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A Resource by Mark D. Roberts

Are the New Testament Gospels Reliable?

Further Thoughts

by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts

Copyright © 2006 by Mark D. Roberts

Note: You may download this resource at no cost, for personal use or for use in a Christian ministry, as long as you are not publishing it for sale. All I ask is that you give credit where credit is due. For all other uses, please contact me at . Thank you.

Table of Contents
Part 1 A Blook and the Blogosphere
Part 2 Can We Know What the Original Gospel Manuscripts Really Said?
Part 3 Do the Gospel Manuscripts Misquote Jesus?
Part 4 Gospel Authorship by Mark and Luke: Some Implications
Part 5 The Telephone Game and Oral Tradition: Section A
Part 6 The Telephone Game and Oral Tradition: Section B
Part 7 The Telephone Game and Oral Tradition: Section C
Part 8 The Telephone Game and Oral Tradition: Section D
Part 9 The Telephone Game and Oral Tradition: Section E

A Blook and the Blogosphere
Part 1 of series: Are the New Testament Gospels Reliable? Further Thoughts
Posted for Monday, July 17, 2006

Here Comes a Blook!

Last Fall I wrote an extended blog series called Are the New Testament Gospels Reliable? This series received a strong response from my blog readers, including enthusiastic support from most who wrote me. Of course there were a number of negative responses, but most of these were gracious, focusing on differences of opinion rather than personal insinuations.

Perhaps the most surprising positive response to my blog series came from the publishers at Crossway Books. They said they were interested in turning my series into a book. At first I hesitated, realizing that there are other fine books on the reliability of the gospels. I fondly remember the classic volume by F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? which helped me survive my collegiate doubts about the gospels. I also thought of the more detailed and up-to-date book by Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels. But, the more I received communication from people who had been helped by my blog series, the more I realized that I could offer something unique to book readers.

So I am now doing a book with Crossway. It's my first blook . . . a blog turned into a book. It will be published next spring with the title: Can We Trust the Gospels? The heart of this blook is my series Are the New Testament Gospels Reliable? But I am editing this series to make it a more substantial book, adding an introduction and a new chapter, while bulking up some of my existing discussions.

I'm in the midst of this process right now. As I've been editing and writing, I thought of how helpful it would be to get feedback from my blog readers, just like I did for the earlier gospels series. So I've decided to put up portions of the new material for Can We Trust the Gospels? Not only will this be worth reading (I hope!), but it will also (I hope!) inspire my readers to send their comments. It's not every writer who gets his or her material vetted by thousands of readers before it gets published in book form.

Of course, as a reader of my blog, you're under no obligation to respond to what I've written. But if you feel so inclined, I'd be glad to hear from you. I'm especially interested in your answers to questions like:

• Does what I've written make sense?
• Are their flaws in my arguments?
• Can you think of ways to improve what I've written?

If you have thoughts along these lines, please e-mail me with your answers.

Note: If you're e-mail makes a difference in my writing, I will give credit where credit is due. Please understand, however, that I may have received similar input at an earlier time, so I can't promise that you'll end up in my footnotes. I'll do my best to be fair. Also, if you have a blog post that is relevant, or anything else online, send me the link(s).

The Blogosphere as a Community of Truth-Seekers

This exercise has helped me to recognize something I value about the blogosphere (the blogging world that includes both bloggers and readers). It's the give and take, the open search for truth, the opportunity for dialogue about important issues. Yes, yes, I'm aware that not all bloggers or blog readers are in the seeking mode. Some are more into spinning than searching. But I see my blogging as putting a ball in play, anticipating that it will be hit back in my direction by those who read and comment, either through e-mail, through contributing to my guestbook, or through responding on their blogs. Every time I've done a major series, I've received input from readers that has helped to shape my thinking. In many cases I've gone back and corrected things I've written, not just typos, but matters of substance. In other cases I've added new thoughts or points of clarification. (Just a couple of days ago I received helpful feedback from a frequent reader, and changed something I had writtern earlier because of this feedback.)

When I was in college and graduate school, I was surrounded by truth-seeking friends. We'd argue about politics, movies, and the issues from our classes. I'm sure we sounded like a bunch of know-it-alls. But were were in a truth-seeking mode, arguing our perspectives so that they might be corrected, sharpened, or abandoned altogether. Since I left grad school, I've been in a few similar contexts for intellectual engagement, but these have been the exception to the rule.

