As Oral Recollections, Can the Gospels Be Historically Accurate?

Christians have always believed that though serious questions could be raised about the Gospels, the things recorded in them were true. From the beginning of the church, when the original witnesses of Jesus’ life and ministry were alive, to the beginning of the scientific era, there have always been thoughtful people who realized the astounding, unprecedented nature of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ.

Nevertheless, as modernism came into full bloom in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and naturalistic assumptions peaked, many scholars believed that the kinds of miracles described in the Gospels could not have occurred. Influential modernist biblical scholars assumed that miracles simply couldn’t have occurred as described in the Gospels. Explanations usually involved the assumption that some kind of sociological and psychological process could make memories of admired historical figures like Jesus evolve into legends. (See the ATQ article, Do the Gospels’ Miracles Make Them Legendary Accounts?)

These early 20th-century scholars didn’t realize how reliable oral accounts of important events can be. They had little understanding of how accounts of historical events in primarily oral cultures are regularly preserved and passed along with great accuracy.

One of the misunderstandings held by these modernist scholars was that the events of Jesus’ life would have existed only as brief vignettes—“snapshots”—in the memories of individual witnesses of Jesus’ life. They assumed that no overall story/narrative of Jesus’ life and ministry could have existed in the first generation following His death, but that later generations would have combined isolated fragments of earlier witnesses’ testimony about Jesus into a written account. In their view, the written narrative would be more of a reflection of the theological needs and imagination of a later generation than a historically accurate description of Jesus’ life and ministry.

More than a century has passed since Rudolf Bultmann, Albert Schweitzer, and other famous biblical scholars first discounted miracles in the Gospels with the “legendary Jesus” hypothesis. Although our culture has moved from modernism to postmodernism, and naturalism is being supplanted by a more nuanced and complex view of reality, many scholars still rely on variations of their “legendary Jesus” hypothesis. Unlike the modernist scholars of earlier generations, however, contemporary scholars can only continue believing in a “legendary Jesus” by ignoring widely available evidence.1

The basis for believing that a primarily oral culture is incapable of preserving accurate historical traditions has been eliminated. Careful anthropological studies have discredited modernist assumptions that only fragmented memories can be passed along from a first generation of witnesses to subsequent generations and that a unified narrative would be formed much later by people less concerned with historical accuracy than their own theological and cultural needs. Exhaustive studies by folklorists have uncovered examples in cultures all over the world of faithful oral transmission of long narratives, some taking as long as 25 hours to recite. These narratives typically contain “a longer narrative plot line together with various smaller units that compose the bulk of the story in any given performance.” When the subject matter is of great significance to the group, not only the storyteller but the whole community becomes its guardian.2

Evidence regarding accurate oral transmission of long narratives is only one aspect of new discoveries that confirm taking the Gospels seriously as historical narrative. Other important evidence can be found in memory studies that show the degree to which memory can be trusted, the circumstances in which people remember things accurately, and the kinds of things that are best remembered. These have shown that the kinds of things that are most likely to be remembered—unique or unusual events, salient or consequential events, events in which a person is emotionally involved, events involving vivid imagery, events that are frequently “rehearsed” (retold)—are just the kinds of events common to the eyewitnesses of Jesus’ life and ministry (Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, chap. 13). Memory studies have also shown that “recollection is usually accurate as far as the central features of an event are concerned but often unreliable in remembering peripheral details” (Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, p. 356). It was exactly the central features of Jesus’ ministry that would have been most important to the eyewitnesses who recalled His story. 3

It has become clear that the first generation of witnesses would have provided a comprehensive narrative of Jesus’ life and ministry. The actual witnesses, not the third- or fourth-generation Christian community, were responsible for the content of the Gospels.4

