The Oral Period
Course: Why I Trust My Bible
Lecture: The Oral Period
Passing on Information During Jesus’s Life
The topic of this class is how we got our Bible. Let me historically walk through the process. During Jesus’s life, there probably was not a lot of note taking. We know from rabbinic sources that the teaching was all oral, it was by word of mouth, and the rabbis got into the habit of repeating themselves over and over again.
It was also a culture that valued memory a lot more than our culture. People were expected to remember things exactly and precisely. I’m told that you can still go to the Middle East to two different locations where there has simply never been any physical contact between the peoples for generations, and you can hear word for word exactly the same story being told. These people were taught to repeat these old folk tales precisely. That’s just part of Middle Eastern culture, part of the biblical mindset.
Papyrus was expensive; you couldn’t carry around leather or other writing tools very easily, so all of the teaching was oral. The church also believed (not because they were taught it, but because they made an assumption from their Judaism) that Jesus, after he left, was coming back again pretty quickly. In Acts 1:6 they ask, “Is it now that you’re going to return the kingdom to Israel?” They didn’t yet understand that Jesus was going to be gone or gone very long, so there wasn’t a need to take notes. Jesus’s teaching ministry lasted three and a half years.
Period of Oral Transmission
When Jesus died, we entered into a period of what’s technically called the period of oral transmission. That means that people told the stories of Jesus by word of mouth. (If I use the word “stories” or “traditions,” it doesn’t mean that these things are not true; that’s just the technical language.) There was this period of oral transmission where the things that Jesus did and the things that Jesus taught were passed on orally from person to person. And not all of those stories made it eventually into the Gospels. John says precisely the opposite, “If I told you everything that Jesus did the world couldn’t hold all the books.” But even in a passage like Acts 20, Paul is saying, “Remember, Jesus said it’s more blessed to give than to receive.” You look in vain in the Gospels, but it’s not there. So there were a lot of stories about what Jesus did and said that were floating around.
It appears that at this time, the church started formulating its theology as well. For example, it appears at times that Paul is quoting someone. In the Pastoral Epistles he calls them “Faithful Sayings.” They are hymns—sayings that were memorized and recited in the church.
Some people, for example, think Philippians 2 was something that was said in the church as a teaching tool. “Jesus was in the form of God, but did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped”—you probably know the passage. It’s rhythmical; it reads like poetry. So the church had not only all the stories of what Jesus did and said, but it also started to formulate its own understanding and using its own words, and that’s fine to do.
You also had the Apostles who had more information. Paul tells the Corinthian church, “now I don’t have any traditions from Jesus about what to do in this situation, but here’s what I say you should do.”
In other words, you had this whole mix of information. Stories of Jesus, stuff the church is formulating, new information from the Apostles, and one of the questions that comes at this point is, how accurate is all of this. This is one of those questions that everybody needs to think through, and for most Christians, at least evangelical Christians, our answer is, of course it’s accurate. But it’s really important that you think through why it’s accurate. People are telling stories, it’s not written down, there’s no central database for all this information. How do you know they got it right? How do you know they didn’t change it? So there’s this whole question of accuracy.
Was the Early Church Accurate? (Jesus Seminar)
How many of you have heard of the Jesus Seminar? I think it’s done now; I think they have finished all their voting with all their colored cards. The Jesus Seminar is a good example of why this is an important question. The Jesus Seminar is composed of a bunch of scholars, (so of course that means they’re right…. No). There are some pretty amazing technical scholars who got together with all their different colored cards. It’s headed by a man named Robert Funk, and they voted their way through the Gospels. Could Jesus have said this or could he not have said this? And so, for example, they threw out most of the Lord’s Prayer although they said a few pieces probably were from Jesus. But they say things like, “Since Jesus never wanted to create the church, anything he says about living in community can’t be original because he didn’t want to create a following.” Or, “Jesus obviously wasn’t a supernatural being because there are no such things as supernatural beings, and so when the New Testament talks about Jesus being the Son of Man coming to judge, oh no, Jesus would never do anything like that; the church must have made that up.” what they’re saying is that during this period of oral transmission, the church made up a whole bunch of stuff and changed the message of Jesus. And in many of these people’s minds, Paul is really the bad guy because Paul came in and he changed everything.
