5. The Gospel Traditions

With this article (Part Five) we turn a corner away from archaeology and non-Christian written references to Gospel persons (the last three articles). Now we discuss the preservation of Jesus’ ministry — his words and activity — after his crucifixion (and resurrection) and up to the time when the Gospels were written.

This article (and the next three) explores a subject that most Gospel readers take for granted or overlook (I certainly did).

The disciples were keeping careful track of what Jesus was saying and doing during his ministry, but for simplicity, here is the gap that the next three articles will cover:

Jesus’ ministry |                      | Written Gospels

Those little vertical bars do not signify hard, fixed barriers. Rather, they simply work well from an ordinary keyboard! The disciples were transmitting and handing on the teachings and deeds of Jesus during his ministry — recall their first mission without him in Matthew 10, Mark 6, and Luke 9 and 10. Jesus was training them to go out on their own. Eventually, some of his teachings and deeds were written down in the Biblical Gospels.

So the questions are — How was the ministry of Jesus passed on for a few decades until they were written in the Gospels we have now? What was this process like during that timeframe? Was the process stable and reliable or fluid and haphazard?

Scholarship and journalism that tear down Scripture can be found everywhere in the popular media. The stage between the ministry of Jesus and the written Gospels has been attacked in scholarship since about 1920. Certain scholars claim that much of what Jesus said and did was invented by the later church for its own needs; perhaps a kernel was preserved reliably. This claim has permeated many seminaries and churches. Some who crave the media spotlight gleefully reinforce it. On the other side, more recent scholarship balances out – overturns? – hyper-skeptical starting points. We need to keep up with the new scholarship.

Knowledge is the best antidote to confusion that comes from assaults on the Gospels by the media and certain schools of scholarship.

So the goal of this article (and the entire series) is to summarize and to bring onto the web the best of scholarship that supports the historical reliability of the Gospels. Two very important scholars indeed are highlighted in this article, Birger Gerhardsson and Kenneth Bailey.

This article is designed for beginners. I hope I can keep things simple and readable, so that’s why I use the Q & A format.

Here in Part Five, I do not deal with the doctrine of the Gospels’ inerrancy or infallibility or inspiration, but with their historical reliability by the standards of their own times.

Before we begin, recall that Matthew, Mark, and Luke have a lot of passages in common, so they are called the synoptic Gospels (synoptic means viewed together). The authors are sometimes called synoptists. The writers of the four Gospels are also called evangelists. Slashes // mean parallel passages among them.

Hovering over the references below will bring up the NET Bible version on each of these.

Let’s get introduced to the subject by getting right to the definition of a key word.

1. What is a tradition?

A good working definition in the early Christian context comes in four parts.

First, the what or the content: it encompasses both the oral teachings and the demonstrated deeds or activities of Jesus (see the fourth part of this definition).

Second, who passed on the traditions? The earliest followers cherished them and wanted to live by them and pass them on. Many of them followed Jesus from the beginning (John 15:27; Luke 1:2-3; Acts 1:21-22). Those who pass on traditions are called “transmitters,” “traditioners,” and “tradents” in scholarship.

Third, the significance of Jesus and the motive of the disciples are factored into the definition. They followed Jesus because, among other reasons, they saw something significant happening. Their awareness of his charismatic presence, authoritative teaching, and miracles strengthened their motive to carefully observe his deeds and attentively listen to his words and retain them. This new beginning, which would change their lives forever, was not ordinary or run-of-the-mill.

The fourth part of the definition is the how of passing on traditions, sometimes called the “traditioning” process or “transmitting.” The disciples passed on stories about Jesus’ words and deeds, in performance. Specifically, the disciples recounted them as narratives (stories), in a community. Indeed, his actions, such as healings, were actually done by the disciples in imitation of him and in obedience to his commands (cf. Matt. 10:1-42; 28:16-20; the entire Book of Acts).

Eventually, the oral teachings and visual deeds of Jesus were written down. It was up to the Gospel writers to sift through the traditions and to include or exclude some of them from their Gospels (John 21:25).

2. Does the New Testament mention traditions and related terms?

Yes, in many passages. We don’t need to quote them, for that would take up too much space. Instead, hovering over the references below will bring up the NET Bible version on each of these.

