How reliable were the early church’s oral traditions? In terms of assessing the reliability of the Gospels, this is an extremely important question.
First century Jewish culture was what scholars today would call an “orally dominated culture.” While a certain percentage of people could read and write (see below), information was for the most part passed on by word of mouth. This is why scholars agree that before (and even after) the Gospels were written, early Christians relied primarily, if not exclusively, on oral traditions for their information about Jesus.
For this reason, with regard to assessing the reliability of the Gospels’ portrait of Jesus, a good deal hangs on how reliable, or unreliable, one judges oral traditions to be. Those who argue that the Jesus story is largely (or entirely) legendary typically argue that oral transmission is a very unreliable way of passing on information. Hence, however the Jesus story originated – whether it goes back to Jesus or to the “revelations” of Paul – these scholars hold that the early Christian view of Jesus evolved rather dramatically over time as it was passed on by word of mouth.
The Classic Form Critical View of Oral Traditions
The view that the oral traditions of the early Jesus-movement were unreliable became a widespread conviction within New Testament scholarship with the advent of a discipline known as “form criticism” in the late 19th and early 20th century. This discipline identifies and investigates different literary forms found in the Gospels — parables, sayings, miracle stories, etc. Form criticism then attempts to determine why particular parables, sayings, miracle stories, and so on came into being and evolved the way they did in the social environment of the early church.
A number of considerations led most form critics to conclude that the oral traditions of the early church were not historically reliable. For our purposes, we can limit our discussion to four widespread assumptions that played (and yet play) a particularly important role in influencing form criticism toward this skeptical stance.
1) It has been widely assumed by form critics that the early Christian movement was entirely illiterate and thus that writing played no regulative role in the transmission of oral material about Jesus. With no authoritative writing to keep oral traditions in check, it has been widely assumed, oral material about Jesus was easily altered in the process of transmission.
2) It has been almost unanimously assumed by form critics that oral traditions aren’t capable of passing on extended narratives, which is one of the reasons many critical New Testament scholars have assumed that the narrative structure in which the various literature forms are found in the Gospels was created by the Gospel authors themselves. That is, it does not go back to the historical Jesus.
3) It has been widely assumed that orally dominated communities have little genuine historical interest. That is, it has been assumed that the needs and interests of the community shaped oral performances much more than a concern to pass on past events and teachings accurately. Hence, it has been assumed by form critics that the oral Jesus material arose more out of needs within the community than out of true historical remembrance.
4) Finally, it has been wildly assumed by form critics that individuals play little role in the origination, transmission and regulation of oral traditions . Communities, not individuals, pass on oral traditions. Hence, it’s been widely assumed that the eyewitnesses of Jesus (if there were any) would have played little or no regulative role in what form the earliest oral traditions about Jesus took. Without eyewitness safeguards, the oral traditions about Jesus could be easily altered.
Clearly, if each of these assumptions is correct, the legendary-Jesus thesis becomes more plausible than if they’re mistaken. At the same time, it’s important not to exaggerate the significance of our assessment of the pre-Gospel oral traditions. Our earliest “snap shot” of what the original followers of Jesus believed comes from Paul, not the Gospels. From Paul we learn that within two decades of Jesus’ life it was already traditional for Christians to view Jesus, and worship Jesus, as the embodiment of Yahweh. This means there’s little to no time for the early Christians view of Jesus to evolve. So, even apart from the question of the reliability of the oral traditions behind the Gospels, we are strongly confronted with the question of how we can plausibly account for the Jesus story within a first century, monotheistic, Jewish environment without accepting that it’s solidly rooted in history.
Nevertheless, as it concerns the more specific question of the reliability of the Gospels’ portrait of Christ, a great deal obviously hangs on our assessment of the reliability of the early church’s oral traditions. Have form critics and legendary Jesus theorists been correct in arguing that word of mouth transmission of information is inherently unreliable? Have their assumptions about oral traditions in the early church been correct?
We shall now argue that recent archeological research, and especially a revolution that has been taking place in orality studies over the last several decades, strongly suggest that, as a matter of fact, each of their assumptions was dead wrong.
Was There No Writing in the Christian Communities Prior to the Gospels?
