Why Oral Tradition Was Reliable In The Writing Of The Gospels


Critics often argue as follows:

  1. That short sayings of Jesus were the only ones recorded; and, by implication, are the only ones that we may reasonably assess as having been passed down to us from Him with any accuracy; and,
  2. That these short sayings circulated by word of mouth for some 20 years before being written down.

Each of these assumptions is highly questionable in light of what we know of the early Christian community. To begin:

1) Short sayings of Jesus were the only ones accurately recorded.

The Jesus Seminar, in line with this statement, does not accept as genuine any words of Jesus that are not recorded as aphorisms or parables. Sermons and stories are therefore considered “out of bounds,” probably creations of the early church.

This is an arbitrary restriction; as one writer puts it “No sage in the history of the world is so limited in the forms of speech he or she could have employed…” [Wilk.JUF, 20]

2) These short sayings circulated by word of mouth for some 20 years before being written down.

This in itself is a supposition without evidence, used with the presuppositions of the Seminar that only sayings that they determine have originated in the so-called oral period (30-50) could possibly have come from Jesus [Funk.5Q, 24], and that oral transmission is so primitive that it cannot reliably transmit anything except short, memorable phrases.

This presumption ignores any possibility that sayings, stories and sermons were put in some kind of written form early on and it also ignores the considerable importance given to rote memorization in Jewish society of the time, which would have permitted reliable oral transmission even for longer material.

[Hena.OTr, 15], a supporter of Jesus Seminar thinking, for example, refers to the “very communal, anonymous and changeable nature” of oral transmission, which is far from an accurate description of the process under consideration. True that oral tradition was communal, but communities had leaders who exerted control over the tradition, and that is the way it usually works in an oral-based community.

Why we don’t value oral tradition anymore

Why has this aspect been neglected? It is rather hard for us, in our day of computers that save data and yellow post-it notes pasted everywhere to remind us to do difficult-to-remember things, to imagine the capacity of the oriental memory. Many studies show that modern adults only use listening skills sparingly, with as little as 25% accuracy.

In my own experience, I have memorized nothing longer than a Shakespearian sonnet and doubt if I could do better, although personally, I do much better recalling things that are set to music.

Lentz, commenting on similar lack of regard for oral transmission in classical studies, laments [Lent.OLHG, 2]:

“Western academic measurement of success by literary and printed research colored the expectation of classical scholars as they considered writing in ancient culture. Writing was so important to their world that they assumed it was the key to the growth of ancient culture.”

And Samuel Byrskog in Story as History [116] comments:

“Writing was usually seen as supplementary to the oral discourse. Orators should avoid note-books that were too detailed. One is reminded of Quintillian’s criticism of Laenas’ dependence on such notes and his clear-cut advice: “For my own part, however, I think we should not write anything which we do not intend to commit to memory.” Writing was not avoided, as such, but functioned mainly as a memorandum of what the person already should remember from oral communication — not the other way around!”

Memory was exercised more in the ancient world

Oral recall was far more important in ancient socities, particularly Judaism, than we have commonly allowed for and the techniques used for memorization by ancient societies as a whole has a remarkable similarity to techniques promulgated by today’s “memory improvement” seminars we now pay exorbitant fees to attend. Byrskog notes that “…as we know today from modern studies of visual memory, most people recall — correctly or not — the past through images impressed on their memory. The ancient people were aware of this basic, human characteristic.” He also reports exceptional (and very likely exaggerated, in some cases) examples from ancient texts of memory feats [162-3]:

  1. Plato says that the Sophist Hippias of Elis “was able to repeat fifty names after hearing them only once.”
  2. Pliny the Elder reports that Cyrus was able to name every man in his army, and that Lucius Scipio remembered the names of every person in the Roman Empire, and that one named Charmadas “recited by heart any book in the libraries.”
  3. Seneca boasted of being able in his youth to repeat 2000 names read to him “and recite in reverse order over two hundred verses his fellow students told him…”. However, he does regard this as miraculous!

Though indeed these from Pliny are likely exaggerated, “it is evident that the more detailed and the more voluminous the scope of information stored in the memory could be shown to be, the more impressive it was.” The ideal was to recall exactly, “as detailed as possible,” though obviously the ideal would have limits.