  1. Early form critics such as Bultmann took it for granted that folk traditions consisted almost exclusively of short vignettes. How could longer narratives, to say nothing of epics, be remembered and transmitted intact orally? While this view is still prevalent today among many in New Testament circles, a significant number of folklorists, anthropologists, and ethnographers over the last several decades have justifiably abandoned it. The reason for this reversal is that empirical evidence has shown it to be wrong. A large number of fieldwork studies have “brought to light numerous long oral epics in the living traditions of Central Asia, India, Africa, and Oceania, for example.” Hence, as the famed Finnish folklorist Luari Honko recently noted: “The existence of genuine long oral epics can no longer be denied.” In fact, amazingly, scholars have documented oral narratives whose performance has lasted up to 25 hours carried out over several days.
    The performances of oral narratives within orally dominant cultures tend to share fundamental characteristics. Oral performances are almost always composed of a longer narrative plot line together with various smaller units that compose the bulk of the story in any given performance. Because of their length, the long narrative plot line is almost never played out fully in any single performance. Moreover, the degree of detail in which the narrative is played out varies considerably from performance to performance, depending largely on the particular situation of the audience. The narrative schematic itself functions as something of a “mental text” (to use Honko’s phrase) within the mind of the performer, one that is “edited” for each particular performance. There is also a significant degree of flexibility in terms of the placement, order, and length of the smaller units of tradition that fill out the narrative in any given performance. This too largely depends on the purpose, context, and time constraints of the performance in the light of the situation of the community (The Jesus Legend, pp. 252-54). Back To Article
  2. Communities that are predominately oral have ways of preserving traditions faithfully when the character and use of these traditions make this desirable. Such communities have ways of checking oral performances for accuracy. Jan Vansina writes:

    Where . . . the performers intend to stick as closely as possible to the message related and to avoid lapses of memory or distortion, the pace of change can almost be stopped. In some cases controls over the faithfulness of the performance were set up and sanctions or rewards meted out to the performers. . . . In Polynesia ritual sanctions were brought to bear in the case of failure to be word-perfect. When bystanders perceived a mistake, the ceremony was abandoned. In New Zealand it was believed that a single mistake in performance was enough to strike the performer dead. Similar sanctions were found in Hawaii. . . . Such . . . beliefs had visible effects. Thus in Hawaii a hymn of 618 lines was recorded which was identical with a version collected on the neighboring island of Oahu. . . . Sometimes controllers were appointed to check important performances. In Rwanda the controllers of Ubwiiru esoteric liturgical texts were the other performers entitled to recite it.

    In the early Christian movement, we may suppose that the authorized tradents of the tradition performed this role of controllers, but among them the eyewitnesses would surely have been the most important. We must remind ourselves, as we have quite often had occasion to do, that Vansina and other writers about oral tradition are describing processes of transmission over several generations, whereas in the case of the early church up to the writing of the Gospels, we are considering the preservation of the testimony of the eyewitnesses during their own lifetimes. They are the obvious people to have controlled this in the interests of faithful preservation.

    In favor of this role of the eyewitnesses, we should note that the early Christian movement, though geographically widely spread, was a network of close communication, in which individual communities were in frequent touch with others and in which many individual leaders traveled frequently and widely. I have provided detailed evidence of this elsewhere. First or secondhand contact with eyewitnesses would not have been unusual. (The community addressed in Hebrews had evidently received the gospel traditions directly from eyewitnesses: see 2:3-4.) Many Jewish Christians from many places would doubtless have continued the custom of visiting Jerusalem for the festivals and so would have had the opportunity to hear the traditions of the Twelve from members of the Twelve themselves while there were still some resident in Jerusalem. Individual eyewitnesses of importance, such as Peter or Thomas, would have had their own disciples, who (like Mark in Peter’s case) were familiar enough with their teacher’s rehearsal of Jesus traditions to be able to check, as well as to pass on, the traditions transmitted in that eyewitness’s name as they themselves traveled around. This is the situation envisaged in the fragment of Papias’s Prologue from which we began our investigations in chapter 2 (Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, pp. 305-306). Back To Article