As we’ve said, form criticism has tended to embrace the view that, in all likelihood, neither Jesus nor anyone in his inner circle was literate. They thus assumed that writing played no regulative role in the oral transmission of early material about Jesus, which made it easier for this material to be significantly and quickly altered as it was passed along. However, while no one disputes that first century Jewish culture was an orally dominated culture, there is increasing evidence that reading and writing was not as rare in the ancient world in general, and in ancient Palestine in particular, as was once generally thought.
For example, whereas some scholars have argued that only the wealthy in the ancient world could have received the education needed to become literate, we’ve now discovered clear evidence of writing among military personal, builders and even slaves! (1) So too, whereas it was commonly assumed in the past that writing materials were very rare and expensive in the ancient world, we now have evidence that certain kinds of writing materials were actually rather inexpensive and were utilized by significant segments of the middle and lower classes. (2) We’ve also discovered texts that were intended to inform the general public (for example, publicly posted notices), which of course presupposes some degree of literacy among the general populace. (3)
If the ancient world was in general more literate than previously thought, we have reason to believe ancient Jews would have been much more so. After all, as New Testament scholar John Meier notes,
“The very identity and continued existence of the people of Israel were tied to a corpus of written and regularly read works in a way that simply was not true of other peoples in the Mediterranean world of the first century. . . To be able to read and explain the Scriptures was a revered goal for religiously minded Jews. Hence literacy held a special importance for the Jewish community.” (4)
Thus, as Birger Gerhardsson argues, “the milieu in which Jesus and the original disciples ministered, and the milieu in which remembrances of Jesus’ life and teaching were passed on, was one that revered the written word and thus valued literacy.” (5)
In light of this, we have no reason to question the Gospels’ portrayal of Jesus as not only being able to read (e.g. Lk 4:16-30) but as impressing crowds with his learning (e.g. Jn 7:15). Nor do we have any reason to suppose that all of Jesus’ disciples were illiterate. At the very least, Matthew’s occupation as a tax collector would have required some level of literacy. It’s perhaps significant in this regard that an early second century church father named Papias — a man who seems to have been a direct disciple of the Apostle John — mentions that Matthew was the designated note-taker among the earliest disciples.
We thus conclude that, while the recollection of Jesus’ words and deeds would have been passed on primarily by word of mouth in the early church, it seems more likely than not that, to some extent at least, they also would have been recorded in writing. These written materials likely would have provided a check on how much the oral traditions about Jesus could have been altered over the first several decades of the new found Christian communities.
Oral Traditions and Extended Narratives
One of the assumptions that is now being overturned in the discipline of orality studies is the longstanding idea that oral traditions are incapable of transmitting extended narratives. It was commonly assumed that long narratives simply would have been too difficult to remember to be passed on reliably. Unfortunately for this assumption, a large number of fieldwork studies over the last several decades have “brought to light numerous long oral epics in the living traditions of Central Asia, India, Africa, and Oceania, for example.” Hence, argues Lauri Honko, “[t]he existence of genuine long oral epics can no longer be denied.” (6) In fact, oral narratives lasting up to 25 hours and requiring several days to perform have been documented! (7) Indeed, oral performances — that is, times when the community’s narrator (or “tradent”) passes on oral traditions to the community — almost always presuppose a broader narrative framework even when the narrative itself is not explicitly included in the performance. (8) There is, therefore, no longer any reason to suspect that the narrative framework of Jesus’ life was the fictional creation of the Gospel authors.
Along these lines, it’s interesting to compare the typical characteristics of oral performances with the Gospels. For example, specialists of oral traditions have discovered that oral performances are characterized by a balance between form and freedom. That is, the narrator is granted a certain amount of creativity and flexibility in how he or she presents the traditional material, but there are also strong constraints when it comes to altering the core content of traditional material. What specific material a tradent decides to include or exclude in any given oral performance, and even, to some extent, the order in which the narrator decides to present traditional material in any given oral performance, depends largely on the needs and interests of the community at the time of the oral performance. But, again, if the narrator alters the material too much, the community objects and corrects him. In this way, the community itself serves an important role in making sure its treasured oral traditions don’t get substantially altered.
