Why I Trust My Bible - Lesson 3

Oral Tradition: Was Memory of the Writer Accurate?

Since there was a period of time between when Jesus lived and when the gospels were written, how can we trust that the writers' memories weren't faulty? And didn't they change history to match their theology? Actually, the "informed controlled": understanding of orality assures us that the writers were accurate and trustworthy. The gospels were not written right away because we prefer the testimony of eyewitnesses.

Bill Mounce
Why I Trust My Bible
Lesson 3
Watching Now
Oral Tradition: Was Memory of the Writer Accurate?

1. Challenge

a. The writers could have been eye witnesses but their memory is faulty

1) Bart Ehrman

2) How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Teacher from Galilee

b. Is the “historical Jesus” the same as the “Christ of faith”?

c. How do you “prove” this, or anything?

2. Definition

“Stories of what Jesus did and said were passed on by word of mouth”

3. During Jesus’ life, probably not a lot of record keeping

a. Oral culture

b. Rabbinic teaching method

4. Three Approaches to orality

a. Informal Uncontrolled

b. Formal Controlled

c. Informal Controlled

5. Other factors concerning memory

a. Core facts and details

b. Corporate memory and individual memory

c. Rabbinic culture

d. Memory is more reliable when the person has a stake in what is being remembered

e. Critics’ assumptions

6. Holy Spirit control (John 14:26; cf. 15:26, 27)

7. Why was the writing of the gospels later?

a. Nature of orality

b. Preference for the oral witness of eyewitnesses

c. Some may have expected Jesus to return quickly.

  • Are you curious about the trustworthiness of the Bible? Are you looking for answers to common criticisms and questions about its reliability? "Why I Trust My Bible" is the class for you! This class is taught by Dr. Bill Mounce, former seminary professor and member of the NIV translation team. It will help you understand and defend your belief in the Bible. Whether you're a freshman in college facing new challenges to your faith, or a parent concerned about your child's belief in the Bible, this class is designed to provide you with the tools you need to think critically about these issues and to be confident as you share your belief about the reliability of the Bible with others. Don't miss this opportunity to learn about the Bible and its trustworthiness.
  • Some people feel that it is wrong to ask fundamental questions such as whether or not they trust the Bible. But if you never seriously ask the question, you will never be convinced that it really is true and trustworthy.

  • As amazing as it sounds, some people question whether Jesus actually lived, often claiming that there is only one non-biblical reference to him. That simply is not true; there are many more. But it makes sense that he is not referenced a lot since biographies were written about the rich and powerful.

  • Since there was a period of time between when Jesus lived and when the gospels were written, how can we trust that the writers' memories weren't faulty? And didn't they change history to match their theology? Actually, the "informed controlled": understanding of orality assures us that the writers were accurate and trustworthy. The gospels were not written right away because we prefer the testimony of eyewitnesses.

  • While the gospels are anonymous, tradition is very strong as to who wrote Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and all four authors were in a position to know the truth and we can trust their writings. If the church did not care about authorship traditions, they would not have picked these four.

  • If the biblical writers were not concerned about historical accuracy, we would expect more verses that would have answered the burning questions of the first century, and we certainly would not have the many embarrassing and difficult verses that we do have. The gospel is couched in historical fact, and if the events did not happen then the teaching is false.

  • How can we trust the Bible when it is so full of mistakes and internal contradictions? Really? Where are they? Doesn't harmonization help us see how the gospels can describe the same event but in different terms? If the Bible and science and history disagree, doesn't the Bible, properly interpreted, deserve the benefit of the doubt?

  • There is no question that Jesus and Paul sound different, but are their differences complementary or contradictory? What effect would their different contexts have on how they speak and what they write about?

  • Canonization is the process by which the church determined what books belonged in the Bible (and here we are focusing on the New Testament). Despite the frequent assertion to the opposite, the canon was not determined by a few individuals in a haphazard way. It appears that the three tests were authorship, harmony of doctrine and tone, and usage in the church as a whole. Did the church get it right?

    Correction: Bill mentions "Dan Block." He means, "Dan Brown." (Dan Block is a friend of his.)

  • It does no good to talk about inspiration and canonization if the church altered the contents of the Bible through the centuries. And why are there differences among the Greek manuscripts? This is the topic of textual criticism. The current situation is that we are confident of 99% of the New Testament text, and the 1% we are unsure of contains no significant theological doctrine.

  • Unless you can read Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic, you need a translation. But why are there so many, and why are they so often different? Can they be trusted? Bill Mounce, chair of the ESV translation for 10 years and currently on the Committee on Bible Translation that is responsible for the NIV, shares his answer to these questions.

