Why We Trust Our Bible - Lesson 2

HISTORICAL JESUS: The Nature of Orality, and the Witness of Paul

In Part 2, Dr. Darrell Bock adresses how some liberal scholars argue that because the stories of Jesus were first told by word of mouth, and since memory is faulty, that we cannot trust the gospel witness to Jesus. Dr. Bock discusses three views of orality and why the "informal controlled" model of the Bedouins best parallels the gospels and argues for the authenticity of their accounts. He also shows why the supposed "time gap" between Jesus living and the writing of ;the accounts is only a few years due to the witness of Paul, and not decades as some propose.

We apologize for the poor quality of the recording. We lost the main video feed, but felt the content was too important to omit. We will re-record the seminar when we are able.

Taught by a Team
Why We Trust Our Bible
Lesson 2
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HISTORICAL JESUS: The Nature of Orality, and the Witness of Paul

I. Introduction

A. Orality

B. Bart Ehrman and the “time gap” (telephone game)

II. What fills in the “gap”?

A. Nature of orality

B. Paul

C. Memory of the eyewitnesses (Session 3)

III. Three Approaches to Orality

Categories are from Kenneth Bailey, a missionary to the Bedouin peoples for decades in the Middle east.

A. Informal Uncontrolled

1. Stories can change dramatically

2. First charge by critics in the “Quest of the Historical Jesus”) (1920’s)

B. Formal Controlled

1. Defended by academics in the 1960’s based on rabbinics that maintained tight control to the word level of their teaching

2. But how then can you explain the similarity of the gospel stories and yet not word for word agreement in all places (as you would expect in rabbinic circles)?

C. Informal Controlled

1. How do the Bedouins pass on their stories: informal but controlled.

2. Informal: Anyone could tell the story

3. Controlled: There were respected people in the community who knew the stories and who provided controls. Allowed some variation, but not allowed to move too far from the core.

4. Heard the same stories told by different tribes with slight variation but always faithful to the core of the story.

D. Many NT scholars are more comfortable with this Bedouin model as the description of the biblical stories.

E. Example of Acts 2

IV. Role of Paul

A. Paul is important because he was converted in the early to mid-thirties (Galatians)

B. Now the “gap” is only a few years

C. Point: there already was a theology of Jesus by his time

Aside: why was the writing of the gospels later?

A. Nature of orality

B. Papias quote: preference for the “living voice”

C. Example from the Holocaust survivors

D. Justin Martyr calls the gospels “Apostolic memoirs”


A. Relevance of the Dead Sea Scrolls

Example of the Isaiah scroll shows the carefulness at copying the Bible

B. Differences among the NT Greek manuscripts

www.bible.org and the NET Bible

Summary of remaining topics

All Lessons
Class Resources
  • Dr. Craig Blomberg begins by introducing the issue of the historical reliability of the New Testament documents, focusing on Dan Brown and some of the other recent "discoveries." He will cover 12 truths agreed upon except by the most liberal theologians. In this lesson he talks about the authorship and dating of the gospels.

  • Would the gospel writers have wanted to preserve accurate history? Why are there four Gospels, with all the similarities and differences?

  • Gain an in-depth look at translations, interpretations, oral tradition, memorization, Gospel stories, and the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy with this seminary professor's class.
  • In his series of reasons, in this lesson Blomberg answers 7 – 9.

  • Blomberg addresses the issues of the non-Christian testimony to Jesus, archaeology, and the testimony of other early Christian Writers. He concludes with a powerful discussion of three ways to believe, and what the relationship is between faith and reason.

  • This class provides an overview of the core beliefs of Christianity and the sources that back them up.
  • Are books in the canon because they are authoritative, or they are authoritative because they are in the canon? The Davinci Code and the common assertions about Constantine are historical fabrications. “Canon” can mean three different things. Has God given us a structure to know which books should be in the canon? Can you prove, or is the point to have sound reasons for what you believe?

  • A canonical worldview is a set of beliefs as to what the canon is and how someone “knows” if a book is canonical or not.  There are three models. According to the community model, a book becomes canonical upon its reception by the community.

  • In the historical model of canonicity, a book becomes canonical when it is examined historically, looking at issues such as authorship and reception. This model suffers  by the absence of an absolute criteria by which you can make this decision.

  • The self-authenticating model of the canon claims that the Bible is itself its own ultimate authority. All beliefs of ultimate authority are circular, otherwise the criteria for deciding would be greater than the ultimate authority itself. The real question is whether or not God has provided a means by which Christians can know what books are truly canonical. The self-authenticating model encompasses the other two, incorporating the best of each model.

  • A “defeater” is an idea that undermines your confidence in knowing something. Are there defeaters for our understanding of the canon? The New Testament books have unity with prior revelation and with each other, and in fact the New Testament completes the Old Testament in surprising ways.

  • Kruger shows that Covenants in the Old Testament needed written documents, and a new covenant required new documents. Writing was not an afterthought. The apostles saw themselves as agents of the New Covenant and saw their writings as having authority. They would have been surprised to be told that it wasn't until Irenaeus that people throught their writing was authoritative. They had to write to accomplish their apostolic ministry within their lifetime.

  • Even if a few of the books took a while to be accepted, there was a core canon of 22 books very quickly. Even the Muratorian Fragment, while including two non-canonical books, recognizes that they are different and may be listing them as such. Just because the early church read non-canonical books does not mean there was not a canon.

  • The early church was a culture of textuality; they liked and publicly read books. The frequency of ancient manuscripts shows us which books were the most popular and were therefore understood to be canonical. The church preferred the new codex format because they could group books together, especially the gospels. We can also tell that the manuscripts were written in order to be publicly read, which means the church knew which books were authoritative.

