One of my passions is helping people find answers to tough questions about the Bible. Some people who reach out to me for help have heard popular challenges to the Bible, like, “Can we trust what the Gospels say about Jesus, since the stories about him weren’t written down until many years after the crucifixion?” Some people are skeptical of the text, comparing the oral transmission of the Gospels to the “telephone game,” where the story changes a little each time it’s told.
Although Jesus was crucified sometime around AD 33, the earliest Gospel accounts weren’t written until at least AD 60. This raises questions: What happened during that gap of several decades, when testimonies about Jesus were passed on through storytelling? Are there reasons to trust storytelling?
As believers, our first answer is that we trust not the storytelling process on its own, but rather, we trust the Holy Spirit guiding that process to ensure accurate communication. With that assurance, we can then look at how the communication worked. We begin by examining the first-century context.
Back then, orality was more common than it is in America today. After all, most people couldn’t read or write. In fact, books as we know them didn’t even exist until a hundred years later. People recorded written content in scrolls prior to inventing the bound book, or codex.
New Testament scholar Kenneth Bailey taught in Cairo, Beirut, and Jerusalem, learning to read the Bible through the eyes of people in Near Eastern cultures. He discovered that orality works in multiple ways.¹ The first way is called “informal and uncontrolled.” This is similar to the “telephone game,” in which people can say anything they want, with no formal oversight. When people question the reliability of the original gospel storytelling, they often assume that orality is always informal and uncontrolled. But that’s not the only way orality works.
Jewish rabbis in Jesus’s day practiced a second kind of orality: “formal and controlled.” With this method, rabbis transmitted legal tradition before it was written. “Formal” means only certain people were authorized tell the story; “controlled” means people exerted oversight to correct inaccuracies and ensure that storytellers remained faithful to the core story.
When you read the four Gospels, you can see that they tell certain stories slightly differently, and a story about Jesus may appear only in one of the Gospels. So it doesn’t seem that the oral tradition behind the Gospels was quite as “formal and controlled” as the rabbinical tradition of the time. Bailey describes a third way of storytelling: “informal and controlled.” It’s “informal” because anyone could tell the story, but it’s “controlled” because there was oversight. Since anyone could tell a story, some variation was inevitable. But active oversight ensured that the core story remained stable and intact. Bailey observed this kind of orality when he engaged with communities in the Near East and listened to people tell stories. Although anyone could tell a story, an elder corrected any straying from the truth. As a result, stories are adapted to fit each person’s style, but the true core of the story, the “gist,” remains accurate.
This orality included careful transmission and preservation—not the telephone game. And it was all empowered by the work of the Holy Spirit.
We know how this works in our own lives. We tell stories that preserve the essential gist, regardless of variations in details. Those of us old enough to remember September 11, 2001, probably know where we were when we first heard about the terrorist attacks. We know that the events happened, and we all share accurate memories of the big-picture facts of that day. While we might not recall exactly what time the first World Trade Center tower collapsed, or precisely where United Airlines Flight 93 crashed, we definitely remember that day’s core events. Sharing our own stories, we each add details specific to our experiences, while retaining or omitting other details. Still, we’ll all likely include certain key points of information because the story of 9/11 is etched in our national memory. If a storyteller alters the core story, other people will correct them. As another example, Christina Aguilera accidentally altered the lyrics of “The Star-Spangled Banner” when she performed it at Super Bowl XLV in 2011. Millions of people watching the performance on television witnessed this mistake. Backlash grew quickly on social media, blogs, and radio shows. Consequently, Aguilera made a public apology for her error. The collective memory of the American people corrected a celebrity for making a mistake.
So we can imagine how “informal and controlled” orality likely worked in the early church, before the Gospels were written. In that gap of several decades, eyewitnesses to Jesus’s ministry told about what they had seen and experienced. The storytelling styles varied, but the elders in the churches made sure the stories remained true and accurate. When we see the core truth among storytelling variations within the Gospels in our Bibles, we can be confident in the oral tradition that kept the stories intact and correct in all the years between Jesus’s ministry and the first written versions. This orality included careful transmission and preservation—not the “telephone game.” And it was all empowered by the work of the Holy Spirit. I love hearing people’s questions about the Bible. Good answers to tough questions exist, but finding those answers often includes research and willingness to go beyond our gut reactions and initial assumptions. When we take on hard questions and do the work required, our faith can be strengthened.
Some people wonder whether the stories about Jesus could have been accurately passed on before the Gospels were written. Others question the basic idea that the Bible is the Word of God because they aren’t even sure God exists. As believers, may we be willing to listen to people’s questions, patiently engage with courage and compassion, and pointing people to the truth about Jesus, the Gospels, and the trustworthy stories passed on by those who witnessed him.
¹ Kenneth E. Bailey, “Informal Controlled Oral Tradition and the Synoptic Gospels,” Themelios 20, no. 2 (1995): 4–11.
About the Contributors
Mikel Del Rosario (ThM, 2016; PhD, 2022) is Associate Professor of Bible and Theology at Moody Bible Institute. While at DTS, he served as project manager for cultural engagement at the Hendricks Center, producing and hosting The Table podcast. You can find him online at ApologeticsGuy.com, the Apologetics Guy YouTube channel, and The Apologetics Guy Show podcast.