We continue the series, and this post is about how the stories and teachings and memories of the deeds of Jesus were transmitted before the first three Gospels were written down.
As noted in the previous article, we are talking about this gap:
Jesus’ ministry | | Written Synoptic Gospels
Those two vertical bars are not meant to be firm barriers, as if the disciples did not learn or observe anything during Jesus’ ministry and carried it forward past the first bar. But the question still remains: How were the teachings and deeds of Jesus handed on during the gap? Reliably or not?
Did the Gospels come about from the imagination and needs of early Christian communities, who substantially changed the traditions about Jesus, except a kernel, long after his ministry? Or were the Gospels founded on very early and reliable eyewitness testimonies and reports that were stably transmitted? How do we determine this?
The goal of the series, including this article (Part Six), is to bring onto the web what scholars say in their books, that is, scholarship that upholds a traditional view of Scripture. The series is intended for the laity, so I use the Q & A format, for clarity.
More specifically, the goal of this article is to zero in on two scholars: Richard Bauckham and Samuel Byrskog. Bauckham clarifies and improves on the findings in the previous article, particularly Kenneth Bailey’s study. Byrskog examines Greco-Roman literature to find certain analogies between them and the Gospels. We also look briefly at Paul Eddy’s and Gregory Boyd’s book, and Roberts’ book and blog as well (see References and Further Reading section, below).
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. In this article, I have the Synoptists in mind, but some of these principles may apply to John.
This series has nothing to do with the inerrancy or inspiration of the Gospels, though nothing in this article contradicts those doctrines.
For a working definition of tradition, readers are invited to go to the previous article and scroll down to Q & A One.
Hovering over the references below will bring up the NET Bible version on each of these.
1. What is the evidence for the stability of passing on the Jesus traditions?
The clearest evidence of formally passing on the traditions about Jesus comes from Paul’s epistles. So that’s our focus for the next three Q-&A’s.
Recall that Paul did not follow Jesus from the beginning, but Paul is still considered an apostle, though “abnormally born” and “the least of the apostles” (1 Corinthians 15:8-9). For the passages in his epistles, see the previous article and Q & A Two.
From those passages in that link, it is obvious that Paul borrows the technical vocabulary for receiving and passing on or transmitting and keeping and retaining traditions from his training as a former Pharisee (Philippians 3:5). Accurately handing on traditions was very important for the Pharisees (or Rabbis) and others (see the previous article and Q & A Five).
2. How were the traditions handed on?
The transmitter had to “possess” them, and the recipients also had to “possess” them. This may not always require verbatim memorization, but possession does mean a process of teaching and learning accurately and faithfully (Bauckham, p. 265).
3. From whom did Paul receive traditions?
Various important sources.
1 Corinthians 15:3 says that Paul received and passed on a tradition of “first importance,” specifically, the resurrection appearances. He and the other apostles were unanimous on this tradition because he first received it from the Jerusalem apostles. According to Galatians 1:18-19, he spent two weeks with Peter and James (v. 19) in the Holy City. Paul was getting thoroughly familiar with the teaching formulated by the Twelve, “learning from the leader of the Twelve,” namely Peter (Bauckham, p. 266).
Next, in 1 Corinthians 7:10-16 Paul distinguishes between his ideas and the Lord’s on divorce and marriage. Maybe Paul received traditions on this issue from an early source.
Finally, 1 Corinthians 11:23 says that Paul received from the Lord what he hands on to the Corinthian Christians, specifically, a tradition about the Last Supper. Verses 23-26 are very close to Luke’s Last Supper ( 22:14-21), as we saw in the previous article (see Q & A Eleven in that link). A tradition “from the Lord” probably does not mean a direct revelation, but the teaching from Jesus himself, once again, as formulated by the Twelve in Jerusalem. Paul “therefore envisages a chain of transmission that begins from Jesus himself and passes through intermediaries to Paul himself . . . The intermediaries are surely, again, the Jerusalem apostles . . . Given Paul’s concern and conviction that his gospel traditions come from the Lord Jesus himself, it is inconceivable that Paul would have relied on less direct means of access to the traditions” than the apostles (Bauckham, p. 268, emphasis original).