Among the Jews, rabbis were encouraged to memorize entire books of the OT, indeed the whole OT, and all of Jewish education consisted of rote memory. Students were expected to remember the major events of narratives – although incidentals could be varied, if the main point was not affected [Wilk.JUF, 32].

This is reflected well in the differences in reportage that we find in the Gospels, for there we find an 80% agreement in the words of Jesus [Linn.ISP, 106] — see also [More.ScCy, 144], and see comments about ma besay-il here.

Many of the disagreements are cultural variations of the sort we might expect, such as Luke, out of consideration for his Gentile readers, not using the Jewish term “Son of Man” where Matthew or Mark do. This was a society well-attuned to preserving oral tradition and as Charlesworth notes:

“Oral tradition is not always unreliable, in fact, sometimes it is more reliable than the written word.” [Chars.JesJud, 19]

Skeptics who compare oral transmission to the modern children’s game of “telephone” are engaging an anachronism.

The Jews valued memorizing important material

The Seminar also ignores the general Jewish regard for the work of respected teachers. Witherington, writing of the Jewish tendency and capability to preserve such material, says [With.JQ, 48, 80]:

“In view of the fact that the earliest conveyors of the Jesus tradition were all, without exception, Jews, we would naturally expect them to treat the teachings of their master with as much respect as did the disciples of other Jewish teachers such as Hillel and Shammai. This is all the more likely if, as happened with Jesus of Nazareth, the teacher suffered an untimely and unexpected end and was highly criticized by some Jews. The need to remember, preserve and defend him against false charges would be acute…

Disciples in early Jewish settings were learners, and, yes, also reciters and memorizers. This was the way Jewish educational processes worked. In fact it was the staple of all ancient education, including Greco-Roman education….those who handed on the tradition would not have seen themselves primarily as creators but as preservers and editors.”

In this regard, many have cited the work of Scandanavian scholar Birger Gerhardsson, who argued some years ago that

“based on clear parallels of oral transmission processes between early Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism, one could conclude that the oral Jesus tradition was passed along with a high degree of care and continuity.” [Boyd.CSSG, 121]

Gerhardsson’s work was, and still is, attacked on the basis of his concentration on Rabbinic practice after 70 AD, which may or may not have had any bearing upon the time of Jesus c. 30 AD. [Klopp.FQ, 44] However, such Rabbinic practices certainly had their precedents, and these may be found in the general Jewish system of education in the first century [Boyd.CSSG, 121-2]:

“Here, it is important to recognize the place that ancient Jewish educational practice gave to the memorization of both oral and written tradition…

…Reisner has done a thorough study both of educational practices within the first-century Judaism, as well as the evidence within the Gospels’ tradition related to Jesus and his teaching methods. He has concluded – quite apart from a dependency on Rabbinic parallels – that memory of sacred teachings and traditions was a vital part of both Jewish life in general and Jesus’ teaching program in particular.”

And Glenn Miller has added in this regard:

Part of this growing confidence in the accuracy of oral transmission, is the growing awareness of the easy-to-memorize structure of many of Jesus sayings. Stein says (SPI: 200):

It is now clearer than ever before that Jesus was a teacher. In fact the Gospels describe him as a teacher forty-five times and the term ‘rabbi’ is used of him fourteen times. One of his prominent activities was teaching. Like the rabbis, he proclaimed the divine law, gathered disciples, debated with the religious authorities, was asked to settle legal disputes, and supported his teaching with Scripture. He also used mnemonic devices, such as parables, exaggerations, puns, metaphors and similes, proverbs, riddles, and parabolic actions, to aid his disciples and audience in retaining his teachings. Above all he used poetry, “parallelismus membrorum”, for this purpose.

Jeremias has listed 138 examples of antithetical parallelism in Jesus’ teaching that are found in the synoptic Gospels alone (NT Theology, 15f), and to these over fifty other examples of synonymous, synthetic, chiasmic, and step parallelism can be added (Stein, “The Method and Message of Jesus’ Teachings”, Westminster, 1978: 27-32).

In light of all this, it is evident that Jesus ‘carefully thought out and deliberately formulated [his] statements’ (Gerhardsson).”

