DTS Magazine

Minding the Gap: Orality, Memory, and the Gospels

How can a believer communicate effectively and retain the attention of a person who does not regard the Bible as inspired? If they are aware of what the culture alleges about how we got the Bible, two issues often need consideration. First, most skeptics probably do not recognize or accept inspiration as an idea. Second, they may have heard the claim that there is so much time between events and their recording in a Gospel that significant distortion took place before the written accounts. To mind the gaps of time and theological understanding takes a couple of steps.

Let’s deal first with the gap in time. The book culture of the ancient world differs from today in stark ways. Most people could not read, and they didn’t strive to learn through the written word. Even the elite had books read to them. People often accessed the events of the day by hearing about them. They even preferred hearing an account from a witness to reading about that event.

Before books in large numbers existed, accounts of events circulated mostly orally—people trusted the spoken word more. Today, if people hear breaking news, they want to read about it. In the ancient world, many would ask someone about it. Think about that for a second and add one other fact. Matthew, Mark, and Luke wrote at least three decades after Jesus’s ministry, and in the case of John, he wrote much later, probably twice that length of time. So, how did that work?

Skeptics claim it didn’t—they argue that the oral character of the stories, the time between events, and the frailty of memory distorted the record. These reasons look like credible objections. After all, how much detail can a person recall about events—even the important ones—that happened thirty-plus years ago? Anyone might remember the result, and a detail or two, but a full conversation?

Passing Things On

Sometimes understanding the background to Scripture helps readers appreciate how things worked. It also helps in another way. Many people do not share the same theological beliefs about how God worked and what inspiration is, so how can one explain an ancient process in ways they might consider the credibility of the text and the possibility of God at work?

One way of picturing this discussion is to call this “minding the gap.” It is the temporal space between the event and its eventual recording.

Recently, New Testament scholars have studied orality and continue to debate it. They have looked at how the ancient world passed on stories and documented history, especially when writing things down proved expensive and a rare thing to do. One way of picturing this discussion is to call this “minding the gap.” It is the temporal space between the event and its eventual recording. How did the church circulate the facts about Jesus before recording them in a Gospel? The ancient process of orality provides some answers.

Some scholars contend that the ancients had ways of passing things on, preserving the core of the described events. The stories come through loud and clear and well connected to the past. Others remain skeptical. They compare the way the church passed these stories down to the “telephone game,” claiming distortion.

The telephone game is familiar to many people. The game works when someone whispers a somewhat short incident full of detail and it gets passed on verbally, person to person, one secret-telling at a time. Usually, the result gets changed. The fun is seeing how much the story changes from the beginning to the end. Now stretch that kind of loose process over decades and above a broad spread geographically. The claim is that the Gospels lose touch with the past. Is that true?

Oral Tradition

This losing touch with the past might be the case in advanced modern culture today, but several features and practices suggest different results in antiquity with the Gospels. Kenneth Bailey was a missionary in the Middle East for years and worked among Bedouins who passed their stories along orally because they did not read or write. He noticed some interesting things about the way stories and events got passed down in this long-established Middle Eastern culture.

First, he observed that the nature and importance of the story determined how carefully the details got passed down. The more important the story, the more care people gave to how they passed it on. Second, he also observed that a story’s detail could vary, but the retelling could not change its core. If a storyteller distorted a crucial detail, an elder would speak up and correct the deviation. He contended that these oral cultures seem closer to the early church than our literary culture, so no telephone game-like result.

The details of the Gospel accounts might not match exactly, but the story’s point remains intact. He called this informal, controlled oral tradition. Informal in that anyone could tell the story, but controlled in that the resulting story had oversight. The possibility of authoritative persons correcting it existed if it strayed too far.1 This result introduces the role the apostles played in circulating these stories through the church.

In Acts 1, when the apostles replaced Judas, they made it “necessary” to choose one of the men who had been with them through Christ’s ministry (vv. 21–22). Why require this experience as a qualification? Because the replacement had to know what Jesus taught and the events in His life and ministry.

One of the apostle’s roles was to oversee the gospel message, something hinted at in the Upper Room. Jesus tells each disciple that the Spirit would help them recall what He taught as they shared the stories about Him (John 14:26). So one of the elements that protected memory was that the church assigned a knowledgeable group to oversee it, a group that knew what had taken place. We will come back to the crucial role of the Spirit as that addresses the understanding gap.

Memory

Memory is another factor scholars discuss about the gap period. Skeptics claim memories fade, and lawyers will argue they do, as they examine witnesses. So if a story’s credibility depends on a single person’s recollection, the claim is that problems exist.

