By Garrett Best
Bird, Michael. The Gospel of the Lord: How the Early Church Wrote the Story of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014).
In this series of blog posts, I’d like to use Bird’s book as a starting point for talking about the origins of the Jesus tradition and the Fourfold Gospel. In this post, I’d like to ask the question: Can we have confidence the Jesus tradition was passed on accurately during the phase of oral transmission before being codified into the Four Gospels?
My guess is, this is a topic which most Christians have never really given any serious thought. We might just assume, “Well, Jesus lived, and then Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John wrote down what he said and did.” As with most things, it’s more complicated than that. If Jesus died in 30 or 33 AD (which is debated), and the first of the four Gospels to be written dates to the 50s-60s AD (also debated), there is at least a 20 year gap in between the actual events of Jesus life and the recording of those events in the Gospels. A lot can happen in 20 years. How well do you remember events and sermons from 20 years ago? Did Mark or Matthew invent the miracles stories to make Jesus look better than he really was? If not, how can we know?
As you might imagine, many scholars have tended to be skeptical about the Fourfold Gospel serving as accurate preservers of the Jesus tradition. Bird identifies a few reasons:
- The length of the period of oral transmission (a minimum of 20 years) made scholars less confident that the Gospels preserved accurate remembrance of Jesus’ deeds and teachings.
- Scholars envisioned the process of oral transmission as being characterized by fluidity and flexibility. They envisioned a process in which people were free to embellish or change the tradition as they were passing it on.
- It is clear that the Evangelists are creative writers and have crafted the narrative of the Gospels in such a way that they have left behind their own theological footprints. Each Gospel writer incorporated their own motifs, vocabularies, and rhetorical devices to narrate the gospel story. At times, the theological creativity of the Evangelists has been exaggerated to the point of imagining that the narratives of the Evangelists preserve little more than their own creative theological imaginations. According to these skeptical scholars, the narratives are imaginative inventions that have little basis in real historical occurrences.
- In addition to these, Bird notes that postmodernism has been characterized by a general skepticism about its ability to uncover history. (Bird, 21)
Some have imagined the oral transmission of the Jesus tradition like the Telephone Game. Someone originates a sentence or saying and passes it on to the first person in line. Each person whispers the original saying to the next person in line and so on. The goal is to see how accurately the original message will be received by the last person in line. In my experience of playing the game, by the time the message reaches the final person, it may bear traces of the original message, but rarely is accurately preserved. “Grandma got run over by a reindeer” might end up as “Grandpa drove his tractor to the farm”. Is this the kind of thing we can expect during the period of oral transmission of the Jesus tradition? If so, the Gospels would be extremely unhelpful for discovering actual information about the real man Jesus of Nazareth.
As do I, Bird believes we can be confident the Jesus tradition was remembered and passed on accurately. Here are Bird’s most salient points:
- Interest in Jesus (Bird, 36-39)- If Jesus was as interesting to the people of the first century as he is to people in the twenty-first century, it would follow that people were interested in preserving accurately traditions about him. It would be very odd if the people who wrote creeds about his life and death and called themselves “Christians”, many of whom were martyred, were then uninterested in his life. (Bird, 36-39)
- Pedagogical and Rhetorical Devices (Bird, 40-42)- The accuracy of oral transmission is dependent upon the memory of the one doing the remembering and passing on of the material and the utility of the material being transmitted. Quoting from Dr. Seuss would be much easier for a Western mind than say an entry in the Encyclopedia. One is designed to be easily remembered. I still remember “one fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish” from early childhood. In the same way, the “The poetic, parabolic, and pedagogical qualities of Jesus’ teaching rendered the Jesus tradition naturally memorable and easily recalled by later contexts.” (Bird, 41) For example, I believe I could give a reasonably close account of the Good Samaritan parable if called upon. And since Jesus’ teaching contains many short, pithy sayings, I can remember many of them: “You cannot serve both God and wealth”; “blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”; etc. Jesus appears to have structured his teaching in such a way that it was easily remembered by the disciples.