4. To whom did Paul transmit the traditions?
Paul says that certain persons were expressly designated as teachers in his churches (Romans 12:7; 1 Corinthians 12:28-29; Galatians 6:6; Ephesians 4:11). Paul of course also taught the people, but they may not have learned his teachings with great care, as the designated teachers did. Then these teachers also transmitted his teachings to the people.
Parallels are seen in his contemporary Jewish and Gentile schools. Both had successors who were qualified to pass on the teachings of the leaders or the “fathers.” These clearly identified teachers and settings bring in an institutional or semi-institutional context, which fulfills Bailey’s requirement for the traditions to be transmitted in a formal and controlled way (Bauckham, p. 293; for Bailey, see References and Further Reading section). This means that the transmitters and recipients took extra-care to get things right, but the authorized transmitters were permitted to shape the traditions, only somewhat.
5. Why did the early Christians want to faithfully preserve the teaching of Jesus?
At this point we can look at other oral cultures. They distinguish between tales and historical accounts. Tales are fictional and can change greatly from one performance to the next. On the other hand, historical accounts are regarded as truthful about the past. They may have slight variations, but they are fewer and happen much more slowly. So why make the distinction between tales and historical accounts? “It is when past history matters in a particular cultural context that historical accounts are preserved with a real intention and effort to insure an important degree of stability and continuity” (Bauckham, p. 275).
Further, the early church was concerned about salvation. Jesus fulfills the “salvation history” or plan of God begun in the Old Testament, offering salvation to the world.
Thus, the early Christians had a keen sense of the importance of the past, just as much as or more keenly than Christians do today. Hundreds of millions of us today revere and honor Scripture. We want to know what Jesus said and did, and then to spread his message. Were the early Christians any different?
6. Do you have an illustration of the early Christians’ faithful preservation of the Jesus traditions?
Yes. The title “Son of Man” is used only once outside of the four Gospels (Acts 7:56). But it is used about eighty times in the four Gospels, mostly in the Synoptics. In Mark 8:31 and 9:9 the title is used indirectly by Jesus in two summaries. In Luke 24:7 an angel quotes him using the title about himself. And in John 12:34, the crowd borrows it in the context of Jesus who had used the term just before they did. But in all cases other than the four verses just now explained, Jesus alone uses the title and only about himself. Evidently, the churches did not use the title in their community life and worship, as seen by its nearly complete absence in the New Testament outside the Gospels. But the traditioners recalled that Jesus used it about himself, so the authors preserved it in the written Gospels. Oral transmission in oral communities is resistant to novelty, but was intended to be faithful (Eddy and Boyd, p. 303).
7. Were the traditions about Jesus pliable or fixed?
Older scholarship said that the traditions were very pliable, so the early church substantively changed the teaching of Jesus, according to the church’s needs. But all the previous Q-&-A’s demonstrate that the teachings and reports were much more fixed, though passages in the Synoptics have moderate variations. But one thing is certain: the traditions were transmitted independently of the need of the church for the most part; they were not so supple that Paul, for example, could not distinguish between his teachings in his epistles and the Jesus traditions that he received from the earliest, authoritative transmitters.
8. Did the authoritative transmitters memorize the teachings of Jesus?
Jesus and his disciples lived in an oral culture without video cameras and cell phone recorders. Comparisons with the rabbis and the Hellenistic philosophical schools demonstrate that some level of memorization took place, in degrees. Students, at least in the philosophical schools, could vary, abbreviate, and expand speeches, for example. So the memorization was not slavish. “Thus memorization would not always entail completely verbatim learning by rote, but some degree of memorization was indispensable to any deliberate attempt to learn and transmit tradition faithfully. It was the necessary alternative to trusting the unreliable vagaries of undisciplined memory” (Bauckham, p. 281). Clearly, the Gospel authors’ collection and incorporation of traditions into their narratives match up, in a large way, with this description of memorization, on some level.
9. Do you have an example of traditions?
An example is the close verbal parallels between Luke 22:14-21 and 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, as noted in Q & A Three, above. You are invited to go to Young’s Literal Translation at Bible Gateway and type in those two references.
