How do we know the stories of Jesus were preserved by oral tradition before the Gospels?

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by Neil Godfrey

dykstra1One book I enjoyed reading this year was Tom Dykstra’s Mark, Canonizer of Paul. (The link is to an earlier post of mine on this title.) I see the book has been promoted on the Bible and Interpretation site, too. Tom Dykstra begins with a discussion of Mark’s sources and purpose referring to about half a dozen books that were still fresh in my mind from recent reading and introducing me to as many more that by and large I followed up subsequently. His third chapter is titled The Chimera of Oral Tradition.

“Oral Tradition” is a term one soon learns to take for granted when reading any scholarly work that attempts to explore the possible sources used by the authors of the gospels. If one wants to pursue this concept further one will soon enough find interdisciplinary studies drawing upon the works of anthropologists, oral historians — names like Ong, Vansina, Foley, Dundes, Kelber will soon become familiar. There is no shortage of information about “how oral tradition works” but none of it directly explains how we know the gospel authors (evangelists) drew upon it.

(There are arguments that certain structures in the gospels are paralleled in oral recitations but these arguments are off-set by even more detailed and supported demonstrations that the same structures are found in literary works, too. They are not unique to oral story-telling.)

This becomes all the more frustrating as one continues to read widely and learns that there are numerous studies that easily demonstrate that the evangelists drew upon certain other written literature for some of their episodes. It is very difficult to deny that the account of Jesus raising the daughter of Jairus from the dead owes nothing to the similar narrative of Elisha raising a young boy from death.

Numerous commentaries suggest that the author of the Gospel of Matthew was emulating the story of the ancient Law being presented to Israel through Moses on the mountain when he composed the Sermon on the Mount. One scholar even published an entire book arguing for numerous links between the Jesus in Matthew’s gospel and Moses — clearly leading us to acknowledge that the evangelist was consciously drawing upon the story of Moses to write his gospel.

So how do we reconcile these studies with the claim that oral traditions were the gospel sources? The closest I have ever come to an explanation in the literature is the suggestion that the evangelists shaped the oral stories to make them reminiscent of the venerable tales of old.

So when I read Barry Henaut’s published thesis demonstrating that the way the parables of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark are told strongly suggests they were composed from the creative and literary mind of the author and owed nothing to oral traditions I was determined to find how scholars had responded to such a thesis. It seemed that most had never read it. Oral tradition continued to rule by default.

Then I read Thomas Brodie’s critique of the whole notion of oral tradition — not just its application to one part of a gospel. I wrote several posts outlining his arguments:

Brodie wrote before he “came out” as a “mythicist”. So what engagement with his arguments did his peers undertake?

Very little, it seems.

Oral tradition wins by default. It is necessary to explain how the Jesus narrative survived the forty odd year gap generally believed to separate the first gospel (Mark) and the crucifixion of Jesus.

So when I read Tom Dykstra repeating with approval the core of Brodie’s arguments in his third chapter in Mark, Canonizer of Paul my attention was locked in.

As far as I am aware Dykstra is not a mythicist. Now that’s the position I have been looking for to study. The question of Jesus’s historical existence ought to have nothing to do with genuine and valid intellectual inquiry into a study of a piece of ancient writing and testable evidence for its sources.

Maybe Dykstra won me over too easily by seriously addressing questions I had been wanting to see addressed by third parties for so long. I would love to read studies just as thorough that argue against the points raised by Brodie and Henaut.

If anyone knows of any serious challenges to arguments against the hypothesis that oral traditions were sources for the gospels I would be most grateful.


The letters of Paul refer to doctrinal creeds being passed on by oral tradition but that’s not the same thing as the raft of stories about the healings and teachings of Jesus that we find in the gospels.


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Neil Godfrey

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24 thoughts on “How do we know the stories of Jesus were preserved by oral tradition before the Gospels?”

  1. I’ll have to read Henaut’s work, but I assume that he’s on basically the same page as me with his arguments.

    All of this nonsense about oral tradition will ultimately be disproven and relegated to the dust bin. The reason is obvious. Claims for oral tradition can never stand up to the solid proof of literary dependence. Ultimately, “oral tradition” is unprovable and will always be unprovable, but literary tradition is not. And once virtually every aspect of the Gospels is explained via literary tradition, as is currently in progress, then there will be no room left for claims of “oral tradition”.

