Bart Ehrman (BE) in Jesus, Interrupted, summarizes the standard view of how a long period of “oral tradition” preceded the writing of the first gospels. The Gospels of the New Testament, he writes,
were written thirty-five to sixty-five years after Jesus’ death by people who did not know him, did not see anything he did or hear anything he taught, people who spoke a different language from his and lived in a different country from him. (p.144)
So how can they be considered reliable evidence of what Jesus did and said? BE answers:
The first step is to get a better handle on how the Gospel writers got their stories. . . . The short answer is that most Gospel writers received most of their information from the oral tradition, stories that had been in circulation about Jesus by word of mouth from the time he died until the time the Gospel writers wrote them down.
BE then explains that one thing the historian needs to understand is how the oral traditions about Jesus worked. Here is his take:
How did Christians convert people away from their (mainly) pagan religions to believe in only one God, the God of the Jews, and in Jesus, his son, who died to take away the sins of the world? The only way to convert people was to tell them stories about Jesus: what he said and did, and how he died and was raised from the dead. Once someone converted to the religion and became a member of a Christian church, they, too, would tell the stories. And the people they converted would then tell the stories, as would those whom those people converted. And so it went, a religion spread entirely by word of mouth, in a world of no mass media. . . . This is how Christianity spread, year after year, decade after decade, until eventually someone wrote down the stories.
From Jesus, Interrupted (Bart Ehrman), p.146
There is nothing controversial in this outline. The scenario is outlined in many biblical studies texts. But the scenario does not offer readers who are wishing to inform themselves the background to their gospel sources a truly fair or just account. Indeed, as a synopsis of the pre-gospel era it is as ideological as the Acts of the Apostles or the Apostles Creed. First, we have a description of people converting to a single religion with the God of the Jews at its centre, by means of the spread of stories said to be about that God’s son who died to take away the sins of the world.
- If that was how it was, then it is surely bizarre that soon after the gospels were written, most Christians in the world (Marcionites) were reportedly (Justin Martyr) worshiping a non-Jewish Alien God, and his Son whom they said had no human birth at all. Moreover, early Christians did not tell stories to convey the message of the meaning of Jesus and his death. Luke’s gospel, for instance, did not accept that Jesus died to atone for sins. In this gospel, and Acts, Jesus’ death is that of nothing more than a righteous martyr vindicated by the resurrection. “A religion spread entirely by word of mouth” would appear to be a misleading overgeneralization at best.
- Paul never converted anyone, and according to his letters none of his flock were converted, by telling stories about the pre or post crucified deeds and sayings of Jesus. According to Acts he used Jewish Scriptures and philosophical reasoning to prove Jesus was the Christ. And the focus of these scriptures and reasoning was not the deeds and sayings of Jesus, but his death and resurrection. In his letters he argues about clean and unclean, marriage, baptism, the death and resurrection without any reference to any stories that later appeared (supposedly via oral transmission) in the gospels. Paul’s message about Jesus, in both his epistles and Acts, is that Jesus was revealed through the prophetic Scriptures. His message was Christ crucified. (There is one exception to this, and that is the list of eyewitnesses to the resurrected Jesus in 1 Corinthians 15. I do not think this section is original to the letter, but for the sake of argument let’s say it is. It would show that Paul would use Jesus stories to establish his points if he knew them.)
- This well-known fact about Paul’s letters is, as BE reminds readers, one of the reasons the Gospels are believed to have been written after Paul. But if this is evidence for the gospels postdating Paul, surely it is also evidence that the gospel stories themselves were unknown in his lifetime.
Second, we have a description of how the “oral tradition” worked, and BE compares this with the party game of whispers. But the evidence we do have entirely contradicts this scenario:
- According to Paul’s letters it was apostles and other appointed/self-appointed messengers who introduced the gospel to folks. Paul never complains about erroneous messages about Jesus circulating by word of next-door neighbours and itinerant merchants and the local baker and their socializing wives. These are the people BE (and the oral tradition model generally) identifies as the kind by which the gospel stories spread. This seems odd, since BE et al reason that the reason we have so many variant and contradictory stories about Jesus is that this is how they were transmitted, yet Paul finds nothing to correct from this quarter in any of his letters. He goes for the jugulars of false prophets and false apostles who had things to say about circumcision and money and diets, not storytellers who said Jesus did and said this or that. If such stories existed would not many of them be modified to support the contrary doctrinal views of Paul’s “false teachers”, and would not Paul be obliged to squash these narratives? But Paul’s letters oblige us to think that no such narratives — either supportive or contrary to his teachings — existed.
