B. What is the New Testaments verbal-Tradition?

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Those who are sceptical to oral tradition will often cite the telephone analogy. The telephone game consists of one person whispering the story to another and part of the fun is the distortion of the message. It was never designed to be clear, that would be the counter-objective of the game. Now, is the New Testament like this?

Some of us in the west have a hard time imagining people retaining large amounts of information through memory alone since we live in a culture flooded by forms of media, saving, and books. We were all born into the print culture and have been for many generations, so how we deal with the process of memory is broadly different. It may seem strange to some that a process from ancient history is more informed across culture compared to today. Oral cultures were prominent in the ancient world, many didn’t read or write, so spoken word and memory were crucially important. So what references can we gather from around the time of Jesus with regards to this oral culture? 

In Greek culture, ancient Greek schoolboys sometimes had the Iliad or the Odyssey or the epic poems by Homer committed to memory, 100,000 words each roughly. Put this in contrast to the Gospel of Luke of 20,000 words and it appears child’s play in comparison. 

In the Jewish world, a Jewish schoolboy would have gone to synagogue school around 5-6 days a week. From the ages of 5-12 they would have studied one topic: the Hebrew Scriptures (The Old Testament) because the Rabbis believed the bible was applicable to every area of life. There was an underlying crucial principle in Jewish study: every boy in class had to memorise and orally recite without a single inaccuracy every word in a passage to be discussed before the class was allowed to discuss it. Remember, for them if you didn’t have it perfectly memorised you might accidentally misrepresent the word of God, that was no laughing matter for a Jew. (I wish my memory was that good!) It was not uncommon for a Jew to memorise the whole of the Old Testament by age 14 — They took Proverbs 3:3 seriously where it says “write the law on the tablet of their heart”

The Talmud describes a person should be like a “well-plastered cistern which would not even let a single drop escape”. Ancient Jews were able to memorise huge portions of scripture, this is nothing like the modern telephone game.

Many Rabbis had the Old Testament committed to memory and there are traditions that when a scribe over months finally finished finishing a new copy of the Hebrew Scriptures they took it to the most trusted Rabbi in the area and he would check it against the copy that he had perfectly memorised! We can barely conceive of such things, yet there are Jewish orthodox rabbis in the 21st century especially in Israel who have achieved such a feat. It’s no myth this practice of memorisation.

This is the world the Gospel writers are brought up in. The gospel writers treated Jesus’ life and teaching as uniquely important even sacred, this would have given them every reason and ability to want to preserve it. 

Teaching would have been taught openly for the whole community to hear and repeated many times for those present to memorise. Thus an entire community would be familiar with a teaching and be able to correct any errors that stem

“If you go back 2,000 years, oral tradition was the way that sacred beliefs, personal family information, tribal and national, patriotic traditions were passed along. Education was almost entirely by rote memorisation. It was not unusual for Greek school children to have Homer’s Iliad or Odyssey or large portions of it committed to memory or for young Jewish boys to have large parts of the Hebrew Scriptures, what Christians call the Old Testament commuted to memory”. 

Craig Blomberg 

Scholarly opinions

What do academic scholars who’ve studied oral traditions in various cultures treat it like the telephone game? No, they really don’t.

What many have stated is that many in the West have overlooked the value in preservation that can be found in oral transmissions among various cultures source:

The Method And Message of Jesus’ Teachings.

Tony M. Lentz in Orality and literacy in Hellenic Greece on p2 states: 

“Western academic measurement of success by literacy and printed research coloured the expectation of classical scholars as they considered writing in ancient culture. Writing was so important to their world that they assumed it was key to the growth of ancient culture.” 

Johanna Draper in Oral Performance, Popular Tradition, and hidden Transcript in Q, on p72 states:

“embedded oral forms and traditions allow people to remember astonishing amounts of material, while at the same time ensuring that the material is to some extent fluid and adaptable. For instance, the praise poems of the Zulu Kings collected by Trevor Cope, show both stability and partial verbatim agreement from one performance to another, but also considerable variety in ordering and choice of possible components to suit the occasion”. 