Regarding poetic material and oral transmission in societies attuned to this practice, Vansina [Vans.OrT, 15; 49; 192-3] has written:

“Poetry is of necessity memorized, if it is to be reproduced exactly. Variations do occur over time when one word or group of words can be replaced by another which respects the metric form.”

But even these variants, Vansina adds, are minor, and seldom occur, so that even within one or two generations “beyond the eldest living members of a community,” there is little change. Then even when changes do occur, there is “no doubt as to the actual message and the wording of the tradition.”

How much better, then, would the Gospels reflect the words of Jesus in this regard, with the short span between their composition and publication, even by late-date standards?

Boyd (ibid.) also notes that general studies of oral transmission have shown it to be more reliable than critics would presuppose:

“Studies by anthropologists such as Albert B. Lord and Jan Vansina have demonstrated that the transmission of traditions in oral societies follow a generally fixed, if flexible pattern – similar to the type witnessed to in the Gospels themselves. Related to this, comtemporary psycholinguistic studies have served to confirm that the techniques that charactrerized Jesus’ oral teaching methods would have made for ‘very accurate communication between Jesus and his followers’ and would have ‘ensured excellent semantic recall.” 

Currently, Boyd notes, some NT critics are beginning to acknowledge this kind of data, albeit reluctantly – but the Jesus Seminar has yet to make note of it in any significant fashion. Kloppenborg [Klopp.FQ, 44] dismisses this argument by claiming that there is “no evidence that Jesus himself taught by memorization” – which is patently false, as we have seen above that Jesus routinely used teaching forms that encouraged memorization and the very nature of the society within which Jesus taught would still preserve through memorization.

Jesus would have said things many times

Moreover, we should keep in mind this suggestion by Wright [Wrig.PG, 123]:

“If we come to the ministry of Jesus as first-century historians, and forget our twentieth-century assumptions about mass media, the overwhelming probability is that most of what Jesus said, he said not twice but 200 times, with (of course) a myriad of local variations.”

Thus, even if we dismiss the mnemonic nature of Jesus’ teaching, even if we ignore (as the Seminar has, in their own Western-mindset fashion) the tremendous capacity of the oriental memory, we still have to consider that whatever Jesus taught, He would, like any teacher, have taught it many, many times – enough times so that His disciples would have the entire set of lessons committed to memory! Given the data above, we have every reason to believe, in this regard, that the material within the Gospels is historically reliable.

Addressing objections

Objection: Acts 4:13 tells us that John and Peter were illiterate. How did they write the books attributed to them?

Acts 4:13 does NOT indicate that Peter and John were non-literate but only that they did not study under the Pharisaic Rabbis. Regardless, that only accounts for 2 out of hundreds of Jesus’ original group of disciples who could act as scribes (like Matthew). Additionally, it may not occur to many that John and Peter learned to read in the years that followed. Illiteracy is a social problem but it is not an incurable disease.

However, John’s being known to the high priest, as noted in his Gospel, would indicate a certain level of breeding and perhaps literacy, and at any rate, how could the priests have known from a mere speech that John and Peter could not read or write?

Jesus’ words may have been transcribed prior to the Gospels

However, noting, as we have, the interest in preserving the words of Jesus, we have good reason to believe that Jesus’ words were transcribed early, perhaps as early as during His earthly ministry. In opposition to this idea, Skeptics assert often that the early Christians, since they believed in the imminent return of Jesus, had “no interest” in recording the words of Jesus on paper.

But this is a thoroughly speculative notion that runs against the grain of the evidence. Being that Christianity was evangelistic, even if we could prove a widespread notion in the early church that Jesus’ return was imminent, this would actually support the idea of recording the words and deeds of Jesus on paper, since there were only so many Apostles and evangelists to go around, whereas documents could be sent all around the Roman Empire, and be left behind when the Apostles moved on.

But even without that, as Boyd points out [Boyd.CSSG, 125]:

“It was (and yet is) often assumed in post-Bultmannian circles that an apocalyptic movement, such as early Christianity, would not have been interested in writing down and codifying their ideas and their histories…(but) in Qumran we find a thoroughly apocalyptic group doing just this! Though they expected an imminent end to the world, they nevertheless took great care in composing volumes. Hence, however we construe the apocalyptism of Jesus’ early movement, we have no reason to think they would not have been, from the start, involved in writing.”

