How Decades of Oral Tradition Produced the Gospels

(See the first in this series of posts traveling the tortuous journey from 21st-century Western culture back to the original story of Jesus here.)

Imagine that the year is 50 CE and you are a merchant in Judea or Galilee. A traveler stops at your house and asks for lodging, and you comply. After dinner, you chat with your new acquaintance and mention that you have recently become a follower of the Jewish messiah, Jesus. He is unaware of Jesus and asks to hear more, and you tell the complete gospel story, from the birth of Jesus through his ministry, miracles, death, and resurrection. Your guest is excited by the story and eager to pass it on. He asks that you tell it again.

Instead, you ask him to tell the story so that you can correct any errors. He goes through the story twice, with you making corrections and adding bits to the story that you’d forgotten in the first telling.

You’ve now spent the entire night telling the powerful story, but you and your new friend agree that it was time well spent. He is on his way, and a week later the events are repeated, but this time your friend plays host to a traveler and the Good News is passed on to a new convert.

Imagine how long you would need to summarize the gospel story and how many times you’d need to correct yourself with, “Oh wait a minute—there was one more thing that came before” or “No, not Capernaum … I think it was Caesarea.” That confusing tale would be a lot for an initiate to remember, and yet this imaginary encounter was about as good as it got for passing on so complex a story. Consider other less perfect scenarios—getting fragments of the story from different people over months or years, or having two believers arguing over details as they try to tell the story.

“And then Jesus healed the centurion’s slave—”

“Hold on—that’s when he healed the daughter of Jairus! Or Gyrus, or something. And it wasn’t the centurion’s slave, it was his son. Or maybe his servant, I forget.”

(And so on.)

Apologists acknowledge the problem of oral history when they argue that the earliest gospel(s) were written just 20 to 30 years after the resurrection instead historians’ typical estimate of 40 years, but this does little to resolve the problem.

Let’s then assume just twenty years of oral history in a pre-scientific culture produced a story about the Creator of the Universe coming to earth. What certainty can we have that such a whopper is correct?

Christians and atheists can agree that the period of oral history is a concern, but what is rarely acknowledged is the translation that happened at the same time.

To see this, first consider a different example. In response to the 1858 sightings of Mary at Lourdes, France by a 14-year-old girl named Bernadette, the local bishop investigated and concluded a year and a half later that the sightings were genuine. Bernadette and the bishop were from the same culture and spoke the same language.

The gospel story had a much more harrowing journey. Jesus and his disciples spoke Aramaic and came from a Jewish culture, but this isn’t where the gospel came from. Every book in the New Testament was written in Greek and came from a Greek culture. The story would have been heard in and (to some extent) adapted to a Greek context.

For example, imagine a gospel without the water-into-wine story. “Wait a minute,” the Greek listener might say. “The Oenotropae could change water into wine. If Jesus was god, couldn’t he do that as well?”

Or imagine a gospel without the healing miracles. “Asclepius was generous with his healing gifts and even raised the dead. Didn’t Jesus do anything like that?”

Or a gospel without the resurrection. “Dionysus was killed and then was reborn. You mean Jesus just died, and that was it?”

Humans have a long history of adapting gods to their own culture—for example, the Greek god Heracles became Hercules when he was adopted by the Romans. Athena became Minerva, Poseidon became Neptune, Aphrodite became Venus, and Zeus became Jupiter. Or, a culture might adopt a story or idea from a neighboring community, as Jewish history adopted the Mesopotamian flood story Gilgamesh and the Sumerian water model of the cosmos.

We know how stories evolve in our own time.  As Richard Carrier notes (video @ 26:00), the evolution of the Jesus story is like the evolution of the Roswell UFO Incident.  A guy finds some sticks and Mylar in the desert, and this was interpreted as debris from a crashed spaceship.  But within 30 years, the story had morphed into: a spaceship crashed in the desert, and the military autopsied the dead aliens and is reverse-engineering the advanced technology.

Let’s return to your telling the story to the new convert. How close was your version of the story to that in the New Testament? And how similar would the new guy’s telling of the story be to the one that you told him?

How much variation is added with each retelling?

The gospel story was an oral tradition for four decades or more before finally being written down. That’s a lot of time for the story to evolve.

Christians may respond that by relying on writing, our memory skills have atrophied. In an oral culture like that in first-century Palestine, people became very good at memorization.

Yes, it’s possible that people memorized the Jesus story so that they could retell it the same as it was taught to them, but there is no reason to imagine that this was how it was passed along. Indeed, it’s wrong to assume that storytellers in an oral culture always wanted to repeat a story with perfect accuracy. We care about perfect accuracy because we come from a literate culture. Only because we have the standard of the written word do we assume that other cultures would want to approximate this unvarying message.

