Did AD 30-70 churches orally teach and pass down Jesus-biography in an adeptly preservation-oriented way?

  • Our question

    A man with a had stands in the foreground looking on as two men on motorcycles are leaving with packages that have Jesus face on it

    While many eyewitnesses were still alive an active (e.g. Ad 30-80), were the various Christian groups orally rehearsing, teaching, and sharing the stories of Jesus’s life, ministry, death, and resurrection and a way that would inspire confidence in us that the stories were passed down faithfully? Rather than being passed down like information in the children’s “telephone” game, did Christians exercise a kind of care in relaying and preserving Jesus-stories which would result in their being faithfully presented abroad even several decades after they were first circulating?

  • What historians are saying

    • Richard Swinburne: “I made the point earlier that the other Gospel writers belonged to churches founded and visited by representatives of more central churches, themselves founded or authorized indirectly by the apostles. They were founded and reinvigorated by a stream of oral tradition. Gospels were written to flesh out the tradition, and to ensure that, with the course of time, it did not get misreported. But they were not the primary vehicles of its transmission in the first fifty years. No one founded a church as a result of having bought a copy of St Mark’s Gospel from the local bookstore and being impressed by its message!” [The Resurrection of God Incarnate (Clarendon, 2003), 80-81.]
    • Michael Bird: “[t]he tradition is ultimately a memory and that memory is transmitted and transformed by a mnemonic process of both individuals and groups. Such a model also enables us to unify the elements of bias and biography, to uncover a memory that is reliable but also refracted. Aided by eyewitnesses, teachers, a discernible process of handing-on and receiving traditions, and a rich mix of oral mnemonics and textual aide-mémoire, the early church remembered Jesus, recounting him as a Judean sage as much as a divine Savior.” [The Gospel of the Lord (Eerdmans, 2014), 61.]

    Ehrman's “Form Critical” model says it like the children’s telephone game

    • Bart Ehrman: “Anyone who converted to become a follower of Jesus could and did tell the stories. A convert would tell his wife; if she converted, she would tell her neighbor; if she converted, she would tell her husband; if he converted, he would tell his business partner; if he converted, he would take a business trip to another city and tell his business associate; if he converted, he would tell his wife; if she converted, she would tell her neighbor . . . and on and on . . . Who, then, was telling the stories about Jesus? Just the apostles? It can’t have been just the apostles. Eventually, an author heard the stories in his church — say it was “Mark” in the city of Rome. And he wrote his account.” [How Jesus Became God (HarperOne, 2014) 91-92.]
    • Bart Ehrman: “[Their info was] fifth- or sixth- or nineteenth-hand,” [Jesus, Interrupted (HarperCollins, 2010), 146-47.]

    But scholars have roundly rejected that analogy

    • Anthony Le Donne: “It must be said that this [telephone game] is not a controlled exercise in orality. It is an exercise in variation without stability. The vast majority of human civilizations operated with largely illiterate cultures. Are we to imagine that all these civilizations were the equivalent of giggling children? That the golden ages of Egypt, Rome, Britain, the Maya, etcetera had no confidence in the stability of social communication? No. Oral cultures have been capable of tremendous competence. The human mind can remember vast amounts of information with great accuracy when it remains active and fluid. The oral culture in which Jesus was reared trained their brightest children to remember entire libraries of story, law, poetry, song, etcetera.” [Historical Jesus: What Can We Know and How Can We Know It? (Eerdmans, 2011), 70.]
    • Craig Blomberg: “Thus when Bart Ehrman likens the transmission of the Jesus-tradition to the children’s game of ‘telephone’ in which a whispered message is quickly distorted as it is passed from one child to the next, he has chosen an utterly inappropriate and irrelevant analogy to what would actually have gone on among first-century Christians!” [The Historical Reliability of the Gospels 2nd ed. (IVP, 2007), 61.]
    • Frederick Murphy: “this analogy limps badly.” [Introduction to Jesus and the Gospels (Abingdon, 2005), 22.]

    Christian Jesus-bio was ultimately memory

    • C.H. Dodd: “...the materials out of which they were formed were already in existence, as an unarticulated wealth of recollections and reminiscences of the words and deeds of [p.88] Jesus―mixed, it may be, with the reflections and interpretations of his followers. It was out of this unformed or fluid tradition that the units of narrative and teaching crystallized into the forms we know. At the early, unformed, stage we have to think, not of discreet narratives, with their individual features sharply marked, as we have them in the gospels, but of a host of remembered traits and turns of expression, often disjoined and without context, but abounding in characteristic detail.... But the precise occasions with which these features of [Jesus’] Ministry were associated were perhaps not always remembered, or were remembered differently by different witnesses; for the association of ideas is a very individual thing, and it often affects our recollection of events.17” [Historical Tradition in the Fourth Gospel]

    E.g. Public reading facilitated control

    • Craig Keener: “The reading of these earlier texts probably standardized the forms of many of the accounts; communal reading (or reading to the communities) was common in synagogues, churches, and the wider culture. While such a “quality control”may not have been relevant in the composition of Mark, it would likely be relevant to his successors, such as Matthew and Luke, who made use of Mark.” [Christobiography (Eerdmans, 2019), .]
“Yes, after all…
  • Parallel Gospel stories are same but different

    the books Matthew, Mark, and Luke are in the background. Two hands are shaking each other in front

    In Matthew, Mark, and Luke especially, it is easy to compare stories which are double or triply narrated between them, and when we do we find those same stories have an interesting mix of being the same (even at the verbal level) and yet in other ways different (in presentation).