Tradition or traditions: Matt 15:2; Mark 7:3, 5; 1 Corinthians 11:2; 2 Thessalonians 2:15; 3:6

Passing on or receiving traditions: Mark 7:4, 13; 1 Corinthians 11:23; 15:1, 3; Galatians 1:9; Philippians 4:9; 1 Thessalonians 2:13; 4:1; 2 Thessalonians 3:6

Holding to traditions: Mark 7:3, 8, 9; Matthew 15:2 (“transgress” the tradition); 2 Thessalonians 2:15, 3:6; 1 Corinthians 11:2; 15:1; 1 Timothy 5:21, 6:14, 20; 2 Timothy 1:14

“Thus Paul and the evangelists are conscious of the fact that the Jews of their time have a tradition – consisting of many traditions – which they scrupulously maintain” (Gerhardsson, Reliability, p. 15). Again Gerhardsson writes about Paul’s letters: “In Paul’s time, there exists a conscious, deliberate, and programmatic transmission in the early church” (p. 16, emphasis original).

3. Why is the historical context of traditions important?

The historical context is always important when we study Scripture or the process that supports Scripture, namely, the tradition process. It can be clarified, first, by looking at the Jewish environment, with a quick look at the Greco-Roman context. Then we will step out of the ancient context and touch on oral culture(s) in the Middle East in modern times. How was transmitting traditions done by them?

4. What is Jesus’ historical context?

Jesus and the disciples lived in first-century Israel about four decades before the destruction of temple in AD 70. (Go here for an image of the Arch of Titus, and look for the Jewish Menorah and more sculpted on the Arch, taken as booty from Jerusalem.)

But the methods of passing on traditions (see the next Q & A) apply before and after this extremely significant event. Jesus and his disciples lived in a religious environment that treasured teachings from leaders. Their disciples passed on their teachings in ways that excel our own age; the ancients lived before camcorders and tape recorders, but the followers retained what they heard and saw, using deliberate methods. This is particularly true when disciples were following a very significant person, in their eyes.

5. How was passing on traditions done in this context?

In the Reliability of the Gospel Tradition, Birger Gerhardsson lists some of the methods by which the teachers and their disciples passed on and received oral teachings. These practices and methods are general enough to occur throughout the development of the oral traditions in Jewish laws and stories (p. 10). This last sentence means that we do not need to overemphasize the destruction of the temple in AD 70, as if these practices and methods suddenly appeared in a vacuum after that date (see the previous Q & A).

Memorization: this was essential before the art of writing became common. It was “not some sophisticated academic specialty but rather a decidedly popular means of retaining articulated knowledge” (p. 10, emphasis original).

Text and commentary: “First of all, an oral text must be, as it were, written on the student’s memory; only then can exegesis begin. The principle was: First learn, then understand” (p. 10).

Brevity: teachers must not be wordy, but teach tersely and incisively (p. 10).

Poetic and didactic devices: teachers made use of them to clarify their ideas, such as “picturesque or pointed formulations” (p. 10). The teachers often used parables (meshalim in Hebrew) (p. 43). . . . “Everything suggests that devoted disciples memorized [parables and logia (pithy sayings or legal rulings)] already at the time their master taught them during his ministry in Galilee and Jerusalem” (p. 45).

Repetition: “the teachers would repeat their points word by word, several times, and the students would then reiterate those same points over and over until they knew them by heart” (p. 11). “In light of the ancient Jewish methods of teaching, it seems clear to me that Jesus presented such a saying two or more times in an effort to impress it upon the minds (‘hearts’) of his hearers. Among the rabbis we can see how evident it was that a teacher would repeat the texts until his pupils knew them by heart; four repetitions seem to have been common” (p. 44). See Deuteronomy 6:6-7; Joshua 1:8; and Psalm 1:1-2.

Recitation: this was not done in an ordinary way, but rhythmically and melodiously. In the ancient world, reading was normally done out loud with special intonation (p. 11).