The scholar Kenneth Bailey who worked for years in the Middle East in his work Informal Controlled Oral Traditions and synoptic Gospels on p8 speaks of people retaining large amounts to memory and accurately preserving historical data orally for several years. “We are here observing a community that can create (over the centuries) and sustain in current usage up to 6,000 wisdom sayings.” The key extraction here is that it is a community, not a single individual preserving the content.

There are techniques in the Hebrew language, signs and symbols which aid in memorisation which helps in training ones memory (One example would be the parallelism present in the Oral Creed. Corinthians 15: 3-8 which is discussed elsewhere).

David Carr notes in his work  Writing on the Tablet of the Heart, on p27-28 that in Mesopotamia

…more advanced students appear to have learned through a process of dictation and recitation… Students …not only had to memorise individual elements of standard works but also be able to place the texts they had memorised in the correct order”

This is like the process modern actors use to enable them to remember large amounts of content on stage during their extended scenes.

Ancient teachers would repeat their teachings over and over would do so until it was retained as memory. People from the ancient world up through the medieval era put such an emphasis on memory.

The scholar Mary Carruthers in her work The Book of Memory on p14 says to summarise the culture:

“A person without memory if such a thing could be, would be a person without moral character and in the basic sense, without humanity”. 

Ancient Judea was no exception to this principle. David Carr noted that

“Josephus recorded Jews could recite their laws easier than their names”

Writing on the Tablet of the Heart, p247-249

This was the culture Jesus and the apostles were born and raised into and the standard was to use your memory. So there is no reason to think that Jesus and his disciples could not retain large amounts of his teaching, such a standard would have been expected in being the disciple of a Rabbi.

3 forms of oral tradition

We have discussed previously that in the first century there were models of oral tradition and preservation based on reciting texts written down, but what about the New Testament? How did the disciples preserve what was said without writing down anything for the first 15-20 years (Based on typical dates, it is quite possible other New Testament books predate Galatians, the Book of James for one has been suggested and others). 

What Kenneth Bailey has done will help in terms of accessing which Oral model we should use, but for now we can spell out three types of Oral Tradition. 

The first of the three is Informal, uncontrolled orality (Known as the Rumour mill). This process would have no one watching over the process and the ideas would radically change over time often towards the needs of the community. Scholars who hold to this view would be sceptics like Bart Ehrman and figures like Rudolf Bultmann. Bultmann for example considered the gap so big between manuscripts and the cross that a different Jesus would come out before the penning of the Gospels. He considered this ditch so big you could not get over it. This is where the Informal model takes you. Bart Ehrman gives this formula his ringing endorsement:

“Even the gospels pose problems for historians however, since they were written long after the facts they narrate by people who had not witnessed the events they described and who relied on inconsistent oral and written traditions about Jesus”

The second model is Formal and controlled oral tradition. This model was more like the Jewish Rabbi’s, only certain people were allowed to share the message and had to be trained word for word. As attractive as this model sounds, the Gospels do have intentional differences in them. The core of the story is never swayed from, but the descriptions or how much attention given to certain points is not the same. This model is precision across the board down to the very word.

The third and final model is known as Informal and Controlled

This model was first proposed by Kenneth Bailey. Kenneth lived amongst Bedouin’s as a missionary for several years. He saw the informal and controlled processes. Anyone was allowed to tell the story, but the core of the story can’t change. So in this method, some variation is allowed, but the jist of the main story must always remain the same. There are overseers of the core story, if the story varies too much, the leaders correct them protecting what was passed down to them. Bailey is claiming when he listens to the Bedouins he hears what he sees in the gospel… the same story is told with a little bit of variation but with gist identical. This does indeed happen in the gospels — the Core is the same but with variations from individual perspectives of the same setting. A wide number of New Testament scholars accept this method (Interestingly enough in Law, if all stories vary widely, there is suspicion of a cover up , if they are identical, there is suspicion of corroboration, but if they vary only on the non fundamentals but the core story is the same, there is considered an increased level of reliability).

This oral culture also likely imitates the Old Testament structure. At first, it would be told, the teachings protected and once written down, it would’ve been authoritatively defended word for word to avoid the risk of alteration. That is where the formal and controlled model for Rabbi’s kicks in. There are times in the Old Testament also where Moses is told to write everything down, Jeremiah is told to gather up all his writings and compile them, so he clearly took notes. 

