Can the Gospels be trusted since they are based on oral recollections?

Skeptics have long questioned the trustworthiness of the Gospels. They contend that the Gospels cannot be reliable since they are based on oral recollections of the events surrounding the life and teaching of Jesus. As political satirist Bill Maher quipped, the Judaism of his mother and the Christianity of his father are based on “a long, 2,000-year-old game of telephone.”[1]

Nearly all scholars agree that the accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry were passed along by word of mouth for at least 20 to 60 years before being written in what we commonly call the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John).[2] But does this fact mean that they are filled with half-truths, misrepresentation, and fabrications?

More than a century has passed since popular and highly publicized scholars first began to wonder if the gospels were fairy stories based on faulty memories and exaggerations that are part and parcel with oral transmission. Today, however, studies confirm that complicated and nuanced narratives can be faithfully passed along orally. Folklorists have found examples in cultures all over the world where long oral narratives were accurately passed down over many generations. These narratives typically contain a longer plot line together with various smaller units that compose the bulk of the story. In fact, when the subject matter is highly meaningful to a community, everyone in that community—not just the storyteller—is concerned with accurately and faithfully preserving it.[3]

Additionally, memory studies tell us that people are much more likely to accurately remember events when they are unique, consequential, and image-rich—just the kinds of experiences shared by the eyewitnesses of Jesus’ life and ministry.

There are two final points to consider. The first is that the Scriptures themselves tell us that the accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry were codified and established before the first four books of the New Testament were penned (Luke 1:1–2). Second, the historical distance between the original events and actual text is so short compared to other ancient texts—less than 100 years—that it seems to render this point moot.[4]

[1] In an NPR interview in 2008 http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=95210724

[2] The oldest existing biblical text fragment is dated to the 2nd century AD with places it within 100 years of the original events it describes.

[3] See The Jesus Legend (252-254) and Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (305-306).

[4] The Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts http://www.csntm.org/manuscript;

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