- Aramaic Sources (Bird, 42-45)- The Gospels contain Aramaic words (cf. Mark 5:41; 15:22, 34; John 4:25; 19:13; 20:16). There are also Aramaic idioms like “Son of Man” and also Aramaic wordplay (see Matt. 23:24). The Gospels evince some kind of very early Aramaic sources, whether oral or literary. Bird says, “The presence of Aramaic substratum beneath the Gospels attests to a stage of Aramaic formulation and preservation of the Jesus tradition that also evidences an attempt to remember Jesus at a primitive stage of the tradition’s development.” (Bird, 44) Put simply, since Jesus and his earliest disciples spoke Aramaic, and since there are Aramaic words and idioms contained in the Gospels, this shows that the Gospels contain very early accounts of Jesus’ words.
- Notebooks (45-48)- This is probably one of Bird’s weakest arguments. It is purely circumstantial and rests on no actual physical evidence since no notebooks of Jesus tradition have been discovered. Notebooks were used widely in the Greco-Roman world and in Jewish circles. Given the widespread use of notebooks in the ancient world, Bird believes it is “highly probable” that notebooks were used by Jesus’ disciples. (Bird, 47-48) Like in modern day usage, these notebooks would have been used to write down stories and teachings to be remembered later.
- Eyewitnesses as Authenticators of the Jesus Tradition (48-62)- This is one of the most well-reasoned portions of Bird’s argument. Bird’s emphasis here is that the eyewitnesses were not just responsible for the shaping of the Jesus tradition, but also for the policing of the tradition as it was passed on. Eyewitnesses would not have allowed traditions to be invented or falsified. If something like the feeding of the 5,000 did not actually occur, the eyewitnesses would not have allowed the story to be preserved in all four Gospels. Believing the Gospels were invented by later Christians rests upon the assumption that the eyewitnesses who actually had followed Jesus during his life didn’t care that material about him was being invented. Wouldn’t we imagine someone who was with Jesus for his entire ministry speaking up and saying something like, “Hey don’t write that about Jesus. He never did that.”? Since most of the eleven disciples left Jerusalem and given the mobility of early Christian leaders, it is entirely reasonable to imagine there were eyewitness authenticators of the tradition throughout the Mediterranean world.
- Jesus’ Example (62-63)- A fact of history is that disciples often imitated their teachers. In the New Testament, the example of Jesus is important (see Rom. 13:14; 1 Cor. 11:1; Phil. 2:5-11; 1 Thess. 1:6; Heb. 2:18-3:2; 12:33-4; 2 Peter 2:21). “A paradigm shift is therefore required in seeing the Jesus tradition not exclusively in terms of verbal transmission but also of praxis, deed, and behavior delivered on to others.” (Bird, 63)
- Teachers as Custodians of the Jesus Tradition (63-64)- The office of teacher developed very early in the church in order to preserve and transmit accurately the teachings of Jesus. “Important didactic figures were vital guarantors of the memory and traditions of Jesus.” (Bird, 64)
- The Jesus Tradition as Community Possession (64-66)- The Christian communities themselves took responsibility for passing on the tradition. Bird notes, “Much scholarship has focused on the theological creativity of the Evangelists and assumed that the audience either naively accepted the picture of Jesus as authentic or were unconcerned with its historical liberties.” (Bird, 65) If we assume the churches throughout the Mediterranean actually cared about what Jesus said and did, wouldn’t it follow they would make sure it was passed on accurately?
Bird concludes the scope and force of this evidence well: “At the end of the day most of what is said about the formation of the Jesus tradition is based on a priori assumptions, circumstantial evidence, inference, hypothesis, analogy, conjecture, and sheer guesswork… Granted that qualification, I contend one is still able to weave together threads of evidence and excavate enough data to suggest the Jesus tradition had a definite purpose in the early church and that several factors enable the memory of Jesus to be preserved effectively.” (Bird, 66-67)