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Gospel “Contradictions” and Orality Studies

* This essay has been adopted from G. Boyd and Paul Eddy, Lord or Legend? (Baker, 2007).

One of the standard tests historians put to ancient documents to assess their veracity is self-consistency. Generally speaking, fabricated accounts tend to include more inconsistencies than truthful accounts. Hence, the absence of inner contradictions contributes to a positive estimation of the document’s historical veracity. In the case of the four Gospels, we must ask this question not only in relation to each individual Gospel but, perhaps even more significantly, of the Gospels’ relationship with one another, for they each purport to tell essentially the same story.

Now, it is frequently alleged that, as a matter of fact, the Gospels contain contradictions within themselves and with one another. It is not my goal in this essay to address these particular allegations. This has already been carried out by a number of very capable scholars (1). My goal in this essay is more general. What I’ll rather attempt to do is demonstrate that the apparent contradictions within and between the Gospels becomes inconsequential to our assessment of their veracity once they are understood as written versions of oral recitations of an oral tradition and thus interpreted within what’s called an “oral register” (against the background of an oral culture). To the contrary, the level of variation in and between the Gospels is precisely what we should expect given that these works are intended to be oral recitations of an oral tradition. (I want to acknowledge that I am immensely indebted to my good friend Paul Eddy whose incredible research uncovered what I’m about to share regarding oral traditions. For a full account of this research, see Eddy, Boyd The Jesus Legend (Baker, 2007).

The Discrepancies Within and Between the Gospels. No informed person denies that there are apparent contradictions within and between the four Gospels. These apparent conflicts can be grouped into four general categories:

1) Instances of apparently mutually exclusive reports. For example, did Jesus tell his disciples to take a staff and sandals as Mark reports (Mk 6:8-9), or not to take them, as Matthew reports (Matt 10:9-10)?

2) Instances within a Gospel where it appears that one historical event has been recorded as two separate events. (These are called ‘doublets”). Perhaps the most famous example of this is the two differing accounts of Jesus supernaturally feeding the multitudes (e.g. Mark 6:33-44 and 8:1-9). Many critical scholars argue these two stories are actually two varying accounts of the same story.

3) Unexplainable omissions or additions within parallel passages. For example, Mark and Luke record Jesus giving an unqualified prohibition against divorce (Mark’s [10:11-12; Luke 16:18) while Matthew adds an exception clause ( Matthew’s 5:32; 19:9).

4) Chronological conflicts. For example, the episode of Jesus cursing the fig-tree and teaching his disciples it’s lesson occurs over two-days in Mark (Mk 11:12-14, 20-25) while Matthew collapses this into one instantaneous event (Mt 21:18-22).

The question is, do conflicts such as these constitute “contradictions” that should undermine our assessment of the historical veracity of these works or can most of these sorts of conflicts be plausibly shown to merely apparent? In other words, can these apparent contradictions be harmonized? While I will not here attempt such harmonizations, as I said above, I offer five broad considerations that I believe render an affirmative answer to these questions more likely than not.

A Change in Attitude. First, it’s important to note that none of these apparent conflicts have been discovered recently. To the contrary, thinkers have known about since the second century and have offered ways of resolving them (2). Clearly, therefore, the insistence on the part of many contemporary New Testament critics, including all legendary-Jesus theorists, that these conflicts are irresolvable and thus undermine the historical trustworthiness of the Gospels is not rooted in any newly discovered facts. Nor is it rooted in any new evidence demonstrating that the proposed ways of harmonizing these conflicts are all implausible. Rather, this insistence is rooted in a relatively new attitude many scholars bring to the data.

More specifically, proposed ways of reconciling conflicts within and between the Gospels have become implausible to many contemporary scholars not necessarily because they are inherently so, but because the naturalistic worldview that has been embraced by these modern scholars renders them so. That is, because the Gospels contain miracles, which the naturalistic worldview disallows, these scholars bring to these works a skeptical attitude that renders attempts to resolve their apparent contradictions superfluous.

To come at this from a slightly different direction, one only attempts to resolve contradictions within and between documents if they believe it’s at least possible the works in question are generally trustworthy. If one rather has already concluded that a set of documents are not generally trustworthy, then the appearance of contradictions simply confirms what one assumes they already knew: namely, that the documents in question are not reliable. Indeed, in the case of the Gospels, many critics assume that attempts to reconcile apparent conflicts is always theologically motivated (viz. trying to defend a conception of biblical inspiration), and thus cannot be judged as representing good, historical-critical scholarship.

