The Gospel: From Oral Tradition to the Written Text
The Integrity of the New Testament - Special 2013 Series
[From The Editors: This article is one of a series we are running this year. The 2013 series is called "The Integrity of the New Testament" and deals with textual criticism. Can the New Testament be trusted? Has it been corrupted through time? Can we know what God has said? It should be obvious how important this topic is. This is especially so given the climate of society today and its attitudes toward the Bible. We wish this series to help everyone understand the process of the Bible's history as a document and why we can have confidence in its message. Near the end of the year we are planning to publish these twelve articles in book form (Kindle, Nook and old fashioned print and ink).
So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls. They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. (Acts 2:41-42).
The church had its beginning on the Day of Pentecost in 30 A.D. It had been just shy of two months since Jesus had made Himself our sin offering unto a righteous God who loved us enough to provide us with this favor. Just ten days previous to Pentecost the living-again Son of God had met with His apostles for the final time, assuring them, instructing them and then ascending into the clouds to take His seat upon His throne at the right hand of the Father. The apostles had then returned to Jerusalem as Jesus had instructed them to do, and waited for the promise.
The promise came. The Holy Spirit descended and gave the apostles the gospel that they began preaching that very day. The doctrines, or teachings, were God’s while the mouths were those of “the Twelve” - John and Peter and James and Matthew and the others.
People gladly responded to this gospel being proclaimed. About 3000 obeyed the gospel by faith, putting their trust in God to remit their sins (Acts 2:37-38). After their conversions, many of them who were visiting Jerusalem to celebrate Pentecost from far away places made the decision to stay longer so they could be instructed further in their new faith through the teaching of the apostles. As we read in verse 42, they were “continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching…”
We mirror their devotion to apostolic doctrine today when we pick up our New Testaments and read and meditate on the contents. They, on the other hand, listened attentively, putting into their memories all that the apostles taught by the inspiration of God. The written gospels would come into existence before that first generation of Christians ceased from the earth, but still, it would be about three decades in the future before the first of the four inspired gospels would be written. Until then, the message first given through the apostles and prophets by inspiration would be passed on through the receiving and giving of oral teachings put into the memories of the disciples as they also became the teachers of others who, in turn, would repeat the process.
Purpose of This Chapter
It is important just here that we are all aware of the purpose of this chapter. It is not my contention at all that the writers of the gospels depended only upon these oral traditions for what they wrote. What they wrote was Scripture, and Scripture came by the inspiration of God’s Spirit. But often the skeptic today questions the accuracy of the things written because he denies inspiration and there was a period of time that passed between Jesus’ ministry and the writing of the gospels. The point of this chapter is that the skeptic’s scenario does not work because the oral transmissions of the gospel during that relatively short time would have prevented it. We want to see what was actually going on during this brief period of time.
But this is not to say that the oral traditions were not used in the writings. We find many examples of the Spirit-led writers of the New Testament quoting uninspired texts and sayings as they wrote.
For example, consider Luke’s gospel. Luke is much more specific about the methods and process of his writing than are the others.
Did Luke write Scripture? Yes, he did. That is how his writing was received by his contemporaries. Paul affirms in 1 Timothy 5:18, “For the Scripture says,” and then quotes two texts: Deuteronomy 25:4 and Luke 10:7. Paul considered both Moses’ and Luke’s writings to be Scripture.
Was Luke inspired by God? Yes. All Scripture is inspired (2 Timothy 3:16). Luke’s gospel was Scripture, and if all Scripture is inspired, then Luke’s gospel is inspired by God. This makes sense, and shows why Luke’s writing is as much a part of the New Covenant as was Moses’ a part of the Old Covenant.