  • We have looked at attacks on the trustworthiness of the Bible and given reasonable counter-arguments. it remains but to share personally why I trust my Bible.

We can no longer assume that people trust their Bible. The popular media has launched such an attack on the believability of Scripture that our people have serious questions about the Bible. Are you ready to answer them? Did Jesus actually live? (Bill Maher on Larry King Live says no.) Did the biblical writers get it right, or did they slant/create the message? The gospels were written so long after Jesus lived; how can you trust them? How can you believe a Bible that is full of internal contradictions with itself and external contradictions with science? Doesn’t archaeology disprove the Bible? Why should we believe the books that are in the Bible; many good ones were left out, like the Gospel of Thomas. Why trust the Bible when there are so many and contradictory translations? These questions and more are discussed and answered in this class.

The YouTube Videos and handouts that Dr. Mounce is referring to in lecture 1 are the links that you will find on the class page. The two handouts are a list of the books of the Apocrypha, and a chart showing translations of the Bible on a continuum from formal to dynamic equivalence. The two links are an article by Dr. Blomberg, and a YouTube video of a debate between Dan Wallace and Bart Ehrman. 

The bibliography and footnotes in the book, Why I Trust the Bible, by Dr. Mounce, also provide a detailed list of the resources that are the basis for this online course and for the book.

Some additional resources that will give you a picture of what is going on in culture are interviews and debates with people like Sam Harris, Jordan Peterson, Bill Maher, Ben Shapiro, Joe Rogan, Tim Keller and Steven Crowder (e.g. "Change my mind"). You will find many of these by searching on YouTube. Many of these people are not believers, and Harris and Maher, for example, think that religion is the underlying cause of all the problems in the world. 

For biblical responses regarding issues raised outside of the trustworthiness of the Bible, you can see classes on BiblicalTraining.org like C.S. Lewis: His Theology and Philosophy, Advanced Worldview Analysis, and others. Other websites that you may find helpful are Apologetics 315 and Summit Ministries


Lecture 3: Oral Tradition

This is the 3rd lecture in the online series of lectures on Why I Trust My Bible by Dr Bill Mounce. Bill was a preaching pastor at a church in Spokane, WA, and prior to that a professor of New Testament and director of the Greek Program at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He also taught at Azusa Pacific University and is the author of the bestselling Greek textbook, Basics of Biblical Greek.

1. Challenge

The challenges that are coming these days in regards to oral tradition are basically saying that there is a gap between what Jesus did or said and when it was written down. So that gap period between the event and the writing, it was when stories were told by word of mouth, hence oral tradition. During that period of oral tradition even if the writers of the Gospels were eyewitnesses, memories were faulty. Because of this we can’t trust that period of time. This is what is being said to discount the reliability of the Gospels. Recent attacks on the believability of the Gospels come particularly from a professor by the name of Bart Ehrman at Chapel Hill in North Carolina. He attended Moody Bible Institute and then went to Wheaton Bible College, two very conservative schools and then he went to Princeton to study with Professor Metzger and following that he became an agnostic. He doesn’t think the Bible is true; he certainly doesn’t think that Jesus is God. Professor Ehrman is aggressively attacking the historical believability of the Bible. He seems to be writing a book on every different aspect of this whole issue. He is a very good scholar and very bright and he is a good writer and extremely good at debating and he is having an impact because of this. The book he wrote in this particular issue is on how Jesus became God, exaltation on a Jewish leader from Galilee. He is willing to say that Jesus was a Jewish teacher, but he was not God. He says that the church made him into God and hence the title of the book, ‘How Jesus Became God.’ In earlier days, the phrases that were often used were historical Jesus and the Christ of Faith. The historical Jesus is the Jesus that actually lived and the Christ of Faith is what we actually meet in the Bible. So the implications are that those two people are not the same person. There was an historical Jesus but the church changed him into something else and he became the Christ of Faith.

So how do you prove this? I have already covered in previous lectures the idea of proving the Bible. How do you prove that the church changed the teachings of Jesus or how do you prove that the church didn’t change the teachings of Jesus? How do you prove that the historical Jesus is the Christ of faith or isn’t? So, what level of proof do we need or how high do we set that level of proof in order to say that you believe that the Scriptures are true and accurately reflect the historical Jesus. I want to add to this a bit of clarification; just because you can’t prove something, it doesn’t mean it is not true. I know there is a double negative in this statement. Just because you can’t prove something, doesn’t mean it is wrong. I’ll state this in another way; just because you can’t prove something doesn’t mean it is not authentic. So, as we go through this discussion of memory and how reliable it is, the idea of being able to prove something or not doesn’t make it so. I have already said what oral tradition is: it is stories of what Jesus did and said that were passed on by word of mouth. Sometimes this is called orality. So there was an event and then it was written down, but before that, there was a short gap where the stories of Jesus were passed along by word of mouth. And this is called the period of oral tradition.

