The Historical Reliability of the Gospels - Lesson 8

Reliability of the Oral Tradition (Part 2/2)

Three recent areas of study encourage us to accept the reliability of oral tradition. They are studies in the nature of an oral culture, how the Gospels follow an informal controlled tradition, and the effect of social memory.

Craig Blomberg
The Historical Reliability of the Gospels
Lesson 8
Watching Now
Reliability of the Oral Tradition (Part 2/2)


A. Example of the telephone game

But ancient culture was oral was reliable

B. Methods of teaching in Jewish oral culture

Students had to memorize a passage perfectly before discussion

C. Greek education

1. Memorized the Iliad and Odyssey (200,000 words total)

2. Longest gospel (Luke) is less that 20,000

D. Rabbis often memorized the entire Old Testament


A. Guarded (formal controlled) tradition

B. Informal uncontrolled tradition

C. Informal controlled tradition

a. Trusted leaders responsible to repeat the traditions

b. But not necessarily word-for-word but what was appropriate for the context (flexibility within fixed limits)

c. Examples from Luke/Matthew and Josephus

d. What we see in the gospels (at least 10% variation but not more than 40%), partially influenced by oral tradition


A. What happens when a group of people repeatedly reflect on key events in their history

1. Example of a modern church

2. Example of the Gospels

B. Weaknesses


  • An introduction to the common myths that challenged the historicity of the gospel message. Some of the myths have no connection to any historical evidence (e.g., the Da Vinci Code), recently discovered “evidence” is often distorted (Dead Sea Scrolls and Gnostic literature), and Blomberg concludes that we should be initially skeptical of new findings.

  • How did Christians arrive at the canon of 27 authoritative documents that were from God and therefore foundational for Christian belief and living? Blomberg looks at hints from the New Testament itself, the citations and writings of the Apostolic Fathers, third century discussions, and the final ratification of the canon in the fourth century. None of our four Gospels were ever questioned, and no other gospel was put forward as equally authoritative.

  • Looks at the apocryphal and gnostic gospels. They show an interest in the infancy and final days of Jesus, but are of no historical value. There are gnostic gospels (mostly fragmentary) that are more esoteric, philosophical speculation, and Blomberg reads sections from the Gospel of Thomas.

  • Are the copies of the Greek New Testament accurate? Are the variations among the manuscripts so significant that we can no longer trust them? What about the two paragraphs that some Bibles say are not authentic? This discussion is called “Textual Criticism.”

  • Are the translations of the Bible reliable? Do they faithfully convey the meaning of the Greek? Why are they different and do they disagree on the essentials of the Christian faith?

  • Nothing covered so far guarantees that what the Gospel writers said is true. How do historians make assessments about reliability of claims made in ancient works? How do we know who wrote a document, when did they write it, and were they in a context in which they could know what actually happened?

  • There was a 30 — 40 year gap between the events of the Gospels and the writing of the Gospels. Can we trust the accounts of Jesus’ life as they were told during this time period. Were the Gospel writers even interested in preserving history? Were they in a position to do so?

  • Three recent areas of study encourage us to accept the reliability of oral tradition. They are studies in the nature of an oral culture, how the Gospels follow an informal controlled tradition, and the effect of social memory.

  • Discussion of the literary dependence among the gospels, formally known as the “Synoptic Problem.” Argues that Mark was the first written source, and Matthew and Luke borrow from him, from a common document (“Q”) and used their own material.

  • What kind of books are we dealing with? Different kinds of literature will be analyzed differently in terms of reliability. If it is fiction, we will analyze it a certain way. How should we read the Gospels?

  • While archaeology can’t prove certain things, it can corroborate many of the details of the Gospels and should encourage us to look forward to even more discoveries. Blomberg looks at Jesus’ imagery, the sites he traveled, the results of recent discoveries, and the weight of artifacts encouraging us to trust the Bible.

  • There is a belief that any and all Christian evidence is tainted, and so only non-Christian evidence should be investigated. Not only is this falacious (“silly and nonsensical”), and there is non-Christian evidence that tells us a surprising lot about Jesus.

  • Now that we have seen some of the criteria that historians use to judge the reliability of an ancient document, we will use those same criteria on the apocryphal and gnostic gospels. Blomberg uses the twelve criteria of historical reliability.

  • What is the resulting picture that we find of Jesus? For those who find only a small portion of the Gospels reliable, their picture of Jesus that results from the  limited sections of the gospels will be somewhat different from those who find a large portion as reliable.

  • Why do so many different scholars have such different views of Jesus? There actually is more similarity than at first is expected, but the differences are due to things such as scholar’s presuppositions. What then are the criteria for accepting a historical document as authentic?