Did Luke consult contemporary traditions as he wrote his gospel? Again, yes. In Luke 1:1-4, Luke refers to the compiling of the accounts of the things concerning Jesus that, he said, many others had undertaken during his time. Where did these compilations come from? They were handed down from those who had witnessed the events and were servants of the word. Luke went back to “the beginning” and carefully investigated these things handed down “from the beginning” and wrote out his conclusions, and the Holy Spirit guided him as he did so. Luke’s purpose was to ensure that the things he wrote were accurate. God’s purpose in using Luke was the same – to ensure an accurate written record of His Son’s earthly work.
In the nineteenth century skeptics theorized that none of the gospels were actually written during the first century, and certainly not by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. These writings, it was suggested, actually belong to the latter half of the second century, with several generations in between during which interval fanciful, legendary material was added to the original history of the life and teachings of a man named Jesus. Since all the eyewitnesses had been dead for almost a century, it was rather easy for the story of Jesus to become embellished, they claimed, by the late second century church. There was no one left at that time that could say, “I was there. He died. End of story.”
The problem that developed for these skeptics was that more ancient New Testament manuscripts were being discovered in various, widely dispersed places, not only in Greek but also in other ancient languages including Latin, Syriac and others. This wide dispersal of documents in so many languages rendered the late dating used by the nineteenth century skeptics unworkable. Think about it: How could the account of Jesus’ life as told in Egypt develop the same legend as the account of His life as told in Europe, and then also in Asia? Remember that this had to be done within three short decades instead of two long centuries.
Also, other writings of early Christians living in the first century show that they already had the gospels and epistles before the turn of the century - they were quoting from the Scriptures that make up our New Testaments! The written works of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were being cited in writing as the first century closed. This will be considered in greater detail in a later chapter. The point here is that, quite simply, we do not have to wait for over a century after Jesus for the gospels to be written. They were all written during the lifetimes of those that had walked with Jesus. This line of skepticism was dealt a fatal blow. They needed several generations for their hypothesis to work, but they simply did not have it.
It is therefore puzzling that some skeptics today have resurrected this old argument, suggesting that it is likely that the gospels are accounts of the life of Jesus that had become legendary. The problem is that they now only have about three decades between the life of Jesus and the first written gospels, and even less time than that for the early writings of Paul who also affirmed the same gospel, preaching it and writing about it. There were ample numbers of eyewitnesses still available at the time of the writings. There simply was no occasion for the development of legends in the gospel at such an early time. If you wanted to be a part of the nineteenth century intellectual European elite, you had to believe in their theory then. If not, you were considered ignorant, and nobody wants to be thought of in that light! But they were eventually proven wrong by newer evidence that came to light. Presently, skeptics who take a similar approach today have much less room to speculate than did their counterparts of the nineteenth century and their now disproven time sequence. People ought not to so quickly jump on a bandwagon if they are not sure if the wheels are on tight – in centuries past or today.
Still, it is important to understand what was happening during those three decades between the life of Jesus and the writing down of the gospels. That is what we want to consider now.
Early Progress of the Gospel
Earlier we noted that the Book of Acts records how the first Christians “were continually devoting themselves to the apostles' teaching…” (Acts 2:42). Later in Acts we read of a severe persecution that rose up against the church at Jerusalem after the murder of Stephen. But these believers were dedicated to Jesus and His gospel. They had been schooled well. “Therefore, those who had been scattered went about preaching the word.” (Acts 8:4). The gospel spread rapidly from Jerusalem out into the world!
We have a wonderful example of this endeavor in the preaching of Philip, one of those believers driven out from Jerusalem. We find him preaching in Samaria and later doing some one-on-one evangelism in a chariot (Acts 8). He had no New Testament. In fact, the irony is strong that the one who would become the writer of most of the “books” of the New Testament is, at this time, still back in Jerusalem “ravaging the church, entering house after house, and dragging off men and women” and putting them into prison (Acts 8:3)! We do find Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch studying a written copy of Isaiah, and using it to affirm that Jesus is the Messiah. The early Christians did this forcefully and frequently, using the writings of the Old Testament prophets and comparing them to the oral apostolic record of the life, deeds and teachings of Jesus.