The theory of oral-formulaic composition argues instead that tales are often changed with the retelling to adapt to the audience or to imperfect memory. Any transcription of such a tale (like a single version of the Iliad) would simply be a snapshot of a single telling, and you would deceive yourself if you imagined that this gives an accurate record of the story. This is seen in modern-day oral epic poetry in the Balkans and is guessed to be the structure of Homeric epic storytelling as well.

But this is a tangent. The gospel story wasn’t an epic poem, but rather a story passed from person to person. It changed with time, just like any story does.

The gossip fence is a better analog than Homer.

Read the first post in this series: What Did the Original Books of the Bible Say?

When a person is determined to believe something,
the very absurdity of the doctrine confirms them in their faith.
— Letters of Junius 12/19/1769

Photo credit: Wikimedia

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8 thoughts on “How Decades of Oral Tradition Produced the Gospels

  1. Your wishful thinking version starts with a key word—”Imagine.” That is what you are doing. Where is the scientific evidence you so strongly demand of anyone else?

    Let me ask you to consider (not imagine) this instead. Think back to a traumatic event in your life. One that happened at least 20 years ago. As you tell your children about where you were when one of these happened… JFK assassination, Shuttle Challenger explosion, 9/11 (less than 20 years ago but think forward on that 10 years)… do you think that you, as the eyewitness, are incapable of recalling where you were and what you were doing, as well as recalling the basic details—accurately?

    We are not talking about centuries or even decades of oral tradition. We are talking about adult eyewitnesses to the most momentous events of their lives recalling them and writing them down within 20-30 years of the events themselves. Your wistful narrative above does nothing to diminish that. And your own ability to clearly recall events in your own life—things that happened decades ago—corroborates that such ability and accurate recall is more likely than the completely made-up-out-of-whole-cloth version you hope happened 2,000 years ago.

    The burden of proof is on you to demonstrate what evidence supports your view, as opposed to the prevailing view that eyewitnesses recorded the facts. We have a long history of documentary evidence and oral tradition alike stating this is the case. Why should that be overturned simply because you supposedly enlightened ones of the atheist movement demand that it be done?

    • Where is the scientific evidence you so strongly demand of anyone else?

      I’m sketching out a hypothetical situation. If that’s somehow out of bounds or offensive or whatever, show me. I don’t get it.

      do you think that you, as the eyewitness, are incapable of recalling where you were and what you were doing, as well as recalling the basic details—accurately?

      I think that I have no warrant for declaring my recollections accurate. Of course, I think they’re accurate, but this is obviously something else. Accuracy of memory and intensity of memory are two very different things.

      I have an upcoming post that will discuss this in detail, so let’s hold off on this one.

      We are talking about adult eyewitnesses to the most momentous events of their lives recalling them and writing them down within 20-30 years of the events themselves.

      That’s one explanation. But let’s not view the story with the presupposition that it’s actual history.

      Another explanation is that oral transmission modified the story dramatically, and then the (non-eyewitness) authors of the gospels wrote it down. They might well have believed every word (or perhaps not), but in this scenario they didn’t personally recall anything but simply documented their local church tradition.

      The natural explanation is far more plausible than the supernatural one.

      And here you’ve played up the conventional argument (the gospel story is history) without showing why my alternate natural explanation is insufficient.

      And your own ability to clearly recall events in your own life…

      Maybe I can and maybe I can’t. Human memory is quite fallible and deceptive.

      … corroborates that such ability and accurate recall is more likely than the completely made-up-out-of-whole-cloth version you hope happened 2,000 years ago.

      No one is talking about a made-up story.

      The burden of proof is on you to demonstrate what evidence supports your view…

      I’m not sure what you’re asking. I think it’s this: the gospels themselves are evidence of the resurrection. You may not like it, but you gotta admit that it’s something. That’s on one side of the balance. What do you have to put in the other side? That is, what first-century evidence do you have (letters, say) that argues against the resurrection??

      My answer: I have no first-century writings directly rebutting the resurrection story. (But I think we’ve been over this before.)

      Is this your question? If not, please clarify.

      … as opposed to the prevailing view that eyewitnesses recorded the facts.

      My previous post discussed the eyewitness issue in detail.

      Why should that be overturned simply because you supposedly enlightened ones of the atheist movement demand that it be done?

      If “I demand that you reject the historical claims of the Bible!” is as deep as you think my argument goes, either you haven’t read it or I’ve done a terrible job in explaining it.

  2. Bob,
    Rick T is right to point out the difference between “decades of oral tradition” and “decades-old recollections by adult witnesses”

    Your previous post cast doubts on the authorial attribution of the gospels. To move away from that, how about you take the 1 Corinthians 15 creed and apply that. 1 Corinthians is generally accepted as a genuine writing of Paul, even by those who dispute the authorship of most other NT writings. The dating of the letter is also well established as being in the 50s which places it about 20 years after Jesus’ crucifixion.