The prejudicial nature of this skeptical stance is shown in the fact that, from a strictly historiographical perspective, the apparent conflicts between the Gospels is completely normal. Rarely in history do we find multiple witnesses to an event that do not contain apparent contradictions. As Gilbert Garraghan explains in his Guide to Historical Method, “almost any critical history that discusses the evidence for important statements will furnish examples of discrepant or contradictory accounts and the attempts which are made to reconcile them (3).

From discrepant reports of Alexander the Great by Arrian and Plutarch to the differing accounts of Hannibal crossing the Alps by Livy and Polybius all the way up to conflicts between reports found every week in our various news magazines, discrepancies are the norm – which means attempts at harmonization accounts must be the rule as we try to discern “what actually happened.” Because of this, the standard historiographical assumption is that conflicting data that is purportedly historical deserves to be read as sympathetically as possible, with attempts to harmonize the conflicting data carried out before one dismisses the data as unreliable on the basis of these apparent conflicts. The only apparent reason legendary-Jesus theorist don’t extend this same courtesy to the Gospels is because they have already decided – for metaphysical, not historiographical, reasons – that the Gospels aren’t trustworthy. And this, I argue, is prejudicial.

The Fragmentary Nature of Oral Recitations. Second, it’s vital we remember that the Gospels were written in the context of an orally dominated culture in which written played a minor role. In contexts like this, traditions are passed on orally typically through the medium of an oral performer reciting some aspect of the oral tradition before a community of listeners. The Gospels must be understood as written versions of an oral recitation.

Now, if searching for ways of harmonizing apparently conflicting accounts is generally warranted when trying to discern “what actually happened,” it is all the more so when one is dealing with apparent conflicts between written oral recitations, such as the Gospels. Recent orality studies have demonstrated that oral recitations, whether written or not, always presuppose a much broader tradition that is well-known to the listening audience. This broader tradition forms what has been called the “mental text” of the community, and it forms the assumed context within which all shared episodes of the oral tradition, written or performed, make sense.

For this reason, oral performances, whether written out or not, employ a good deal of “metonymy,” which is “a mode of signification wherein a part stands for the whole” (4). Hence, most of what is intended to be communicated by tradents (oral performers) within the community is not explicitly stated in any given oral or written performance. They typically “[record] the relevant facts very partially… relying on a background of memory and witnesses” (5). And in light of these considerations we must conclude we will always misunderstand works written with an oral register if we treat them as if they were modern, autonomous, self-sufficient works.

Rosalind Thomas makes this point well when he notes that ancient documents “presuppose knowledge which is simply remembered and not written down.” Far from being autonomous works, as texts with literate registers tend to be, ancient works “cannot perform their task without backing from non-written communication.” Hence, she concludes,

It becomes difficult to separate oral and written modes in any meaningful sense except in the most basic one (i.e., what was written down and what was not). It is surely only our modern confidence in and obsession with the written text which see documents as entirely self-sufficient” (6).

The implications of these observations are significant when it comes to assessing the apparent conflicts within and between the Gospels. It means that to treat these works responsibly we have to try to imagine the broader tradition the audience and author shared and within which the individual, fragmentary, elliptical accounts were originally understood. And this means we have to try to imagine a broader oral context within which the apparent conflicts between accounts can be harmonized. In this light, we must conclude that the refusal of skeptical scholars to acknowledge the legitimacy of attempting to harmonize the Gospel accounts is not only prejudicial; it is fundamentally opposed to the very nature of the Gospel texts themselves.

These observations of course don’t imply that we can simply assume that if we had access to the broader oral tradition of the early Christians all apparent conflicts would be resolved. From a strictly historiographical perspective, we have to concede that it’s possible that various traditions gradually modified their contents in the course of transmission in ways that simply contradict other traditions, even by ancient oral standards. But it does imply that modern scholars shouldn’t assume that what appears to us to be a contradiction wouldn’t be reconciled if we had access to the broader oral traditions the written Gospels draw on and feed back into. And, therefore, it implies we shouldn’t dismiss plausible proposals as to how apparent conflicts might be harmonized by appealing to the broader, presupposed, oral tradition shared by the Gospel’s original audience. To the contrary, as we’ve said, to read the Gospels non-anachronistically, we have to try to imagine this broader shared background.