“In short, memorization was a mechanism of control that preserved the Jesus traditions as faithfully as the early Christians required. It was exercised to the extent that stable reproduction was deemed important and in regard to those aspects of the traditions for which stable reproduction was thought appropriate” (Bauckham, p. 287).
Eddy and Boyd summarize a good case against skepticism on the accuracy of memory (pp. 275-86). Also see Bauckham’s lengthy chapters twelve and thirteen.
10. Does an effective teacher make his teaching memorable?
Yes, most definitely. Two examples are aphorisms and parables. An aphorism is “a concise statement of a principle or terse formulation of a truth or sentiment,” says Webster’s Dictionary (“he who has ears to hear, let him hear” [Mark 4:9, 23; Luke 8:8; 14:35] or “he who has ears, let him hear” [Matt. 11:15, 13:9, 43]). Do you remember a concisely spoken truth from your favorite teacher or coach or another inspirational figure? He or she trimmed down a big truth into a pithy saying, so you would remember it. The parables of Jesus also seem streamlined for easy memorization.
What if you followed Jesus twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week? Wouldn’t he repeat some of the aphorisms throughout his ministry? Wouldn’t you remember them, since he was so significant, being a founder of a new movement in your country and working miracles?
See and article on miracles, here.
11. Is there Scriptural evidence for some level of memorization?
In Luke 9:44a, Jesus says: “Listen carefully to what I’m about to tell you.” That verse reveals at least careful remembering. Also, Jesus sends out the Twelve and then the seventy-two on missions (Matt. 9:36-10:42; Mark 6:7-13; Luke 9:1-6, 10:1-16). They preached his message while they went about Israel. In those passages, the authors of the Gospels characterize the Twelve’s message succinctly. So is it impossible that they memorized or carefully remembered, on some level, much of Jesus’ teaching up to that point in his ministry, so they could communicate it reliably and accurately to the people? The larger context of the Jesus movement points towards the possibility of memorization.
12. Then what explains the variations in the synoptic Gospels?
There are five main factors (Bauckham, pp. 286-87).
First, Jesus used varying versions of his sayings on different occasions.
Second, translating from Aramaic to Greek may account for the differences.
Third, in oral performance, variations happen. Many elements remain fixed, but others are flexible; some were memorized verbatim, other not.
Fourth, authorized transmitters were qualified to be flexible in the traditions, particularly the sayings of Jesus. And the Gospel writers were authorized to be flexible, as well.
Fifth, the Gospel writers were qualified to write up a narrative about Jesus and to integrate the material in their own way. One needs only look at the treatment of John the Baptist’s imprisonment, questioning of Jesus through John’s disciples, and then John’s death, to see how the Gospelists expand (but not in the sense of make things up), abbreviate or omit the details (Matt. 4:12; 11:2; 14:1-12; Mark 1:14; 6:14-29; Luke 3:19-20; 7:18-35; 9:7-19).
13. Were the teachings of Jesus written down?
The early disciples lived in both an oral and literate (or writing) culture, particularly in first-century Israel, whose religious community valued the Book. In their immediate culture, orality and literacy were not mutually exclusive, but complementary. Writing was not intended to replace oral traditions but to aid in memory, including the “‘interpenetration’ of oral and written compositions behind the Mishnah” (Bauckham, referring to another scholar, p. 288).
Further, notebooks were widespread in the philosophical and religious settings in the Greco-Roman world. 2 Timothy 4:13 refers to Paul’s parchment notebooks. It could very well be the case that Matthew, a tax collector, took notes of some kind. Weren’t the Biblical Gospels written down, for this reason, among others – to preserve the words and works of Jesus? Luke says in his preface that many undertook to draw up an account of the life and ministry of Jesus (1:1-4). So why is writing, if only in notes, even during the life of Jesus, ruled out as impossible? Granted, Luke is referring to “accounts,” not notes, but surely some of the accounts were written. That’s the main point.