Since writing this article many years ago I have adopted the eschatological understanding of preterism which holds that there was no “end of the world” being predicted in the first place. Obviously this makes the argument refuted by Boyd irrelevant.

Here’s some more relevant data from Eddy and Boyd’s The Jesus Legend:


  • The assumptions of form criticism were that it was impossible to preserve more than just short vignettes in memory. Fieldwork studies in anthropology have debunked this notion, as a wide variety of cultures have been found to be able to preserve extended epics orally, some of these epics as long as 25 hours performed over several days. [253] Compared to that, remembering the words of Jesus would be a snap (Mark would be only 2 hours long). [256]
  • Such epics are sometimes “edited” for performance before a particular audience. [254] We may note that this fits our thesis (see here that Matthew and Mark came from the same common oral core, and that Mark includes some of Peter’s personal additions based on his experience. Indeed, Boyd and Eddy cite Dewey as supposing this very thing about Mark [256].
  • Despite claims made to the contrary, oral historians are every bit as much concerned with historical accuracy as writing historians. They will also find themselves corrected in mid-performance by the audience if they err [261f].

Orality and Writing

Oral tradition, then, in the social context of first-century Palestine, was more than up to the task of preserving the words of Jesus. What, then, of the written words of Jesus? Is there any good reason to believe that the words of Jesus were recorded in writings earlier than skeptics assert? Again, we offer Miller’s analysis, using material derived from Wenham [Wenh.RMML]:

1. There is a growing body of evidence and arguments that supports the thesis that the disciples (and sometimes even the audiences of Jesus) ‘took notes’ during or immediately after His words/deeds.

I have already cited the biblio from RPI:165, but see his summary quote: “It is now clear that even during the rabbinic period the rabbinic teaching process was not exclusively oral.” (he then cites the works of Reisner, Gerhardsson, E.E. Ellis, et. al.)

2. Gundry (addressing the synoptic problem in “The Use of the Old Testament in St. Matthew’s Gospel”, Brill, 1967:xii) brings in the data from the Graeco-Roman world also:

“The only hypothesis with enough flexibility to meet the requirements is that a body of loose notes stands behind the bulk of the synoptic tradition. The wide use of shorthand and the carrying of notebooks in the Graeco-Roman world, the school practice of circulating lecture notes and utilizing them in published works, and the later transmission of rabbinic tradition through shorthand notes support this hypothesis. As a former publican, the Apostle Matthew would have been admirably fitted to fill a position as note-taker in the band of uneducated apostles.”

3. The time-estimates of the recording of these words/deeds continue to move earlier and earlier in history. So E.E. Ellis (Criswell Theological Review, Fall 88, p.7):

There are good grounds, then, for supposing not only that the traditioning of Jesus’ acts and teachings began already during this earthly ministry, as H. Schurmann has argued, but also that some of them were given written formulations at that time.

4.The use of oral tradition IN NO WAY implies that ‘written tradition’ did NOT occur.

The body of allegedly oral traditions of the rabbis of Jesus’ day was transmitted orally during His day. Eventually it was written down into the Mishnah, but “even after its definitive compilation, the Mishnah (as well as a great deal more interpretive material of the Rabbis) continued to be passed on primarily by rote for centuries to come.” (Kugel, EBI:68)

The point is that the oral transmission process continued even after the definitive compilation of that oral tradition!

Lentz [Lent.OLHG, 77] offers a reason why oral tradition was preserved even after the advent of written versions:

“The ancients often called the written word into question because it did not have the authority of an honest man’s character to support its credibility.”

In other words, you can’t ask a piece of paper questions to be sure that it is telling the truth.

5. The descriptions we have of the relationship between Jesus and the disciples approximates the type of school known as ‘disciple circle’ (FMM: 120), and would have used the standard teaching techniques of the world at that time:

A different type of school is the disciple circle, a handful of disciples grouped around a master. The disciples were apprentices who learned by constant attendance upon the master. They watched his every action and listened to his every word. The disciple circle existed as long as the master remained active and upon his death or retirement the school died with him. Hence, these schools were neither corporate bodies nor perpetual institutions. Disciple circles were the normal pattern for higher education in both Jewish and Greco-Roman antiquity.

