Rethinking Jesus (10) Oral Transmission and the Gospels

It’s sometimes claimed that the stories we’re told in the four Gospels are based on eyewitness testimony, which was carefully (or even ‘religiously’) passed on, initially by word of mouth, until eventually written down in ‘gospel’ form. This means, some tell us, that we can have every confidence that everything we read in the Gospels is just as it was said, and just as it happened. It seems to me, however, that this is an idealised picture which, I suspect, has more to do with wishful thinking than actual fact.

It’s been estimated that in 1st century Palestine, no more than 10% of the population would have been able to read and write, and most of these would have lived in Jerusalem, the politico-religious capital, where such abilities were chiefly required. There being no ‘middle class’, the remaining 90% were ‘peasants’ for whom there was no schooling. The earliest, Aramaic speaking, followers of Jesus are, in fact, described in the book of Acts as “uneducated and untrained men”. This doesn’t mean they were numpties, but neither were they scribbling verbatim accounts as Jesus talked and did his stuff. 

History never would’ve heard about Jesus, had not some of his followers come to believe that they had seen him alive again after his crucifixion. The reality of such appearances is not the point here, but that belief is. It clearly captured the attention of others, who would have wanted to hear more details about this amazing event, and about this man who had cheated death. And so began the word of mouth sharing of whatever stories came to mind, passed on from person to person, and then, after being translated from Aramaic into Greek, from city to city outside of Palestine. Such transmission would have been unsystematically piecemeal, compared with today’s highly organised, instant and globalised internet interconnection, and there wouldn’t have been any possibility of equally instant checks on authenticity and reliability. 

Proponents of the previously mentioned ‘idealised’ view, need to take account of the book, “Jesus before the Gospels”, by Professor Bart Ehrman (Harper One, 2016). Dr. Ehrman outlines the findings of cultural anthropologists, who’ve shown how stories invariably change as they’re passed along. Then the findings of psychologists regarding ‘false memories’, and how strongly people will insist they really happened. Then the legal scholars who’ve demonstrated how unreliable eyewitness testimonies are, with people regularly misinterpreting what they experienced. And also sociologists, who’ve shown how a group’s collective memory is strongly shaped by the issues and concerns of the remembering community, just as much as by the events themselves. 

He summarises his findings as follows : “Until recently, it has been commonly thought, even among scholars, that oral cultures could be counted on to preserve their traditions reliably; that people in such societies were diligent in remembering what they heard and could reproduce it accurately when asked about it. This, however, has been exploded by recent studies of literacy. We have now come to see that people in oral cultures typically do not share the modern concern for preserving traditions intact, and do not repeat them exactly the same way every time. On the contrary, the concern for verbal accuracy has been instilled in us by the phenomenon of mass literacy itself. Since anyone now can check to see if a fact has been remembered correctly, (by looking it up), we have developed a sense that traditions ought to remain invariable and unchanged. In most oral societies, however, traditions are understood to be malleable; that is, they are supposed to be changed, and made relevant to the new situations in which they are cited”.

Philosophy has taught me that every argument can be countered by its opposite. It will take, however, or so it seems to me, an equally strong, equally broadly evidenced, and equally persuasive case to refute the one which Dr. Ehrman has so clearly and carefully set out. It must be pointed out, however, that this does NOT mean the Gospels are entirely fictional. They most likely do include material which is both early and accurate. The problem is picking that out from all the rest. We must try to avoid wishful thinking on the one hand, and over-sceptical thinking on the other, and reach our own conclusions. What matters is that we bear in mind that these ‘conclusions’ can only be conjectural, and shared with other people. They must not be concretised and forced on other people. 

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