Since I started blogging two and a half years ago, however, I feel sometimes like I'm back in my university truth-seeking mode, with friends – some of them literally on the other side of the world – who engage my ideas, even as I engage theirs. Not only is this fun, for me, anyway, but also it's a great way to sharpen one's thinking and, I hope, to get closer to the truth about many things.

Let my close by saying I've been impressed about the extent to which my conversation partners in the blogosphere have been, for the most part, civil. I'm not talking so much about the ones who like what I write. They're predictably positive. But even my critics are usually respectful. Sure, I've received a few wacky criticisms. There are a few folks out there who think I'm the great Satan. But most who disagree with me tend to understand that I mean well and am seeking for truth even if, in their opinion, I've missed the target.

Tomorrow I'll put up a passage that's in the draft of Can We Trust the Gospels? Read it, and if you have anything to say in response, let me know.

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Can We Know What the Original Gospel Manuscripts Really Said?

Part 2 of series: Are the New Testament Gospels Reliable? Further Thoughts
Posted for Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Today I'm going to put up a section of a chapter in my forthcoming book, Can We Trust the Gospels? I'm doing this, partly because I think the material is worthwhile, and partly because I'm eager to receive some response from my blog readers. (See yesterday's post for the specifics.)

The passage below comes in my chapter on text criticism, entitled: "Can We Know What the Original Gospel Manuscripts Really Said?" Earlier material in the chapter includes: a general discussion of the relationship between existing manuscripts and the original compositions (autographs); standards for evaluating the reliability of the gospel manuscripts; the antiquity of the gospel manuscripts; the multiplicity of the gospel manuscripts; and the reliability of text critical methodology. The next section is entitled "The Quantity and Quality of Textual Variants." I've already defined "textual variant" as a difference in one manuscript from other manuscripts. I hope you'll be able to make sense of this section without the context. Here it is.

The Quantity and Quality of Textual Variants

Skeptics who try to cast doubt upon the reliability of the New Testament manuscripts point to the apparently large number of variants they contain. Bart Ehrman, for example, in Misquoting Jesus, suggests that there are 200,000 to 400,000 variants among the New Testament manuscripts. He adds, dramatically, "There are more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament." That sounds ominous, doesn't it? But, in fact, the data give us no reason to doubt the reliability of the manuscripts. Let me explain why.

A thought experiment will help here. The four gospels comprise over 64,000 words. We have over 2,000 manuscripts that contain all or part of these gospels. Let's suppose, for the sake of argument, that each word represents one potential variant. (In fact each word represents many potential variants, owing to misspelling, omission, word order, etc.) Further, let's suppose that each manuscript contains half of the gospel material, or 32,000 words. Using these conservative numbers, there are 64,000,000 possible variants in the gospel manuscripts. If there are, in fact, 200,000 variants (a high estimate for the gospels alone), then this means that we have .3% of the possible variants. To put it positively, the accuracy score for the gospel manuscripts is 99.7%. Not a bad grade.

We have such a large number of variants because there are so many extant manuscripts. But, as I've already shown, having many manuscripts actually increases the likelihood of our getting back to the original text. It also adds to the number of variants, however, which can sound negative to one who isn't familiar with text critical issues.

  This is p66, which is called the Bodmer Papyrus. It dates from around 200 A.D. The text is John 1:1-13, plus the first word of verse 14.

Let's me suggest one more hypothetical that might make clear what I'm saying. This book contains about 40,000 words. Suppose I asked two people to make copies of this book by hand. Suppose, further, that they made one mistake every 1,000 words (99.9% accuracy). When they finished, each of their manuscripts would have 40 mistakes, for a total of 80. This doesn't sound too bad, does it? But suppose I asked 2,000 people to make copies of my book. And suppose they also made a mistake every 1,000 words. When they finished, the total of mistakes in their manuscripts would be 80,000. This sounds like a lot of variants – more variants than words in my book! But in fact the large number of variants is a simple product of the large number of manuscripts. Moreover, if text critics were going to try and determine what the autograph of this book said, they'd be in a much stronger position if they had 2,000 copies to work from, even though they'd be dealing with 80,000 variants. With 2,000 manuscripts, the text critics would be able to evaluate the variants more astutely and come up with something very close to what I originally wrote. If they only had two manuscripts, however, even though these included only 80 variants, they'd often be unable to determine what the original manuscript said.

So, the fact "there are more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament" isn't surprising. Nor it is bad news. It's a reflection of the wealth of the manuscript evidence we have available to us. The actual number of variants represents a tiny percentage of possible variants among the manuscripts.