When one compares the Gospels and understands them in the context of the orally dominated culture in which they arose, one discovers this exact same sort of balance. (9) The overall narrative framework and essential content of the portrait of Jesus we find in these texts is quite consistent, but there is also considerable freedom in how the material is presented. The order of events and wording of Jesus’ sayings, for example, is slightly different in each Gospel, though the basic content is the same. In light of the new discoveries in orality studies, this suggests that we should view the Gospels as written versions of specific oral performances of traditional Jesus material. And the gist of it all is that it reinforces the view that the oral traditions that lie behind the Gospels — including their overall narrative framework– are solidly rooted in history.
Oral Traditions and Historical Concerns
As noted above, another common assumption that has driven much contemporary New Testament criticism over the last hundred years is that oral traditions in general, and the oral traditions that lie behind the Gospels in particular, had little interest in historical accuracy. Unfortunately for this view, another significant finding by specialists of oral traditions over the last several decades has been that this assumption is completely wrong.
We now know that oral traditions usually embody a rather keen historical interest. While “folklore is present,” according to Richard Dorson, “so is historical content.” “[E]ven more importantly,” he continues, “so are historical attitudes of the tradition’s bearers.” (10) Anthropologist Patrick Pender-Cudlip goes so far as to argue that “oral tradents” typically have as much concern “to receive and render a precise, accurate and authentic account of the past” as do modern historians. (11)
Another orality expert, Joseph Miller, describes these oral tradents as “…professional historians in the sense that they are conscious of history and evidence.” Hence, he adds, “oral historians are…no less conscious of the past than are historians in literate cultures.” (12) As a number of scholars have noted, oral tradents as well as the orally dominated communities they perform in consistently exhibit a keen capacity to distinguish historical fact from creative fiction. (13)
Indeed, as we’ve already noted, both the oral tradent and the community share a responsibility to guard the accuracy of the oral tradition, as evidenced by the fact that communities typically interrupt oral performances if they discern the narrator getting something wrong. Because of this historical interest and the community’s checks and balances, some experts in the field of oral traditions have gone so far as to argue that history preserved in orally dominated communities may actually be more reliable than history written down by modern, individual historians! (14)
Given the remarkable consistency of certain characteristics of oral traditions and oral performances across a wide variety of cultures, and given that most of these cultures have remained substantially unchanged for millennia, we are justified in applying these insights to our understanding of oral traditions in the early church. And this means we have every reason to suppose that the earliest Christian communities would have been invested in preserving the historical accuracy of their traditional material about Jesus, including the narrative framework of his ministry.
Oral Tradition, History and the Early Church
In fact, this much is clear from Paul’s own writings. For example, Paul’s letters reflect a deep concern with passing on established traditions (e.g., I Cor 11:2, 23; 15:1-3; Gal 1:9; Phil 4:9; Col 2:6-7; I Thess 4:1; II Thess 2:15; 3:6). Indeed, he places remarkable weight on these traditions, as Robert Stein notes when he writes,
“Such traditions were to be ‘held’ on to (I Cor. 15:1-2; 2 Thess. 2:15); life was to be lived ‘in accord’ with the tradition (2 Thess. 3:6; cf. Phil. 4:9), for the result of this would be salvation (I Cor. 15:1-2), whereas its rejection meant damnation (Gal 1:9). The reason for this view was that this tradition had God himself as its ultimate source (I Cor. 11:23).” (15)
This incredible emphasis on tradition explains why early Christianity stressed the importance of “teachers” (e.g., Acts 13:1; Rom 12:7; I Cor 12:28-29; Eph 4:11; Heb 5:12; James 3:1; Didache 15:1-2). In a predominately oral community such as the early church, the primary function of these teachers would have been to faithfully transmit the oral traditions. (16)
There are a host of other indications that the early church shared the typical concern of orally dominated communities in regards to accuracy in preserving oral traditions. For example, James Dunn notes the prevalent themes of “bearing witness” to Jesus (e.g., John 1:7-8, 15, 19, 32, 34; 3:26, 28; 5:32; Acts 1:8, 22; 2:32; 3:15; 5:32; 10:37-41; 13:31; 22:15, 18; 23:11; 26:16) and to “remembering” the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus within the early church (Lk 22:19; I Cor 11:2, 24-5; II Thess 2:5; II Tim 2:8, 14). This hardly suggests a community that had little interest in accurate history! (17) So too, it’s significant that both Paul and Luke (in the book of Acts) depict the “apostles” as providing links of continuity between the church and Jesus, with special emphasis being given to Peter, John, and James, the brother of Jesus. (e.g., Acts 1:15, 21-2; 2:14, 42; 3:1-11; 4:13, 19; 5:1-10, 15, 29; 8:14; 12:2; I Cor 15:1-8; Gal 2:9; Eph 2:20).