The things Philip taught were things he had received from the apostles who were eyewitnesses of the gospel events. He may well have also been a prophet. We know that Philip had also received spiritual gifts through the laying on of the apostles’ hands. Perhaps prophecy was one of those gifts. In any case, Philip taught to others what he had received from the apostles. Do you see the progression? Disciples were first “devoted to the apostles’ teaching” and then “went everywhere preaching the word”.
We need to make one other observation before we continue. We must also acknowledge the work of individuals with various gifts that were provided by God to the church of the first century. Paul writes, “And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers…” with the goal of bringing the church to a successful and complete knowledge of God’s Son and so that the early disciples would not be left to deal with various “winds of doctrine” without guidance. (Ephesians 4:11-16).
The Nature of Oral Traditions
But how trustworthy is this method of passing along information? Is there good reason to fear that perhaps the message became corrupted during the thirty or so years from the events until the written record of those events was made? In fact, we have very good reasons to be confident in the accuracy of the written gospels with reference to the events which they record.
Written records define our culture. We are, for the most part, a literate people and have come to rely heavily on written material for our own personal record keeping. We have newspapers and books and the internet to inform us. We do not need to do a lot of memorization. As a culture we depend much on the written word to learn and remember things in which we are interested and which are important to us. But this was not so in the first century world.
Plato once suggested that people should record their thoughts in written form only to “store up reminders for [themselves] when [they] come to the forgetfulness of old age.”
In that time, the written record was secondary to spoken narratives. Paper and writing materials were hard to come by. Copying written records was time-consuming and difficult work. The literacy rate in the first century world was much less than what it is today in our own nation, though certainly among the Jews the literacy rate would have been higher than that of many of their contemporaries. Their sons were instructed in synagogue schools. But still, though literate to a large degree, with writing materials being such a precious commodity, it was common to memorize histories and traditions taught orally. This is not to say that these things were never written down by anyone, only that the primary method of passing them along was oral repetition. Certainly anyone could have used written notes who had the means to do so.
There were procedures, for example, among the Jews for the passing along of important histories and traditions. Important teachings would be passed along orally using rhythmic patterns and repetition enabling the learner to memorize what to us would be a great amount of material.
After the exile and captivity of God’s people centuries before, Jewish communities across the known world with ten or more adult males formed synagogues. Each synagogue would elect one of its members to be the “teacher” or “rabbi”. These were to be well versed in the Torah. The teachings of early and respected rabbis became oral traditions passed on from generation to generation. These traditions were finally collected into an organization of these oral thoughts known as the Mishna (Hebrew, “repetition”) in about 5 B.C.
Philo, a first century Jewish philosopher, described this process as follows; the teacher’s “...instruction proceeds in a leisurely manner; he lingers over it and spins it out with repetitions, thus permanently imprinting the thoughts in the souls of the hearers.” This is how Rabbis of the first century taught. The Jewish people had been doing this for centuries. These oral teachings remained amazingly consistent from one generation to the next. But this was not so amazing to them. It was simply how it had “always” been done. So, a mere thirty year period between the events of the gospel and the writing of the gospel presents no problem at all. And remember, the first proclaimers and memorizers of the teachings of the apostles were these very people who were extremely skilled at this.
There did come a heavy responsibility on those taking the gospel into the world to “get it right”. These teachers did not have the right to change the message just because it was not yet in written form. The teaching of the events of Jesus’ ministry was not meant to be an evolving message. The gospel was not to be embellished, but preserved. Even as the epistles began to be written, we find a lot of warnings about the responsibility of the teacher as he repeats the message of the gospel. James warns that the responsibility is so grave that the teacher will incur a very strict judgment (James 3:1). Peter insisted that when a disciple speaks, he is to do so as “the utterances of God.” (1 Peter 4:11). There are admonitions to not receive gospels that differ from the one that first went out into the world (Galatians 1:6-9). Of course, that did not change with the writing down of the gospels. We, too, as teachers must ensure that we take our accuracy in teaching the word equally seriously.
