Do we have evidence of oral traditions as sources for the gospels?

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by Neil Godfrey

One of the more informative biblioblogs that I generally appreciate is Michael Kok’s The Jesus Memoirs: The History and Reception of the New Testament. Lately Michael Kok has been posting “course materials” setting out in easy-to-read summaries the basics of the various New Testament books. I have been unable to keep up with all of them as they are posted but they look like good reference materials to refer to as needed. I like the way Michael shares his learning online.

One of his more recent posts is The Synoptic Gospels: Oral Sources in which he lists “evidence for the oral tradition”. The list is an interesting illustration of what appears to me to be the conventional wisdom that has been taken for granted by much of the scholarly guild. It would be wrong to read too much into the wordings of brief notes or summaries of key points, but I would like to set out what I see as serious fundamental gaps in the conventional wisdom. So on the understanding that Michael Kok’s post is only a summary of points, here is my own summary of questions I think his points leave hanging.

The first piece of “evidence for the oral tradition” behind the gospels:

  • It was an oral culture with low literacy rates; even the written Gospels were primarily heard by their audiences in an oral performance

This is not evidence that the gospels drew on oral traditions as sources for their narrative and sayings contents. The same background information applies to all or certainly most literature of the day.

  • A plausible explanation for some of the variations in detail in the Triple or Double Tradition and for the doublets in the Synoptic Gospels

A plausible explanation for data is, in fact, a hypothesis that seeks to explain the data and not itself evidence for how the gospels were sourced. Other plausible explanations are able to compete.

  • A plausible explanation for some material in the Gospels of John and Thomas that is paralleled in the Synoptic Gospels if these are judged to be literarily independent

As above.

  • The many predecessors in Luke 1:1-4

Luke 1:1-4 does not clearly refer to oral traditions. It appears to more plausibly refer to written sources. John N. Collins, furthermore, published an article some years ago that throws into question the traditional interpretation of this passage and I would very much like to see its arguments addressed in detail. I have written about the Collins article twice before: once in 2012 and again a year later.

  • Not enough books to cover Jesus’s deeds in John 21:24

This passage is clearly a rhetorical narrative device and can scarcely be taken as strong evidence for a historical situation, especially in a narrative that speaks seriously of the dead being raised, a man walking on water, etc. But even if there were zillions of stories being told about Jesus we have to admit that that is not the same thing as their being “oral traditions” from which an author might draw his story. On the contrary, it sounds as if the number and variations of stories about Jesus are so numerous as to defy any “tradition” that can be documented.

  • Christian writings (e.g., New Testament Epistles, Apostolic Fathers, non-canonical Gospels) that may independently attest to sayings or traditions appearing in the New Testament Gospels

Yes, they may. But again, that is not evidence for oral traditions as sources for the gospels.

  • The agrapha or “non-written” sayings of Jesus that are unparalleled in the New Testament Gospels (e.g., Acts 20:35)

Again, in order to interpret these sayings as evidence for oral tradition sources of the gospels is in fact to beg the question. We are assuming the oral source tradition in order to interpret the data as a support for the oral source tradition.

Again, this preference among the “Fathers” is not evidence that the gospels derived their sources from oral tradition.

For arguments that criticize the assumption of oral tradition as a source for the gospels (because the above points are indications, I believe, of question-begging assumptions of oral tradition rather than “evidence for” oral tradition sources of the gospels, see, in addition to the posts on John N. Collins’ article linked above:

An unfinished series of posts on Barry Henaut’s Oral Tradition and the Gospels: The Problem of Mark 4

and my posts on Thomas Brodie’s arguments:




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22 thoughts on “Do we have evidence of oral traditions as sources for the gospels?”

  1. It was an oral culture with low literacy rates

    This doesn’t really hold water.

    Warning signs posted on Herod’s Temple (9BCE) are a clear indication that reading and writing was common among ordinary folk.