  • Given the criteria established for historical reliability, which portions of the Synoptics have the strongest claim to being authentic?

  • Considering all the questions raised about the quest for who Jesus is, what can we know for sure? What is the core of the gospel tradition that does not require faith?

  • We have been looking at topics pertaining to the general trustworthiness of the Gospels. Now it is time to look at specific issues that might question the reliability of the Synoptics. Does looking at a cross section of the “apparent contradictions” give us more confidence?

  • Continuing the purpose of the previous chapter, Blomberg looks at specific harmonization problems between the Synoptics and the Gospel of John.

  • Looks at the overall features of John, arguing that they show the gospel to be a reliable witness to Jesus.

  • Now that we have looked at the issues of John’s reliability in general, Blomberg starts working through individual passages that have raised questions for some people. The question is whether or not Jon’s teaching dovetails with teaching in the Synoptics. Much of the issue has to do with presuppositions and the burden of proof, and the evidence Blomberg cites is often when John’s teaching finds a connection with Synoptic teaching or with historical data.

  • This quest was due to a new emphasis on the historical reliability of John. Some events in John have a greater claim to authenticity by liberal critics. Blomberg then looks at a theme throughout John of Jesus as the Purifier, which parallels the Synoptics account of Jesus healing people, making the unclean clean. This too argues for a greater part of John's gospel being historically reliable.

  • Paul discloses quite a bit of information about the historical Jesus in his letters. His letters come from the 50’s and early 60’s, before the gospels were probably written, so he is an independent witness as to whom Jesus was based on a reliable oral tradition.

  • Blomberg summarizes the previous lecture and continues by pointing out the similarities of key themes between Jesus and Paul. Instead of seeing differences between Jesus and Paul, these themes actually show how similar they are. Blomberg concludes by explaining why Paul does not make more allusions to Jesus.

  • Miracles are natural and expected if in fact God exists. But does he exist? If a person begins with atheistic presuppositions, then miracles are impossible and those portions of the Bible unreliable. This is not a detailed discussion of the topic but a quick summary of the arguments.

  • Do miracles outside of the Bible that parallel biblical miracles call into question the veracity of the latter? The fact of the matter is that they were different and often later than Jesus’ miracles.

  • Can we believe that Jesus was born of a virgin? If not, then this part of the gospel story is not reliable. Blomberg covers general issues and specific problems, and then positive support for the virginal conception.

  • What led a band of defeated followers of a failed Messianic claimant begin to preach him as Lord and God? If the resurrection is fiction, then the belief of the early church still needs to be explained. Alternate explanations fail to impress; and there is evidence for a bodily resurrection.

  • Does a defense of biblical reliability lead to any new insights about Jesus himself? Or does it simply bring us back to the status quo of historical Christian orthodoxy? Have our churches been preaching a balanced picture of the Bible, or have they been selective?

  • Blomberg summarizes the main points he has been making.

An in-depth look at the charges against the historicity of the gospels, and the evangelical answers.

Dr. Craig Blomberg

Historical Reliability of the Gospels


Reliability of the Oral Tradition (Part 2/2)

Lesson Transcript


[00:00:01] This is a class on the historical reliability of the New Testament Gospels. This is segment eight, and we are continuing our discussion on the reliability of the oral tradition. In this segment, we want to focus on three very fascinating, comparatively recent developments. When students of. Oral tradition in 19th and 20th and now even 21st century, very traditional pre literate or partially literate cultures around the world. Have studied folk tradition. There is obviously always a model that is very unreliable. Some scholars use the Western analogy of the child's game of telephone. Take a group of even just a dozen kids in a room. Or adults, for that matter, and whisper quietly into the first person's ear. Two or three sentences. With some level of complexity. Then have that person whisper what he or she thought they heard to the next person and go around the room. And then the last person says out loud. What they remember of what was whispered to them. And we all laugh because it's quite different from what began. If that can happen in one room over the course of 5 minutes. Can we seriously believe? That a 30 plus year period could preserve accurate information about the life of Jesus. And the answer is a resounding yes. There have been modern scholars who have duplicated that very experience. With students in the Middle East. Who have not understood the point of the exercise because they flawlessly remember and repeat from one person to the next what they hear, but only if they have been raised in an oral culture. Ours is a print based culture, paper and virtually. The ancient world had a minority of people who could read and write. That didn't make them any less intelligent. It just meant.