The vast majority of variants in the New Testament manuscripts are insignificant, either because they appear so rarely that they are obviously not original, or because they don't appear in the older manuscripts, or because they don't impact the meaning of the text. In fact, the majority of variants that show up in enough older manuscripts to impact our reading of the text are spelling variations or errors. Text critic Daniel Wallace concludes that "only about 1% of the textual variants" make any substantive difference. And few, if any, of these have any bearing on theologically important matters. If, for example, you simply took out of the gospels every word that was text-critically uncertain, the impact on your understanding of Jesus would be negligible.

This, by the way, is exactly what most modern translations do with the two most obvious and significant textual variants in the gospels. One of these appears in John 7:53-8:11, the story of the woman caught in adultery. Virtually all translations put this story in brackets, adding a note that says something like: "The earliest manuscripts do not include this passage." It's likely that this story is true, but that it was added to John well after the evangelist finished his task. Similarly, the ending of Mark includes a bracketed passage because the old manuscripts do not include anything after Mark 16:8. These two disputed passages, though significant in some ways, do not substantially alter our understanding of Jesus.

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Do the Gospel Manuscripts Misquote Jesus?
Part 3 of series: Are the New Testament Gospels Reliable? Further Thoughts
Posted for Wednesday, July 19, 2006

At this point I should probably say a few words about Bart Ehrman's currently popular book Misquoting Jesus. Even when this book has fallen from the bestseller lists, its ideas will still be floating around in the cultural stream like bits of post-hurricane flotsam in the sea. (If you're looking for a more extensive critique of Misquoting Jesus, check what I've written on my website.)

Ehrman's book is a popular introduction to textual criticism. When he sticks to objective descriptions, Ehrman's insights are both helpful and eminently readable. For a scholar, he's an unusually effective popular communicator. But, unfortunately, this book was not written merely to introduce people to textual criticism, but also to undermine their confidence in the New Testament itself. I'm not reading between the lines here. Ehrman is very clear about his intentions from the beginning.

One of the ironies of Ehrman's book is the title, Misquoting Jesus. You'd expect to find a book full of instances in which the sayings of Jesus found in the gospels were corrupted by the scribes. In fact, however, very little of the book is actually about misquoting Jesus. As Craig L. Blomberg says in his trenchant review, "the title appears designed to attract attention and sell copies of the book rather than to represent its contents accurately."

Another irony comes when Ehrman talks about the number of variants among the New Testament manuscripts. Twice he says something like "there are more differences among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament." This is a startling soundbite that appears to undermine the reliability of the manuscripts. But Ehrman also qualifies this observation. He writes:

To be sure, of all the hundreds of thousands of textual changes found among our manuscripts, most of them are completely insignificant, immaterial, and of no real importance for anything other than showing that scribes could not spell or keep focused any better than the rest of us.

The changes [the scribes] made – at least the intentional ones – were no doubt seen as improvements of the text, possibly made because the scribes were convinced that the copyists before them had themselves mistakenly altered the words of the text. For the most part, their intention was to conserve the tradition, not to change it.

One would expect to find these claims in a book touting the reliability of the New Testament manuscripts. Ehrman, in spite of his bias, is too good a scholar not to tell the truth here.

The greatest irony in Misquoting Jesus lies at the heart of Ehrman's argument against the trustworthiness of the manuscripts. The main point of his book is to undermine confidence in the New Testament on the ground that copyists changed the manuscripts, both intentionally and accidentally. One would expect Ehrman to put forth dozens of examples where we simply don't have any idea what the autographs actually said. Such repeated uncertainty would lead the conclusion that we can't know with assurance what the New Testament writers, including the evangelists, actually wrote.

But, in fact, Ehrman's book is filled with examples that prove the opposite point. He does indeed offer up many cases of textual variants. In virtually every case, Ehrman confidently explains what the change was, what the earlier manuscript actually said, and what motivated the copyist. In other words, Ehrman's book, though intending to weaken our certainty about the New Testament text, actually demonstrates how the abundance of manuscripts and the antiquity of manuscripts, when run through the mill of text critical methodology, allows us to know with a very high level of probability what the evangelists and other New Testament authors wrote. This might explain why there are many textual critics who are committed Christians with a strong commitment to Scripture.