    And before the Jewish revolt, the high priest Yehoshua ben Gamla (cir. 64 C.E.) appointed teachers in every town and village of every province throughout Palestine to provide an education for boys aged six and up. Regarded as the founder of formal Jewish education for children Gamla’s sweeping policy directive assumes a vast stock of professionally literate laypeople ready to fill classrooms in every miniscule, deadbeat, backend, go-nowhere village across Palestine which, in-turn, presupposes that major regional centers already had well established education systems dating back decades, if not well into the 1st Century BCE. A single classroom without a qualified teacher is, after all, about as useful as a car without petrol. Hundreds of classrooms without qualified teachers is simple madness.

    Even the gospels contradict the illiteracy excuse. In the Infancy Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas there’s a school in Nazareth where the teacher, Zacchaeus, teaches reading and writing to the children.

    1. The issue of illiteracy was that books were very expensive because they had to be manually copied. If you’ve seen Driving Miss Daisy, you know any idiot can learn the alphabet and the sounds associated with them and thus have a working ability to read.

      1. Pertinent, perhaps, if we’re discussing the life and times of Kevin Jones, local olive keeper in Zoar. According to the Christian, we are not, however, talking about Zoar’s rather talented olive tree pruner, Kevin Jones, rather someone quite remarkable.

        But a quick search through the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Papyrus Collection, reveals numerous contemporary examples of the medium in wide use across the eastern Mediterranean for such mundane purposes as receipts, lists, lease agreements, marriage and divorce documents, and even run-of-the-mill business letters. Cost, clearly, wasn’t also an issue.

        Are you suggesting business letters and reciepts were considered more important than absolutely E V E R Y T H I N G the character, Jesus, did or said in his entire life?

            1. The library found in the Qumran Caves begs to differ. Unearthed in 1946 the libraries 972 handwritten (mostly) leather documents (which date from as early as 408 BCE) represent the continual copying of scriptures, the creation of new ones, ordinances, apocalyptic visions, commentaries, liturgical works, and even accounts of contemporary events as expressed in the Jeselsohn Stone; an ink on stone work discovered near Qumran and believed to denote the early 1st Century CE messianic Jewish rebel leader, Simon of Peraea. If Simon had warranted a contemporary stone record a generation before Jesus, why then not Christianity’s central hero figure; a man-god who we’re told inhabited an entirely new category of awesome.

              1. If they are indeed begging to differ with me then Qurman contained many copies of individual business letters and receipts.

                To truly understand copying of religious documents it is absolutely necessary to recognize that religious people do believe in magic, incantations, spells and therefore every single copy of magic words is in itself magic.

                Just google “how do i dispose of my bible”.

              2. I believe your claim was “These are documents written once, not copied thousands of times.”

                Qumran proves that statement wrong. Historically wrong. And we’re not even talking about hundreds of years here, rather decades. If something was considered important, it was written, and if need be (due to rot), re-written, over and over and over again.

              3. My comment responding to the comment above mine, referring to business letters and receipts? Mind you, the people who invented writing, the Sumerians, wrote lots, on clay tablets, too many of which are still around to even translate, but they aren’t all copies of religious screed, they’re mostly accounting.

              4. Apologies if I misunderstood your comment. If I did, may I ask what point you were trying to make regarding documents not being copied?

                As far as I understood, you were/are trying to rationalise why not a single contemporary word was written about the character, Jesus.

                The issue of illiteracy was that books were very expensive because they had to be manually copied.

                First, the illiteracy argument doesn’t hold water. Yehoshua ben Gamla’s countrywide education program indicates reasonable, if not good, levels of literacy. 1st Century BCE graffiti written in Safaitic and Nabataean found in southern Syria and eastern Jordan is proof people were certainly jotting down their thoughts, and warning signs posted on Herod’s Temple (warning of execution if you did not follow the warning) are a clear indication that reading and writing was common among ordinary folk.