Craig Blomberg tells us that Small christian communities gathered for worship or other social fellowship and they had authorised speakers, trusted leaders given the responsibility of regularly retelling the sacred tradition so newcomers could learn it and oldcomers could have it reinforced but not necessarily word for word on every occasion. There was flexibility in the transmission of the account but within fixed limits. On one occasion a storyteller may take an hour, on another 3 hours.  

There also would have been plenty of occasion to leave certain bits out, put certain bits back in, to abbreviate, to speak more expansively, to arrange material topically or thematically, not always chronologically and to paraphrase peoples speech in a world without quotation marks for many felt no need for them. We see sometimes like with the Gospel of John, he writes his Gospel with a format to illustrate points at certain times, like a presentation whereas Matthew tells a Jewish biography of Jesus and makes reference. Two formats, the same story.

The 1st century scholar Josephus does something similar. He wrote a huge work called “Biblical Antiquities: the History of The Jewish People from the Creation of the World on”. He then wrote a more focused work on the Jewish war focusing around the time period of AD 70.

In some cases Josephus tells identical stories in both works, quotes the same people in both but usually he rarely uses the identical words, but the story is the same. Part of being a good ancient historian was to vary the way you told things while still representing what happened to show you weren’t plagiarising. This wasn’t a world with footnotes were Josephus could reference previous works so he would say the same thing in a different style and would show this new work wasn’t an overreliance on his previous one. 

These examples from the Old and New Testaments as well as Josephus all fall within the flexible limits of reliable testimony.

A study by a Harvard professor named A.B. Lord discovered that in the cultures he studied in the Middle East in these oral contexts of retelling epic sagas and sacred tradition from one setting to the next, there was seldom less than 10% variation of detail and seldom with more than 40% variation generally.

Interestingly, seldom do the synoptic gospels not have at least about 10% variation amongst parallels and seldom do they have more than about 40% variation. A.B. Lord’s study conveniently aligns with the New Testament Gospels picture and this would be due to the influence of an informal but controlled oral tradition.



Is memory a problem?

The Challenge of John Dominic Crossan

Does memory leak? yes it does sometimes, like remembering what you ate 3 weeks ago on a Tuesday (In most instances). John Dominic Crossan has made an accusation against memory and has used the Challenger disaster as it was a very famous experiment on memory that took place at Emory University. This was the space shuttle that had the Junior High science teacher Christa McAuliffe as one of the people who was going to go into space and it exploded on takeoff. The whole of the USA was traumatised that this everyday citizen died in this crash. Emory University said they do an experiment, invite freshmen students in and ask them these questions

  1. Where they were when they heard or saw about the disaster? 
  2. how did they hear about it? 

Three years later when they were now seniors they asked of them the same questions again. Emory compared what they said three years later with what they said three years earlier.  About the half of the people gave different answers. They show the students their answers and detail their nuances. They ask them which answers reflect what they remember and in most cases they remembered the more recent telling rather than the one which was closer to the time of the event. So the Emory psychologists who were doing this study concluded that memory leaks. So could the same principle apply to the Gospels?

The problem of John Dean

 John Dean was the key witness in the Watergate episode and he was said to have had a terrific memory when he testified before Congress about conversations what exactly what was said etc. The tape recorders recorded everything that was said (The tape recorder was a recent invention at the time). Some scholars decided “Why don’t we take what John Dean said and then later testing again and recorded on tape and compare?”

 the results showed John Dean made mistakes all over the place. He had conversations on the wrong dates the details he really messed up but what he didn’t mess up was the gist of the story. Many of the results of memory will tell you that word for word, these retelling are not correct, what the data doesn’t highlight and state is that the basic story, the key components to rebuild this story are correct. John may forget dates, but could remember events in the correct order and flow form event to event. Details like the exact date or time would be secondary to the events at hand, but what can be said is those events did happen.

Response to Crossan’s Challenger example

So the Challenger example perpetuated by Dr Crossan was a study that involved people who had nothing at stake in what was being remembered. These students had no investment in the Space Program other than patriotism—they won’t ever going to climb in that rocket and go up into space. 

