Can We Trust the Gospels, Even If They Were Transmitted Orally?

One common challenge leveled at the gospels is related to the manner in which they were first recorded. How early were the texts written, and how was the material transmitted prior to being documented by the gospel eyewitnesses? I’ve assembled a cumulative circumstantial case for the early dating of the gospels, but even if the gospels were written early enough to have been authored by eyewitnesses, wouldn’t 15-20 years be enough time for the authors to forget something important or add something errant, especially if they were only retelling the story orally?

Gospels transmitted Orally

When we offer this kind of objection, we start (of course) by denying the supernatural power of God to guide the Biblical authors and protect their memory. But as an atheist, I had no problem beginning with this denial; I was already denying the existence of God, let alone God’s power to protect the eyewitness account. My distrust in the ability of eyewitnesses to recall and transmit the account orally seemed very reasonable back when I was a non-believer. I simply could not fathom the writers being able to transmit the necessary and important details from one person to another without corruption or loss of information. After investigating this more thoroughly, however, I do think we have good reason to trust the accurate transmission of the gospels.

Personal Reverence
The content of the gospel message was of critical importance to both those who communicated it and those who accepted it (and later re-communicated it to the next generation). These folks weren’t passing along mom’s meatloaf recipe; hey were testifying as eyewitnesses to the greatest life ever lived, and they understood their role as eyewitnesses from the start (read through the Book of Acts to see what I mean).

Persistent Repetition
We’ve also got to remember that the first century culture in which the disciples operated was a culture of oral transmission. A lot has been written about this, but let me give you an example I experienced personally last week, as I visited and ministered with Andy Steiger from Apologetics Canada. Andy is a slave driver, and he asked me to give 10 talks over a period of 7 days. Most of these were talks on the reliability of the Bible; the same talk, repeated many times over the course of that week. An important volunteer at Apologetics Canada, Tyson Bradley, came to every event. At one point, after hearing the same talk about 5 times in a row, he told me that he could finish, my sentences for me. I laughed until he started to repeat me line for line (it wasn’t so funny then).  In just five repetitions, Tyson had memorized my message. Imagine what he could do if he hung out with me for three years like the disciples did with Jesus.

Prompt Recording
Beyond this, those who memorized the repeated teaching of Jesus offered what they remembered to those who recorded it within the lifetimes of the original eyewitnesses. The early church Bishop, Papias, claimed that Mark recorded the preaching of Peter as he described the life and teaching of Jesus. Having access to the man (Peter) who (like Tyson) sat under repeated teaching until he had memorized it thoroughly, Mark then recorded the truth about Jesus as Peter delivered it to him. The case for early dating helps us to have confidence that this occurred very early in history.

As a skeptic, even without embracing the divine protection of the gospel accounts, I found that the circumstances surrounding their transmission and authorship was reasonable. Now, as a Christian, I realize that God protected this entire process and orchestrated the events in such a way as to allow us to have a reliable record of the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus.

J. Warner Wallace is a Cold-Case Detective, a Christian Case Maker, and the author of Cold-Case Christianity and God’s Crime Scene.

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6 replies
  1. Ed Vaessen says:

    Muslims think Allah protects the orally transmitted Koran.
    Also, they have a system for checking the hadiths, which are the orally transmitted stories about what Mohammed said and did. Also about the miracles he performed.
    This all proves Mohammed was a true prophet of Allah.

    Reply
      • Mark Carter says:

        According to the Koran, when Muhammad was asked to perform a miracle, he refused, although he added, “But Allah hath power to send down a sign.” Unlike Jesus, no contemporaries of Muhammad ever claimed miracles by him. The hadiths were the first, and they were written centuries after his death. By contrast, even the opposition to Jesus acknowledged His reputation as a miracle-worker. The Jewish Talmud referred to Jesus as a “sorcerer, who led Israel astray.”

        Reply
        • Ed Vaessen says:

          Mark Carter says:
          “By contrast, even the opposition to Jesus acknowledged His reputation as a miracle-worker. The Jewish Talmud referred to Jesus as a “sorcerer, who led Israel astray.”

          Was that a contemporary source or was it written long after?

          Reply
      • Ed Vaessen says:

        Brian says:
        “Ed, could you explain the system that Muslims use for checking the hadiths and the miracles that Mohammed performed?”

        They call is isnad. They check the chain of transmissions.and the quality of the narrators. More can be found here.

        http://www.islamic-awareness.org/Hadith/Ulum/asb7.html

        Of course the problem is the same as with the NT: how do you check if stories are not made up or simply copied?

        Reply

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