                Second, writing materials were not prohibitively expensive. Papyrus was in wide use (business letters, receipts, lists, etc.). The cost however of papyrus is entirely irrelevant. Far cheaper and more readily available parchment fashioned from lime treated animal hides (vellum) was the medium of choice and although subject to rot when exposed to humidity documents considered important enough were repeatedly reproduced, as exampled in the library of Qumran.

                These two excuses aren’t, therefore, terribly persuasive.

                Now, according to Christians, Jesus was the greatest person ever; a god born of a virgin who as a two year-old toddler slaughtered an entire gaggle of hideous fire-breathing dragons, performed mass exorcisms, breathed life into clay statues, brought eight very dead people (two of whom he murdered) back to life, blew snakes apart with a word, transformed into a ball of light and met with spirits, controlled the weather with a wave, walked on water, fed 5,000 awestruck people with next to nothing (not once but twice), healed the blind, reanimated limbs, defied chemistry by turning water into wine, and performed so many other miracles that John (21:25) said “If every one of them were written down the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.”

                All this and more was done, we’re told, and yet no one in all of Palestine was apparently moved enough by any of it to scribble down a single word… not even Lazarus; a man who one might naturally assume would’ve been inspired to pen (or simply commission) a cheap-as-chips Jeselsohn-like Stone to commemorate his unusually good turn of luck.

              5. The chances of a document persisting for hundreds if not thousands of years is very low if it isn’t being copied. Stone tablets on the other hand are nigh indestructible. Most of the surviving tablets were pulled out of walls which they had been co-opted as bricks.

                Personally the fictional character of Jesus in the Bible is based on various people we do know about, to the same or less degree that Sherlock Holmes was based on Joseph Bell, in that the real Jesus was probably named Yeshua and probably an apocalyptic nutjob who got properly arrested and that’s about it.

                Graffiti does not imply average people reading or writing books which they couldn’t afford. “Warnings” is exactly what I would expect from apocalyptic nutjobs.

                Being subject to rot and just the general primitive environment means that in order for any documents to survive required someone spending their time to copy, lots of time, and then as now, time is money.

                The real issue isn’t that Jesus’ followers did not write anything but rather that his detractors didn’t see him as important enough to write anything. If you think of anyone real from history there are plenty of “bad” things written about them, usually in the same books in which the good things were written, because what’s really going on is that the Christian authors were dishonest and the generations that followed were moreso.

      2. I have never seen Driving Miss Daisy but I can attest to that. I celebrated my birthday in Vietnam a few years ago. My wife and the lady we stayed with set up a party at a karaoke place with about a dozen of our friend’s friends.

        I read the words as others were singing, then started singing along to myself. The marks on the vowels indicate the tonal changes. Someone put a mike in my hand so I started singing along. The people asked if I understood what I was singing and I said “no, only a word here or there”. I asked if they understood me and they said they did.

        If I understood Vietnamese, I could have read to myself.

  2. “because the above points are indications, I believe, of question-begging assumptions of oral tradition rather than “evidence for” oral tradition sources of the gospels”

    I think the question being begged is not so much the existence of an oral tradition as Jesus’ historicity. The scholarly consensus has long rejected the notion that any of the gospels was written either by an eyewitness to Jesus’ ministry or during the plausible lifetimes of any eyewitnesses, but the same consensus presupposes that Christianity had a historical founder about whom the gospels were written. Given that presupposition and the absence of clear evidence for any earlier written sources, an easy and parsimonious inference is that the authors’ primary source for their narratives was oral tradition.

  3. “It was an oral culture with low literacy rates; even the written Gospels were primarily heard by their audiences in an oral performance”

    What then was the oral tradition for Caesar’s Gallic Wars or Tacitus’ histories? None and none so by inference, none.

    “A plausible explanation for some of the variations in detail in the Triple or Double Tradition and for the doublets in the Synoptic Gospels”

    Bad editing is an even better explanation.

    “A plausible explanation for some material in the Gospels of John and Thomas that is paralleled in the Synoptic Gospels if these are judged to be literarily independent”

    And IF they AREN’T? Presupposition.