- Neither Paul nor the earliest gospels anywhere appeal to a grassroots tradition to verify or source a narrative about Jesus. They both appeal to Jewish scriptures as the proof of what they say. Not a single non-scriptural source for any narrative or saying is cited in any of the gospels, with the exception of that anonymous, solitary “beloved disciple” in the gospel of John. This is surely perplexing if authors were confronted with a host of local variants and they were attempting to set the narrative straight and not simply add to the confusion.
- Many of the narratives about Jesus look suspiciously like they are adaptations crafted from other stories in the Jewish Scriptures and not the product of normal over-the-fence gossip at all. (e.g. the calling of the disciples and the calling of Elisha, the healings and the feeding of the multitudes by Jesus as once by Elisha and Elijah.)
- The prologue of the Gospel of Luke also speaks of “many” who had gone before as trusted tradents. It does not occur to this author of Luke’s prologue to write an account that attempts to normalize the variant grassroots teachings that one would expect to still blanket the Christian communities. (Grassroots that blanket communities, what an image! Sorry.) Presumably, then, the only significant variants by Luke’s time were those in written texts? Possible, I suppose, but . . .
- The earliest written gospels emerge in dialogue with each other, and principally with the Gospel of Mark. They do not present as attempts to tidy up random popular versions of stories, but as theological dialogues within the world of written texts. Matthew, for example, re-writes the stories and sayings in Mark that sound too anti-Peter or too-lawless for him. John likewise re-writes the stories found in other gospels, such as the cleansing of the Temple and Passover events, in order to teach a different theology and a different Jesus, one with Jesus more god-like. It is as if the first written gospel spawned narrative and sayings variants to illustrate the different viewpoints in the inter-textual dialogue. I doubt that there are any narrative variants that can most economically be explained as being included in a gospel because the author simply believed it to be handed down by the most historically reliable group of neighbours, bakers, itinerant merchants, etc. Each one serves to demonstrate each gospel author’s theological position.
- The author of Acts does allow for refugees to bring with them the gospel message when the Christians were scattered after Stephen’s martyrdom. But the word thus spread is quickly controlled by a special leadership of ordained evangelists and others. Presumably the Roman Christian community Paul wrote to also came together as a result of many Christians travelling there. But if the Book of Acts is an indicator, the general rule was that career missionaries spread the word. In another major centre, Ephesus, there were disciples of John the Baptist who apparently not heard of Jesus or the Holy Spirit (even though JB is said to have taught the future baptism of the HS) by the time Paul reached them some twenty years after the crucifixion. Similarly with Apollo in Acts 18: a well educated preacher from another major urban centre, some twenty years after the crucifixion of Jesus, had not heard on the grapevine of any baptism other than John the Baptist’s. What was being passed along this supposed oral-tradition grapevine if, twenty years after Jesus, and in major urban centres, the disciples of John and Jesus had never even heard of John teaching about a future baptism of the Holy Spirit or that one could be baptized into the Christian church?
- The most sensational and biggest of the Jesus stories, that of the empty tomb, was unheard of before the first written gospel. Paul clearly knew nothing of it when he felt compelled to prove to his Corinthian followers that Jesus really had been resurrected from the dead. He could not even remark on pilgrims they must surely have known who had been to Jerusalem to have seen this sacred spot for themselves — had anyone heard such a story. Again, what was being conveyed along this oral network?
- Not a single early Christian witness I am aware of testifies that the gospel spread by any means other than apostles and other career or chosen missionaries. From the gospels to the early Church Fathers like Justin Martyr, the consistent message is that it was apostles and trusted messengers who went out to bring the message to others after the death and resurrection of Jesus. If Christianity spread by more than those, could not there be somewhere in the records at least a passing acknowledgment?
- Paul boasted that his preaching that converted others was not mere words, but words plus power. And signs. It takes a lot more than telling stories about deeds and sayings of Jesus to change people’s religion, especially if they will face rejection from their circle and persecution, at least on the scale that supposedly happened in the first century. Just ask the JWs and Mormons. It takes a combination of breaking down their confidence in their current identities and world views, offering alternative identities and outlooks that answer to personal needs. Stories of Jesus are usually marginal decoration. The reason is that the Jesus stories we have generally speak to theological point-scoring.
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