Modern “Oral Tradition” v/s the 1st Century AD

13 Jul

Did you know we have a very strong “oral” tradition today? Really, we do! For example, I would expect most Christians would be able to fill in these blanks without any help from others or a written document.

_______ _____ how sweet the _____
That _____ a ______ like me
I once ___ ____ but now __ _____
Was _____, but now _ ___.

We don’t need to know one another, but I am sure most of us could recite the four common stanzas of this work by heart without any trouble, misplacement of words or putting completely foreign words than should be in those blanks above.

On a more secular “oral” tradition, many, if not all of us, age 50 or older could probably successfully fill in the following blanks without any help from anyone else or a written document:

Hello _______, my old ______
___ come to ____ with ___ _____
Because a ______ softly ________
Left ___ _____ while _ ___ ________
And the ______ that was _______ in my _____
Still _______ ______ the _____ of _______

The above is part of a work that was created over 40 years ago. Nevertheless, is there one among us who had lived through that time that wouldn’t know the words to place in each blank above? There may even be some who are a lot younger who know what to place in each blank provided. In line with the above, but a little less than 40 years ago, would be the cult classic “Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Many fans know the whole dialogue by heart. Some have memorized only the dialogue of a favorite character, but the point is, these people could recite from memory the words written by Richard O’Brian, and yet most fans have never met. They wouldn’t need a script, but most (having never met) could stand in the same room with one another and recite together every word without missing a single word or pause.

The writers of the Synoptics do not have to be dependent upon one another or a “Q” document. Often the disciples discussed things Jesus said and did, while they were travelling and again when they returned to “the house” in Capernaum. The repetitive rehearsing of what occurred through dialogue with one another would have helped lay the foundation of a very accurate oral tradition of what was said and done by Jesus. Jesus also often questioned the disciples about what they discussed among themselves and about specific things he had said or done. He answered questions they had and defined terms he used in parables. There seems to be a very reasonable argument that the disciples of this Rabbi remembered, wrote down and taught what Jesus’ said and did with great accuracy.

Paul offers us a few examples of “oral” tradition written down in some of his epistles. He gives us an example in his letter to the Corinthians. He taught them like a rabbi, with a kind of rhythm and repetition of certain words. Notice:

“For I handed over to you what I also received:
That the Messiah died on behalf of our sins according to the Scriptures
And that he was buried
And that he rose on the third day according to the Scriptures,
And that he was seen by Cephas,
Then the twelve;
Then, he was seen
By more than five hundred brothers at once;…
Then, he was seen by James,
Then by all the apostles.” [1Corinthians15:3-7 (Scripture form etc. taken from Misquoting Truth; by Timothy Paul Jones; chapter 5, pp.90-91)]

Mr. Jones then adds:

So, how can scholars know that these words actually came from an early oral history? In the first place, Paul introduced this summation with two Greek words that clearly indicated it was oral tradition. These two words were paradidomi (“handed over” in my translation above) and paralambano (“received”) Ancient readers understood these two words—when used together—to imply that the writer was quoting words that he or she intended to become oral tradition.[i] In this way Paul clearly informed the Corinthians that he was about to pass on oral tradition.[ii]

One must ask: since there was a strong oral tradition in the 1st century AD does this mean it wasn’t written down by the people whose eyewitness testimony the tradition represented? Personally, I don’t see why this would be true. Plato argues that one should record one’s thoughts in written form to “treasure up reminders for when (one) comes to the forgetfulness of old age” [from Epistles, Plato][iii] Popilus Laenas, a popular rhetorician during the reign of Tiberius was criticized by Marcus Fabius Quintilianus (35-100 AD) for depending too much on his notes. While it was expected for an orator to have notes, too much dependence upon them took away from the delivery.

The oral culture we have today is not unlike that of the 1st century in that we memorize (treasure up) certain songs, hymns, or theatrical scripts that mean so much to us. While it is true we have computers, televisions and many modern “helps” to contribute to our accurate memory of such things, in the end it all has to do with committing to memory something important to us, and, modern convenience aside, this was exactly what was done in the 1st century AD. So, how can it be said that 10, 20, or 30 years later the writers of the Gospel narratives had trouble accurately communicating or recording what was said and done during Jesus’ lifetime? Additional support for this argument is established in the understanding that most of the Apostles were still alive 10, 20 or 30 years later and could proofread what was written. Moreover, many of the Jewish critics, the scribes and high priests etc., who also witnessed what Jesus said or did, were also alive and could have written counter arguments, but nothing has come down to us from Jewish sources that would argue for inaccuracies in the Gospel narratives.


[i] N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Philadelphia: Fortress, 2003), pp. 318-19. See also the reference to the Hebrew qibbel in Raymond F. Collins, First Corinthians (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1999) p. 522.

[ii] Joachim Jeremias, The Eucharistc Words of Jesus (New York: Scribneer, 1966), pp. 100-102.

[iii] See A.R. Millard, Reading and Writing in the time of Jesus (New York: New York University Press 2000), p. 193.

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Posted by on July 13, 2010 in Christianity, Religion, Textual Criticism


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