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Gospel Authorship by Mark and Luke: Some Implications
Part 4 of series: Are the New Testament Gospels Reliable? Further Thoughts
Posted for Thursday, July 20, 2006

The passages from my manuscript on the gospels that I want to post today are from the chapter on the authorship of the gospels. I don't break any new ground in this chapter. I do explain the case for traditional authorship by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. I also suggest that, given the anonymity of the gospels themselves, their reliability doesn't depend on any particular theory of who wrote them.

Near the end of the chapter I mention that some contemporary scholars doubt the traditional assignment of the gospels to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Then I continue:

Why, you might wonder, would a scholar in the 21st century doubt the traditions that go back into the second century? Doesn't it make sense to think that those early traditions were based on actual testimony? Wouldn't you think that those who passed along the gospels also passed along information about who actually wrote them? Doesn't it seem like this information would have been important to the early users of the gospels?

All of this seems quite reasonable, unless you approach the tradition with a hermeneutic of suspicion, in which the claims made by church leaders are presumed to be guilty until proven innocent. Quite a few scholars have argued that the names of the New Testament evangelists were made up in order to gain authority for the writings. This is surely true when you consider the broader collection of Christian (or semi-Christian) gospels. In the non-canonical writings you find such documents as: The Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Philip, The Gospel of Mary (Magdalene), The Gospel of Judas, The Gospel of Bartholomew, The Gospel of Peter, as well as many others. It's clear to almost all observers that these books were not actually written by the supposed authors. The names were attached to give authority to the writings. So, some have concluded, the same is true of the New Testament gospels.

Part of the manuscript of the Gospel of Thomas from the Nag Hammadi Library

This argument could explain the naming of Matthew and John, though I think it reflects unwarranted skepticism about early Christian tradition. But the main flaw in this argument is obvious: Two of the biblical gospels were named after relatively inconsequential characters who did not actually know Jesus in the flesh. If you were some second-century Christian wanting to make up an author for a gospel, you'd never choose Mark, even if he was believed to be a companion of Peter. And you'd never choose Luke, because he had no direct connection to Jesus at all, even though he played a bit part in the writings of Paul. If second-century Christians were fabricating traditional authorship, surely they could have done a better job. Assign the second gospel to Peter himself, for goodness sakes, not Mark!

So, ironically, the tendency of the non-canonical gospels to assign authorship to disciples actually increases the likelihood that the traditions concerning New Testament gospel authorship are true, at least with respect to Mark and Luke. And if the tradition can be seen as trustworthy in these cases, then the presumption of suspicion about the tradition must be wrong-headed. We should accept the ancient tradition unless we have good reason to do otherwise. . . . .

Mark, Luke, and the Early Christian Commitment to Truth

I want to conclude by reflecting a bit further on the traditional assignment of the second and third gospels to Mark and Luke. Early Christian tradition is unified in their identification of Mark and Luke as gospel writers. It also contains specific notice that these two evangelists did not know Jesus personally, but derived their information (in the case of Mark) and authority (in the case of Luke) from apostles, namely Peter and Paul.

I already mentioned how striking it is that the orthodox church "settled" for such unspectacular writers. After all, their theological opponents, the Gnostics, were making all sorts of claims that their gospels and other revelations came from the original disciples of Jesus. It must have been tempting for orthodox believers to up the ante a bit, and to connect their gospels with more authoritative writers who had actually been with Jesus. Why not exaggerate just a bit and call the second gospel the Gospel of Peter, even though it was written by his associate and not Peter himself? Yet Papias, Irenaeus, and other orthodox leaders resolutely refused to do this sort of thing. In fact, they openly acknowledged that two of their gospels were not written by eyewitnesses.

I've suggested that this strongly supports the theory that Mark and Luke were the writers of the second and third gospels. But, in a broader perspective, the refusal of the early Christians to fudge on the question of gospel authorship reveals something even more important: their commitment to truth. They steadfastly affirmed what they believed to be true, even when their opponents appeared to trump Mark and Luke with gospels by Thomas, Philip, and Mary. The orthodox dedication to truth won out over the orthodox agenda to uphold the true faith vs. Gnosticism.

I'm belaboring this point because among many scholars who discount the historical reliability of the gospels you'll find an assumption that the early Christians made up all sort of things when doing so supported their evangelistic or apologetic agendas. Need a miracle story to compete with pagan gods? Make it up! Need a saying of Jesus to advance your cause? Go ahead and create one! In many scholarly quarters the creativity of the early Christian movement with respect to Jesus is assumed without argument.