    In my mind anyway, I’ve already proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Gospel of Mark has no basis in oral tradition whatsoever, as I’ve basically provided a literary basis for virtually every single passage in the Gospel of Mark, and shown that the context is clearly based around events in 70 CE, and thus cannot even loosely be based on older oral traditions.

    When it comes of the Gospel of John, I haven’t laid everything out yet, but regarding John, I’ve got proofs that core parts of John are dependent on the Markan narrative, and I agrue (as I will do more convincingly in my book) that the “miraculous signs” narrative in John (the only really independent narrative in John) cannot be based on “oral tradition” because it is clearly part of plot line within John meant to demonstrate that the Jews were even worse than depicted in the other Gospels. The Gospel of John has a very clear and strong overarching anti-Jewish theme to it,and the “miraculous signs” narrative is a part of that theme, it isn’t just some random collection of stories thrown in for good measure.

    Not only that, but clearly the “miraculous signs” narrative in John builds on the miraculous signs line in the Markan story, so obviously the “miraculous signs” narrative in John is derivative of the Markan story anyway, it isn’t an independent oral tradition. The literary linage is clear. It starts with the Pauline letters, where Paul says that the Jews demand miraculous signs, which is then incorporated into the Markan story, which is then expanded upon by the author of John. In Mark is says the Jews will not be given any miraculous signs, they need faith. In John is says, because the Jews demanded miraculous signs Jesus gave them many in order to prove his divinity to them, but then in the end, despite all the miraculous signs, they still didn’t believe, thus they deserve their punishments even more. This is an obvious invention by the author of John to further his anti-Jewish agenda.

    Now we have Luke, which I’ll also address in more detail in my book. “Luke” clearly was compiling his story from about a half a dozen or so sources. The literary themes are all over Luke. The core is (expanded) Mark, then there appears to be influence from Matthew, but I suspect the author of Luke had simply heard a telling of Matthew he didn’t have a written copy of it. Then we have Josephus which figures into both the birth story of Jesus and some parts in Acts. There are signs of Philo and Justus of Tiberias. I’m still working on deciphering all of Luke, but its coming along and easily trounces any notions of independent “oral tradition”.

    Matthew is the Gospel I’ve spent the least time on, but its clear that many of the independent passage in Matthew are attempts at copying the literary allusion style in Mark. Whoever wrote Matthew was apparently aware of a lot of the literary allusions in Mark and was trying to emulate that style and approach. Virtually every unique scene in Matthew is also based on literary allusions to the Hebrew scriptures, though more crudely and obviously.

    But the core of every Gospel is the Gospel of Mark, and that is clearly demonstrated not to be based on a shred of oral tradition, and the fact that everyone else bases their story on the Markan story means that whatever potential oral developments there are in their stories, they all descend from the Markan story.

    The entire “oral tradition” field is a just a big giant scam and act of desperation IMO. It’s the last failing hope to keep Jesus in history, but its failing and will easily be discredited.

    1. Dale Allison and Richard Carrier have demonstrated several significant places where Matthew is based upon various OT narratives. One examining the Moses links and the other the use of the lion’s den story to rewrite Mark’s empty tomb. Tim has posted a few articles here showing John’s use of Mark, too.

      Oral tradition may be “unprovable” but I think there are tests we could potentially apply to establish some extent of its likelihood. Henaut does this sort of thing.

      I’m less sanguine than you are about the prospects for the oral tradition assumption ever departing the scene.

  2. Also, I didn’t want to mention this, but I’ll go ahead and say it. I’m working on a project to pass each of the Gospels through plagiarism software against the rest of the Bible. I’ve already run some tests and it’s been very informative. The idea that the Gospels are based on oral tradition is simply provably false. The literary dependencies are overwhelmingly extensive and easily demonstrable.

    What I envision is a kind of genome project for the Bible, using textual comparison software and machine learning to root out all of the literary interdependence within the Bible. What I’m trying to work on now, and having difficulty with in terms of getting sources, is the Gospel of Luke and big libraries of other ancient texts. Really this needs to be done in the native languages of the original texts, but I’m having to work with off the shelf software and whatever English translations I can find.

    But if someone were to run this type of software on the ancient Greek sources, this would all be cleared up quite handily.

    1. Great idea! I agree, you have to use the Gospels in Greek and the LXII. And then you have to deal with the different case endings. I would bet plagiarism software in English would be up to the task, but could that be easily translated to a different language written in a different script? Is there software for modern Greek that is in use? Quite a project. Perfect for a dissertation, I’d say.

