The Oral Tradition

Where did stories about Jesus originate?

Memory and the Oral Tradition, part 2

The passing on of stories from memory is the ‘oral tradition’ that some argue preserved the words of Jesus more or less accurately for forty years. We’re expected to believe that eye-witnesses recalled in precise detail what Jesus said and did; that they all largely agreed on what this was; that none of them embellished or altered their recollections in any way in the telling and that they were passed on to convert after convert after convert in precise and unaltered form. And then, that no-one in forty years amended or refined the stories in any substantial way, because if they did the originators of the tales would be quick to point out any inaccuracies.

We know this isn’t what happened. The stories evolved and were refined and embellished as they were passed along for forty years between numerous converts. The defence that ancient largely illiterate cultures were better at faithfully preserving stories orally than we are today is a myth. (See EhrmanHow Jesus Became God: The Exaltation Of A Jewish Preacher from Galilee)

Even when some of the oral stories about Jesus were eventually written down, as in the gospels, they continued to evolve; Matthew and Luke both altered stories they took from Mark while John’s Jesus, in the latest of the canonical gospels, is a different creation altogether; either the source stories John knew had evolved quite differently from those Mark, Matthew and Luke had access to, or John created his Jesus out of whole cloth himself.

These stories once written down were changed again, both deliberately and accidentally, whenever the gospels were copied. We know this from the myriad of differences in the extant manuscripts. As Bart Ehrman puts it in Misquoting Jesus, there are more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament’. The evolution continued. This is why the Jesus seminar concluded, controversially, that only 20% of the words attributed to Jesus in the gospels can be regarded as originating with him. I consider this to be over-generous. 

Even if the writers of Jesus stories took some of their material from the so-called oral tradition (aka, ‘stories that were being passed around’), we have no way of knowing which of it, if any, is an accurate representation of the things Jesus did and said. It’s unlikely much of it is, given how stories are misremembered, reshaped and altered over time. Their evolution makes them less reliable, not more.

By the way, you’ve not read the post I wrote on Cape Cod. Most of it was completed in Boston and I’ve edited and posted it from my home in the UK. In other words, it evolved in various locations. Kind of like the gospels.


In Search of the Lost Q

Where did the stories about Jesus that we find in the gospels come from?

2. Q

Q is a hypothetical document said to be a collection of Jesus’ sayings. It was first hypothesised in the late 19th century and developed by minister B. H. Streeter in 1924. it was intended to explain why Matthew and Luke’s gospels shared material that wasn’t plagiarised from Mark. Streeter speculated they must both have had access to an alternative source that he christened Q (after the German for source, Quelle.)

While the idea caught on and is still assumed by many scholars (including Bart Ehrman) there are numerous problems with it:

Q doesn’t exist and has never existed. There is absolutely no evidence for it, aside from the duplication of material in Matthew and Luke, the very context it was designed to explain. There are no surviving copies, nor even fragments of any written collection of Jesus’ sayings (unsurprisingly for a non-existent document.) Nor is a book of Jesus’ sayings referred to in any form by any New Testament writer (again, unsurprisingly.)

Q is unnecessary. As other scholars, including M. A. Farrer, Mark Goodacre and Richard Carrier, have pointed out, there is a far simpler explanation for Matthew and Luke’s sharing of material they didn’t get from Mark. Either Matthew or Luke had access to the other. It is generally accepted that Matthew’s gospel predated Luke’s by a few years. It is likely therefore that Luke took certain stories from Matthew, as he had others from Mark, and made them his own. Doesn’t he say at the start of his gospel that he intends to collate material about Jesus that was already in circulation? Occam’s Razor also leads to the conclusion that this is a far better explanation of the duplication than a hypothetical third document.

Q doesn’t answer the question of where the stories came from in the first place. Arguably, it moves the solution back a stage but that’s all. If for the sake of argument we assume Q did exist, we still don’t necessarily know where it got its material from. Q really gets us no further forward.