    The use of the Aramaic Cephas as opposed to the Greek Peter in this passage is a strong indicator that this phrasing is one that already existed before the expansion of the church into Greek areas, which would make it very early indeed.

    One other thing that is true of a creed is that it is made for easy memorization and recitation. Nursery rhymes haven’t changed a lot over hundreds of years, and there is evidence of this in the phrasing that they use (eg “four and twenty blackbirds”), and this is despite their being almost exclusively passed on orally.

    There is also good reason to believe that people of those days had much more reliable oral memories than we do. As an example – can you remember the phone numbers of your five best friends? Probably not. But I bet you could in high school. The fact is that being able to program phone numbers into our phones has rendered remembering stacks of phone numbers pointless. A similar thing happened with the growth of literacy (or more specifically the reduction of cost of writing materials) – as people could afford to write down to remember, they came to need to exercise their powers of memory less. It is an error to assume that those in the first century had memories as sloppy as ours. When you add in that much teaching was designed to be orally memorable, the idea that a story could mutate by as much as you say in just twenty years becomes fanciful, if not untenable.

    • Rick T is right to point out the difference between “decades of oral tradition” and “decades-old recollections by adult witnesses”

      I see the difference. I hope you also see the difference that I pointed out between accurate memory and intense memory.

      I grant you that the gospels could be recollections of witnesses. But (1) there are many reasons to imagine that they’re not and (2) the ball is in your court to show that this is the only option. Your saying, “Well, the gospel stories could be accurate recollections” does very little to shore up the immense supernatural claims in the NT.

      1 Corinthians is generally accepted as a genuine writing of Paul

      Yes.

      One other thing that is true of a creed is that it is made for easy memorization and recitation

      Here again you’re providing evidence that the creed could be early, not that this interpretation is the only one possible.

      Here’s another interpretation: since the creed looks a little odd, like there’s a break in the flow, it could’ve been added by a redactor decades later than Paul’s autograph.

      Nursery rhymes haven’t changed a lot over hundreds of years, and there is evidence of this in the phrasing that they use (eg “four and twenty blackbirds”), and this is despite their being almost exclusively passed on orally.

      An interesting point. But this claim has to come from a period after they were written down (otherwise, how would we have an early form to go back to?). Perhaps this written form helped avoid drift.

      And, like Rick, you haven’t directly confronted the arguments I made in the post. Do you accept them?

      There is also good reason to believe that people of those days had much more reliable oral memories than we do.

      And I directly confronted this claim in the post.

      When you add in that much teaching was designed to be orally memorable, the idea that a story could mutate by as much as you say in just twenty years becomes fanciful, if not untenable.

      (1) Why imagine that the gospel story was “taught” in this way? Show me why the example that I imagine in the opening part of the post wouldn’t happen (or would be a negligible kind of way to spreading the gospel).

      (2) Stories mutate in a day! Have you never read an article in the paper about something that happened the day before and concluded (because of extra information that you possessed) that it was wrong? Again, the burden is on you to not show that our gospel story could be an accurate summary of the facts (which I’ll grant you!) but that it couldn’t be anything else.

      And it’s 40 years, not 20.

      • And it’s 40 years, not 20.

        From c AD30 to c AD50 is closer to 20 years than 40 in my book.

        I suggest you read Jesus and the Eyewitnesses by Richard Bauckham. It goes into this and other arguments in much more detail.

        It is acknowledged as some of the best research and analysis on this topic. You are really selling yourself short arguing on these topics without at least a familiarity with the claims of this book.

        • From c AD30 to c AD50 is closer to 20 years than 40 in my book.

          Mine too. And 30 to 70 CE (which I think is the consensus date for Mark) is closer to 40 years.

          Thanks for the book suggestion. No, I haven’t read it. Can you give a quick summary of those arguments that respond to what I’ve written? Or anything else relevant? (If convenient …)

  3. “how about you take the 1 Corinthians 15 creed and apply that. 1 Corinthians is generally accepted as a genuine writing of Paul,”

    1. Paul’s list of appearances at 1 Corinthians 15 doesn’t match any of the gospel accounts.
    2. To Paul, the so-called “Pillars of the Church”, Peter, John and James, are
    nobodies, his personal enemies, and they have nothing to add to Paul’s understanding of the Gospel (Gal. 2:2-6). Why treat the eye-witnesses like that?
    3. Paul doesn’t give any details about these Jesus sightings, including
    his own – he never tells us he was divinely waylaid by Jesus on the road to Damascus; only that through scripture and revelation he “saw” the Lord. And since he describes all these other appearances the same way, perhaps “appearance” is too strong a word for any of these cases.
    Did Cephas, James and the rest simply see the Lord exactly the way Paul did, with the eyes of faith?

    Source: http://www.nazarethmyth.info/Fitzgerald2010HM.pdf

    avalon

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