  3. an aspect not to be overlooked in Mark, and that could prove useful for its dating, are the traces of ”separationism” that Neil had already examined in this post.

    I remember that in Adv. haer. III 11, 7 Irenaeus mentions that the Ebionites used Matthew, Marcion the Gospel of Luke, the Valentinians that of John, only the group that used Mark (our earliest mention of the use of this Gospel in early Christianity) is not mentioned by a specific name, its users are called Docetists.

    This would point to II CE origins for Mark.

    1. I wouldn’t put much stock in what any of the early apologists said. Virtually everything they’ve said about the Gospels has proven to be wrong. And Docetism wasn’t really defined until the end of the 2nd century, but obviously Mark had been around for a while by this time.

      I don’t think the origin of any of the Gospels has anything to do with the groups that later used them. Just because Marcionites made use of a version of Luke doesn’t mean that the author of Luke was a Marcionite.

      1. “I don’t think the origin of any of the Gospels has anything to do with the groups that later used them.”

        I wouldn’t be so sure of that. The idea that the Ebionites (“Jewish Christians”) wrote the gospel that emphasizes Jesus as the new Moses sure makes sense, as does the idea that the Valentinians wrote the most Gnostic gospel. And we know that the Marcionites used Luke, so perhaps they wrote it as well. If the docetists wrote Mark, then that leaves the Catholics without a gospel.

  4. The theologians are modifying the simple, old “oral tradition” theories into the supposedly more nuanced areas of “memory theory” and “collective memory.” Look for future SBL papers on the subject of “Spiraling Memory Trajectories in Q” by Anthony LeDonne and Barry Schwartz.

  5. Footnote to the vridar.info link on Jairus: there has now been a first century CE synagogue found in Galilee, in ancient Magdala, on the Sea of Galilee near Capernaum. Of course there are the ridiculous claims of Jesus preaching there, but the basics, it was a synagogue and it was used in the 1st century CE, are solid.


    1. Do you know what scholarly journals have published the details of this find — at least more than just a “preliminary report”?

      While I am quite open to all the claims in these two sources being absolutely genuine, I am also too aware of too many shenannigans associated with archaeological reports relating in the slightest way to Jesus or any biblical history. I would be interested in Rene Salm has further information. I’d also like to know what they mean exactly by “early” and late” Roman periods.

      I would also like to know — and this is not about “hyper-scepticism” but simply wanting to know how we know some of the basics — I would also like to know how we know that the town was indeed “Magdala” of the first century? Asking professors specializing in this area should yield that answer very quickly. I know there are some references there to a similar sounding Arab name but the more I read the more I learn that we cannot assume direct lines between such claims and what we expect/would like to find.

      Again, it’s not hyper-scepticism. I don’t want to know how my car or computer works because I don’t trust them — I want to know so I can work with them with more confidence and assurance.

  6. I’ll try to take a crack at it. I’m not saying I agree with all of the following, but I think it’s essentially how we got here.

    I will omit the “must’ve” argument that tries to explain away the decades between the historical Jesus and the first gospel. Since scholars assume the HJ and they concede that the gospels were written by non-eyewitnesses much later and in a different language, they conclude that the traditions “must’ve” floated around, passed on orally for many years. That’s a circular argument at best. At worst, it’s a deus ex machina that rescues the gospels from their suspicious circumstances.

    What features about the gospels themselves might lead one to think they have roots in oral tradition?

    First, the size of each individual story in, e.g., Mark is about the size of a typical nugget of folklore. Next, the nuggets or chunks normally tell about just one thing. True, sometimes Mark artfully inserts a chunk inside another chunk, but each chunk (typically) has a single point to make. That “one thing” that the nugget is trying to explain is often a quote from Jesus. Theoretically, these memorable words of Jesus remained alive by being carried within the story, which is just long enough to remember — sort of like an old fairy tale or a modern joke.

    Another feature we notice is the fact that you could tell most of the stories before the passion in almost any order. Good luck trying to figure out time and place from Mark’s narrative. We get a story chunk, then an abrupt connecting word or phrase (e.g., “immediately”), another chunk, followed by yet another, with no topographical or chronological relevance. Their order apparently has nothing to do with character development or pushing the narrative forward. Mark added the stories to his framework, but there’s only the barest hint of any continuity.