    [A page full of examples is forthcoming.]

    This is relevant given many synoptic differences are best explained by authors ultimately depending on flexibly-deliverable teachings (oral performances) to churches which are thereby rehearsed and passed down with control.1

    1. James Dunn: “Matthew and Luke knew Mark as such and were able to draw on his version of the tradition at a literary level and often did so… At the same time, however, it would be improper to ignore the fact that in a good number of cases, illustrated above, the more natural explanation for the evidence is not Matthew's or Luke's literary dependence on Mark, but rather their own knowledge of oral retellings of the same stories (or, alternatively, their own oral retelling of the Markan stories).” [Jesus Remembered, 222.]
      Craig Blomberg: “[As James Dunn suggests], until the amount of verbal parallelism becomes large enough to suggest knowledge of written sources or demonstrates theologically or stylistically motivated changes from earlier documents, we should assume that the differences among the Synoptics stem from the natural freedom of oral storytellers to vary minor details in their accounts that do not affect the overall meaning of their stories. [The Historical Reliability of the Gospels 2nd ed. (IVP, 2007), 60.]
  • Churches cooperatively rehearsed-guarded story accuracy

    A group of people sit around in a circle. They all have check marks next to them. One has a speech bubble with Jesus face in it. There is a large checkmark in the bottom right.

    Early Christian churches cooperatively guarded the stories of Jesus through regular group-rehearsals (when they gathered on Sundays), and zealously worked to preserve the accuracy throughout the various tellings of their treasured stories.

    • Paul Eddy and Gregory Boyd: “A most significant expression of this historical awareness is that it is frequently the case in predominantly oral settings that, within the context of the performance arena, the audience shares in the responsibility of accurately preserving the essential historical remembrances. That is, if an oral performer misrepresents the tradition—sometimes in even relatively minor ways-the audience frequently corrects him in the midst of the performance.84 Hence, while the performer is entrusted with expressing and creatively adapting traditional oral material to each new setting, the collective memory of the community stands as a counterbalancing authority over each specific performance and over each individual tradent.” [The Jesus Legend (Baker, 2007), 147.]
    • E.g. Bailey knew of this phenomenon 1st hand, living 40 years with Middle-Eastern oral communities)1
    • Much more forthcoming.

    This is relevant because this sort of communal protection of history represents a very high-level of quality control; it was very well situated to faithfully preserve stories across decades and longer.

    1. The following are excerpts from Kenneth Bailey’s, “Informal Controlled Oral Tradition and the Synoptic Gospels,” Asia Journal of Theology 5:1 (1991), and the version in Themelios 20.2 (1995).
      Kenneth Bailey: “It has been my personal privilege to have spent most of my childhood and all of my adult life here in the Middle East. Across the last forty years, I have lived and worked as a New Testament specialist in Egypt, Lebanon and Palestine. […] I have been able to observe and analyse how middle-eastern peoples orally preserve and pass on the information...”
      Kenneth Bailey: “[The] seated community exercises control over the recitation of the tradition.”
      [Regarding more formal content] • Kenneth Bailey: “If the reciter makes a mistake, he subjects himself to public correction, and thereby to public humiliation. […] If the reciter quotes a proverb with so much as one word out of place, he will be corrected by a chorus of voices.” [Regarding less formal, but neverthelss important historical content] • Kenneth Bailey: “[Bailey shares an example and concludes:] “To change the basic story-line while telling that account in the village of Dayr Abu Hennis is unthinkable. If you persisted, I think you would be run out of the village. They have told it the same way for centuries.”
  • “Teachers” oft taught churches & checked Jesus-bio

    A teacher is standing in front of two students who are writing, the teacher has a speech bubble that has Jesus on it

    Knowledgeable Jesus-bio teachers regularly taught Jesus-bio to others with some measure of formality (as rabbis did to students).

    A full page will analyze 10 arguments

    • “Teachers” oft checked/relayed Jesus-bio.
    • Didache 11, 13: “teachers teach what you already know”.
    • E.g. Apostles oft started, taught, & visited churches.
    • “Delivered” & “received” indicated teachings from a teacher
    • Papias: “Jesus-witnesses xyz are still pop-teachers (in AD 80)”.
    • Christians felt Jesus-bio teachers deserve honor.
    • Christians used/employed only qualified tradents.
    • Christians strove to match reliable tradents on Jesus-bio.
    • Jesus constructed memorable teachings.
    • Lk says “the witnesses were the teachers”.

    This is relevant because the Student-Teacher method tended to be a fairly well controlled one with generally reliable results (especially considering ancient memory).

    But no…

    • Apostles weren’t trained in memorizing.
    • The Gospels are full of minor differences.