I'm not claiming that second-century attribution of gospels to Mark and Luke proves that Christians never made stuff up. This would be to claim more than the present evidence supports. But I do think the consistent testimony of authorship by Mark and Luke offers a clear instance in which orthodox Christians might have been tempted to bend the truth to fit their agenda, yet in which they resolutely hung onto the truth. This would suggest that scholars who neglect or discount the early Christian commitment to truth have missed the truth themselves.

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The Telephone Game and Oral Tradition: Section A
Part 5 of series: Are the New Testament Gospels Reliable? Further Thoughts
Posted for Friday, July 21, 2006

Today I continue to put up parts of my manuscript entitled Can We Trust the Gospels? The context for this piece (and other parts to follow) is a discussion of the sources used by the gospel writers. I've talked about potential written and oral sources. Now I try to explain why the oral tradition about Jesus was reliable. It starts off repeating what I said in my earlier series on the reliability of the gospels, but then moves in a different direction. Here's the beginning of what I've written.

Those who discount the historical reliability of the gospels claim that the oral tradition concerning Jesus was corrupted by human error and the over-active imaginations of the early Christians. To prove their point, critics sometimes roll out the example of the playing Telephone.

If you're not familiar with Telephone, which is sometimes called "Whisper Down the Alley," let me explain. You get a bunch of people to sit in a circle. Then somebody starts by secretly writing down a sentence, the sillier the better. Usually it's something like: "Pastor Mark is going to the fair tomorrow because he's meeting a friend there." After writing down the sentence, the writer whispers it to a person sitting nearby. Then the receiver turns to the next person and whispers the message. So it goes, all the way around the circle. When the message comes to the last person, that one says out loud what he or she thinks is the right message. Then the composer of the original message reads it for all to hear. Inevitably, the final sentence is quite different from the original. "Pastor Mark is going to the fair tomorrow because he's meeting a friend there" has become "Pastor Mark is going to float up into the air tomorrow because he's so full of hot air."

Does the game of Telephone prove that the oral tradition about Jesus cannot be trusted? No. In fact, the limitations of the Telephone analogy will help us understand why we can put trust in the oral traditions about Jesus that are found in the gospels.

The Context of the Oral Jesus Tradition

The game of Telephone works because we aren't very good at memorizing. Let's face it. We don't memorize very well because we don't have to. Consider the case of telephone numbers. When I was young, I had memorized at least twenty-five phone numbers. I could call my friends, my grandparents, the local movie theatre . . . all from memory. But along came memory chips and phones that "remember" frequently called numbers. Now I may have less then ten phone numbers in my brain. Some that I call most frequently, like my wife's cell phone, I don’t know by heart.

Yet people can be trained to memorize, even in today's visual, electronic culture. When my wife was training to be a marriage and family counselor, she was expected to write out "verbatims" of her sessions with clients. Verbatims were accurate, in-depth transcripts of what was discussed over the course of an hour. In time, Linda became quite proficient at this. Why? It was a matter of necessity and practice. Her professional context required and supported it.

The early followers of Jesus lived in an oral culture. Relatively few people were literate. Only the wealthy had access to libraries and literature. So people needed good memories. They remembered stories, sayings, Scripture passages, and you name it (well, not phone numbers). Their oral culture had contexts in which crucial information, like religious stories, would be passed on faithfully. Teachers and storytellers were expected to hand on what they had been told accurately, though with a modicum of freedom. Since they did their work in community gatherings, if they got the story substantially wrong, the community in which they functioned would hold them accountable for their mistake. [Note 1]
The early followers of Jesus didn't even have old phones like these.

I don't know if anybody has ever tried playing Telephone with people from an oral culture. My guess is this game, even with its peculiar rules, wouldn't be much fun in this context. Yet when it comes to the oral tradition about Jesus, we have much more than merely the cultural context to assure of its accurate transmission.

[Note 1] For information on oral culture in general and its relevance to the gospels, see: Kenneth E. Bailey, "Controlled Oral Tradition and the Synoptic Gospels," Themelios 20.2 (January 1995) 4-11; Kenneth E. Bailey, Poet and Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes (combined edition) (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983); Birger Gerhardsson, The Reliability of the Gospel Tradition (Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson, 2001); Alfred B. Lord, The Singer of Tales, 2nd paperback edition (Cambridge: Harvard, 2000); N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1996) 418-443.