On Remembering Things, Not Words. Third, orality studies have consistently demonstrated that focus of memory in oral traditions is generally on things, not words. As we’ve said, oral performers are typically given significant leeway in how they retell a story, so long as they convey the essence of the story accurately. This means that we can expect to find the essential voice of Jesus in the early Church’s oral tradition, but we cannot suppose early Christians would have been invested in preserving the exact words of Jesus. It also suggests that we are completely missing the mark if we suppose there to be any genuine conflict between the different ways the Gospels record Jesus’ teachings and/or the events of Jesus life. Modern, literate minded people might find a contradiction between one Gospel author recording Jesus telling his disciples to wear sandals (Mk 6:9) while the others have him forbidding them (Mt 10: 10; Lk 10:4), but its very unlikely any ancient person would have been concerned in the least with such a variance in detail. For the essential point of Jesus’ teaching is the same in all three accounts – namely, the disciples were to trust God for their provisions while doing missionary work (7)

Schematic Wholes Over Discrete Facts. Fourth, and closely related to this, we now know that oral traditions typically place far more emphasis on schematic wholes than on details. (8) Rudolf Bultmann and most other early form critics assumed that oral traditions could only pass on small units of tradition, not extended narratives. But they had it exactly wrong. Generally speaking, explicit and implicit extended narratives functioning as integrated schematic complexes are precisely the sorts of things that are viewed as most essential to oral traditions. What is not so essential is the precise way events are ordered and remembered in any given oral performance.

A. Sowayan’s insightful study of Arabic historical narrative in the oral mode is instructive at this point. Sowayan demonstrated that orally transmitted narratives are designed as suwalif – meaning, literally, “ to have happened in the past.” In sharp contrast to the widespread assumption of western scholars in the past that oral traditions tend to lack genuine historical interest, Sowayan has shown that the traditional narratives he studied were centered on “historical events and biographical or social circumstances connected with the immediate, or remote, past” (9). Yet, he has also demonstrated that the order in which events are presented in any given oral performance has more to do with the “process of remembering” on the part of the performer than it does with the order in which events actually took place. “[A]s one remembers” he says, , “one narrates” (10). “Once the narrative begins,” he adds, “it can be developed in any of several possible directions, depending upon the performance context” (11).

Sowayan fleshes out the nature of these historical, oral recitations when he continues;

…a long narrative is a cluster of smaller narratives which are imbedded and interlinked with each other. The swarming of the various narratives to the narrator’s mind as he starts, and the disentanglement of the various episodes as they come in the way of one another and crowd in [into?] his breast . . . can be likened to the flocking of thirsty camels to the drinking-trough . . . . At times, stories come in the way of one another and the narrator may find himself compelled to suspend an ongoing story in the middle to tell a different one . . . . This is because narratives are plentiful and interconnected (12).

Numerous orality studies have found a similar pattern in a wide variety of cultural settings (13). Unless they are familiar with it, this sort of non-linear, creative flexibility in how material is presented may strike literary minded people as involving historical inaccuracies and contradictions. But, as a matter of fact, such a conclusion would merely evidence how thoroughly these modern people had misunderstood the nature of oral performances in orally-dominated cultures.

It is no accident that the Gospels each exhibit this interesting balance between essential fixity and creative flexibility. As oral tradents, the Gospel authors freely rearrange events and sayings. They sometimes seem to collate and/or divide up events (as we earlier noted Matthew doing with Mark’s version of the fig-tree cursing). At times they seem to intentionally do this for topical reasons. But, for all we know, at other times they may do so simply because this is how the material presented itself to them as they were composing their oral recitation. In any event, by the standards of orally dominated cultures, the fact that the way events and sayings are ordered is markedly different in each Gospel does not constitute a contradiction by the stands appropriate to oral traditions and does not in the least compromise the genuineness of the historical interest or capabilities of the Gospel authors. To think otherwise, as many legendary-Jesus theorists do, is to think anachronistically.
Jesus as an Itinerant Preacher. A fifth and final implication of orality studies for our understanding of apparent conflicts within and between the Gospels centers on the itinerate ministry of Jesus himself. Because the modern critical study of the Gospels has been driven by a literary paradigm, insufficient attention has been paid to the realities and constraints that would have characterized Jesus’ traveling ministry an orally dominated culture (14). Only recently have a few modern scholars begun to seriously work through the implications of the fact that Jesus’ ministry would have of necessity been characterized by multiple oral performances of the same – or at least very similar – material.

