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How Much of the Bible Was Transmitted by Oral Tradition?

No matter how one approaches the difficulties of relying on an orally transmitted work, we have to decide what we believe. If God is omnipotent, then we can trust the assertion that “all Scripture is inspired by God” (2 Timothy 3:16).

Contributing Writer
Published Jun 05, 2020
How Much of the Bible Was Transmitted by Oral Tradition?

We have received many books of the Bible from those whose names are attributed to them: Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Joel are just a few who wrote down important details about their relationship with the one true God. However, God’s word was passed down orally before Jews possessed the Torah, or Christians held a Bible.

Scholars generally agree that Moses was the first scribe, but he was born many hundreds of years after the world was created. There is also debate about the timing of the first writings: from 1500 BC to the 7th century BC.

On closer inspection, much of the drama of Scripture appears to have occurred years before it was recorded by someone who heard the story. How many biblical documents were written by the people who experienced the events within? How can we rely on the memories of those recounting God’s story?

Word of Mouth

Play a game of “Telephone” with just a small group of people over the course of only 15 minutes and the potential distortion is incredible. Spread that out over 1500 years and perhaps as many people and imagine the sort of distortion that could occur.

Moreover, it’s reasonable to wonder how the disciples knew about many events such as when “an angel of the Lord appeared to [Joseph] in a dream” telling him “do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:20). Did Matthew interview Joseph? Perhaps Joseph told Jesus the whole story and Jesus shared it with the disciples?

Then there’s Luke. Matthew, Mark, and John walked with Jesus and learned from Him, but Luke was a latecomer, whose accounts of Jesus were all second-hand. Yet, Luke’s gospel often convinces unbelievers, especially linear thinkers who think in terms of black and white. They want empirical evidence for the Christian faith. Why is Luke so convincing?

Systematic Process

Luke started his gospel at the beginning with John the Baptist’s conception, moving systematically all the way to the resurrection and Christ’s ascension. Each detail was conveyed orally. Luke interviewed witnesses.

One has to assume that many of his interviews never made it to the final draft because they were unreliable in some way, but those which remain, provide a concise history of our Savior’s three-year ministry consistent with that of the other gospels and from the Old Testament, all from word of mouth.

Memory Warrior

There is good reason to trust the Old Testament too, even though this work was created over several centuries by numerous people receiving and transmitting an inheritance of memory. The Israelites used strategies such as committing scripture to song and “mnemonics,” which made verses easier to memorize.

As a Pharisee, Paul would have had access to biblical scrolls, but his memory was prodigious, and his intellect was considerable. Paul described himself thus: “As for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless” (Philippians 3:6).

Students of Scripture, like Paul, were taught from a very young age to memorize the Word of God. “It was fairly easy for a bright, ambitious young boy to memorize the Bible, and it would have been very difficult and expensive for Paul as an adult to carry around dozens of bulky scrolls.” If Paul represents Jewish learning, then we get a sense of how powerful a well-trained memory can be.

There are discrepancies between texts, some of them minor, such as when “the text is transmitted (and sometimes changed) by scribes who copied the ancient scrolls over and over again.” Scholars agree that such errors do not change the meaning of a text.

Bible experts champion ancient memory. “In oral cultures where memory has been trained for generations, oral memory can accurately preserve and pass on large amounts of information.” From the Bible record, it is “a well-known fact that the rabbis had the O.T. and much of the oral law committed to memory.”

The Jews placed a high value on memorizing whatever writing reflected inspired Scripture and the wisdom of God.” They revered the Word of God and believed it was too important to forget or distort.

From the Mouth of Christ

What we read about in the New Testament was transmitted following a much shorter period of time, perhaps only decades, and sometimes not even that. But even if one wishes to dispute that a person could reliably recall what Jesus had said during that time period, it’s worth noting the manner in which Christ instructed His disciples and how His teaching was received.

1Jesus taught using parables, which were easy to recall, and He “trained His disciples” before sending them to spread the good news.

2“Ninety percent of Jesus’ teachings and sayings use mnemonic methods similar to those used in Hebrew poetry.”

3The disciples believed that Jesus was their Savior, so they understood how important it was to quote what He said accurately.

4They had committed their lives to Him and one can imagine them after the crucifixion, in shock, repeating every word He ever said to them and trying to make sense of His death.

Still, the most compelling evidence for the reliability and power of oral transmission comes from Christ’s own mouth. “Jesus used the Old Testament prophets’ practice of proclaiming the word of God which demanded accurate preservation of inspired teaching.”

He quoted from Isaiah at a synagogue in Nazareth and Christ quoted Deuteronomy 6:16 in response to Satan: “Jesus answered him, ‘it is also written: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test”’” (Matthew 4:7).

If we believe Him to be our sinless Savior, we also believe Christ spoke the truth about Himself: That, in Him, Isaiah’s prophecies and the law itself were fulfilled. Christ agreed with and validated the Old Testament.

The Canon

As far as the Old Testament goes, “The Jewish people already accepted and organized those scriptures. Leaders read them in the Temple and later in synagogues all over Israel and the Roman Empire.” There was no need for debate.

A new set of texts, however, had to be sorted through and approved for use in the new Christian church. These works were tested against the Old Testament, against investigative strategies, against logic, and against each other. They were measured according to external historical events and writings and poured over through the lens of Textual Criticism.

The four gospels differ from each other in terms of style and, in some cases, content, but “we should expect some differences between four independent accounts. If they were identical, we would suspect the writers of collaboration with one another.”

External events such as the destruction of the temple help Bible scholars to date works, strengthening evidence that Luke wrote his gospel account soon after Christ’s ascension. “In the book of Acts, the Temple plays a central role in the nation of Israel. Luke writes as if the Temple is an important part of Jewish life.” Yet, the temple would be destroyed before the end of the first century AD.

This means that Luke must have been writing before that date. Any argument that he existed later has no basis in fact. While much of Luke’s writing relied on the memories of others, his witnesses didn’t have to think back too far, and what they recounted was memorable indeed.

Furthermore, Luke became a friend of the disciples. Part of Acts depicts what he saw and experienced. We rely on Luke as a man of science who believed by faith. He was not raised as a Jew, so sentiment and tradition did not inform his study of Christ’s life. Luke relied on his acutely developed reasoning skills as a physician to conclude that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah.

Final Thoughts

The Lord “has used human authors as the agents through which He has written the Bible” and “no prophecy of Scripture comes from the prophet’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the will of man; instead, men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:20-21).

One of the great stories of the first centuries after Jesus’ resurrection is the amazing way in which God and His Church protected the truth of Scripture from error or worse. It is only “by God’s grace” that “His Word has been preserved and protected today.”

Yet, no matter how one approaches the difficulties of relying on an orally transmitted work, we have to decide what we believe. If God is omnipotent, and if we trust the testimony of Christ fully, then we can trust the assertion that “all Scripture is inspired by God” (2 Timothy 3:16).

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Candice Lucey is a freelance writer from British Columbia, Canada, where she lives with her family. Find out more about her here.


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