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The Telephone Game and Oral Tradition: Section B
Part 6 of series: Are the New Testament Gospels Reliable? Further Thoughts
Posted for Monday, July 24, 2006

Today I'm continuing to put up parts of my manuscript entitled Can We Trust the Gospels? The context for today's post is a discussion of the oral sources about Jesus. In my last post I talked about how some skeptics refer to the game of Telephone in order to undermine confidence in the gospels. Yet when we pay close attention to the cultural context in which first Christians life – an oral culture – we realize that this context supported the reliable transmission of the tradition.

Today I continue the conversation about the Telephone analogy.

The People of the Oral Jesus Tradition

As I've already mentioned, the Telephone game works, in part, because the players aren't adept at memorization. Those who passed on the traditions about Jesus were, on the contrary, trained by culture to memorize and recount with considerable accuracy. Moreover, if Birger Gerhardsson's connection of early Christianity with Jewish rabbinic traditions holds any water, then some of those who passed on the sayings of Jesus had been specifically trained to do this with exemplary precision (Birger Gerhardsson, The Reliability of the Gospel Tradition).

No doubt lots of average Christians told stories about Jesus in the years before the gospels were written. They passed these accounts on to their friends and children. But this doesn't mean that just anybody could tell and retell these stories in the gathered Christian community. Don't forget Luke's claim that he had received the traditions from "those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the world" (Luke 1:2). He's referring here to the people we call the apostles, in particular the apostles who had been with Jesus during his earthly ministry. These eyewitnesses, who had been set apart by Jesus himself, were the official "players" in the Jesus Telephone game.

On top of this, we must remember who started up the early Christian game of Telephone: Jesus himself. He was the first player, if you will, the one who made up the message to be passed along. And he wasn't just any old player, at least in from the eyes of his followers. They thought he was the Messiah, the Savior of Israel, and the One through whom God was inaugurating his kingdom. They saw Jesus, not only as a wise teacher, but also, in some way, as the very embodiment of God's Wisdom. And, in what was shocking to the majority of Jews in the first century, the earliest Christians confessed Jesus to be Lord: not just an authoritative human being, but somehow God in human form. Thus they had lots of motivation to remember what he said and transmit it accurately.

The Content of the Oral Jesus Tradition

The early Christians also thought that Jesus's teaching was uniquely true and more important than any other ideas in the world. Consider, for example, the following passages from the gospels:

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. (Matthew 7:24)

Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. (Mark 13:31)

It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. (John 6:63)

So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. (John 6:67-68)

If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. (John 15:7)

At the moment I'm not claiming that Jesus actually said any of these things. My point is simply that, whether he said them or not, the early Christians believed these things to be true about his words. Thus they had every reason to pass on the sayings of Jesus accurately. The same would go for accounts of his actions, by the way.

Moreover, the forms in which the sayings and deeds of Jesus were transmitted contributed to the precision of the transmission. One of the reasons the Telephone game works is that the sentence being passed around the circle is odd and hard to repeat verbatim. If the originator of the process were to write a short poem, with obvious metre and rhyme, and if that poem made sense, then odds are much higher that it would be passed around correctly.

Many of the sayings of Jesus facilitate memorization. Some involve striking images that you won't soon forget: "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God" (Mark 10:25). Others use few words to make the point: "You cannot serve God and wealth" (Matt 6:24). Still others use parallelism of some kind (, for example, the house built on the sand vs. the house built on the rock, Matt 7:24-27). Of course many of Jesus's key teachings come in the form of parables, short stories that leave a strong impression upon the mind.

In the last century, New Testament scholars studied the oral forms in which the traditions about Jesus were passed along before they were written down. Many of the first form critics, like Rudolf Bultmann, combined form criticism with a high degree of skepticism about the historicity of the gospels . . . unnecessarily, I might add. In fact, the formal nature of oral tradition contributes to memorization and faithful transmission. If, for example, you're trying to learn the Beattitudes in Matthew 5, think of how much it helps that each line has the form: "Blessed are . . . for theirs."

The oral forms of the Jesus tradition also ensured the truthful passing down of stories about him. Consider the example of the miracle stories in the gospels. They almost always include the following elements: a statement of the problem; the brief description of the miracle; a statement of the response. This makes logical sense, of course, but it also conditions the mind to remember and relate miracle stories faithfully. It's rather like how jokes can take on a familiar form, thus helping us to remember them: "A priest, a minister, and a rabbi . . ." or "Knock, knock . . . ."