However, we need to consider two factors. (1) The accounts recalled by several people do not rely on just one person. Hence, the role the apostolic group plays. A corporate recollection is likely better than an individual one, and this is why journalists or courts want to hear from multiple witnesses about something before accepting it as accurate (see Luke 1–4). (2) This recollection is not merely about data recalled three decades later. Jesus changed their lives. Disciples would have repeated these stories orally, as they taught in church, rehearsing them multiple times before recording them in a Gospel. The gap of time is not as long as skeptics portray.

Jesus tells each disciple that the Spirit would help them recall what He taught as they shared the stories about Him (John 14:26).

The accounts publicly circulated as pieces of received and repeated tradition. For example, church history indicates that Mark served as Peter’s interpreter as he preached in Rome.2 Even though Mark did not actively participate in Jesus’s life or ministry, he would have heard these stories from Peter. In the retelling of the stories, he would recall essential truths.

One can compare this to the way children learn stories before they can read or write. Many kids know Star Wars almost line by line before they can understand the written word. How did they do it? They heard the story enough to know. Most people learn the words to hymns the same way. Many never sat down to memorize the words to them, but think about “Amazing Grace.” Most know all the words because they sang it enough times to have memorized the words.

Between the reality of corporate and overseen memory and its repetition in telling, the accounts of the Gospel did not sit dormant over a three-decade period. Instead these eyewitness ministers recalled their experiences repeatedly before its recording. Some variation did exist in those retellings, as the Bedouin example suggests and as drawing on multiple witnesses will produce, but the core of the story remains consistent. What protected against excessive memory leaking are two facts: (1) that several people were involved, and (2) that official public retelling was the practice.

Clarity

What does all this signify? It means that when the Gospels underscore Jesus’s uniqueness, the account reflects what He taught. Even though each Gospel writer varied how they told the Jesus story, as different witnesses will in retelling a story, they would have caught the truth of what He said or did. It was less like the telephone game, which is designed to create distortion, and more like learning a song. So when the Gospels say Jesus presented himself as Son of God or Messiah, that kind of a conclusion about the action or saying is secure, even by very normal historical standards about what was associated with the event.

This is actually an important counter affirmation in a skeptical context where this kind of expression is said to be invented or projected back anachronistically.

Most musicians rehearse. When they play before an audience, they might vary the emphasis in the tune or lyrics, but the core melody and story remains—a point that can be made and even focused on whether one accepts the idea of inspiration or not.

When sharing with others who might have questions about how the Gospels could work, these talking points do not require a theological grid to appreciate. They are points that can draw a more in-depth discussion about Jesus and the claims He made about Himself. They can open the door to other issues tied to inspiration. After such general points, they can address the understanding of the dynamics associated with inspiration. Seeing how events could have been passed on, where repetition and multiple witnesses would have been involved, then one can raise how God may have made it possible to recall what Jesus taught (John 14:26).

The leaders in the church oversaw the official passing on of a repeated story involving multiple witnesses who had deep experience with Jesus.

How did the Gospels mind the gap between event and recording? The leaders in the church oversaw the official passing on of a repeated story involving multiple witnesses who had deep experience with Jesus. So the accounts they gave were well-connected to what had taken place. When it came time to record the Gospels, the practice of careful orality had minded the gap and retained an account’s connection to the past.

That is what the ancient oral process tells us. Beyond this—and crucial—is the inspiring work of the Spirit, guaranteeing the truthfulness and historicity of the full text, even in part by how things got passed on over time (2 Tim 3:16; 2 Peter 1:21). Once the unbeliever becomes open to a process that can involve trust of the core text, one can move on to consider issues tied to the presence of inspiration and the full trustworthiness of Scripture. In this way, one can mind the gap of time and theological understanding.

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NOTES:

1Kenneth Bailey, “Informal Controlled Oral Tradition and the Synoptic Gospels” in Themelios 20 (1995): 4–11.

2. Eusebius, Church History 3.39:14–15.

Benjamin I. Simpson
Dr. Simpson joined the faculty in 2006 as the registrar. In 2011, he moved to Houston to work with the Houston campus. In 2016, he and his family moved to Washington DC where he continues helping external students complete their degrees while positively influencing their ministries. His research interests include Jesus, the Gospels, and hermeneutics. He is married to Amber and they have two children: Madison and Eli.
Darrell L. Bock
Dr. Bock is senior research professor of New Testament and executive director for cultural engagement at Dallas Theological Seminary. He has authored or edited more than forty books, including Jesus according to Scripture: Restoring the Portrait from the Gospels, Jesus in Context: Background Readings for Gospel Study, Studying the Historical Jesus: A Guide to Sources and Methods, Jesus the Messiah: Tracing the Promises, Expectations, and Coming of Israel’s King, Who Is Jesus?: Linking the Historical Jesus with the Christ of Faith, and Key Events in the Life of the Historical Jesus: A Collaborative Exploration of Context and Coherence.
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