Oral Tradition: a reason to trust the gospels

Darrell Bock argues for the trustworthiness of oral tradition.



Darrell Bock argues for the trustworthiness of oral tradition.

Some doubt the reliability of the bible’s accounts of Jesus’ life, but Professor Darrell Bock of Dallas Theological Seminary argues that the oral tradition gives us good reason to trust the Gospels.


SIMON SMART: You sometimes hear people question the gospels on the basis that they were written down decades after Jesus’ death, but you’d want to say something about the oral tradition in response, wouldn’t you? 

DARRELL BOCK: I sure would. Sometimes people compare it to a story of Chinese whispers, or we call it the telephone game, where you tell a story at one end and it gets passed from person to person and by the time it gets to the end it’s very different from the way it started. That’s the model that sometimes came out of form criticism in the 1930s. But that’s not the only model that’s at work in the ancient world, that Kenneth Bailey, someone who was a missionary to Bedouins, who lived in an oral culture in the last century. He reported how they passed on material and he said that it was in an informal but controlled way. Informal meant that there weren’t official storytellers, anyone could tell the story, but the controlling part was that there were elders or senior people who if the story drifted too much from what the story was would correct the storyteller and keep an eye on it. And that’s exactly the kind of model that we see in the early church, we have the apostles who knew Jesus and were part of his ministry very early on overseeing the tradition. And so we get stories that have some flexibility in detail just like how a couple might tell their courtship and mention different details but at the same time there is the gist of the story that is the same. That’s what we see in the gospels, that variation and yet that consistent core and that’s probably what drives the way orality worked in the first century. So it’s not as wild and free-floating as Chinese whispers.

SIMON SMART: But it’s a difficult thing to get your head around for a modern person, isn’t it? That there is actually a great degree of accuracy in the way these things are passed down when they’re not written down. 

DARRELL BOCK: Yeah that’s true, and I actually like to use my 3-year-old daughter as an illustration of this. My 3-year-old daughter lived in a world of orality before she learned to read and write at the age of 5. And so I used to read her stories that had rhymes in them about Jesus and Nicodemus and that kind of thing, and I’m a little bit of a devious dad, so every now and then I would change the rhyme and change the story. And whenever I would do that she would get perturbed and say ‘Daddy that’s not the story’ because she knew the story. So when you tell the story well enough and it means something to someone, they’ll know what it’s like. Another analogy I like to use is when people gather round after someone has died and they’re telling the story about what they remember about the person in a group, what you often get is one person will tell of an incident and maybe a sibling was there at the same event and they’ll add in their own details, so there’ll be details that’ll be varied, but the story will be about the same person and the same characteristics of the person, that kind of thing. So I actually think we do this, there are places where orality works in our world, but we don’t think about it very often cause our world isn’t oral at all, we’re either verbal or digital. 

SIMON SMART: I hear you say that you can be confident that the gist of the story is there. Is the gist of the story enough to sort-of base your whole belief system on though? 

DARRELL BOCK: I think the gist of the story is the key point, and the key point of the story is did they get fundamentally who Jesus claimed to be right. The emphasis of the New Testament is that Jesus is unique, so, did they miss that one, did they go wide…the point is that they would have been on the mark, they would have known basically who Jesus was and what he was saying about himself. So to claim that he was just a prophet, when he was going around saying ‘No, I’m at the centre of God’s program, I’m the anointed one, and God’s going to exalt me’; the gist of the story means they get those categories right. 

SIMON SMART: Some people say it’s hard enough in relatively recent modern history to know what happened. Why can people be confident in the New Testament’s claims about what happened 2000 years ago? 

DARRELL BOCK: Well, we have terrific textual evidence of what was written back then, that’s the first thing, so the text is solid. And the second thing is that this line of tradition from multiple witnesses is telling us very clearly what Christians believed about Jesus. Now a person can choose to believe that or not to believe that, that’s a judgment that you make about the content, but I don’t think you can challenge that this is what Christians believed about Jesus in the first century. That comes through the materials loud and clear. And it comes from so many different angles and so many different voices that it’s clear there’s a unity involved there in what they believed as a group.