    We learn almost nothing about the people who move about Jesus. (We learn next to nothing about the person of Jesus, for that matter.) The majority of the disciples are known only by their names. They appear and disappear. The pharisees, sadducees, and even “the crowd” show up abruptly and are just as quickly forgotten. Some scholars argue that this phenomenon shows that the stories have been “worn down” over time, retaining only their essential elements.

    Markedly different versions of the same pericope appear in different gospels. Most scholars will argue that some of these repeated stories are different tradition threads that stem from the same historical event. (I tend to argue the opposite — that, for example, John changes Mark deliberately or that Mark is “corrected by” Matthew, who is often copied by Luke.)

    Matthew and Luke, who both copied Mark, seem to be fully aware that the second gospel was composed of separate and separable chunks. They freely move those chunks into different positions within the overall story. They add their own chunks.

    Because Mark appears to be assembled from many separate, mostly independent, free-floating stories, because each story is short enough to remember, and because the stories are free of non-essential details, form critics assumed they represent folktales. Now, at some point, after these folktales had been remembered, transmitted, and re-transmitted over time, people may have committed them to writing. That is, we may have had loose sheets of papyrus, each with a story or a saying of Jesus. (Consider, e.g., the Gospel of Thomas and how it was transmitted as collection of sayings.)

    So, Mark may have gathered up some folktales from oral tradents, and others from written bits that others had been collecting. (He may have invented some on his own, too.)

    In summary then, the components of Mark look like unrelated or at best semi-related folktales that Mark collected. Those folktales, like all folktales in any culture, have a certain size and shape. (They also conform to certain types.) And as in any predominantly oral culture, the folktales were probably passed on orally.

    Notice I’ve said nothing about authenticity here. A story could have arisen from some prophecy of the risen Jesus, or it could have started as an allegorical tale that eventually turned into a false memory of Jesus. In any of these cases, the transmission unit and the process would remain the same.

    1. Yeah, these are the basic claims I’ve seen made to support this type of theory, but I think these are all solidly demolished in my article here: http://web.archive.org/web/20150218004315/http://rationalrevolution.net/articles/fictional_jesus.htm

      The “teachings” of Jesus are all paraphrases of the letters of Paul.

      The events in the Gospel of Mark aren’t disconnected at all, in fact when you look at the literary allusions you see a clear pattern to the scenes (which the later copyists obviously didn’t recognize). The first half of Mark is clearly heavily based on 1 & 2 Kings, with the 2nd half being more based on the prophets.

      Also, tons of stuff in Mark clearly shows that it was written shortly after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. Obviously the temple references are one key, but also the issue of the pharisees is another, because the pharisees rose to power shortly after the First Jewish-Roman War, so the fact that the narrative focuses so much on them is clearly dependent on their rise to power in mid the 70s CE. The narrative doesn’t even make sense cast back in time to the 30s CE, because at that time the pharisees were not in power or even prevalent. The focus on the pharisees is clearly reactive to their rise to power and strongly dates the work.

      The scenes in Mark aren’t “worn down”, they consist of short chunks because they are all comprised of literary allusions, that’s why they are short chunks.

    2. There’s also no reason to limit the scope of the source of the oral tradition to ancient Palestine.

      The gospel writers wrote in Greek. It’s probably a good bet that they were exposed to a lot of Greek or Greco-Roman folklore, such as Vespasian healing a blind person with his spit or Apollonius raising a recently dead bride to life by whispering in her ear.

      We already know they did this when we read about Jesus’ virgin birth. That’s no less an oral tradition than any other pericope.

      1. Agreed. Although I think at least some of the Bethlehem story arcs were written out of whole cloth by Matthew and Luke.

        I should also have mentioned that Wrede noticed that there were stories in which Jesus seems to openly proclaim is “messianic dignity,” while in others he keeps it a secret and demands that people “tell no one” what they’ve seen. He concluded that Mark was dealing with at least two strains of tradition, one that was steeped in the Messianic Secret, and the others, not.

        Wrede reasoned that the internal contradictions in Mark exist not because the author was psychologically imbalanced, but because he did not sufficiently alter his sources to fit with his overall theme.

  7. Has Brodie (or anyone else) argued that 1 Corinthians 15:3-11 was not based on oral tradition? I’d think that primitive oral traditions like the 1 Corinthian creed probably existed.

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