  3. The aspects of testimony in court that have led psychologists to question its accuracy in significant respects bear scarcely at all on the kind of eyewitness testimony with which we are concerned in the Gospels. The witnesses in these cases were not mere uninvolved bystanders, but participants in the events. What their testimonies needed to convey were not peripheral details but the central gist of the events they recalled. They were not required to recall faces (so important in modern legal trials), nor were they pressed to remember what did not easily come to mind.
    It is worth quoting again Alan Baddeley’s assessment:

    Much of our autobiographical recollection of the past is reasonably free of error, provided that we stick to remembering the broad outline of events. Errors begin to occur once we try to force ourselves to come up with detailed information from an inadequate base. This gives full rein to various sources of distortion, including that of prior expectations, disruption by misleading questions, and by social factors such as the desire to please the questioner, and to present ourselves in a good light.

    The eyewitnesses behind the Gospel accounts surely told what was prominent in their memories and did not need to attempt the laborious processes of retrieval and reconstruction that make for false memories (Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, p. 356). Back To Article

  4. Over the last few decades, a number of New Testament scholars have begun to grasp the significance of these insights. One of the first to do so was Thorleif Boman. Contrary to classical form-critical theory, and in line with recent folklorist studies, Boman made a compelling case that orally recounted historical narratives do not emerge out of independently circulating units of prior tradition. Rather, the narrative and the units inextricably belong together. As Leander Keck notes, Boman’s work suggests that.
    From the outset, oral tradition about historical persons embraces both individual items and an overall picture of the hero. If Mark is the bearer of oral tradition, he did not create a picture of Jesus out of miscellaneous items but rather transmitted a picture of Jesus that was already present in the oral tradition.As the interdisciplinary data on the existence and nature of long oral narratives has continued to grow over the last few decades, Boman’s argument has been increasingly confirmed. As a result, a growing number of New Testament scholars are abandoning the classical form-critical bias against an early orally transmitted Jesus narrative.Joanna Dewey, for example, argues that the “form-critical assumption that there was no story of Jesus prior to the written Gospels, only individual stories about Jesus . . . needs to be reconsidered in light of our growing knowledge of oral narrative.” Dewey has pointed out that an oral narrative the length of Mark would take at most two hours to perform, which, as we have seen, is relatively short by the oral-narrative standards. What is more, as oral narratives go, Mark’s narrative would be relatively easy to remember and transmit. “Good storytellers could easily learn the story of Mark from hearing it read or hearing it told,” she writes. And from this she concludes that, “given the nature of oral memory and tradition . . . it is likely that the original written text of Mark was dependent on a pre-existing connected oral narrative, a narrative that already was being performed in various versions by various people.”

    We now have good reason to think that the relationship between the parts (the individual pericope of the Gospels that have been the sole focus of form criticism) and the whole (the broad narrative framework of Jesus’s life, ministry, death, and resurrection) from early on would have been both much more fundamental and, at the same time, much more flexible than the modern, literate paradigm (under which classical form criticism has always labored) could ever imagine. Breakthrough theories such as Lauri Honko’s concept of “mental text,” Egbert Bakker’s idea of oral performance as “activation,” and John Miles Foley’s “metonymy” thesis applied to oral narratives have deepened our ability to understand how lengthy oral narratives can be retained and transmitted, and how they relate to the individual parts.

    Working with Paul Ricoeur’s findings on narrative and representation, Jens Schroeter has argued that the narrative framework of the Gospel tradition has no less a claim to historicity than the individual sayings of Jesus. This statement points toward a crucial observation, one that has emerged in recent interdisciplinary conversations around the concerns of history, epistemology, and narrative. The heart of the matter is this: human beings, by their very epistemological nature, generally structure their experience of reality in the form of narrative. We orient and live our lives by the stories we tell. As John Niles points out: “Oral narrative is and for a long time has been the chief basis of culture itself. . . . Storytelling is an ability that defines the human species as such, at least as far as our knowledge of human experience extends into the historical past and into the sometime startling realms that ethnography has brought to light” (The Jesus Legend, pp. 255-57). Back To Article

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