[00:03:02] They had a different culture. Important truths were passed along by word of mouth, from parents to children, from masters to disciples, from teachers to apprentices. And memorized and followed flawlessly and passed along for centuries at times, very carefully. Oh, not always. So how do we determine what is most likely to have happened with the Jesus tradition? Were the gospel writers likely to preserve reliable history? The question we began to answer in our last segment. There is a large body of literature about what has sometimes been called the guarded tradition. The role of memorization in ancient cultures surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. If I were a Jewish schoolboy. And unfortunately, it was just schoolboys. I would have gone to synagogue school. Probably five days a week, maybe six. And from about the ages of 5 to 12 or 13, I would have studied one topic. The Bible. The Hebrew scriptures, what Christians call the Old Testament, because the rabbis were convinced that the Bible was happily applicable to every area of life. There was, however, an important principle. Every boy in class had to memorize and orally recite without a single inaccuracy. Every word in a passage to be discussed. Before the class was allowed to discuss it. See. If you didn't have it perfectly memorized, you might accidentally misrepresent the Word of God. Oh, how I would love to bring that back into churches today. And I know it will never happen. We are not in a normal culture. And we regularly misrepresent the word of God because all we can do is barely paraphrase it, if that. Maybe we at least need to read our Bibles a little more. Ancient Greek school boys sometimes had. Either the Iliad or The Odyssey. The Epic Poems by Homer from the eighth century B.C., Committed to memory.


[00:06:06] 100,000 words each roughly. The longest Gospel. The Gospel of Luke is not quite 20,000 words. Maybe the idea of a child's game is relevant. But it would have been child's play to memorize a text the length of a gospel. Many rabbis had the Old Testament committed to memory. And there are traditions that when a scribe over months finally finished copying a new copy of the Hebrew Scriptures, they took it to the most trusted rabbi in the neighboring area so he could check it. Against the copy that he had perfectly memorized. We can barely conceive of such things. And yet there are Jewish Orthodox rabbis in the 21st century, especially in Israel, that have duplicated that feat. It's not a myth. Yes, the gospel writers treating Jesus life and teaching as uniquely important, even sacred, would have had every reason and every ability. To want to preserve it. But that can't be all that was going on. We have four gospels and they're not identical. And if they were identical, we wouldn't need three of them. There is another factor that students of. Traditional pre, literate or semi-literate. Middle Eastern cultural subgroups have discovered. There are three kinds of traditions. The guarded tradition might also be called formal controlled tradition. There is informal, uncontrolled tradition. Also known as the rumor mill. Also known as the child's game of telephone. But then there is an intermediate category that was far more common in the ancient world than it is in ours, of what scholars have come to call informal but controlled. This is a setting usually before a text in written form is deemed uniquely sacred or authoritative. It probably was true of parts of the Old Testament narrative before they were written down. It almost certainly was true of the oral period of 30 plus years in which the gospel traditions circulated, small Christian communities gathered together for worship or other social.


[00:09:17] Fellowship. Had authorized speakers trusted the leaders. Given the responsibility of regularly retelling the sacred tradition so that newcomers could learn it. And all comers. Long time people could have it reinforced, but not necessarily word for word the same on every occasion. There was flexibility in the transmission of these accounts, but within fixed limits. On one occasion. A storyteller might take an hour. On another occasion. Three. On one occasion, the community would have been gathered to make a decision. Perhaps there was a crisis in the land. On another occasion, it was a festive celebration. What was relevant to the immediate needs and setting of the church? If the early Christian community followed the patterns of other small groups. At all. There would have been fixed points in the story that could not be told in any other way. Then the way we read them in the gospels. But there also would have been plenty of freedom on any given gathering or occasion to leave certain bits out. To put certain bits back in. To abbreviate. To speak more expansively. To arrange material topically or thematically, not always chronologically, and to paraphrase people's speech in a world without quotation marks or any felt need for them. Informal. Controlled tradition. We use the example in our last segment of Luke 1426. Whoever does not hate father, mother, brother, sister cannot be my disciple. Why did Luke feel compelled? To reproduce that in such a hard and potentially misleading fashion. Matthew, on the other hand, in Matthew 1037, in a very different context, has a different saying from Jesus that helps interpret the saying in Luke. Whoever does not love God far more than these is not worthy of being my disciple. Jesus himself demonstrated a flexibility of making the same point.