What might the results be if they ask people, instead of students from Emory University they asked someone with a close connection like the astronauts who have to climb up into the spaceship one day and go into space. There have been studies to show that the retention of memory when something is at stake is much better when it is just a random memory even if it’s a social traumatic memory.

The apostles had something at stake in what they were remembering about Jesus. Their lives were on the line in many cases, they aren’t going to fabricate themselves to get into trouble unless they’re all insane. Yet the account of their testimony did get them into trouble, they wanted to be sure to get it right. 

This view of memory is now a widely accepted view of memory. Significance to an event helps you remember details more clearly. The memories and the stories of Jesus’s life were told to be retold.

“There’s a difference between what happened two days ago which was a benigne event and what we call psychologically an impact event. An impact event is an event that impacts you so dramatically you’ll never forget what happened. For example, where were you when the second plane hit the tower? That was 15+ years ago But I can remember where I was, Who I was talking to… The question is, do you think a resurrection would have been an impact event? Do you think if Jesus really rose from the dead that would have had an impact on the people that saw him after he has resurrected? Yeah, they would have remembered that till their grave”. I have no doubt that even if the eyewitnesses wrote it down 20 years later+ doesn’t matter, they would have remembered it”.

Frank Turek, Apologist, CrossExamined – Film: The God Who Speaks

The resurrection was an impact event, you would remember it, and you would be able to transmit the jist of this. Next is social memory and then looking at the Bible to see if it has signals that this document was designed to be memorable.

Social memory & it’s combination with oral tradition

So we’ve discussed oral tradition, a response to lacking memory, but how does a strong social memory and oral tradition combine? We will conclude that in this next section 

Social memory is what happens when a group of people on repeated occasions talk about, recite, narrate, reflect on key events in their history as a group. When you know a church plant and you go visit it, ask them how the church was birthed and how it grew. You will get variations but similar key structures. They will give you the highlights of the story. This is the model the 1st century Christians would have been used “Let’s tell you about the highlights of Jesus, let’s tell you about the key teachings of Jesus, let’s tell you about the key miracles, let’s tell you about that turning point when he started talking about the cross and we didn’t have a clue what he meant, and it went from bad to worse…and then there was a resurrection! A literal one!”.

Social memory can preserve for community what people might forget otherwise or not no otherwise

There are obviously some chance risks. Some in the community might spin a story in a way they wish it had been and then often when they reflect that’s the version they remember. Social memory is not an automatic guarantee the people will hear the story straight. However if we combine social memory of the person with an oral tradition of the time, what you get are memories preserved in the community early on, distributed so that even if one might go astray, the rest would be able to fact check.

if we think of Peter and John going to checkup on the gospel when it went to Samaria in Acts 8, they discover there is a deficiency. The people there had not been baptised in the Holy Spirit. So Peter and Paul go correct that deficiency.

Paul in Acts 19 asking a group of people who Luke simply calls disciples, believers, followers of Jesus a few diagnostic questions. But something lead him to be suspicious of their belief to be inadequate. They claimed to be followers of John the Baptist but they said “we haven’t been baptised with the Holy Spirit, we’ve never heard that there was a Holy Spirit”. Any Jew would’ve known there was a Holy Spirit, it was all over the Old Testament so obviously they were gentiles and somehow the message of John the Baptist had made it all the way from Israel to western Turkey and yet only in part. So Paul lead them to a full understanding both of John and of Jesus and gave them full fledged Christian baptism.

That’s how the model handles checks and balances in early Christian history. Using this combined with a guarded tradition being informal controlled condition and with social memory, we can have great optimism that what we find in the gospels even when it differs from parallel accounts is likely to be reliable.

Here’s an interesting modern parallel. Before children learn to read or write, they are oral learners specifically. They learn by listening and retaining. Often when you read to kids, you read the same story over and over again and it becomes fixed in their memory. Your kid demands “that” specific story each time. Now, if you are a witty (and brave) parent, try and chance a detail in the story and see if they notice, it’ll keep them on their toes! You’ll notice when you change the name of one of Snow White’s Dwarves You may hear the words “mummy/daddy, that’s not how it goes…”. At this point you should listen to the command of your children and readjust the story or they may inform you of your mistake. Their lives in this case arn’t even dependant on remembering the story, but they are well rehearsed in remembering it. The Apostles not only learned the same thing over and over again (as we’ll discuss the finer details in the next article), but they had an oral tradition to keep everything in check.

