Could the Gospel Message have been Accurately Transmitted Orally?

Pastor and theologian Rainer Riesner concludes in his doctoral dissertation Jesus as a Teacher the disciples could have received Jesus’s teachings orally, and passed those lessons on to others without corrupting the message.1

  1. Jesus spoke with authority to command respect and concern to safeguard his teachings.
  2. Jesus’s claim to be the Messiah would help convey the importance of his teachings to his followers.
  3. Many of Jesus’s sayings are in forms that would have made them memorable to his followers, using phrases, stories, traditions and events they would have been familiar with.
  4. Jesus sent his followers to other places to tell people about him (Luke 10:2-17), so he probably taught them what they should say.
  5. Jewish boys were educated until they were at least twelve years old.
  6. Most teachers in the Graeco-Roman world had disciples to pass on their teachings, and there’s no reason to think Jesus would have used different teaching techniques than were typically used in first century Judea.2

With written languages, there can be a single document by which all copies are judged. For example, the original United States Constitution is kept at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and the exact wording has been republished many times since it was written. If someone were to try changing the wording of the Constitution, it could be easily detected by comparing the suspected document with a copy, or even the original.

In oral traditions, there is no single, authoritative form. The precise wording may change, while keeping the content of the information consistent. The disciples likely heard Jesus speaking about the same topics frequently, and knew the content very well. Much of what happened in the Gospels was probably heard, repeated and taught to the disciples many times, each time reinforcing their ability to teach it to others. In regards to educating boys the first-Century Judah, “…at 5 years old, Jewish boys could begin instruction in Scripture, at 10 the Mishnah, at 13 the commandments, and at 15 the Talmud. Such an education would train the student not only in basic subjects such as reading, but also in the Scriptures and the tradition of interpretation.”3

New Testament professor Craig S. Keener writes,

In the circles of trained storytellers and sages, memories may preserve information accurately from one generation to the next. Indeed, oral traditioning might invite less redaction than written sources would. Folklorists have shown that some communities transmit traditions faithfully, with minimal modifications; storytellers create and vary within the constraints of community tradition. Some suggest that writers were far more likely to introduce substantial changes.4

The early church made memorizing scripture a high priority, because written scripture were rare and valuable. An ancient Coptic church in Egypt in the third or fourth century required deacons to memorize the book of John and recite it to the church.5 The pastor of the church at Oxyrhynchus required deacons to memorize 25 Psalms, two epistles by Paul and a portion of a gospel.6 There is no reason to think the early Christians couldn’t, or wouldn’t, memorize the message of Jesus before the four Gospels were written.

By the time of Jesus’ crucifixion, there were thousands who heard him speak (John6:1‭-‬14 ESV), undoubtedly including people who didn’t believe he was the Messiah. After the resurrection, Jesus was seen by hundreds of people (1Corinthians 15:3‭-‬6 ESV). After Jesus ascended into heaven, many people would have been available to correct the disciples if they had started teaching heresy. These hundreds, or thousands, of eyewitnesses would have talked to their families, friends and neighbors about the Good News. The message of salvation spread quickly after Jesus’ resurrection, and any false teaching would have been swiftly corrected, long before the Gospels were written. The Apostle Paul wrote,

  • So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter. (2 Thessalonians 2:15 ESV)
  • and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also. (2 Timothy 2:2 ESV)

Resources

  • Barry, John D. Lexham Bible Dictionary (Lexham Press, 2016) Jewish Education. (Logos)
  • Blomberg, Craig L. The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, Second Edition. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007) (Amazon)
  • Hellerman, Joe. Defending the Gospel Accounts of Jesus (Biola University) (Audio CD, accessed 03-Nov-2018)
  • Kunkle, Brett. What We Have Is What Was Written. (Stand to Reason, March 5, 2013) (Blog, accessed 05-Oct-2018)

Footnotes

  1. Blomberg, Craig L. The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, Second Edition (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007) 56-57. (Amazon)
  2. Blomberg, Craig L. The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, Second Edition (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007) 56-57. (Amazon)
  3. Barry, John D. Lexham Bible Dictionary (Lexham Press, 2016) Jewish Education. (Logos)
  4. Keener, Craig S. The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003) 54-55. Quoted in: McDowell, Josh and Sean McDowell. Evidence That Demands a Verdict: Life-Changing Truth for a Skeptical World (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2017) 119. (Amazon)
  5. Hellerman, Joe. Defending the Gospel Accounts of Jesus (Biola University) Disc 1, Track 13, 0:09.(Audio CD, accessed 03-Nov-2018)
  6. Hellerman, Joe. Defending the Gospel Accounts of Jesus (Biola University) Disc 1, Track 13, 1:13. (Audio CD, accessed 03-Nov-2018)

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  1. […] The years passed, and the people who knew Jesus were dying or being killed.10 Finally, some people decided to write down the life and ministry of Jesus. The Gospels were written years, possibly decades, after Jesus ascended into heaven. Could the  Apostles accurately write about Jesus’s life and ministry so long after he left? The Jewish people placed a strong emphasis on memorization and oral teaching, and the apostles certainly had much experience talking about the Gospel of Jesus Christ. (See Could the Gospel Message have been Accurately Transmitted Orally?) […]

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