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The Telephone Game and Oral Tradition: Section C
Part 7 of series: Are the New Testament Gospels Reliable? Further Thoughts
Posted for Tuesday, July 25, 2006

I'm continuing my discussion of the oral traditions about Jesus that were passed along in the early church prior to the writing of the gospels.

The Community of the Oral Jesus Tradition

My favorite high school teacher was Mr. Bottaro. My English teacher when I was in tenth grade, I was blessed to have him in twelfth grade as well. Mr. Bottaro was energetic, incisive, and passionate. I can still remember his ardent reading of the Dylan Thomas's poem, "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night," as he tried to get fifteen-year-old kids to think about their mortality. Mr. Bottaro was always talking about death and how taking it seriously helped us to live to the fullest.

One day during the spring of my senior year, my fellow students and I arrived in Mr. Bottaro's class, but he wasn't there. When the bell rang, we were still without a teacher. Then, about five minutes later, the school principal showed up. He informed us that Mr. Bottaro had died in his sleep the night before. We sat in stunned silence. Soon many students began to weep. It was one of the saddest days of my life.

During the days that followed, we reminisced plenty about Mr. Bottaro, in class, during the lunch hour, and after his memorial service. Apart from being a fine teacher, he was a character, and an eminently quotable one at that. In the telling of stories we shared our common grief over our loss and our common joy over having had such a wonderful teacher.

Glendale High School, my alma mater.

In those days of storytelling, the community of Mr. Bottaro's students reinforced our corporate memory. By agreeing together about what our teacher had done and said, we celebrated his life and we fixed certain events and sayings in our minds. If, during that time, somebody had told a story about Mr. Bottaro that contradicted our common memory, if, for example, someone had accused him of playing favorites or of disliking "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night," then we'd have surely set that person aright. Our community ensured the basic truthfulness of oral traditions about our beloved teacher.

And so it was with the community of Jesus in the first years after his death. Not only were there recognized leaders, those who had walked with Jesus and been inundated with his teachings, but also the whole community acted together to provide a place for the telling of stories about Jesus and for weighing those stories by community memory.

Sometimes you'll hear skeptics talk about the oral period before the writing of the gospels as if it were a free-for-all, a time when anybody could be inspired by the Spirit to put all sorts of words into Jesus's mouth. But there is little evidence that this sort of thing actually happened, and plenty of evidence that it didn't. After all, the early Christians believed Jesus was uniquely special as a teacher, and they believed his words were both authoritative and life-giving. Thus they had strong motivation to remember and pass on what he had said accurately, even when it was translated from Aramaic into Greek. The early Christian community helped to make sure this happened effectively. Here's what Birger Gerhardsson concludes about the purported creativity of the tradition:

My contention is thus that we have every reason to proceed on the assumption that Jesus' closest disciples had an authoritative position in early Christianity as witnesses and bearers of the traditions of what Jesus had said and done. There is no reason to suppose that any believer in the early church could create traditions about Jesus and expect that his word would be accepted. (Gerhardsson, Reliability of the Gospel Tradition, p. 39)

Gerhardsson's observation is confirmed by the fact that so much in the oral tradition about Jesus does not reflect the needs of the early church. At some points it even appears to contradict those needs. If Christians were making up sayings of Jesus willy-nilly, and if these were being accepted uncritically by the church, then we should expect to have much more helpful instruction from Jesus concerning such contentious issues as Jewish-Christian relationships, the Sabbath, women in ministry, apostolic authority, and even his own messiahship.

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The Telephone Game and Oral Tradition: Section D
Part 8 of series: Are the New Testament Gospels Reliable? Further Thoughts
Posted for Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Once again I'm using the analogy of the Telephone game to explain why the oral traditions about Jesus are reliable.

The Process of the Oral Jesus Tradition

The Telephone game assumes that the communication of the key sentence will be done secretly, with players whispering to each other.

Think of what would happen in Telephone if somebody changed the rules. Rather than whispering the sentence, the first player says it out loud to the person sitting nearby. This person says the same sentence out loud to the next person, and so forth and so on. This would be a boring game, to say the least, because all players would hear what was being passed around.

That's more or less what happened in the early Christian community when it came to passing down the teaching of Jesus. It was not done secretly, but openly. Remember that Luke got his information from eyewitnesses who were also "servants of the word" (Luke 1:2). They were teaching about Jesus in the public square and in the church. Their stories about Jesus and their account of his sayings were part of the public record, if you will, or at least the public church record.