For all these reasons we conclude that, contrary to this third form-critical assumption, the early church from the beginning had a rather intense historical interest in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
The Crucial Role of Eye Witnesses
Finally, we must discuss the common assumption that oral traditions are primarily community, not individually, based. This assumption has fueled the classic form critical view that the Jesus story was largely originated and shaped to address on-going needs in the early Jesus movement. Related to this, it has fueled the view that individual eyewitnesses of Jesus’ life would have played little or no role in originating or regulating oral traditions about Jesus. Here too research into oral traditions and orally dominated communities exposes a classic form critical assumption to be mistaken.
Orality specialists now realize that, while the community plays a significant role in preserving the accuracy of an oral tradition, as we’ve seen, oral communities typically designate an individual tradent to be the bearer of the tradition and the primary one responsible for passing it on. Also, when an individual was an eyewitness to events that became part a community’s oral traditions, they are often designated the oral tradent of that tradition.
This new research sheds important light on our understanding of the oral Jesus-tradition. If the oral period of the early church functioned similarly to the way we now know oral communities tend to operate, we should expect that those individuals who were closest to Jesus during his ministry would have played a significant role in the transmission of oral material about Jesus. Yes, the traditional material was certainly shaped by the needs of the early faith communities, for, as we have seen, oral tradents always shape their performances according to the particular situation of their audience. But what this new discovery of the crucial role played by individual tradents entails is that we can no longer conceive of the traditional material about Jesus being transmitted in the early church apart from the strong influence of original eyewitnesses. And this renders it impossible to conceive of the oral traditions in the early church veering too far from the historical events observed by eyewitnesses.
The point is strongly reinforced when we recall that early Christianity was a thoroughly Jewish movement, for the Jewish tradition had always put a strong emphasis on the role of eyewitnesses. Only by appealing to credible eyewitnesses could one certify a claim as factual (e.g., Jer 32:10, 12; Ruth 4:9-11; Isaiah 8:2). So too, bearing false witness was considered a major crime. Indeed, it was outlawed in the ten commandments (Exodus 20:16). The law of multiple witnesses also reflects the life-or-death importance of this commandment in ancient Judaism. (Deut 17:6-7; Num 35:30).
This emphasis on the importance of eyewitnesses was quite explicitly carried over into the early church. The mosaic law regarding multiple witnesses was appealed to within the Jesus community (Mk 14:56, 59; Jn 5:31-32; Heb 10:28) and was made the basis of church discipline (Mt 18: 16; II Cor 13:1; I Tim 5:19). More broadly, the themes of bearing witness, giving a true testimony and making a true confession are everywhere present in the tradition of the early church (e.g., Mt 10:17; Mk 6:11; 13:9-13; Lk 1:1-2; 9:5; 21:12; 22:71; John 1:7-8, 15, 19, 32, 34;). (18) As Robert Stein observes, the sheer pervasiveness of these themes in the early church testifies to “the high regard in which eyewitness testimony was held.” (19) It also explains the earlier noted high regard given to certain individuals in the early church (e.g. Peter, James, John) for their role as witnesses, teachers and preservers of the Jesus tradition, (e.g., Acts 1:15, 21-2; 2:14, 42; 3:1-11; 4:13, 19; 5:1-10, 15, 29; 8:14; 12:2; I Cor 15:1-8; Gal 2:9; Eph 2:20). All of this is what we should expect, given that the early church was a thoroughly Jewish, orally dominated culture.
