tradition (which was oral and composed of the words, deeds and teachings of the Master) was not originally passed on as a historical record, but rather for teaching purposes, or for those who wished to follow the Rabbi Jesus. We have vastly underestimated these documents, as most see the Gospels as simple biographies. I’m in no way asserting that the Jesus tradition is historically inaccurate. As a matter of fact, the practice of the Jewish Oral Tradition in regards to Jesus would argue well for the Traditions accuracy.

  9. Wade Says:
    June 2nd, 2009 at 10:02 am

    With all due respect, nice try.


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