Oral Tradition: Was Memory of the Writer Accurate? | Free Online Bible Classes

Lecture 3: Oral Tradition: Was Memory of the Writer Accurate?

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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.

Oral Tradition


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.


Course: Why I Trust My Bible

Lecture 3: Oral Tradition

This is the 3th 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 – Eye Witnesses and Historical Jesus and Proof

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.

2. Word of Mouth

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.

3. Oral Culture

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.

4. The Dates 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 50’s or early 60’s. More critical scholarship dated it to late 60’s or early 70’s. For Matthew, the date ranges from the 60’s to the 80’s as well with Luke. John would have been written somewhere around the 80’s 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.

There is another way to look at this; both Darrell and Crag will spend some time in their sessions talking about this. The challenge is this: as we didn’t know who wrote them, the church was sitting there with these three anonymous Gospels and they wanted people to trust and believe them. The charge is often put forward that they simply decided on Matthew, Mark and Luke and they felt that people would respect their writings. So this is how the charge is often made. In a sense there is some truth to that because when we look at other books that were written after Christ supposedly about him where somebody would make up a story about Jesus or Paul. We have the acts of Peter where somebody made up stories and they wanted people to believe it. We know this happened. But the question is; did this happen with Matthew, Mark and Luke? The argument is whether the church was willing l to go take a name and attach it to an anonymous gospel, would they have picked Matthew, Mark and Luke? I don’t believe they would not have picked these three people to give credibility of an anonymous gospel. For example, Mark was the person who left in the middle of the first missionary journey. It was the time when Paul and Barnabas ended up going their separate ways and a disagreement. So why would anyone attach Mark’s name to the second Gospel. There would be no reason to, except that there was a very strong tradition that Mark wrote that Gospel and the church honored that tradition. And it was important for the church to get this right. Another way of looking at it, sense we know from Paypius, the church historian, through Eusebius, Mark was really writing down the memories of Peter. Why isn’t it the Gospel of Peter as he was the person who stood behind it? Apparently, the church wasn’t willing to ignore the traditions which said that Mark wrote it. This tells you how the church viewed authorship; they weren’t willing to ignore traditions.

What about Matthew? Even through he was one of the twelve, he was a tax collector. But in our day and age, it is probably difficult to understand the total disgust and perhaps even hatred that Jews had of tax collectors. These collectors who were Jews were traitors to Israel; they were Jews who had aligned themselves with the Romans. It is not that they just took money from the Jews; they took it and gave it to the Romans. So why would you pick such a person to name a Gospel for? This is especially so for a Gospel geared for a Jewish audience. The Jews would dislike his name the most. It doesn’t make any sense, unless, the church understood that Matthew wrote that Gospel and they respected that and thus, attached his name to it. The same applies for picking Luke for a Gospel name. Luke wasn’t an eyewitness even though he was part of Paul’s travelling companions. Remember, he was a Greek, he wasn’t a Jew; he wasn’t an eyewitness of the events of Jesus; so why would you attach a gentile’s name to a Gospel when you are trying to give the book credibility. It doesn’t make any sense, but the conclusion was that the church wasn’t willing to attach just any name to the Gospels. But what they were willing to do, was to respect and to accept the strong traditions as to the authorship of Matthew, Mark and Luke, even though Peter was behind Mark, Matthew was a tax collector and Luke was a gentile. So this whole argument with the authorship just falls; yes, they were anonymous Gospels, the church tradition was very strong that it was Matthew, Mark and Luke who wrote those Gospels. These people had direct or very close indirect access to the stories of Jesus. The church wasn’t willing to attach just well-known names to the Gospels just to get people to believe them. The church wanted to honor the traditions and that’s why we have the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. I think this is a fair conclusion to end up with.

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