Lecture 02: The Nature of Orality, and the Witness of Paul
Course: Why We Trust Our Bible
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.