So what we have is

  1. Strong social memories of significant events in the lives of the early Christians
  2. A workable model of oral tradition that is informal and controlled
  3. Once it was written down would very much become a more Formal and controlled like the Rabbi’s Old Testament guarding

So Which category does the New Testament lie in?

Controlled or uncontrolled New Testament?

So the Apostles are certainly in a culture of the Rabbinic Formal and controlled oral tradition and the claim is the first Christians exercised the informal and controlled tradition of their memories sealed shut by Christ himself. We know they can remember the events, give the highlights and not repeat Jesus’ same teachings 4,000 times when once or twice in different contexts may suffice. But Do the written documents of the New Testament signify they were to be remembered? Were they to be learned and shared as teaching? As opposed to a tax return or a Roman Historians 10 volumes of history? Basically, can we find signs of memory enhancement in early Christian text culture?

If memory enhancement structures exist in the text then there are clear indicators the text is meant to be memorised, not changed throughout time. There is without a shadow of a doubt, plenty of evidence within the New Testament which indicates a memorable goal.

Firstly, we know Jesus also taught in much the same way as Jewish rabbis of his era taught. It was a pupil-teacher relationship with his disciples. He spent time instructing them and expected them to obey and imitate him (Matthew 10:38; 11:28-30; 16:24; 20:28; 23:11)

The scholar Samuel Bricecog notes that Jesus expected his disciples to use him as a model. Early Christians also considered Jesus as God’s divine agent. His words would have been considered sacred.

Harold Riesenfeld says in Gospel Tradition and Beginnings, p10

“The words and deeds of Jesus are a holy word, comparable with that of the Old Testament, and handing down of his precious material is entrusted to special persons.”

We find also several techniques in the New Testament for enhancing memorisation

The first of which is Parables. These are stories and visuals that Jesus constantly used

As you can see, Jesus often used Parables. These would make teaching in th forms of stories easier to memorise. Many today can explain parables very well. If I were to ask you about the Prodigal Son or the 4 Soils many, especially churched, would be able to retell the jist structure of these stories in terms of plot, teaching and conclusion. 

Another memorable feature was the use of visuals or memorable images. Such examples would be in Mark 10:25 where it is said that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. Another in Matthew 7:3 Jesus speaking in hyperbole about getting the log out of your own eye before getting the speck out of their eye.A range of other examples to start you off with would be in: Matthew 5:29-30; 6:28-34; 10:34-35, Mark 2:17; Luke 6:20-26; 12:24-31, John 2:19-21)

The next would be forms of wordplay. One example of this type would be in Matthew 23:24 where Jesus gives a retort to the pharisees: “you blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel! The Aramaic word was likely chosen because of the Play on similarities in rhythmic delivery (Galma means Gnat but Galma is also Camel depending on how the sentence is formulated, see Matthew 16:18 also). 

The final category is Parallelismus membrorum. Scholars like Robert Stein and David E. Aune estimate 80% of Jesus’s teachings are what you would call parallelus membrorum which is to give a sentence in a similar form so that the passage has a pattern and rhythm.

We have a range of examples we can use here  

Matthew 7:17 “every healthy tree bears good fruit but the disease tree bears bad fruit”

Luke 11:9 “ask and it will be given to you, seek you will find, knock it will be opened to you”

Other examples in english: Matthew 5:45; 5:3-12, Mark 7:14-23; 9:37, Luke 6:20-22, John 3:14-15; 

Some Might assume the early church invented a controlled tradition

There are several problems with this logic

  1. There are memorisation techniques embedded into the text that they really didn’t need to add if there was no intention for this information to be taught in a controlled way
  2. If the words of Jesus were made up later to suit the needs of an early Christian Community why don’t they reflect actual problems at the early church faced why were the Teachings of Christ not invented to suit their needs such as later problems like if gentiles needed to be circumcised or what was the place for speaking in tongues or what the resurrected body would be like or answers to predestination vs free will based questions

This critique is a baseless conjecture.

