A Look at the Jesus Story, Oral Tradition and Eyewitness Memory

by Eric Chabot

Introduction: Even 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 an oral period where the words and deeds of Jesus were committed to memory by the disciples and transmitted orally. Oral Tradition is the transmission of a teaching or saying from person to person or from generation to generation by word of mouth rather than by the use of writing. The home, the synagogue, and the elementary school was where Jewish people learned how to memorize and recall information such as community prayers.

Given that many skeptics assumes the New Testament is biased they tend to ask for sources that are written about Jesus outside the New Testament. Furthermore, since the request for these sources must be written by non-Christians, this supposedly equates to pure objectivity and no propaganda. Sadly, the demand for this wish list shows the ignorance about the oral world of Jesus. The late Maurice Casey, a non Christian scholar who specialized in early Christianity summarized the importance of the oral world of Jesus:

The major reasons why all our earliest sources for the Life and Teaching of Jesus are Christian is that Jesus was a first- century Jewish prophet who lived in a primarily oral Jewish culture, not a significant politician in the Graeco-Roman world. By contrast, for example, Julius Caeser was an important political and literary figure in the highly literate culture of the Romans. It is therefore natural that he should have written literary works which have survived, and that other surviving literary sources have written about him.[1]

Casey goes onto say:

Jesus of Nazareth left no literary works at all, and he had no reason to write any. He lived in a primarily oral culture, except for the sanctity and central importance of its sacred texts, which approximate to our Hebrew Bible. A variety of works now thought of as Apocrypha (e.g. Sirach) or Pseudopigrapha (e.g. 1 Enoch) were held equally sacred by some Jewish people, and could equally well  learnt and repeated by people who did not possess the then- difficult skill of writing. Almost all our surviving primary sources about Jesus are Christian because most people who had any interest in writing about him were his followers,and  the few relatively early comments by other writers such as Josephus and Tacitus are largely due to special circumstances, such as Jesus’ brother Jacob (Jos.Ant .XX,200), or the great fire of Rome (Tac.Annals XI, 44). [2]

As Craig Evans notes, 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).[3]

How would Jesus have made his teaching memorable?

While none of Jesus’ adversaries called Jesus a rabbi, Jesus was seen as a rabbi and teacher  in the Gospels (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). In the first century A.D. Rabbi (‘My great one”) could refer to those religious figures who were in a high position,while later in the third century it  became associated with those who had produced rabbinic literature.[4] There are several terms that can be seen that as part of the rabbinic terminology of that day. As Paul Barnett notes, the disciples of Jesus had “come” to him, “followed after” him, “learned from” him, “taken his yoke upon” them” (Mt. 11:28-30; Mk 1).[5]

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.[6] Also, in some ways Jesus did fit the mold of a rabbi, this doesn’t mean he fit the mold of an ordained of rabbi which was more of a formal office that took place a century or more later. The similarities and differences between Jesus as a rabbi and teacher and the rabbis who also taught in his culture are seen here:

  1. Jesus taught but not in formal educational settings.
  2. Jesus’ delivering system was face to face and oral.
  3. Jesus modeled how to live as much or more than he stated, ”Do this” or “Don’t do that.”
  4. Jesus’ teachings were created orally and transmitted orally.
  5. Jesus was a passionate guardian of Old Testament law.
  6. Jesus explained and expanded on Old Testament law.
  7. Jesus’ actions could attain the status of commandments in the minds of his followers.
  8. God’s truth was incarnate in Jesus.
  9. Jesus wrote nothing; it was sufficient for this oral text to remain oral.
  10. The oral origins of the Gospels are evident within the Gospels.
  11. It was not until approximately twenty years after Jesus’ public ministry  that the first written accounts of his words and deeds were inscribed in the Gospels. [7]

Interestingly enough, given Jesus had such a high view of the Torah and it was believed that God was incarnate in Jesus, we should heed the words of Jewish scholar Jacob Neusner. He says…

The Poached Egg ApologeticsFOLLOW THE LINK BELOW TO READ THE FULL ARTICLE >>>

A Look at the Jesus Story, Oral Tradition and Eyewitness Memory | THINKAPOLOGETICS.COM