The art of writing: the Pharisees and the teachers of the law distinguished the written Torah (first five books of the Bible) from the oral torah or traditions (the interpretations and opinions on the written Torah). The Pharisees and teachers of the law did not accept any written books containing oral torah in New Testament times, before the destruction of the temple in AD 70. But they did make “private notations of material found in the oral tradition” (emphasis original). Private notations were also taken in the schools or intellectual circles in the Hellenistic world (pp. 11-13). If I may add a comment, the larger Hellenistic world takes our study out of the Jewish context. But this strengthens the claim that at least some of the earliest followers of Jesus likely wrote things down, if only in notes, for the followers were fitting into their larger historical context. Indeed, it would be strange if they did not write things down, particularly since they believed that Jesus spoke words of the utmost importance, of life and death. All of this will be clarified in a future article (go now to Part Eight).

Struggle against lifeless knowledge: a student should enter into the study of tradition, so that he understands and is in agreement with it. He lives according to it. “A living bearer of the tradition is to be like a torch which has been lit by an older torch, in order that it might itself light others” (p. 14).

See Gerhardsson, pp. 72-74, for cautionary notes on over-applying these methods. In the next article, however, we shall see that Richard Bauckham advances or finds additional evidence to support some of Gerhardsson’s conclusions (go now to Part Six).

6. What’s the bottom line on Gerhardsson’s study?

He writes his overall conclusion in the preface of his book:

For my part, I have become convinced that we can hear the voice of Jesus himself in the Gospels. His pronouncements and the narratives about his actions have been interpreted and clarified by his disciples, but they reach us nevertheless in reliable form. These small texts have been handed down to posterity by devoted and faithful adherents who wanted nothing other than to receive the message of their master, and that in such a way they would be able to preserve it and clarify it for others, so that they might know as much as possible about Jesus Christ, the crucified, resurrected, and living Lord of the church. (p. xxiv)

Gerhardsson also writes about the wording of Jesus, as remembered by his disciples: “Even with regard to the wording of the Jesus tradition – and here primarily that of the sayings tradition – the Gospels reflect the fact that the material has been preserved with respect and care” (p. 50).

7. What about storytelling cultures in the Middle East today?

We can move forward from the ancient world and take a quick look at cultures in the Middle East that tell stories as a means to stake out a social group’s identity and to provide edification and instruction. Rev. Dr. Kenneth Bailey was formerly Theologian in Residence in the Episcopal Church in Jerusalem and the Middle East (Cyprus) and Research Professor of Middle Eastern NT Studies (Jerusalem). He has had extensive experience with Middle Eastern life. He says that village life has not changed much in two thousand years, except for some modern gadgets. I refer to his article “Informal Controlled Oral Traditions and the Synoptic Gospels” (see link, below).

Specifically, he observed villagers and their storytellers who gather together to tell stories and recite poetry. He lays out two main alternatives on how they preserve and tell their stories and ensure their accuracy: informal controlled oral traditions and formal controlled oral traditions. (We do not need to examine the informal uncontrolled model, which he does not apply to the Gospels.) But he applies one of the two models to the oral traditions lying behind the synoptic Gospels.

He defines informal controlled traditions, thus: “By informal we mean that there is no set teacher and no specifically identified student” (p. 6, emphasis original). The gathering is informal. But there are elders and gifted men and the socially more prominent who tend to do the reciting. The storytelling is also controlled by the seated community (p. 7). If the storyteller is going off track, he will be corrected. But the storyteller is allowed a small degree of flexibility, particularly in parables and recollections of historical peoples and events.

This model is contrasted with a formal controlled oral tradition. The material that is passed on “is controlled in the sense that the material is memorized (and / or written), identified as ‘tradition’ and thus preserved intact” (p. 4). As to the persons, “in the recitation of formal controlled oral tradition there is a specifically identified teacher with a recognized title and a specifically identified student. The two of them often meet in a special building, a school or college” (p. 6, emphasis original). Here the traditions have no flexibility while being transmitted.

8. Which model does Bailey apply to the Synoptics?

He applies the informal controlled model, but he also says that there are no absolute categories (p. 10). He goes on to affirm that perhaps “the pedagogy [teaching and training] of the rabbinic schools may well lie behind some of the material” in the synoptic Gospels (p. 10). This agrees in spirit with Gerhardsson’s study (see Q & A Five, above).