2. Jesus and an Oral Culture

Note that Jesus lived in an oral culture and in fact most cultures in our world even today are oral. Most cultures do their teaching orally, like I am doing this lecture, orally. They don’t do it by writing. For 1st century Roman Empire, the vast majority of people in Jesus’ day were illiterate. They couldn’t read or write, but they weren’t stupid. They lived in an oral culture where people were used to retelling accounts and stories by word of mouth. This partially explains the whole rabbinic method of teaching; that is, teaching by repetition, saying something over and over again until their students knew by heart what they were saying. That is even done today, especially in language learning. We know that Jewish boys could actually memorize large chunks of the Torah. Today, we write things down so that we don’t have to remember it because we live in a written culture, especially in the west. But in that day, it was an oral culture with lots of repetition and students would have to memorize huge portions of the Torah (First Five Books of the Bible, those that were written by Moses). There was little else to do with their time; they didn’t have all the outside distractions and events of modern culture to contend with. They were learning the Torah; that was their main aim and it was related to learning about God. Everything they did was focused on the Torah whether in writing or spelling or reciting; everything was the Torah. And as an oral culture, that was the rabbinical method of teaching and learning. You can actually train your mind to memorize large amounts of data. It certainly is possible and we know that they did that. So this concept of an oral tradition in an oral culture is what was bridging the gap between the events and when they were written down.

3. Approaches to Orality

There are three basic approaches to orality: first of all, there is what is called informal and uncontrolled. What we mean is that anyone can retell the story. It was uncontrolled in the sense of accuracy. So, what happens in this kind of setting, stories can change dramatically. The second kind of culture is where it is formal and controlled. By formal, I mean that there were only certain people who were allowed to retell the story. Not everybody could retell the story of Jesus, if this is what was going on in the 1st century. Those who were the disciples or eyewitnesses; the control came from the rabbis who exerted control so that only they could tell the story. And they made sure that the stories were told correctly. So, if the 1st century Jewish church was characterized by this formal approach to orality, then you get some real problems; you can’t explain the variations among the synoptic Gospels. You look at the same story in Matthew and Luke and you will see that they are not exactly the same. They mean the same thing, but they don’t use the exact same words. But, there is a third kind of cultural approach to orality and most Biblical scholars are comfortable with this approach. It is called the informal controlled approach. Sometimes this approach is called guarded tradition. In a culture where orality is characterized by informal control, anyone can retell the story, but it is controlled because there are people in the community who are respected who were perhaps eyewitnesses. They were people who had really learned the story in the past and they exerted a kind of control over the telling of the stories. You can imagine how these people would control a conversation in the correcting way as to the way it should be told. So informal control means that anyone could retell the story but there were people in the community that exercised control over those stories. The ways of looking at orality really came from a missionary called Kenneth Bailey who was a missionary in the Middle East for many years. He worked among the Bedouin people and realized in going to different areas of the Middle East and hearing the same basic story, even though these two groups of people had never met. This was done under an informal controlled situation. So he took what he had learned from the Bedouin people and applied it to the Gospel stories and what we find is that it fits beautifully. So for Matthew, Mark and Luke, the same basic story is told with some kind of control exerted over those stories.

Most New Testament evangelical scholars are comfortable with this informal control approach to oral tradition. The initial answer to professor Ehrman and others would include this informal controlled way of information. Yes, there was a gap but that gap had within it people who knew the truth of the situation and who informally controlled the retelling of the story of story as it spread around. There were many still alive that had been with Jesus. Unlike today, they lived in an oral culture who were used to memorizing and training their minds to retell the story as it happened. So it is fairly clear from the text, there were those people who controlled the retelling of the story of Jesus; those like the apostles or those who had worked closely with the apostles or those who were still alive like the early disciples, people who had seen Jesus. These people kept the stories accurate in their retelling. You can trust this informal controlled model of storytelling as illustrated by the first paragraph in the chapter 1 of Luke, for example.