Oral Traditions and the Gospel
It is almost as if Peter was looking directly into the modern skeptic’s eyes and countering the allegation that the gospel is legendary. He challenged, “For we did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty. For when He received honor and glory from God the Father, such an utterance as this was made to Him by the Majestic Glory, "This is My beloved Son with whom I am well-pleased" -- and we ourselves heard this utterance made from heaven when we were with Him on the holy mountain.” (2 Peter 1:16-18). The things Peter taught and his contemporaries received from him, and then, in turn, passed on to others, were not legendary. They were not sacrificing their lives for fables! They were careful with the message, and their message would assume written form before handing it down to the generation that followed. If and when someone was found teaching doctrines which were “not according to the words of our Lord Jesus Christ” they were challenged most forcefully by the apostles (1 Timothy 6:3; 2 Peter 2:1; 2 John 9).
It is interesting to see some of the oral tradition patterns in the teachings of Jesus. The beatitudes, for example, have the earmarks of pattern teaching in such a way so as to enhance the memorization on the hearers’ parts. There is also the repetition of phrases which separates the points being made such as “You have heard it said” and “But I say unto you”. Jesus fully intended for His teachings to be remembered accurately until they would be written down.
In fact, the very lives of that generation of Judean disciples depended upon remembering accurately the words of Jesus. Though the first three gospels were probably already written by the time Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 A.D., many scholars agree that they had been only recently put to paper. The destruction of Jerusalem that Jesus had warned would take place during that generation had been a part of the oral gospel for the three decades before having been written down by Matthew, Mark and Luke.
Each of these three synoptic gospels discusses Jesus’ warning concerning the future destruction of Jerusalem (Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21). Matthew is the most thorough. Jesus tells His people that when they see the storm clouds brewing that they are to quickly leave the city. It would be about three decades later that the gospels would record these warnings in writing. During the time in between, the disciples watched for the signs of which Jesus had spoken, aware of the destruction they heralded because the oral apostolic traditions had faithfully preserved Jesus’ warnings.
In the early to mid 60’s A.D. the more militant Jews began a plan to regain their independence from Rome. Though many in the leadership were advising against it, they were unable to stop it. The revolt began. It was time to return to the independence they had enjoyed from 142 to 69 B.C.! It was also about this time, according to tradition, that James, the Lord’s brother, was put to death in Jerusalem. In 66 A.D. the Jerusalem Christians could see that things were heading in the direction of which Jesus had spoken. They left the city, many of them migrating to Pella, a Gentile city across the Jordan and establishing a rather strong community of disciples there. They knew when to leave because they had kept the teachings of the eyewitnesses alive and accurate.
It might also be important here to mention that not everything known about Jesus in the first century that could have been written in the gospels was written. Even as we read John’s words in his gospel, he states that much more could have been written, but the things John included were sufficient to produce belief in Jesus, and for the believer, “life in His name.”(John 20:30-31). This tells us that people of the first century were hearing and repeating things, true things, which Jesus did of which you and I have no knowledge because they were not included in the inspired written text. That is fine. We have enough.
More Scriptural Confirmation of the Oral Method
So, the gospel was an oral message before it was a written message. Oral or written, in either case, the word was to be handled accurately (2 Timothy 2:15). As the inspired texts that would become the New Testament were being written, there would be an increasing dependence upon the writings. Necessarily, there would also be a decreasing dependence on the oral message of the apostles as they, one by one, fulfilled his course and arrived at the time of his departure. But the message was the same – that which was written was the same message that had gone out orally “from the beginning” (1 John 1:1-4).