Let me give you a few answers to the Jesus Seminar, the kinds of answers that perhaps you could use in talking to someone. If you want more information on any of this, ask me after class, and if I don’t know of a book I’ll dig one up for you.
One of the reasons that I believe that the New Testament Church got it right is because of the presence of eyewitnesses. You had a lot of people who watched Jesus; it wasn’t just the twelve. There were many more people that followed Jesus they just weren’t part of the inner circle and they are all still around.
You remember that passage in 1 Corinthians 15 that refers to Jesus appearing to different people after the resurrection? It says that on one occasion, he appeared to more than five hundred people at one time. An eyewitness encounter of Jesus was important: After Judas killed himself and they are going to get a new twelfth apostle, one of the requirements was he has to have been with us from the beginning and been a witness to the resurrection. So there’s this large group of people, not just the twelve that followed him around, who have seen Jesus. And those people would have exerted real control. If somebody said, “Well, Jesus said…” and then made up something, there were enough people around that had been with Jesus the whole time that would have said, “no, he never said that, no, no.” If someone says, “Well, Jesus says, you don’t forgive someone unless they beg for forgiveness.” Someone else would say, “No, he didn’t say that at all, he said ‘Father forgive us our debts as we forgive those who have sinned against us,’” from the Lord’s prayer. So you had the presence of eyewitnesses as a controlling factor.
Second, you have the promise of the Holy Spirit. It comes up several times in John, once in John 14:26. Jesus says, “the helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” Sometimes that verse is used that somehow the Holy Spirit is going to illumine me today, and that’s not what it’s saying. It’s a promise to the eleven disciples in the Upper Room that God is going to supernaturally watch over their memories, and that the Holy Spirit is going to help them to remember things correctly, what Jesus did and what Jesus taught. Now you’re probably not going to convince an atheist by this argument, but this argument is good to know in case you wonder: “Did they really get this right?” Jesus promised that God, the Holy Spirit, was going to work in the lives of the Apostles, making them remember exactly what Jesus did and what Jesus taught. Is that reasonable? Sure it is reasonable. So I think (more for a believer) that’s a very valid argument that we can trust it.
Thirdly, these people were getting persecuted for their faith. At first, people received them and liked them, but pretty quickly you have the leaders being killed, the church being dispersed. Not many people die for a lie. I remember when I was a kid, Joshua McDowell used to make this point all the time. A lot of people in history have died for things that are not true, but rarely will you find someone who is willing to die for something they know to be a lie. The fact that the church was being persecuted and would not change direction, but continued to assert that this is what Jesus said, this is what Jesus did, I’m going to hang in there until death, suggests that they were not willing to make up stories about Jesus. As faithfully as they could, as they were inspired by the Spirit, they recounted what Jesus actually did and said.
Fourth, a lot of this just has to do with presuppositions. The people in the Jesus Seminar are not smarter nor dumber than you or me. They just have a whole different set of presuppositions than you and I have. We have presuppositions; they have presuppositions. We have filters, we have ideas that we push things through. One of their main presuppositions is that there is no such thing as the supernatural; there’s no such thing as the miraculous. So obviously when you hit the Gospels, and you push it through those presuppositions, you can’t have Jesus waking on water and calming the sea because that stuff just doesn’t happen. And it is their presuppositions that lead them to the conclusion that the Bible isn’t accurate. The text itself doesn’t lead them there (that’s a very important point)—it’s presuppositions about the text.
Now there are some problems in the Bible, there are some places that look like they contradict each other. We’ll talk about that the next time we’re together. But in terms of presuppositions, it’s their presuppositions that drive them to these wild and crazy conclusions, sometimes.