The Issue of Oral Tradition

Another key topic that comes up in relation to the gospels is the issue of oral tradition. Dr. Ehrman’s “Jesus, Interrupted” portrays oral tradition as someone told someone a story about Jesus, who told the same story about Jesus to someone else, who told the same story about Jesus to another person; until the story might be 19 to 20 people removed from the actual source. Like the old game ‘telephone’, the story that you get at the end is not at all like the story from the beginning. I actually think we know a lot more about the oral tradition – about the way in which it was controlled and the way in which it was communicated within the church – than Dr. Ehrman’s model suggests. Let me give you a couple of examples to work with.

I once was in a debate with John Dominic Crossan, one of the better known historical Jesus scholars in the United States. We had a conference on memory at SMU. He raised the issue of oral tradition and memory. He said, “Let us assume that oral tradition does work reasonably well; but let us ask the question whether memory actually works well.” He used this example:

Back in the 1980’s, soon after the Challenger space shuttle exploded, Emory University took a group of freshmen and asked them where they were when the Challenger exploded and how they heard about it. The students’ answers were recorded. Three years later, the same students were again asked the same two questions. These answers were then compared to the students’ original answers. Both answers were presented to the students. Generally speaking, the students preferred the answers they gave most recently to the first answers.

Crossan used this example to argue that memory plays tricks on us sometimes. He was making the point that what we remember and experience originally is not the way we remember it later. In my response, I raised this rebuttal, “The assumption of the study made at Emory is to simply pick students at random who have no connection to NASA, are never going to ride a space shuttle, and have nothing at stake in the memory. I wonder what would happen if you gave that same survey to NASA astronauts who one day might have to crawl into that space shuttle and actually ride that ship into space? My suspicion is that with something at stake, the nature and care given to the memory would change because there was something invested in remembering it. It was not just a random tragedy that you were trying to recall – even though it was a traumatic one.” I think this analogy works with Jesus as well. With Jesus, we have a specific figure that has impacted the lives of the people we are talking about and who are sharing about him.

The second thing that makes oral tradition an important discussion is the role of the apostles themselves. In Acts 1 when Judas is being replaced the requirement for his replacement is that he had to be with the ministry from the beginning. The reason is that the apostles had a role in overseeing this tradition. In fact, Luke refers to those who orally reported the tradition in the churches as ‘those who are eyewitnesses and ministers of the word from the beginning.’ This role of the apostles exercises a control in how this material is being passed on from church to church.

My third example is my own grandson. If I read a story to my grandchild and I change that story significantly, he will tell me that is not how the story goes. He lives in an oral world. Not able to read yet, my grandson processes everything orally by what he hears. Because he knows the story well enough to know how it ought to be told, he will correct me. That is how tradition worked within the church – in that kind of a way.

A fourth point in regard to oral tradition is to actually look at the gospel traditions themselves. Although details do vary as you tell some of these stories, the gist of these stories is basically the same – where we get parallels. The quality of the oral tradition is not to radically alter the stories. It may be to paint the details slightly differently. Or it may be to tell the story in a way to bring out another nuance. But it is not to radically change the gist of the story.

All these features tell us that the kind of oral tradition we are dealing with in the gospels is a carefully overseen kind of oral tradition. It is not memorized; but neither is it as free and wild as the telephone game.