As the written message gradually began to stand side-by-side with the oral message, and even replace it, there would be Christians who had come to know Jesus and His commandments both ways. The truth was equally authoritative either way. Paul wrote, “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us.” (2 Thessalonians 2:15). The source of the message was the same. It was God. Whether oral or written, and though certainly the personality, experience, objective and target audience of the inspired revelator would come through, this message was not the result of the personal interpretation of the inspired writer or speaker. These were “men moved by the Holy Spirit” speaking from God (2 Peter 1:20-21). When a disciple would repeat the messages of the apostles and prophets to others, and obeyed the instructions to be reverentially careful and accurate, then the result was that the original message would be preserved and spread.
Remembering that inspiration did not preclude consulting and using truth wherever it might be found, and that the writers of the New Testament would draw when necessary from the oral traditions, it is noteworthy that Paul, by inspiration, may well be using an oral tradition as he discusses the resurrection of Jesus in 1 Corinthians 15. Paul writes,
“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures…” as he introduces a rhythmic recitation of the post-resurrection appearances of Christ, and then perhaps adding himself to the list (1 Corinthians 15:3-8). The terms for “delivered” and “received” in this text are technical terms which the rabbis used to describe their passing along of their oral traditions and histories. While Paul received “by revelation from Jesus Christ” (and not from man) his gospel which he proclaimed (Galatians 1:12), at the same time he would use human poets (Acts 17:28) and hymns (1 Timothy 3:16) and proverbs (Titus 1:12) in his teaching as methods to ensure that his message would be understood and remembered.
All of this may well help to explain the similarities with one another in the synoptic gospels, sometimes word for word. Luke said he consulted compilations of the accounts of Jesus’ life. Would those compilations include inspired ones already written, including Matthew and Mark? There is no reason why not. It would also suggest a reason why Matthew’s account in particular, though Matthew is an eyewitness to many of the things of which he writes, does not write in the first person. He does not say “we” did this or that. He, instead, is writing down a history in a way similar to Luke and Mark, the only difference being that he was an eyewitness to these things as well. In fact, it actually helps confirm the accuracy of the gospel accounts of Mark and Luke to have Matthew, being an eyewitness, to concur as well. Remember, the world had seen about three decades of preaching the gospel when Matthew, Mark and Luke put it to writing. The oral gospel had been repeated many, many times. By 50 A.D., there was already a recognized difference between the gospel of Jesus Christ as proclaimed by the apostles on Pentecost and after and “other gospels” which Paul had warned against. There is no gradual development of ideas that would become orthodox. Orthodoxy was preached on that first Pentecost. Three decades later, it took written form.
So, why is this important? It is important because skeptics have attacked the trustworthiness of the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ ministry due to the period of time between the events themselves and the writing down of those events. In making this objection, they must ignore the evidence that shows the message would not have become corrupted and legendary in the way they say it might have during this time.
What Matthew, Mark, Luke and later John wrote was Scripture, and Scripture came by the inspiration of God’s Spirit. Whatever God’s providence used to get these accounts to us, whether Matthew’s inspired memory of the things he saw or Luke’s inspired research or Mark’s inspired review of things he has heard from the mouths of Paul and Peter, or John’s inspired treatment of the Deity of Christ and rebuttal of those that denied it, our reasoned confidence in the integrity of the gospel is not a leap in the dark. It is a reasoned faith of assurance and hope because, as Paul once responded to Festus concerning King Agrippa’s knowledge of these events, the things taught in the gospel were not obscure events in first century Palestine. "For the king knows about these matters, and I speak to him also with confidence, since I am persuaded that none of these things escape his notice; for this has not been done in a corner” (Acts 26:26).
A Short History of the Early Church, Harry R. Boer, (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978),
An Introduction to the New Testament, D.A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo,(Zondervan, 2005),
How We Got the Bible, Neil R. Lightfoot, (ACU Press, 1986)
New Testament Introduction, Donald Guthrie, (InterVarsity Press, 1990)
The Heresy of Orthodoxy, Andreas J. Kostenberger, Michael J. Kruger(Crossway, 2010)
The New Testament Documents, F.F. Bruce, (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1981)
By Jon W. Quinn
From Expository Files 20.2; February 2013