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The Biblical record of what Jesus said and did—the Four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—wasn’t written until thirty to sixty years after He lived.  During this period, these stories of Jesus’ life were passed along primarily by word of mouth.  In this form, they are known as the “oral tradition”. 

Have you ever played the “telephone game”?  We’d play it in my Scripture classes each year when I was teaching.  I’d give one student a short statement they had to whisper to the person next to them.  One by one, they’d pass it along until the last of thirty or so students heard it.  Then I’d have that student share what they heard.  Consistently, it barely resembled what I told the first student. 

If I told the first student something like: “Andy broke up with Melissa because he saw her talking to Josh at the football game”, it would become: “Josh broke Andy’s leg playing football because he doesn’t like Melissa”.  This is a good illustration of what happens when we try to share things orally.  And that’s just one sentence! 

So how is the oral tradition behind the Gospels not just one big “telephone game”? 

Given our (not so trustworthy) experience with oral communication, how can we possibly trust the Gospels which rely on this lengthy oral tradition to accurately tell us about the REAL Jesus?  How can we know that, like rumors gone amuck, they aren’t filled with wild exaggerations and legendary embellishments? 

At church a few weeks ago, we had a missionary speak to us.  She lived in an oral culture, a culture that didn’t normally communicate through written texts.  Because the people she’s working with aren’t inclined to read the Bible, her team has had to find ways to communicate it orally.  To demonstrate for us how they do this, she did an exercise for the four hundred or so people at that service.  Without turning to our Bibles, she invited us to close our eyes and listen as she told us the story of Jesus healing the blind beggar Bartimaeus. (Mark 10:46-52)  As we heard it, she encouraged us to imagine the scene in our minds.  Then, repeating the story several more times, she began to ask the congregation to fill in the blanks, which we were easily able to do.  Finally, she split us into small groups to discuss aspects of the story among ourselves, aspects and details that we had no problem recalling without the written text. 

My wife, who wasn’t familiar with the story beforehand, was surprised at how quickly she and many others in the congregation picked it up.  She was even more amazed by the fact that learning it this way—hearing it dramatically told—yielded deeper insights into the story than she could get by just reading it.  

We could FEEL it: feel Bartimaeus’ desperation, feel the crowd’s fickleness, and most of all, feel Jesus’ compassion.  Even though we aren’t an oral culture; even though we aren’t used to communicating this way, we learned this story in a way that stuck—a way that gave us deeper insight into it; a way that enabled us to share it accurately with others.

And if we could do this, imagine how effectively people steeped in an oral culture—like the early church responsible for passing along the oral tradition—are able to.

Modern neuroscience has yielded some fascinating new insights about memory.  It’s found that, while we do have trouble remembering mundane things; while it is true that much of our oral communication is susceptible—like rumors—to gross inaccuracy, we do have a remarkable ability to accurately remember what are called “Emotionally Charged Events” over long periods of time.  For example, you may not be able to remember where you left your keys this morning (or what you were told during a game of “telephone”).  But you probably remember where you were on 9-11.  You probably remember what you were doing and who you were with.  You probably remember the expression on their faces, what they said, and a number of other items in your environment you normally wouldn’t pay any attention to. 

Emotionally Charged Events leave a vivid imprint on our memory.  We remember vivid events well: a first kiss, the birth of a baby, a humiliating childhood moment. 

Moreover, modern neuroscience has found that our brains can’t tell the difference between vivid events we experience for ourselves and those we only imagine when hearing about them.  The brain processes them the same way.  They are just as vividly—and therefore, accurately—imprinted in our memory regardless.  This means that someone who only imagines a vivid event they are told about can recall what they heard just as accurately and over just as long a period of time as the person who actually witnessed it. (Carmine Gallo, Talk like TED: the Nine Public-Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds, New York, NY: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2014, pp. 139-142, 225-226.)

Much of the oral tradition behind the Gospels comprises very vivid, emotionally charged events: Jesus’ spellbinding teaching, provocative parables, shocking mercy, heated controversies with the religious leaders, scandalous association with sinners, poignant compassion for the marginalized, and mesmerizing miracles (whatever one makes of them metaphysically, one of the bedrock historical facts about Jesus’ ministry the vast majority of biblical scholars are now prepared to accept is that Jesus’ contemporaries believed He performed miracles).

These are exactly the kind of vivid events that would imprint themselves in the memories of those who witnessed them.  And in the memories of those who only heard about these events and then were responsible for passing them along.  (For more on this, see Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2006, pp. 330-335, 341-346.)

Thus, based upon the insights of modern neuroscience, both those witnessing the events of Jesus’ life first hand and those then passing the stories of Jesus’ life and ministry along would very likely have preserved much of it accurately. 

And this means the Gospels are much more fact than rumor—you CAN trust them to be painting a fairly accurate picture of the REAL Jesus.

There are a number of other reasons to trust them as well.  Likewise the product of modern scholarship, I’ll talk about some of these in future blogs.

Do you trust the accuracy of the Gospels?  Why or why not?

Let me know what you think by going to the “Contact E.J.” page of the Raising Jesus website and leaving your comments there.  Also, please consider helping us get the word out about this ministry by “Liking” the Raising Jesus Facebook page, subscribing to the Raising Jesus YouTube channel, and telling your friends about us.  I truly appreciate it!

About Me

E.J. Sweeney is a true skeptic. He needs to see to believe. Hard Evidence. Compelling Proof. Solid Logic. This is what he believes in. In college, he encountered questions that the superficial faith he was raised on couldn’t handle. So he began a quest for Truth, a quest for the answers to life’s ultimate questions.

EJ Sweeney

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