4. Memorization

A few other things in regards to memory; we remember core events better than details. Details often become less accurate over time, but we do a much better job at remembering core information. Again, all you have to do is read through Matthew, Mark and Luke. There are variations on the same story but not at the core. The variations represent the smaller details such as synonyms or the omission of information by one author while the other writer included that missed information. But the core information is the same. Related to this, cooperate memory or pooled memory is more effective than individual memory. When groups get together and talk, they have a pooled or cooperate memory which turns out to be very accurate as to the person of subject be discussed. Cooperate memory is better than individual memory. We must remember that this was a rabbinic culture which cultivated skills of memory. It wasn’t that unusual for a rabbi to memorize the entire Torah. It just wasn’t an odd event to do this. This was achieved to repetition and focus, laying aside all those distractions that could hinder the process; one would just focus on Scripture. Interestingly, some Greek children were encouraged or perhaps forced to memorize Homer’s entire Iliad and Odyssey; all of it. Together, there are about a hundred thousand words in the Iliad and Odyssey. Luke’s Gospel is about twenty thousand words; so it wasn’t unusually even for Greek children to memorize documents five times as large. This was how they taught and learnt and passed on their traditions, it was done orally. The mind is capable of so much more than we in the western world give it credit for.

One last point, memory seems to be more precise when something is at stake. Darryl gives the illustration of the spaceship Challenger disaster and studies that were done several years after the ship blew up. They all remembered the core of it but the details often changed in people’s mind. Darryl wonders whether or not the details of those who remembered the disaster were more accurate or not. I think it is very fair to assume that they were. To bring this over into Scripture, the Bible is life for us; it is the Living Word of God. It is extremely important for us. In times of persecution, this is what we are being persecuted for. When something is really at stake, we remember it a lot better.

5. Presuppositions

Another issue here involves assumptions. I have assumptions and I think that they are supported by facts. I can’t prove it of course. We all have assumptions. Liberal critics have assumptions also. Nobody comes into any debate completely unbiased. Everyone has assumptions and in liberal scholarship, there is a real assumption against Biblical history. An example of this is a group who had called themselves the Jesus Seminar. This was a group of scholars that used to sit down with four different colored beads. As they went through the Bible, they would vote by putting beads into a bowl, whether or not this saying came from Jesus. The measurement was on whether or not Jesus say it or whether he said something like it would result in a putting a pink bead in the bowl. If they think Jesus didn’t say it but he might have said something like it, they would be a grey bead in and if they think that Jesus could not have said anything like this particular verse, they would put a black bead in. The result of their voting ended up with over fifty percent of the Bible being in the black; in other words, Jesus never said anything like it. I would think that there were some presuppositions in play for that kind of doubt for historical information.

6. The Holy Spirit

There are also the Son of Man sayings. If you don’t see that Jesus saw himself as the coming apocalyptic judge from the prophet Daniel as when Jesus stood before Pilate telling Pilate that someday he would be the judge. Assumptions play a role in thinking what is authentic and what isn’t. It is not just pure science. Another point which should be encouraging is the role of the Holy Spirit. Remember in John 14:26 in the Upper Room Discourse, Jesus says that the Holy Spirit who the Father will send in my name will instruct you (the eleven disciples) regarding all things and cause you to remember everything that I have told you. Now, that verse isn’t going to convince a skeptic that there should be more ‘red’ in the Bible and less ‘black’ as to the way the Jesus Seminar decided on things. This should be an encouragement to all of us thinking back to this period of oral tradition and the accuracy of their memories, it was one of the functions of the Holy Spirit was to keep the memories of the disciples accurate. So do I have any trouble believing that someone in a rabbinic oral culture under the power of the Holy Spirit remembered the stories about whether the stories of Jesus were accurate or not? I don’t have any trouble at all. My memory isn’t like those who lived in an oral culture.

These are some of the arguments that we can put forth in regard to the Gospels and the Word we have today. Let me say one more thing before closing. Why did the church take so long to write the Gospels as there was a period of oral tradition? This is the nature of orality as they would not have felt the need to write things down in how they used their memory. In our culture, it would be fairly strange not to write things down quickly. I also think that culture had a very strong preference for eyewitnesses. If you could, for example, read about the holocaust or you could talk to a holocaust survivor, which one would you want to do? We would want to hear the story from someone who was actually there. Perhaps this is human nature; there was a real preference to hear the firsthand accounts being told. So, as long as there were firsthand witnesses, the apostles and disciples and some of the hundred and twenty in Acts who experienced Pentecost, the preference would have been to hear their experience of the story. Eusebius is a 4th century Christian historian and he cites Papias who was early 2nd century. So Papias says that he would rather hear the living voice of someone then read it. So people have a preference to hear firsthand accounts of those stories about Jesus. But as those who were with Jesus in the beginning slowly passed away, more written accounts began to show up.

So this concludes the issue of orality and the 1st century culture of a rabbinic and repetitive nature guided by the work and power of the Holy Spirit. We can trust the memories of the eyewitnesses of Jesus.