To summarize, it seems we have every reason to conclude that the oral traditions about Jesus in the early church were passed on in a generally reliable fashion. Notes taken during Jesus’ ministry would have constrained the extent to which these traditions could have evolved. But, even more significantly, everything we’re learning about oral traditions in orally dominated cultures suggests that the earliest Jesus communities would have cared about the historicity of their traditional material and would have been perfectly capable of preserving this historicity. And this, of course, is not good news for anyone who insists that the Gospels’ portrait of Christ is largely, if not entirely, legendary.
(1) Bowman, “Literacy in the Roman Empire,” 123-7; Horsfall, “Statistics or States of Mind?,” 59.
(2) See, for example, the discovery of inexpensive writing materials used by soldiers at Vindolanda. A. K. Bowman and J. D. Thomas, “Vindolanda 1985: The New Writing-tablets,” Journal of Roman Studies 76 (1986) 120-3; idem, “New Texts from Vindolanda,” Britannia 18 (1987) 125-42; and especially A. K. Bowman, Life and Letters on the Roman Frontier: Vindolanda and Its People (London: British Museum Press, 1994); Cf. Bowman, “Literacy in the Roman Empire,” 128.
(3) See, for example, Bowman, “Literacy in the Roman Empire,” 121-2; Hanson, “Ancient Illiteracy,” 164.; Alan Millard, “The Practice of Writing in Ancient Israel,” in Biblical Archaeologist 35 (1972) 98-111; idem, “An Assessment of the Evidence for Writing in Ancient Israel,” in Biblical Archeology Today: Proceedings of the International Congress on Biblical Archeology, Jerusalem, April 1984 (ed., Janet Amitai; Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1985) 301-12.
(4) Meier, A Marginal Jew, I:275.
(5) Birger Gerhardsson, “The Gospel Tradition,’ in The Interrelations of the Gospels (ed. David L. Dungan; Leuven: Peeters, 1990) 538.
(6) Honko, “Introduction: Oral and Semiliterary Epics,” in The Epic: Oral and Written (eds., L. Honko, J. Handoo, and J. M. Foley; Mysore, India: Central Institute of Indian Languages, 1998) 9.
(7) Honko himself has witnessed one oral narrative that took seven days to complete. Honko, Textualizing the Siri Epic, 15.
(8) See Honko, Textualizing the Siri Epic, 193-4. The broader narrative is sometimes referred to as “the mental text” of the community. Each particular oral performance, whether written out (as with the Gospels) or not, presupposes the whole narrative and expresses a part of the broader narrative.
(9) This is, to a much lesser degree, true even of the Gospel of John which differs markedly from the Synoptics.
(10) R. Dorson, “Introduction: Folklore and Traditional History,” in Folklore and Traditional History (ed., R. Dorson; The Hague, Paris: Mouton, 1973) 9.
(11) Patrick Pender-Cudlip, “Oral Traditions and Anthropological Analysis: Some Contemporary Myths,” Azania 7 (1972) 12; Miller, “Listening for the African Past,” 51.
(12) Miller, “Listening for the African Past,” 51, 52.
(13) See, for example, Annikki Kaivola-Bregenhoj, “Varying Folklore,” in Thick Corpus, Organic Variation and Textuality in Oral Tradition (ed., L. Honko; Helsinki: Finnish Literature Society, 2000) 101; and Ruth Finnegan, Oral Literature in Africa (reprint ed. Nairobi: Oxford University Press, 1979 ) 370.
(14) See, for example, J. Handoo, “People are Still Hungry for Kings,” 70.
(15) Stein, Synoptic Problem, 191.
(16) James D. J. Dunn, Christianity in the Making, vol. 1; Jesus Remembered (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003) 176.
(17) See Dunn, Jesus Remembered, 177-80.
(18) Cf. also Jn 3:26, 28; 5:32; Acts 1:8, 22; 2:32; 3:15; 5:32; 10:37-41; 13:31; 22:15, 18; 23:11; 26:16; Rom 1:9; I Cor 1:6; 15:6; II Cor 1:23; Phil 1:8; I Thess 2:5, 10; I Tim 6:12-3; II Tim 2:2; I Pet 5:1; II Pet 1:16; I Jn 5:6-11; Rev 1:5; 2:13; 3:14; 6:9; 11:3; 17:6