[00:12:24] Using slightly different language from one retelling to the next. The first century. Jewish historian Josephus. Wrote a huge 20 volume work called Biblical Antiquities The History of the Jewish People from the Creation of the World on a fairly ambitious project. And then he wrote a much more focused work called the Jewish War of the events leading up to including and immediately after the war with Rome in 1870. In some cases, he tells the identical stories in both works. In some cases he quotes the same speakers in both works, and usually he never uses the identical words. But the story is the same. Part of being a good ancient historian was to vary the way you told things while still representing what happened. Part of the way of showing that you weren't plagiarizing, to use a modern word, you weren't overly dependent on a previous source. In a world without footnotes was to rephrase it enough to make it sound like your own speech while still being true to the facts. All of these come under this category of flexibility of transmission within fixed limits. We'll see in our next lecture that part of the reason, especially the synoptic Gospels, are both similar and different from each other in the way that they are has to do with the fact that Mark probably wrote first in Matthew and Luke at times simply followed as a literary source what Mark had already written. But a lot of times we need to think about the influence of oral tradition as well. In fact, one study by a Harvard scholar, a man named Abe Lord. Appropriate name for biblical research. Discovered that in the cultures he studied in and around the Middle East. In these oral contexts of retelling epic sagas and sacred traditions from one setting to the next.


[00:14:58] There was seldom less than 10% variation of detail and seldom more than 40% variation. If you are bored with what you're doing in life, let me give you an exercise that will make you excited about it again. Buy a gospel synopsis that prints parallel texts in parallel columns and go through and underline the words that are exactly the same from one gospel to the next. Then with some other signal, maybe a dashed line, underline the words come from the same route, but aren't identical. And then maybe using a squiggle line, underline the words that are synonyms, but don't come from the same route and you will want to do something else very soon. But the point of that exercise will be to show you that seldom do the Synoptic Gospels not have at least about 10% variation among parallels. And seldom do they have more than about 40% variation. Did I just hear those figures somewhere? Probably the influence of oral tradition. And then. A very fascinating area of scholarly study and the most recent of the three. The impact of social memory. Social memory is what happens when a group of people on repeated occasions. Talk about. Recite. Narrate. Reflect on key events in their history as a group. I was in a church once that had a very distinctive origin. Birthed out of another congregation, floundering until a certain pastor came radically changed. The philosophy, had a very targeted ministry in the inner city, had some distinctive approaches to how people were to do ministry, and it began to flourish. And you could not attend that church even as a visitor for more than three months or so without hearing various people in various ways. Tell the story of how the church was birthed and how it began to grow.


[00:17:48] And there were a dozen or so points in the history of the church that without even trying to memorize them, you heard often enough that if you stayed around three years rather than three months, you would have them all memorized. A fascinating and very effective way to create unity and community and a common purpose and a common cause among a group of people, including Christians, By hearing the same things over and over again, whether you had been part of the church during its history or came as a brand new person later, you had that story indelibly impressed in your mind. That's the strength of social memory and that's the model that it appears the first Christians would have followed. You weren't with us when we walked with Jesus. Let's tell you some of the highlights. Let's tell you some of the key teachings. Let's tell you about the most amazing miracles. Let's tell you about that turning point when he started to talk about the cross and we didn't have a clue what it meant. And it went from bad to worse. And then there was a resurrection. A literal. Oh, my God. Social memory can preserve for community. What people might forget otherwise or not know otherwise. Now it has its weaknesses also. I have been in an organization that had an administrator who was a kind, godly individual, a bit malleable. Who had the ability to. Tell publicly. What? People wish it had happened. Spun events in the best possible light. So that after a period of a number of years, he literally no longer remembered what actually happened, but only the way he had told the story about what he wished had happened. And anybody who heard it as often as he told it could potentially have had the same misleading impression.


[00:20:31] Social memory is not an automatic guarantee. That people will hear the story straight. But if we combine. Social memory in an oral culture. If we remember what we talked about in the last segment of Peter and John going to check up on the Gospel when it went to Samaria and al-Sayed and finding out there was a deficiency. People have not been baptized in the Holy Spirit and correcting that deficiency, or Paul in Acts 19, asking a group of people that Luke simply calls disciples. Believers, apparently followers of Jesus. A few diagnostic questions. We don't know what he asked. But something led him to be suspicious that their belief was inadequate. They claim to be followers of John. John the Baptist. But they said we haven't been baptized in the spirit. We've never heard that there was a Holy Spirit. Any Jew would have known there was Holy Spirit. He's all over the Old Testament, so obviously they were Gentiles. Somehow the message of John the Baptist had made it all the way from Israel to what we would call Western Turkey. And yet only in part. And so Paul led them to a full understanding, both of John and of Jesus. And gave them full fledged Christian baptism. That's the model of checks and balances that we see in early Christian history. That combined with the guarded tradition within formal controlled tradition and with social memory, gives us great optimism that what we find in the Gospels, even when it differs among parallel accounts, is likely to be reliable. But so far, all we have done is talked about general trends or moving ever more closely to examining specific passages. But we still have to complete a survey of what actually created the composition and written form of the Gospels.


[00:23:03] And that's what we will turn to next.