6. Literacy among the common populace was highly developed and wide-reaching, and had been so for centuries.

Excavations within the territory of biblical Israel have turned up a number of practice alphabet texts, as well as isolated letters, or letters apparently grouped by similarity of shape, and other materials indicative of elementary instruction. These finds, unearthed at Lachish, Arad, Kuntillat-Ajrud, and other sites, suggest the existence of some form of literacy training in these locations by the eighth century B.C.E. Certainly it is difficult to imagine that the seats of government and diplomacy and other centers were without a substantial literate elite even earlier, but these ‘provincial’ finds are perhaps more impressive because they indicate how widespread literacy training might have been by the eighth century B.C.E. (EBI: 52-53)

E.P. Sanders (JPB: 179f) discusses the archeological finds by Yadin in Nabataea (at the southern end of the Dead Sea). These 35 legal documents are very detailed and deal with property issues of a twice-married woman named Babata. The significance of this find is that “even in a backwater town legal paperwork flourished” (p. 179), and that there were scribes in the sense of ‘clerks’ and ‘copyists’ in this ‘backwater town’ (p. 180).

7. There was an ABUNDANCE of people with scribal skills in 1st century Palestine, many of whom would have heard Jesus speak and some/many of whom became followers of His after such encounters.

It is not improbable that these skilled people ‘took notes’, some of which were probably included in Luke’s comment that “MANY had undertaken to put together an account of Jesus life” (Lk 1).

We shall not be able to arrive at definite numbers, but we may assume that there were some thousands of scribes in Jewish Palestine in our period: legal advisors in each locality, people who could draft documents, and legal experts and copyists in the employ of the temple. At the time of Herod, according to Josephus, there were about 6,000 Pharisees. We have seen that there were 18,000 to 20,000 priests and Levites [with scribal skills]…let us recall that that priests and Levites were forbidden to work the land and that they were on duty only one week in twenty-four, plus the three pilgrimage festivals, a total of five or six weeks every year.

They were not tied to farms, as many Pharisees were, and they could take employment. (JPB: 181–Sanders points out on p.179f that the ancient world required vast numbers of scribes, and that most priests would have had to supplement their income with such occupations as ‘common’ scribal work.)

8. We have a VERY special case with Matthew, the Apostle. Matthew was a tax-collector by trade, involving a VERY complex system of taxation and record-keeping. Wenham summarizes some of the data from Goodspeed in RMML:112-113:

It is known that in Egypt at this date there were 111 kinds of tax, and many of the tax-collectors knew shorthand. Matthew’s livelihood was earned by interviewing tax-payers and discussing their affairs (usually in Aramaic) and then writing up his reports in Greek. He had a lifelong habit of noting things down and of preserving what he had written.

To this we would add Kistemaker’s observations [Kiste.GCS, 100] that Matthew would have been versed in the three languages of Palestine: Hebrew, Greek and Aramiac.

And in the same passage, discusses Goodspeed’s suggestion that Jesus took the role of a major prophet, in selecting a ‘record keeper’ for his teachings (RMML: 112):

Goodspeed suggests that Jesus found himself in a similar position to Isaiah, when it became clear that his message was going to be rejected by the people as a whole. He deliberately took steps for the preservation of his teaching among his disciples. He observed the faith and commitment of Levi the tax-collector and recognized him as one who was capable of making a record of his teaching. The other leading disciples could doubtless read and write, but from what we know of them they all seem to have been essentially practical men. The only one who was a professional pen-pusher was Matthew.

N. Walker even suggests that Matthew kept an Aramaic ‘diary’ (“The Alleged Matthean Errata”, New Testament Studies, 1963, 9: 391-4), an interesting suggestion in light of Justin Martyr’s (2nd century) repeated references to the Gospels as ‘memoirs’. Note also that Jeremiah used the scribe Baruch to record his messages (36.4, 18, 32) and other scribes to record legal transactions (32.10-12). I have documented elsewhere the VERY close relationship between the prophetic office and written records. See also EBI:53ff.