Richard Bauckham insightfully connects Bailey’s findings with Gospel eyewitnesses in retelling and controlling the traditions, particularly in Jerusalem, not only in Israel’s villages (pp. 252-62; 269-71; 298-300). See Bailey, “Middle Eastern Oral Tradition and the Synoptic Gospels” (pp. 366-67). Plus, in the next article, we shall learn how Bauckham argues, successfully, for a formal and controlled (but somewhat flexible) tradition process leading up to the written Gospels (go now to Part Six).

9. Isn’t storytelling like this a lot like playing “Telephone”?

That game is intended to be humorous. A group of people whisper a few words or lines to each other, one person at a time. By the time the last person receives the phrases or words, they have been altered significantly. But this game is not even close to how oral cultures pass on their sacred stories. The cultures exert controls over the telling process, unlike Telephone. Bailey quickly dispenses with this comparison in “Middle Eastern Oral Tradition and the Synoptic Gospels.” He clarifies how Western youth leaders played the game with Middle Eastern students. “To the amazement and dismay of the western guest, the story emerges almost intact at the end of the game. In such cases what is passed on is irrelevant material” (p. 366). But in the informal gatherings of villagers in the Middle East, the material is highly significant. So this means that the storytellers take extra-care in transmitting a story.

Also see Mark D. Robert’s link, below, for more discussion on “Telephone” as contrasted with storytelling in the Middle East.

10. So what’s the bottom line on Bailey’s study?

Here are two key excerpts from a long concluding paragraph. Bailey writes:

Thus, in summary and conclusion, here we have observed a classical methodology for the preservation, control and transmission of tradition that provides, on the one hand, assurance of authenticity and, on the other hand, freedom within limits for various forms of that tradition. Furthermore, the types of material that appear in the Synoptic Gospels include primarily the same forms that we have found preserved by informal controlled oral tradition such as proverbs, parables, poems, dialogues, conflict stories and historical narratives . . .

. . . In the light of the reality described above the assumption that the early Christians were not interested in history becomes untenable. To remember the words and deeds of Jesus of Nazareth was to affirm their own unique identity. The stories had to be told and controlled or everything that made them who they were was lost. (p. 10, emphasis original)

But one problem with his study is that it is anecdotal, without a large enough sample of stories and storytellers. You may read Bailey’s study online, linked below. As noted, in the next article, Bauckham will strengthen and clarify parts of Bailey’s study (go now to Part Six).

11. Do you have an example of oral traditions being passed on and received?

You are invited to go to Young’s Literal Translation at Bible Gateway; then type in these two references on the Last Supper: Luke 22:15-20 and 1 Corinthians 11:23-26. Recall that neither Luke nor Paul (author of 1 Corinthians) sat at the table on the night Jesus was betrayed. Also, Paul’s letter was written before Luke’s Gospel, so Paul probably received his tradition orally. They agree almost entirely, but they have small variations.

12. What’s the bottom line for the historical reliability of the Synoptics?

In my opinion, the eyewitnesses and ministers of the Word from the beginning (Luke 1:2-3) were careful to preserve and pass on accurately the traditions about Jesus. Their smaller, briefer traditions were woven together in a skillfully crafted whole and integral storyline. Yet the transmitters were allowed some small variations or flexibility in retelling the story. But they recounted them within firm limits. It is not as if a storyteller or author could change the ending (i.e. the resurrection) of the Easter story, for example. Nor could he or she change essential elements even in a small passage or pericope (unit or section).

13. What does all of this mean to the dates of the Gospels?

The “dating game.” Many scholars date the synoptic Gospels after the destruction of the temple in AD 70. More traditional scholars may agree on this, but they want to stay as close to that year as possible. And some date them, especially Mark, before then. However, the oral traditions lead us back long before the destruction of the temple in AD 70. So the “dating game,” though important, takes second place, in my opinion. In the Gospels the very words (especially short sayings) and voice of Jesus have been treasured and reliably remembered and eventually recorded.

14. What does all of this mean in comparison to the Gnostic “gospels”?

No one can be confident that Jesus said or did what the Gnostic authors claim about him. Their writings are indeed imaginary inventions and fictions. Not-so-paradoxically, this is the exact accusation leveled against the Biblical Gospels, but now we can see that the accusation is wrong. It is the Gnostic texts that can stand accused. Next, the Gnostic texts come much later, with perhaps a few earlier traditions found in one or two texts, clearly derived from the Biblical Gospels. So, it is the Biblical Gospels that take us back to the authentic words and voice of Jesus, not back to the inventive imagination of the disciples.