  • Eusebius described four types of books: accepted, disputed, rejected, and heretical. The early church was careful in what they accepted as authoritative, and there really was not that much of a question.

  • Answers to common questions about the canon, now that these question are targeted to the lay level. 

  • In Part 1, Dr. Daniel Wallace addresses the challenges to the believability of the Bible brought by the issues related to the Greek manuscripts, and especially the influence of Dan Brown and Bart Ehrman.

  • In Part 2, Dr. Daniel Wallace addresses discussion of the historical process that led to manuscripts and variants, with some examples of variants.

  • In Part 3, Dr. Daniel Wallace responds to three basic challenges by Bart Ehrman: the "black hole"; the quality of the copies; the effect of Constantine on the manuscripts.​

  • In Part 4, Dr. Daniel Wallace addresses how now that we understand why there are variants in the manuscripts, how does the art and science of textual criticism help us determine which variants are most likely to be original?

  • In Part 5, Dr. Daniel Wallace addresses a brief overview of why the King James Bible is different from all modern translations, and issues of the Greek texts behind it.

  • In Part 6, Dr. Daniel Wallace focuses in on variants, how many there are, how many significant variants are there, and how good of a job has textual criticism done.

  • You will gain knowledge about translation philosophy, including different methods, how to evaluate a translation, and a comparison of the NIV and ESV translation philosophies, with examples of their differences. Understanding translation philosophy is important when interpreting the Bible.
  • You will learn about the first principle of interpretation which involves determining the meaning of words by looking at the word's immediate context, broader context, and historical and cultural context. By accurately interpreting the meaning of a word, it can be applied to the passage as a whole.
  • In this lesson, you will gain a comprehensive understanding of the reliability and trustworthiness of the Bible by exploring topics such as the development of the canon, textual criticism, historical accuracy, and theological coherence.
  • You will gain an understanding of the principles behind why we trust the Bible, including the bibliographical, historical, and internal tests.
  • You will gain knowledge and insight into the process of canonicity, which is the recognition of which books belong in the Bible based on criteria such as apostolicity, orthodoxy, catholicity, and traditional use. Understanding canonicity is essential for recognizing the authority of the Bible and its significance in the Christian faith.

The uniqueness and authority of the Bible are always under attack. Professors and writers are claiming that Jesus never existed, Jesus never claimed to be God, the early church changed the basic preaching of Jesus, books were left out of the Bible, the copies of the Bible that have come down through the centuries are hopelessly corrupt

Dr. Blomberg discusses the reliability of the Bible. Dr. Kruger discusses the process of formation of the New Testament Canon. Dr. Wallace discusses issues relating to manuscripts and textual criticism. Dr. Mounce discusses the philosophies and process of translation. 

Course: Why We Trust Our Bible

Lecture: The Nature of Orality, and the Witness of Paul


I. Introduction

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 Masker 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.

II. Authors of the Gospels

In this session, we are going to talk about the issue of authorship of the synoptic gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The challenge is that we don’t really know who wrote them, so people do say. And because we don’t know who wrote them, we don’t know if they got the stories right or if the authors changed the stories of Jesus. So authorship is a big issue. Bart Ehrman has written book on this, entitled ‘Forged, Writing in the Name of God’ and the sub-title is, ‘Why the Bible Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are.’ It is true that Matthew, Mark and Luke are anonymous; they don’t say who actually wrote the books. We think the names were not formally attached to them until the Gospels were all put together in a codex, a book format and so the different Gospels needed to be distinguished from each other. So it is true that Matthew, Mark and Luke don’t say who the authors are Bart Ehrman and others are correct as far as that is concerned.

But a traditional answer to this, church tradition is very strong on Matthew writing the first Gospel, Mark wrote the second Gospel and Luke wrote the third Gospel.

The sayings of the early Fathers as they recounted what they had heard; they are actually very strong in terms of the authorship. Matthew was one of the twelve disciples of Jesus and he was certainly in a position to know what Jesus said. We are told that Mark actually wrote the memories of Peter; in other
words, behind the Gospel of Mark is Peter and his retelling of the story of the actions of Jesus and his teachings. At the same time, traditions are strong that Luke wrote the third Gospel. Luke was a gentile and he wasn’t an eye witness and he tells us this at the very beginning of Luke. He was a travelling
companion of Paul. He had access to information about Jesus and so the traditions are strong that those three men wrote the first three Gospels. Not only is this tradition strong, but all three of those are in a position to know what actually happened, to know what Jesus actually taught and then to write it down in a trustworthy manner.

III. 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.

IV. Dating of the Gospels

Connected with this is the issue of dating the Gospels. We have a host of different arguments and beliefs as to the dating of these writings: we have the evangelicals and those who are more liberal critics. I use the word liberal critics even though I don’t like putting tags on things. So perhaps I should say non-evangelical scholars instead of liberal critics. So evangelical scholarship thinks Mark wrote the Gospel in the later ’50s or early ’60s. More critical scholarship dated it to late ’60s or early ’70s. For Matthew, the date ranges from the ’60s to the ’80s as well with Luke. John would have been written somewhere around the ’80s or 90’s. They were all written within about 60 years of the events of Jesus. In an oral culture of the time, this was not a long time and it is not that long when you compare it with other ancient biographies. For example, Alexander the Great died in 323 BC and his biographies were written in the late 1st century and early 2nd century AD. So, this was about 400 years after Alexander had lived. Interestingly, we trust those biographies and we think they convey basically accurate information. So when you look at those 400 years, then all of a sudden sixty years in an oral culture doesn’t seem to that long of a time period. So, we have good strong traditions as to who wrote the first three Gospels; they were people who would have known Jesus and his teachings and it was written in a relative short time frame. This is one way of looking at the authorship and dating as being trustworthy.