Concluding remarks

We can know based on memorisation techniques that Jesus taught a controlled tradition in a way to enhance memorisation and this is evident.

This should be quite obvious to us in our culture since many modern catchphrases that we can think of come from Christ such as going extra mile (Matthew 5:41) being a prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) or a wolf in sheep’s clothing (Matthew 7:15) (see. more here https://unlockingthebible.org/2012/03/37-common-english-sayings-from-the-bible/ ).

It is also important to note that this way of teaching will encourage memorization of important doctrines and teachings, not necessarily exact wordings. Exact wording is not always what is important but the preservation of the Teachings and historical accounts are what’s important. Variations in the delivery can change, but as long as the same message is given. So when sceptics claim it’s a huge deal that we don’t have the exact words of Jesus they miss the point. The New Testament was meant to preserve the Teachings of Christ it is the message of the gospel that saves not the specific words.

For example

Luke 19:45: Then Jesus entered the Temple and began to drive out the people selling animals for sacrifices.

Matthew 21:12: Jesus entered the Temple and began to drive out all the people buying and selling animals for sacrifice. 

There really is no difference here, if you think there is then you have missed the point of the Gospel message.

Jocelyn Small says in Wax Tablets on the Mind, p6

“for oral cultures it is not the words but the story or the gist that counts”  

N.T Wright says

” if we come to the ministry of Jesus as first century historians and forget our 20th century assumptions about mass media, the overwhelming probability is that most of what Jesus said he said not twice but 200 times, with of course a myriad of local variations”.

We see something like this in Matthews Sermon on the mount (Matthew 5-7) and Luke’s recording of the Sermon on the plains (Luke 6:17-49)

Another example, Matthew 6 Jesus gives the Lord’s Prayer, in Luke 11 Jesus gives the Lords prayer to the disciples after he has been praying with partial variation.

In a nutshell, Christ ministered for 3 years and would likely of repeated the same message to different crowds which would encourage memorization amongst his closest followers. The Essential doctrines and teachings would have been hammered into their Memories by having heard them over and over again in almost every place he went.

As John Wenham says in Redating Matthew Mark and Luke, on p79

“It is exceedingly unlikely that Jesus talking about prayer only once it is natural that he should have given the Lords prayer and his ask seek knock sayings more than once and not always in identical order.” 

There is a clear indication specific eyewitnesses and followers of Jesus were trusted preserving this tradition 

Very early on, there are signals the early Christians were busy preserving the teaching’s of Christ. Luke begins his gospel by telling us he received his information from eyewitnesses and ministers of the word (Luke 1:1-2). 

The “Ministers of the word” in English comes from the Greek word Luke uses huperetus which is the Hebrew word for Hazzan. The Hazzan in Judea were responsible for keeping the scrolls in the synagogue. So in Luke, he received his information from the Hazzans of the word, the protectors of this Christ eyewitness testimony. The usage of the single definite article in Luke makes it likely that these were carefully selected eyewitnesses who were trusted with keeping the oral tradition in check. Therefore we have evidence the tradition was protected and preserved by designated authoritative eyewitnesses

The New Testament scholar Darrel Bock mentions

“If you remember in Acts Chapter 1 when Jesus is being replaced, the requirement for his replacement is that he had to be with the ministry from the beginning and the reason is that the apostles had a role in overseeing this tradition. In fact Luke refers to those who already reported the tradition in the churches as those who are eyewitnesses and ministers of the word from the beginning. So this role the apostles exercise a control in how this material is being passed on from church to church”.

These are possibly the Hazzan Luke mentions as those who were witness to everything.

Scholars on how long oral tradition can remain sustained clearly

Scholars estimate the reliability of oral tradition can last for over a century before we could expect corruption to seep in. Gilbert Garraghan in A Guide to Historical Method, p259-262 says the limit is 150 years before corruption would seep in. Marlene Ciklamini in Old Norse Epic and Historical Tradition, p21 sets the limit at 200 years. This is well within the timeline of when the New Testament was written even if we take the latest dates for when the books were written. There is no reason to doubt the oral tradition of the New Testament and there is plenty of evidence that indicates it is indeed reliable.

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