Eddy and Boyd list an impressive array of scholars who favor the possibility that writing or note-taking of some sort was done during Jesus’ ministry (pp. 241-52, especially note 54.)
We will discuss all of this in more detail in a future article (go now to Part Eight).
14. Do Greek and Roman and Jewish historians provide examples of how the Synoptists worked through their sources?
We now turn a corner to find out what Samuel Byrskog says about the Gospels. He studied ancient Jewish, Greek, and Roman historians and their effort to acquire historical accuracy and to judiciously use living eyewitnesses. He applies his findings both to the oral traditions and the Gospels as written documents.
However, it may be objected from the outset here that the Gospel writers were not working in the genre (kind) of history, but Greco-Roman biography. In reply, however, Byrskog is attempting to discover the commonality between historiography (history writing) and storytelling via biography (note the title of his book). Plus, the border between history writing and biography writing was not fixed (see this book and its fourth chapter). The next four points are taken from Byrskog’s Story as History, History as Story.
In addition to Byrskog on the intentions and methods of ancient historians, see Eddy and Boyd, pp. 330-36.
15. Were the best eyewitnesses distant observers or direct participants?
The ancient historians preferred that their eyewitnesses be participants in the events, not passive observers. Byrskog writes: “Involvement was not an obstacle to what [the historians] perceived as historical truth. It was rather the essential means to a correct understanding of what really happened” (p. 154).
16. But would an eyewitness’ personal involvement in the events taint historical objectivity?
The ancient historians were aware of this and watched out for it. This “challenged them therefore sometimes to insist more clearly and emphatically on the importance of truth” (p. 180, emphasis original). It is true that the historian himself could not always be a part of the events, so he depended on eyewitnesses and reliable sources, whenever he could.
In the Introduction to the entire series (Part One), it was asked whether eyewitness testimony is reliable. In modern court cases, it is infamous for being unreliable. A crime or auto accident happens in a few seconds, and the eyewitnesses are wrong. However, that is not what we’re discussing in regard to the Gospels. These eyewitnesses lived twenty-four hours, seven days a week with Jesus. So participatory eyewitness testimony was reliable.
17. But weren’t ancient historians “sloppy” about the truth?
The ancient historians often assert that they knew the difference between historical and factual truth on the one hand, and false and inaccurate claims, on the other. “Someancient historians guided their actual research with an uttermost concern to find out the factual truth of history” (p. 183, emphasis original). The implication of Byrskog’s book is that the Gospel writers also had an “uttermost concern to find out the factual truth of history.”
18. Does the goal of persuasion take away from the ancient historians’ credibility?
The ancient historian knew of the orator’s craft and tried to imitate it. The historian, like the orator, sought to persuade his readers. The historian’s case was all the more persuasive if he rooted his work in things as they happened, and not in fictions and fabrications (p. 210).
I like how Mark D. Roberts assesses all four Gospels: they embody “Truthful History Motivated by Theology” (Can We Trust the Gospels? Crossway, 2007, p. 121). The Gospels fit into their larger historical context. All ancient texts have a strong point of view, and so do most modern ones.
19. What if ancient historians were inaccurate?
In other words, what if they only said that they were searching for eyewitness testimony, but really were not? In reply, this must be taken case-by-case. Many historians were accurate and were themselves eyewitnesses. Or they based their histories on eyewitnesses, if the historians were not on the scene. Certainly the Gospel authors intended to be accurate about Jesus’ ministry, miracles and all.
20. What’s the bottom line for the historical reliability of the Synoptics?
What Bauckham and Byrskog have in common is their emphatic insistence that many Jewish, Greek, and Roman authors – including the Gospel authors – valued very highly eyewitness testimony as the foundation of their writings, during the authors’ lifetime.
Byrskog points out that “ancient [Greco-Roman] historians exercised autopsy [visual means to gather information] directly and / or indirectly, by being present themselves and / or by seeking out and interrogating other eyewitnesses” (p. 64).
Bauckham says, right after quoting Bryskog from p. 64: “In their close relationship to eyewitness testimony the Gospels conform to the best practice of ancient historiography. For ancient historians this relationship required that good history be contemporary history, written in the lifetime of the eyewitnesses. So the Gospels were written over the period, from the death of Peter to that of the Beloved Disciple [the professed author of John’s Gospel], when the eyewitnesses were ceasing to be available” (p. 310).
