A Look at Oral Tradition/The Orality Phase of the Jesus Story

by Eric Chabot

Peter preachingEven though  the Christian can always offer certain dates for the Gospels, it should remembered that there was a gap of time between the ascension of Jesus and when the Gospel authors actually wrote their individual biographies about the life of Jesus.  Therefore, there was  a period where the words and deeds of Jesus were committed to memory by the disciples and transmitted orally. Remember, the home, the synagogue, and the elementary school was where Jewish people learned how to memorize and recall information such as community prayers. As Craig Evans notes in his article on Jewish Scripture and the Literacy of Jesus, according to the Shema, which all Torah observant Jews were expected to recite daily, parents were to teach  their children the Torah ( Deut 4:9; 6:7; 11:19; 31:12-13; 2 Chr 17:7-9; Eccl 12:9).

As Richard Bauckham notes, “In short, memorization was a mechanism of control that preserved the Jesus traditions as faithfully as the early Christians required. It was exercised to the extent that stable reproduction was deemed important and in regard to those aspects of the traditions for which stable reproduction was thought appropriate” [1]

How would Jesus have made his teaching memorable?

Jesus was a called a “Rabbi” (Matt. 8:19; 9:11; 12:38; Mk. 4:38; 5:35; 9:17; 10:17, 20; 12:14, 19, 32; Lk. 19:39; Jn. 1:38; 3:2), which means “master” or “teacher.” There are several terms that can be seen that as part of the rabbinic terminology of that day. His disciples had “come” to him, “followed after” him, “learned from” him, “taken his yoke upon” them” (Mt. 11:28-30; Mk 1). [2]

Jesus taught in poetic form, employing alliteration, paronomasia, assonance, parallelism, and rhyme. Since over 90 percent of Jesus’ teaching was poetic, this would make it simple to memorize. [3]

According to Webster’s Dictionary, an aphorism is “a concise statement of a principle or terse formulation of a truth or sentiment,”  (“he who has ears to hear, let him hear” [Mark 4:9, 23; Luke 8:8; 14:35] or “he who has ears, let him hear” [Matt. 11:15, 13:9, 43]. The parables of Jesus also seem streamlined for easy memorization. [4]

If you followed Jesus twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week wouldn’t you expect him to repeat some of the aphorisms throughout his ministry? [5]

We also see an emphasis on the importance of remembering the words of Jesus…

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