Over the last century there have been increasing questions about the authenticity of the Bible’s version of Jesus. If the Gospels were written between A.D. 50 to A.D. 90 and the death and resurrection of Jesus occurred in A.D. 30, then there were two to six decades before the eye witness testimonies of the disciples were written down. For at least 20 years, Jesus’s disciples relied on word of mouth to spread their message of all Jesus said and did.
One of the scholars who has raised some questions is Bart Ehrman. In Jesus Before the Gospels, he says, “I want to consider whether it is absolutely certain that Jesus was already understood to be a miracle worker even in his own day, prior to his death. …I think the answer is no. I am not saying that I know for certain that Jesus was not considered a miracle worker during his life. But I do think there are grounds for doubt.”1
There have been a number of skeptics, including Ehrman, who have used the “telephone game” as an example of how unreliable oral tradition can be. The telephone game involves a circle of people whispering a message from person to person around the circle. The goal is to attempt to maintain the original message from the first person to the last. The end result is usually a comically distorted version of the original message.
Ehrman speculates, “With the passing of time, Jesus’s miracle-working abilities became increasingly pronounced in the tradition, to an exorbitant extent; and the stories of his miracles were always told to make a theological point (or more than one point) about him.”2
The process of passing on stories, teachings, and community beliefs from person to person by word of mouth is referred to as oral tradition. Before the printing press, access to written manuscripts was limited and writing materials were not abundantly available. Many ancient cultures relied primarily on methods of oral tradition.
“What happens to stories when they are told in these sorts of contexts by these sorts of people? Anyone who thinks the stories don’t get changed, and changed radically, and even invented in the process of telling and retelling, simply does not know, or has never thought about, what happens to stories in oral circulation, as they are handed down by word of mouth, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, and decade after decade.”3
Ehrman is calling into question both the reliability of memory and challenging the accuracy of cultures that rely on oral traditions to pass on their histories. Not only are the memories of the eyewitnesses unreliable; imagine how distorted a person’s memory of another person’s memory would be!
What I find a bit surprising is the condescending nature of the question of how stories told “in these sorts of contexts by these sorts of people” could be reliable. Are the contemporary, western-centric studies on oral traditions and memory, able to accurately predict the reliability of people who lived 2000 years ago in a middle-eastern context with a vastly different culture and traditions? Have they considered how the invention of the internet, social-media consumption, YouTube, constant distractions, and the reduction of the average person’s attention space (rivaling goldfish) affects modern society’s ability to recall memories and pass on oral traditions?
Are Oral Traditions Really Unreliable?
The modern suspicion on the reliability of ancient people to accurately pass on their traditions may expose more of a Western projection ignorance than a true understanding of Middle Eastern tradition. In considering the reliability of oral tradition, we should note that oral tradition does not exclude the use of written records.
The Jewish historian Josephus, used the language of tradition to refer to accounts passed on orally but also including written recollections. For example, at the beginning of the Gospel of Luke he points to his sources as the “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word…delivered to us.”4 He is explaining his account is relying on traditions. Traditions could include written accounts by the eyewitnesses. As Richard Bauckham explains, “The language of tradition, as used in the New Testament and related literature, entails neither cross-generational distance nor even an orality to the exclusion of written records.”5
Gerhardsson, a Scandinavian textual scholar discredits the form-critical view that oral tradition is unreliable in the following explanation. “When the Evangelists edited their Gospels, … they worked on a basis of a fixed, distinct tradition from, and about, Jesus—a tradition which was partly memorized and partly written down in notebooks and private scrolls…”6
Drawing upon his years of experience as a professor of Theology and Researcher of Middle Eastern New Testament Studies in Jerusalem, Kenneth Bailey proposes the need to “sidestep abstract Western theories and concentrate rather on concrete Middle Eastern human realities.” Bailey proposed the need to draw “from a cultural context far more similar to 1st Century Israel than the 21st century West.”7
As Bailey has taught and learned from Middle Eastern students from Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Israel, and Cyprus he has observed the incredible ability they have to accurately maintain oral traditions. One professor studying in Egypt has documented 6,000 proverbs and wisdom sayings from one region of villages alone. Additionally, there are thousands of parables, traditions, and riddles that have been—and continues to be—accurately passed down not just through decades but centuries.8
George Salibo of the Eastern Orthodox Christian Seminary in Lebanon, recounts how in the late second century, there was a man named Bardaisan. He was a poet and heretic. To share his false teaching, Bardaisan wrote: “stanza after stanza of seven-syllable-per-line Syriac hymns.” Almost 200 years after his death the Syriac community was still singing his hymns. In the late 4th century, St. Ephrem was determined to put an end to the heretical hymns. Ephrem knew if he wrote a book no one would read it so he wrote his own set of hymns containing seven-syllable-per-line stanzas, to counter Bardaisan’s heresy.9
Bailey writes, “Today, at the ‘Atshani Syrian Orthodox seminary in Lebanon, the students converse only in fourth-century Syriac and, in that same classical language, sing St Ephrem’s hymns by the hour. Books? There are no books—who needs them?”10
“The superiority in judgement and diligence which you are going to attribute to the Biblical critics will have to be almost superhuman if it is to offset the fact that they are everywhere faced with customs, language, race-characteristics, class-characteristics, a religious background, habits of composition, and basic assumptions, which no scholarship will ever enable any man now alive to know as surely and intimately and instinctively as the reviewer can know mine. And for the very same reason, remember, the Biblical critics, whatever reconstructions they devise, can never be crudely proved wrong. St. Mark is dead.”11
It is wise for us to consider if the technological and scientific advancements of the past 2,000 years have inhibited our ability to accurately critique the Christians of the first three centuries. Richard Bauckham asserts the evidence of the “‘personal link of the Jesus tradition’…throughout the period of the transmission of the tradition down to the writing of the Gospels, if not ‘historically undeniable,’ then at least historically very probable.”12
It seems more miraculous to believe the Biblical critics assumption that the Jesus of the Bible is merely a legend than to simply believe the eyewitness accounts recorded in the Bible. “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life.”13
1 Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus Before the Gospels. (New York: Harper, 2016), 221.
2 Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus Before the Gospels, 221.
3 Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus Before the Gospels, 86.
4 The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, Luke 1:2.
5 Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017) 37-38.
6 Kenneth Bailey, Informal Controlled Tradition and the Synoptic Gospels, (Themelios 20, January 1995) 5.
7 Kenneth Bailey, 5.
8 Kenneth Bailey, 6.
9 Kenneth Bailey, 6.
10 Kenneth Bailey, 6.
11 Originally entitled ‘Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism‘, Lewis read this essay at Westcott House, Cambridge, on 11 May 1959. Published under that title in Christian Reflections (1981), it is now in Fern-seed and Elephants, 1998.
12 Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017) 7.
13 The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, Luke 1:2.