Finally, the relatively short period of oral transmission between Jesus’ ministry and the written Gospels means that we are in the realm of oral history, not exclusively oral traditions, which are passed on over several generations. Oral history takes place during the life span of the narrator (Eddy and Boyd, p. 289, note 72). In the previous quotation from Bauckham (p. 310), that’s his main point.
Bottom line for this bottom line Q & A: the Gospels are reliable according to their own historical context, in comparison with other written sources and oral traditioning, whether Jewish, Greek, or Roman.
21. What does all of this mean in comparison with the Gnostic texts?
See Part Five (Q & A Fourteen) and Part Eight (Q & A Seven) for the discussion. But it doesn’t look good for these texts.
22. What does all of this mean to the Church of all denominations?
If anyone has been listening to the news media or been educated in Western universities in religion courses, he or she has heard that the Gospels do not reflect the teaching and deeds of Jesus, except a kernel. Instead, they reflect the distant and faint musings of anonymous disciples, according to their needs. This heavy-handed skepticism comes from nearly a century of scholarship, particularly of the Protestant variety that had been heavily influenced by the Enlightenment (see this article and the first section). Hyper-skepticism has penetrated many seminaries and churches for decades.
Now, however, the tide may be turning, not least because of the books selected in the Reference and Further Reading section, next. The Gospels are founded on eyewitness testimony and reports about the ministry of Jesus, in Israel, around four decades before the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 AD. The Gospels are not rooted in the faint memories of disciples who lived long after that timeframe and far away from Jesus’ home country. The Gospels were not written by disciples who felt free substantially to change the traditions, according to their current needs. Rather, the Gospels, taken within their cultural literary context, accurately embody the teaching and activity of Jesus.
It may be true that the earliest Christian communities had the need to understand the teaching of Jesus within their own context. However, the eyewitnesses passed on his words and activities, reliably, faithfully, and skillfully. The qualified transmitters sometimes adapted and interpreted – not fabricated or substantively changed – the Jesus traditions. But the transmitters maintained and conformed themselves to these traditions. The Jesus traditions came first, authoritatively and firmly. The transmitters were reverent about them, as we saw in Paul’s epistles in Q & A One to Three, above.
Thus, web readers who also revere Scripture do not need to feel nervous about listening to skeptical claims bandied about in the popular media, nor do students who take Scripture seriously need to feel intimidated in their religion courses at colleges and universities.
The Gospels transmissions are reliable, without a breakdown, in their own historical and literary context.
Articles in the Series
- New Testament Manuscripts: Preliminary Questions and Answers
- Basic Facts on Producing New Testament Manuscripts
- Discovering and Classifying New Testament Manuscripts
- The Manuscripts Tell the Story: The New Testament Is Reliable
- Church Fathers and Matthew’s Gospel
- Church Fathers and Mark’s Gospel
- Church Fathers and Luke’s Gospel
- Church Fathers and John’s Gospel
References and Further Reading
Nearly all of these entries are technical, so use with caution. But see Roberts’ book and blog, linked below. They are written for the laity.
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.” 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.
Michael F. Bird. “In Defence of Gerhardsson.” Euangelion. July 13, 2007.
Samuel Byrskog. Story as History, History as Story: the Gospel Tradition in the Context of Ancient Oral History. Brill, 2000.
Paul Rhodes Eddy and Gregory A. Boyd. The Jesus Legend: a Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Traditions. Baker Academic, 2007. Pages 235-306.
—. Lord or Legend: Wrestling with the Jesus Dilemma. Baker, 2007. Their smaller book here is designed for the laity, but it can still get technical for the true beginner. But definitely get it.
Birger Gerhardsson. Reliability of the Gospel Tradition. Hendrickson, 2001.
Mark D. Roberts. Can We Trust the Gospels? Crossway, 2007.
—. Four Parts on Oral Traditions. August 2007. Once again, get his book and read his blog, first.