15. What does all of this mean for the Church of all denominations?

Gospel traditions? Who knew? All of this may seem weird to web readers who take Scripture seriously. (I certainly learned new things while writing this article.) Like me, you may prefer to read the Gospels in their final form or what we have now. That preference is normal – and wise. That’s what we learned in church. But the articles in this series need to get onto the web, not only for average web readers, but especially for high school and college students, for pastors and priests and Sunday school and catechism teachers and home Bible study leaders. The historical reliability of the Gospels – and therefore the Gospels themselves – has come under attack over the popular media and the worldwide web, just a click away.

Education is the best antidote to these attacks.

Articles in the Series

Related Series

  1. New Testament Manuscripts: Preliminary Questions and Answers
  2. Basic Facts on Producing New Testament Manuscripts
  3. Discovering and Classifying New Testament Manuscripts
  4. The Manuscripts Tell the Story: The New Testament Is Reliable
  1. Church Fathers and Matthew’s Gospel
  2. Church Fathers and Mark’s Gospel
  3. Church Fathers and Luke’s Gospel
  4. Church Fathers and John’s Gospel

References and Further Reading

Nearly all of these entries are technical, so I again recommend Roberts’ book and blog to get you started; then go on to Gerhardsson’s Reliability. After that, get Bauckham’s long book.

Kenneth E Bailey. “Middle Eastern Oral Tradition and the Synoptic Gospels.” The Expository Times 106 (1995) 12:263-67. This is the later, shorter version

—. “Informal Controlled Oral Traditions and the Synoptic Gospels.” It is online at www.biblicalstudies.org.uk. This is the earlier, longer version; read this for the more thorough analysis.

Richard Bauckham. Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony. Eerdmans, 2006. The antidote to skeptical starting points in scholarship over the past several decades, but the book is for the advanced.

Michael F. Bird. “In Defence of Gerhardsson.” Euangelion July 13, 2007. Clicking on that link, go to his article in Westminster Theological Journal 67 (2005) 113-94.

Samuel Byrskog. Jesus the Only Teacher: Didactic Authority and Transmission in Ancient Israel, Ancient Judaism & the Matthean Community. (Coniectanea Biblica New Testament Series, No. 24). Almqvist & Wiksell International, 1994.

—. Story as History, History as Story: the Gospel Tradition in the Context of Ancient Oral History. Brill, 2000.

James D. G. Dunn. Jesus Remembered. Vol. 1. Eerdman’s, 2003. Pp. 173-254, especially, pp. 205-10.

Birger Gerhardsson. Memory and Manuscript: Oral Tradition and Written Tradition in Rabbinic Judaism and Early Christianity. Rev. ed. Eerdman’s, 1998. It has a generous foreword by the Talmudic scholar Jacob Neusner. At first he did not agree with Gerhardsson, but later changed his mind. The foreword is a way to correct his earlier opinion.

—. Reliability of the Gospel Tradition. Hendrickson, 2001. See especially the first chapter. Get this second, after Roberts.

Mark D. Roberts. Can We Trust the Gospels? Crossway, 2007. See Chapter 6. Get this first.

—. “Storytelling and Early Christianity.” Markdroberts.com. September 21, 2005. Read his blog; get his book, and then read Gerhardsson’s Reliability.

—. “Was Oral Tradition Like Playing Telephone?” Markdroberts.com. September 22, 2005.

William O. Walker. The Relationships among the Gospels: an Interdisciplinary Dialogue. Trinity: 1978. An emailer told me that Homer and the oral epic is the best model for understanding Gospel transmission. His email assumed that I had not studied Homer, though I used to be able to read him in original Greek. I took a graduate seminar on him at UCLA, with this guy. (Homer is my favorite author in ancient Greek literature.) Anyway, a Greek oral epic poetry model is not the best way to understand Gospel transmissions; hardly any New Testament scholar today would advocate that notion. This dialogue has already taken place in 1978, with A. B. Lord, a notable Homerist, as a keynote speaker. But I concede that I have not yet looked into this book on Mark and the Homeric epics.

N. T. Wright. Jesus and the Victory of God. Augsburg Fortress, 1997. Pp. 133-37.

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