The “oral tradition” myth of gospel origins

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by Neil Godfrey

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.


  1. 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.
  2. 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.)
  3. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.)
  4. 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 . . .
  5. 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.
  6. 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?
  7. 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?
  8. 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?
  9. 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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Neil Godfrey

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7 thoughts on “The “oral tradition” myth of gospel origins”

  1. Point taken. Paul does describe the workings of professional missionaries – i.e. Apollos “watering” the seed that Paul “planted”.

    What would YOUR model of transmission be that explains both the “orthodox” vision of Jesus along with those, such as that of the Marcionites that you mentioned?

    Personally I have been envisioning a process where by Matthew lives in a time where the Jewish Scriptures are expected to contain truth. There is no skeptical tradition in force here. When he comes attempts to describe Jesus origins, he knows that the Holy Writings must have foretold such an important event and turns to them in search of answers. Voila! The king must come from Bethlehem. But Jesus was a Galilean! Back to the Scriptures. Out comes the flight to Egypt. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera… Matthews story relies only on those facts about Jesus that are in wide circulation, the ones he must account for. Everything is is taken whole cloth via a pious use of the Tanakh.

    That’s enough amateur speculating for one day… back to work 🙂

  2. I think though that again there are more scenarios than just the Pauline gospel vs. a hypothetical oral collection of proto-gospel details circulating around the Mediterranean. It seems to me that the apostolic gospel was indeed largely Pauline–focused on a spiritual Christ, explained using the Jewish scriptures. But I’m not sure this means that the sayings tradition, for example, came out of nowhere (and I don’t think you need Q to argue for a sayings tradition.) The sayings tradition seems to me to have been very local, or else not widely known. Note of course that the existence of a sayings tradition doesn’t necessarily mean it can be traced back to a traditional gospel Jesus; I’m just saying it is a scenario that could rightly be called an oral tradition, that may (or may not) have something to do with a first-century religious figure. In this case, it would have run parallel to the Pauline, apostolic tradition, possibly not spreading much further beyond the Levant, and it’s quite possible the two traditions had little to do with each other–they may even have had different doctrines altogether. They were only reconciled when the gospels began to be written down.

    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.

    But, of course, there was no need to write these stories down as the world was ending soon….

    So where are the Christian equivalents of the Hadith?

  4. My model of transmission? It’s really a model of “emergence” rather than “transmission”. How I find the easiest way to piece together the bits of evidence is to imagine a process that was something similar to the Copenhagen School’s general model of the origin of the Jewish people and the Old Testament in Persian and Hellenistic times.

    The pre 70 ce religion in Palestine was not the monolithic system of the later rabbinic era. I was exploring some of that pre 70 diversity in my posts on Barker and Levenson. Philo is also interesting in this context. Jewish philosophers had a lot of points of contact with the non-Jewish quasi-religious-philosophical thought systems.

    After 70 there were two major responses to the shattering of their cultural, racial, religious identities: one that eventually emerged as Rabbinic Judaism, and the other that eventually became a much more amorphous and diverse thing that came to be called Christianity.

    New identities like these are the product of the intellectuals (philosophers, priests) of the day. The different interest groups pick and choose from the various attempts to make sense of the recent crisis and work with ideas that best help them rebuild meaningful new identities.

    One group thus found a way to preserve Mosaic traditions in the absence of a city and a temple, and the other found meaning in replacing Moses with a new Joshua/Jesus. This latter group spiritualized the temple. These people incorporated or grew out of some of the pre-70 factions and beliefs that Barker and Levenson portray.

    Christianity then became a steadily unfolding revelation through the scriptures and philosophical workings out of the Philo types etc. It was primarily an intellectual movement. And its leading thinkers (revealers, prophets, philosophers) found various ways to communicate this to larger followings.

    Recall the client-patron relationship in ancient Roman world. People like Justin Martyr had numbers of hangers-on who found it in their interest to follow and support their care-giver. Those from a Jewish background, especially those trying to cope with rebuilding futures even a generation after the crisis of 70, would likely have a different take from those of a gentile or proselyte backgrounds. And god knows life in the pax romana did not fulfill the needs of everyone, and many gentiles were also attracted to the ideas and the hopes they offered of transcending this existence, either in spirit now or at death.

    The outcome of this was many Christian thinkers going beyond the Jewish god and, in parallel with various ancient religious genealogies, embracing a higher god. Of these were the Marcionites, Valentinians et al. Other reacted against these ideas and sought to maintain the value of the Jewish Scriptures, albeit via allegory. These were the precursors of our orthodoxy. (I also wonder if James was the first fictional personification and type of the persecuted and suffering believer, and if others found the dialogues around him worked better if they put his “brother” Jesus in the foreground, etc.)

    Then after the second Jewish war (ca 135), we see the identity religious struggles step up to a new level, and the first gospels appear. They are in dialogue with each other from the outset. No decades long time gaps between them and no lengthy confinements to restricted communities. They represented the debates going on in the working out of this new post 70/135 struggle — much as the various OT books also appear to represent different schools in dialogue as they competed for working out a new religious identity for the newly imported peoples into Palestine.

    The Jesus sayings that are floating around before then among the Fathers et al are all part and parcel of this discussion, too.

    Justin Martyr and the Epistle of Barnabas are classic documents for seeing how thinkers of the day were working out a new religious narrative from the Jewish scriptures to replace the old.

    I should try to write this up some time along with supporting references and arguments. One day . . . .

  5. Indeed, messages about that amazing carpenter’s son would need much in the way of local gossip to jump the great divide between fantasy and reality…..Oral traditions, the fallback position of the historical Jesus camp!

    More likely than not, there was lots of talk, pre 70 CE, about the ins and outs of just where was the Messiah the OT seemed to be referencing. However, to add a historical Jesus of Nazareth to this talking/questioning environment is really stretching things…

    I liked your “model of transmission? It’s really a model of “emergence” rather than “transmission”. That hits the nail right on its head. No transmission of oral teaching re Jesus of Nazareth – rather an emergence of the whole idea – post 70 CE. No historical Jesus of Nazareth equals no followers of Jesus of Nazareth, equals no oral transmission of stories about Jesus of Nazareth. The story emerged and was backdated.

    So, instead of looking around for the carpenter’s son and his next-door-neighbours etc – it might well be more profitable to look for symbolism within the gospel storyline. One might find that the carpenter from Nazareth is not a carpenter with the kitchen table on his mind! It seems the Greek word can be used for a master craftsman, a carpenter or a stone mason – both occupations being vital to the building of the literal Jerusalem temple. So, instead of the Cedar logs from Lebanon used by carpenters for the re-building of Solomon’s temple – the carpenter from Nazareth is building the new spiritual temple with ‘logs’ of intellectual fiber. Scholars and learned men – the usual elite background from which intellectual evolution springs…

    The carpenter’s son – taken literally – great marketing…..

    1. When I think of oral tradition I think about an oral tradition handed down in toto without any erreor from memory as is often done by tribal shamen. It is possible that Q could have been that oral tradition so that the gospel writers could duplicate stories vertbatum. Think about it.

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