Pritchard [Pritc.LNT, 67] in this light also notes: “It is not unlikely that Matthew, a man trained in handling financial accounts, should have competently collected and arranged sayings of Jesus; one sees the work as suited to a man of his temperament.” (Pritchard sees Matthew as author of an Aramaic original behind the Greek Matthew)

9. The last point under this issue of ‘note taking’ is that the farther one got from ‘normative’ Judaism, the more one tended to record oral traditions.

As long as one was in ‘mainstream’ Judaism (even with its various parties and groups), then one’s belief system was reinforced each week in Synagogue. All the social and cultural structures re-affirmed and re-inforced those party-ised oral traditions. BUT, the farther out one’s beliefs were, relative to the mainstream, the MORE ‘extra efforts’ had to be made to keep the oral tradition/belief system ‘present’.

Scholars suggest that by 200 BC there was QUITE a body of ‘authoritative’ tradition in Israel, which would have represented the ‘mainstream’ system (including within it, of course, all the minor sub-traditions). So Kugel (EBI:71):

“…that certain broad assumptions of biblical interpretation were shaped by events and circumstances of a still earlier period and that, by 200 bce, it is probable that a large body of actual interpretations of individual biblical verses was in wide circulation among the Jews, either in oral or written form.”

Miller then notes two specific variations from the “mainstream” system: The Book of Jubilees and the Qumran community (as we have seen from Boyd, above). He concludes:

“Since Christianity began as a sect WITHIN Judaism, and began experiencing serious exclusion from ‘mainstream’ Judaism in the early-30’s (with the stoning of Stephen and persecution of Saul–Acts 7,8), it is entirely likely that the new community of faith had to do what others before them did; namely, WRITE down the material for use by new converts and by new churches (a la Qumran).

And, over time, as the worship services and gatherings were driven ‘underground’, and the leaders martyred, the need for written materials became increasingly necessary for the preservation of the core of the faith.”

SUMMARY: Not only was oral transmission quite adequate for the task of preserving the words and deeds of Jesus, but the widespread use of note-taking and ample supply of literate listeners almost guarantees that VERY early written sources for the gospel materials would have existed.


    1. Boyd.CSSG – Boyd, Gregory A. Cynic Sage or Son of God? Chicago: Bridgepoint, 1995.
    2. Burn.POL – Burney, C. F. The Poetry of Our Lord. Oxford: Clarendon, 1925.
    3. Chars.JesJud – Charlesworth, James H. Jesus Within Judaism. New York: Doubleday, 1988.
    4. Funk.5Q – Funk, Robert W., et al. The Five Gospels. New York: Macmillan, 1993.
    5. Hena.OTr – Henaut, Barry W. Oral Tradition and the Gospels: The Problem of Mark 4.Sheffield Academic Press, 1993.
    6. Kelb.OWG – Kelber, Werner. The Oral and the Written Gospel. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983.
    7. Kiste.GCS – Kistemaker, Simon. The Gospels in Current Study. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1972.
    8. Klopp.FQ – Kloppenborg, John S. The Formation of Q. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987.
    9. Lent.OLHG – Lentz, Tony M. Orality and Literacy in Hellenic Greece. Carbondale: Southern Illinois U. Press, 1989.
    10. Linn.ISP – Linnemann, Eta. Is There a Synoptic Problem? Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992.
    11. More.ScCy – Moreland, J. P. Scaling the Secular City. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1987.
    12. Pritc.LNT – Pritchard, John Paul. A Literary Approach to the New Testament. Norman: U. of Oklahoma Press, 1972.
    13. Vans.OrT – Vansina, Jan. Oral Tradition as History. Madison: U. of Wisconsin Press, 1985
    14. Wenh.RMML – Wenham, John. Redating Matthew, Mark and Luke. Downers Grove: IVP, 1992.
    15. Wilk.JUF Wilkins, Michael J. and J. P. Moreland, eds. Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995.
    16. With.JQ Witherington, Ben. The Jesus Quest. Downers Grove: IVP, 1995.
    17. Wrig.PG Wright, N. T. The New Testament and the People of God. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992.
      This article was originally featured on the Tektonics and was republished with permission.


Enjoy this article? Take a moment to support us on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!