A Tradition of Accuracy
Before you take the truth of the Bible and infuse it into your daily life, some of you out there may be wondering whether it is even a reliable source of truth. Can we learn true, historical accounts from the New Testament? Are the New Testament books you hold in your hands today a close reflection of the originals—or have they been significantly altered hundreds of times? It took at least a few decades before the Gospels were even written down…that’s a lot of time for rumors to spread or eyewitnesses to forget information. Sounds like a big game of telephone! So, how can we trust the Bible as an accurate source of truth?
Most scholars believe that the Gospels were not written until 20-70 years after Jesus’ life. How could the apostles have remembered all the events and Jesus’ parables and sermons decades later? After all, we all know memory can be foggy. Think about it…can you even remember what you had for lunch yesterday? I cannot even remember what I did on my last Birthday, less than a year ago!
Although it’s true memory can be extremely foggy when trying to remember mundane details, important moments of our lives stick. Even though I cannot remember my last Birthday, I can vividly remember a Birthday from 15 years ago. It was the Birthday I received a puppy, and it was a complete surprise. I remember moment by moment of that day, even the small details, as if it happened yesterday. Likewise, the apostles were seeing extremely surprising things—the blind healed, the dead raised to life. It’s outrageous to claim they would just forget those moments.
And when it comes to sermons, I hate to admit it, but I can’t remember what my pastor preached on last week. But sermons that transformed the way I thought about God have stuck with me. Just like Jesus’ sermons would’ve stuck with the listeners. For instance, most of us probably don’t realize today how radical the Sermon on the Mount was, but it was flying in the face of other teachings during that day—it would have stuck out. Not only that, but Jesus probably taught it many times, so the apostles easily could have memorized it after hearing it over and over and over and over and over again, as Dr. Michael Licona has argued in debates. And perhaps one of the reasons Jesus often taught using parables is because parables are so much easier to recall and retell. He was an expert teacher who was able to teach in a memorable way.
Also, from a faith perspective, we know that the Holy Spirit helped the authors remember. John 14:26 says, “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.”
Alright, so it’s a really steady case that the apostles remembered and wrote things down accurately. But what about Luke or Paul, who didn’t follow Jesus around during His ministry? They had to get their information from others, and we all know how quickly rumors spread! What if the stories had spun out of control over the decades? Atheist New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman argues it would have been like a long game of telephone. In that children’s party game, one person whispers a sentence to a second person who whispers it to a third person, and by the end, the sentence is typically unrecognizable from its beginning sentence. What if the stories had been passed around from village to village like a game of telephone and were no longer recognizable to the original events?
That argument only makes sense if the ancient people were similar to how we are now in modern Western culture. There’s really no need to commit anything to memory anymore—we can just Google it whenever we want. And we have TV to keep us preoccupied. But we need to realize what it was like in ancient Middle Eastern culture when Jesus walked the earth. I got the chance to travel in the Middle East, and it’s almost as if it’s been frozen in time there—it felt like my plane was a time machine that transported me back to the past. So, looking at modern Middle Eastern culture can give us an excellent peek into ancient Middle Eastern culture. Kenneth Bailey is a theologian and scholar who spent over 30 years in the Middle East, and he made some important observations about oral tradition.
In ancient times, and in places today in the Middle East, information is passed on orally—verbally— instead of being passed on through writings. Dr. Bailey observed that communities control their oral tradition. Public humiliation and shame is involved if you tell the stories incorrectly. Dr. Bailey saw evidence that the stories important to the identity of the community had been told the same way for centuries, passed down faithfully from generation to generation through the years. Plus, that culture is used to committing things to memory from a young age, so even though we may have trouble memorizing a single Bible verse, over there people can have the entire Qu’ran memorized word-for-word.
When it comes to passing things on to others, Bailey has observed three levels of oral tradition: total flexibility, some flexibility, and no flexibility. He explains there’s total flexibility for the categories of jokes, news of the day, or reciting tragedies that recently happened in nearby villages. People tell those stories however they want to, so there’s lots of room for rumors. That case is like the telephone game. The next level is some flexibility—it is a mix of flexibility and control. Some flexibility is allowed for the categories of parables and stories about historical people and events. With those stories, people must not change the central core—there’s no way the community will let anyone get away with changing the main points. However, they’re allowed to have some flexibility in details, such as improvising on some of the dialogue to match the individual style of the person telling the story. Keep in mind, this means there’s continuity and flexibility—it doesn’t mean there’s change and flexibility. As Bailey says, that “distinction is important. Continuity and change could mean that the story-teller could change, say, 15 percent of the story—any 15 percent. Thus, after seven transmissions of the story theoretically, all of the story could be changed. But continuity and flexibility mean that the main lines of the story cannot be changed at all. The story can endure a hundred transmissions through a chain of a hundred and one different people and the inner core of the story remains intact.” Finally, the third level is no flexibility. There’s no flexibility when it comes to the category of poems and proverbs—the reciter is not permitted to change even a single word.
In the Gospels, we have proverbs, parables, poems, and historical narratives of people and events. Those categories all fall under either having to be told with no flexibility or some flexibility. That means it was nothing like a game of telephone. It would be more like if I tell you something while a group of us are sitting in a circle together, and then make you repeat it, and the group then judges whether you said it correctly. If you didn’t, we’d make you repeat it until you got it right. Not as fun as a game of telephone! But this was no game to the community of Jesus followers…the stories about Jesus meant everything to them. As Bailey says, “The stories had to be told and controlled or everything that made them who they were was lost.”
We even see evidence in the Bible of Paul receiving his information through oral tradition. In 1 Corinthians 15:3-5, Paul says “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received.” The words “delivered” and “received” reveal Paul is presenting content he got from someone else (for more on that, see Licona’s The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach). Paul then gives the information he’s received: “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures…” I don’t know Greek yet, but I’ve been told by those who do that in Greek, there is a formulaic, poetic quality to these verses: they are short, memorable, and repeatable phrases. They are set off by the Greek word, “hoti,” or “that,” which indicated a pattern that was designed for easy memorization. So, this is an example of tradition having been put into easy-to-remember patterns and a sign that it had been passed down orally.
For all of those reasons, and the ones we don’t have space to cover here, we can be confident that the retelling of the events, people, parables, etc. in the Gospels were passed down accurately through oral tradition before they were written down.
But that leads to another objection: what happened once things were written down? Bart Ehrman claims in his New York Times bestselling book titled Misquoting Jesus that there are 400,000 textual variants in the New Testament manuscripts. That is more changes than there are words in the New Testament! Are the words in the Bible you hold in your hands the same words that were written down almost 2000 years ago? We’ll tackle that question next time.