    “Not enough books to cover Jesus’s deeds in John 21:24”

    Why not? There are dozens (at least) of non-canonical gospels so someone liked writing books.

    “Christian writings (e.g., New Testament Epistles, Apostolic Fathers, non-canonical Gospels) that may independently attest to sayings or traditions appearing in the New Testament Gospels”

    Has this guy ever seen how many fake quotes from historical figures are regurgitated regularly no matter how many times they have been discredited?

    “The preference for the viva voce or “living voice” (Papias, in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.39.4)”

    Yet Papias supposed wrote this according to Eusibius who definately wrote it. if oral ‘history’ was so superior why write anything down?

    1. I’ve always thought that Papias’ comment, as reported, was a personal preference, not one shared universally by everyone. If I have the timeline right, he was in a position, as a young man, to listen to people who had been on the scene and were still alive.

      1. Have a look at the opening paragraphs of the extant Stomata by Clement of Alexandria. He appears to be apologizing for his decision to write and thus obviate the need for reliance upon oral transmission.

        The great Roman physician, Galen, said something similar:

        There may well be truth in the saying current among most craftsmen, that reading out of a book is not the same thing as, or even comparable to, learning from the living voice.

        — but I am not sure if there is significance in the fact that he wrote those words (Latin, of course) rather than trust them to be passed on by oral means alone. 😉

        It’s a question I need to look at again.

  4. The Gospel of Thomas purports to be an account of the sayings of Jesus based on the aural memory of an eyewitness several days after he witnessed Jesus preaching. It stresses the scribe’s belief in the verity of the eyewitness, and his own honest effort of accurate transcription.

    And the whole thing can not possibly be what it purports to be. I defy anyone to read the Gospel, wait a day, and report these so-called sayings of Christ to a tape recorder. The very idea is preposterous. And yet Thomas is a proof source for “oral” tradition. It is to laugh, it is to cry.

    1. I would like to write more based on M.I. Finley’s discussion of oral tradition and assumed or professed oral-tradition in relation to Greco-Roman historians. Let’s see how time pans out.

  5. I recently read of mid-late first-century Jewish concern that, after the fall of the Temple in 70 AD, the details of the oral traditions of the Pharisees of the Second Temple period would be forgotten. Hence, the oral laws (that had been passed on at the second Temple or through traditions centred on it) were transcribed.

    Perhaps this became a meme for concurrent Christian origins?

    1. There’s a footnote in Loveday Alexander’s discussion of “the living voice” tradition that sets a beginning to the reading I’d like to follow up on this question. I had once studied a lot by oral history and oral tradition culture specialists but there is so much more to cover to get a handle on the data that needs to be addressed:

      1 [Gerhardsson’s] Memory and Manuscript sparked off a lively debate on rabbinic attitudes in the
      first century: cf. especially Morton Smith, ‘A Comparison of Early Christian and
      Early Rabbinic Tradition’, JBL 82 (1963), pp. 169-76; J. Neusner, ‘Rabbinic traditions
      about the Pharisees before 70′, JJS 22 (1971), pp. 1-18; idem, Early Rabbinic
      Judaism (Leiden: Brill, 1975). E. Urbach, The Sages (Jerusalem: Magnes Press,
      The Hebrew University, 1975), pp. 286-314, contains a more general discussion of
      the Oral Law, and there is a full account with survey of all recent literature in
      Peter Schafer, Studien zur Geschichte und Theologie des rabbinischen Judentums
      (Leiden: Brill, 1978), pp. 153-97. For Gerhardsson’s own more recent thinking on
      the Gospel tradition, see Gerhardsson, The Origins of the Gospel Traditions
      (London: SCM, 1979); The Gospel Tradition (Coniectanea Biblica, NT Series 15;
      Lund: C.W.K. Gleerup, 1986).

      2 Especially in The publication of the Mishnah’, in Hellenism in Jewish Palestine
      (New York: Jewish Theological Society of America, 2nd edn, 1962), pp. 83-99.

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