When you think of how little material actually appears in the gospels compared with all that Jesus did and said, it's obvious that the "servants of the word" tended to repeat themselves a lot. The same stories about Jesus were told and retold. Given the variation we see in the gospels, these stories and sayings weren't delivered in exactly the same words every time. This would be especially true when the original Aramaic of Jesus was translated into Greek. Nevertheless, the members of the earliest churches would have heard the same stories and sayings again and again in much they same way they were first told by the eyewitnesses.

Repetition facilitates memory, even precise memory. I can say the Lord's Prayer, the 23rd Psalm, the Pledge of Allegiance, and even my VISA card number because I have repeated them so often. I can sing more than a hundred hymns and songs, not because I'm so musical, but because I'm in four worship services every weekend and I rarely miss church! The early Christians came to know a core of Jesus's sayings and stories about him because they heard them and repeated them so frequently.

Curiously enough, there was one tradition in early Christianity that prized itself on having secret teachings from Jesus, ones that were not widely known among most Christians. This was a core feature of Christian Gnosticism. When orthodox Christians objected that Gnostic theology didn't come from Jesus, the Gnostics claimed that the divine Christ had revealed secret information to a few, select disciples. These were the only ones privy to the secret, and they passed it on only to the few elites who could receive the revelation. The very essence of Gnostic tradition, its secrecy, counts strongly against the possibility that it truly represents the teachings of Jesus.

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The Telephone Game and Oral Tradition: Section E
Part 9 of series: Are the New Testament Gospels Reliable? Further Thoughts
Posted for Thursday, July 27, 2006

Today I'm finishing up my discussion of oral tradition and Jesus.

When my daughter, Kara, was four years old, I decided to teach her the Lord's Prayer. Did I simplify the language so she might understand it? Of course not. I wanted my daughter to learn the "real words" of the Lord's Prayer. So I taught Kara the old fashioned words that my parents had once taught me (except I swapped my Presbyterian "debts" for their Methodist "trespasses").

Kara didn't understand what many of the words meant. Fancy that! But she tried her best to imitate my sounds. Some of her efforts were delightful. At one point she said, "Our Father who art in heaven, Hollywood be my name." At another point she prayed, "Forgive us our dents, as we forgive our dentist." How logical! Yet because I cared that Kara learn the real words, I gently corrected her and helped her get both the sounds and the meaning right. Today, my eleven-year-old daughter says the Lord's Prayer flawlessly. I expect that someday she'll pass it on to her children.
This picture doesn't have anything to do with this blog post. I just wanted to share how it looked at sunset tonight in front of my home.

Similarly, the early Christians, and especially the teachers, made sure that the words of Jesus were carefully but not slavishly preserved. They had their transitions from "trespasses" to "debts," or from the Aramaic abba to the Greek pater. But the community made sure that innovations like "Hollywood be my name" never made it into the authoritative tradition. Rather, they remembered what Jesus said and made sure this was passed down accurately.

The idea of early Christians memorizing substantial traditions about Jesus may seem unrealistic, even given what I've said about the context, people, content, community, and process of the oral Jesus tradition. But consider the following contemporary analogy.

All Muslims are expected to memorize portions of the Qur'an. But many go on to memorize the entire book, which contains more than 80,000 Arabic words. The one who does this is called a Hafiz and is highly regarded among other Muslims. Muslims claim that millions of the faithful have achieved this status, even today.

What enables a Muslim to memorize the entire Qur'an? Context helps, in that even though most Muslims can read, their religious life is inundated by the recitation of the Qur'an. This repetition is reinforced by the poetic nature of the Qur'an itself, and by the way it is chanted. Of course the respect given to the Hafiz encourages Muslims who are trying to memorize the whole book. But the greatest motivation of all for a pious Muslim is the belief that the Qur'an contains Allah's own words. To memorize the Qur'an is to internalize the very words of God.

In a similar vein, the early followers of Jesus had both the ability and the motivation to pass on oral tradition with accuracy. The combination of context, people, content, community and process helped them to faithfully recount what Jesus did and said. A study of the gospels shows that the early Christians did this very thing with considerable success. Thus the first-century dating of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, combined with their use of earlier oral traditions, combined with early Christian faithfulness in passing on these oral traditions, add up to a convincing rationale for trusting the gospels. What we find in these books, accurately represents what Jesus himself actually did and said. We may not have the original Aramaic words of Jesus, except in a few cases, and we may not have the first Aramaic stories about him, but we have Greek translations that faithfully reproduce Jesus's actual words and deeds.

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