Werner Kelber hits the mark when he notes that “…reiteration and variation of words and stories must be assumed for Jesus’ own proclamation. Multiple, variable renditions, while observable in tradition, are highly plausible in Jesus own oral performance” (15). N.T. Wright notes the “enormous implications… this [observation] has for synoptic criticism” when he argues that “[w]ithin the peasant oral culture of his day, Jesus must have left behind him, not one or two isolated traditions, but a veritable mare’s nest of anecdotes, and also of sentences, aphorisms, rhythmic sayings, memorable stories with local variations, [etc.]” (16).

This implies that, in all likelihood, many of the variations of Jesus’ teachings found in the Gospels – variations that modern literate minded scholars tend to explain by appealing to the different redactional purposes of each individual author — are probably better explained simply as oral variations performed by Jesus himself (17). This also likely explains the “doublets” found in the Gospels. An itinerate preacher like Jesus would have said and done very similar things in different locations at different times. To reject such an explanation, as many skeptical scholars do, is to “simply have no historical imagination for what an itinerant ministry, within a peasant culture, would look like” (18).
To conclude, it is clear that by the standards of a literary paradigm, the Gospels indeed contain “contradictions.” What we have been arguing, however, is that evaluating them by these modern standards is anachronistic. Judged by the conventions and constraints of their own orally-dominated cultural context and read sympathetically with an imaginative appreciation for the broad oral tradition they were written to express and feed back into, the Gospels are shown to exhibit the sort of broad internal consistency that suggests that the authors both intended to faithfulyl record the essential aspects of Jesus’ life and that they were successful at doing so.


(1) See, for example, C. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1987) 113-52; S. L. Bridge, Getting the Gospels: Understanding the New Testament Accounts of Jesus’ Life (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2004); and R. H. Stein, Interpreting Puzzling Texts in the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996) parts I – II.

(2) See R. M. Grant, The Earliest Lives of Jesus (New York: Harper, 1961).

(3) G. Garraghan, A Guide to Historical Method (New York: Fordham, 1946) 314. See also J. Topolski, Methodology of History (Warsaw: PWN – Polish Scientific Publishers, 1976) 471-3.

(4) J. M. Foley, Immanent Art: From Structure to Meaning in Traditional Oral Epic (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1991) 7.

(5) R. Thomas, Literacy and Orality, in Ancient Greece (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992) 76-7.

(6) Ancient documents “presuppose knowledge which is simply remembered and not written down.” Far from being autonomous works, as texts with literate registers tend to be, ancient works “cannot perform their task without backing from non-written communication.” Hence, she concludes, “ It becomes difficult to separate oral and written modes in any meaningful sense except in the most basic one (i.e., what was written down and what was not). It is surely only our modern confidence in and obsession with the written text which see documents as entirely self-sufficient.” Thomas, Literacy and Orality, 76.

(7) A point Augustine recognized in his harmony long ago; see Stein, Interpreting Puzzling Texts, 26-8.

(8) For a clear explication of this phenomenon drawn from contemporary Malay culture see A. Sweeney, A Full Hearing: Orality and Literacy in the Malay World (Berkeley; University of California Pressm 1987), esp. 8-12, 272, 297-8, 305.

(9) S. A. Sowayan, The Arabian Oral Historical Narrative: An Ethnographic and Linguistic Analysis (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1992) 19.

(10) Ibid., 22.

(11) Op. cit.

(12) Ibid., 23.

(13) See, for example, Robin Law’s study within the Yoruba. “How Truly Traditional is Our Traditional History? The Case of Samuel Johnson and the Recording of Yoruba Oral Tradition.” History in Africa 11 (1984) 198.

(14) A point forcefully made by Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress) 170-1.

(15) Kelber, “Jesus and Tradition: Words in Time, Words in Space,” Semeia 65 (1994), 146.

(16) Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 170.

(17) Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 170, see also 632-3.

(18) Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 171.

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