Q is conjectured to be a collection of sayings. They are not set in any context; Q lacks a narrative structure so cannot be where Matthew derived his accounts, for example, of the Temptation in the wilderness (4:1-11), the Sermon on the Mount (5:1-12) or the healing of the centurion’s servant (8:5-13) that Luke would later copy and adapt. These are stories, not mere sayings. Even if Matthew got the sayings they include from some now lost written source from where did he get their context? Eyewitnesses? Unlikely, given he was writing 50 years after the purported events when most eyewitnesses would be dead. He was certainly not an eyewitness himself; he would not have needed to copy large swathes of Mark if he was. Nor does Matthew claim to be using eyewitness testimony. Like all the gospel writers he comes nowhere close to citing his sources.

Matthew is, however, notorious at making up stories he thinks make Jesus fit prophecy. He invents still others to make theological points. It’s quite possible he invented these particular accounts too.

Or perhaps, as apologists like to claim, Matthew and the other gospel writers got at least some of their stories from the so-called oral tradition, a grand name for the tales about Jesus that circulated for the 40-70 years before the gospels were written.

We’ll take a look next time.

Anglican minister almost gets it right Shock


There was controversy last week over the appointment of Dr John Shepherd as the Archbishop of Canterbury’s new ambassador to the Vatican. The controversy wasn’t about the fact one branch of Made-up Beliefs was mingling its Sacred Truths™ with the Sacred Truths™ of another (which was upsetting enough for some of the faithful) but that Dr Shepherd has previously declared Jesus did not rise physically from the grave. In his 2008 Easter sermon, he said:

The resurrection of Jesus ought not to be seen in physical terms, but as a new spiritual reality. It is important for Christians to be set free from the idea that the resurrection was an extraordinary physical event which restored to life Jesus’ original earthly body.

Well, heaven forbid Christians should be compelled to accept reality! Needless to say, many of them didn’t like being made to do so. Undaunted, however, Shepherd went on to explain how the belief in Jesus’ resurrection came about:

…Jesus’ early followers felt His presence after His death as strongly as if it were a physical presence and incorporated this sense of a resurrection experience into their gospel accounts.

Yes, absolutely! This is precisely what happened. I’ve written about it here. This guy’s good. Until we get to his conclusion, anyway:

But (the gospels) are not historical records as we would expect history to be written today; they are symbolic images of the breaking through of the resurrection spirit into human lives.

He’s right about he nature of the gospels, of course. They’re not historical, nor are they eye-witness accounts or even second-hand reports of eye-witness accounts; they’re propaganda, written ‘so that you may believe’ as the fourth gospel  puts it.

But what’s this ‘symbolic images of the breaking through of the resurrection spirit into human lives’, Shepherd talks about? Having a good grasp of how the stories of Jesus’ ‘resurrection’ came about, he wants, for some reason, to continue promote the underlying fantasy – it’s his livelihood, after all – so he has to dress it up as something relevant to people today. He goes for ‘images of the breaking through of the resurrection spirit into human lives’, whatever that means. Breaking through from where? And what’s a ‘resurrection spirit’ when it’s at home?

Why bother though with the Jesus stuff at all? Plenty of people have life-changing experiences without having to hitch them to an ancient cult. My advice to Dr Shepherd would be to dump the ‘breaking through of the resurrection spirit’ hokum and he’ll be pretty much there. Then he can work on getting a real job.

The Eye-witness Fallacy


The falsehood that the gospels are in some way eye-witness reports just won’t go away. There is no evidence they are or even that they are based on reports by eye-witnesses. Scholars speak of ‘sources’ for all elements of the gospels (Mark, Q, M & L); these were almost certainly pre-existing written and oral traditions from before the gospels’ creation.

This really is problematic for those propagating the idea that the gospels are eye-witness accounts. If they were even so much as based on eye-witness reports, then why would they need to rely so heavily on other traditions? If, as is claimed here, the scattered gospel communities who wrote them were in some sort of immediate contact with the fanned-out eye-witnesses, then they would have no need to use sources and traditions from elsewhere. Yet they do; Matthew and Luke borrow extensively from a shared source (Q) and also from Mark, particularly for their resurrection stories.

This is akin to someone today interviewing witnesses to John F. Kennedy’s assassination, – a similar interval to that between Jesus and the gospels of Matthew, Luke and John – and then, before publication, replacing what the eye-witnesses say they saw with the more far-fetched elements of Oliver Stone’s movie JFK. If there were eye-witnesses to hand, there wouldn’t be any need to do this. It doesn’t make the slightest sense that the gospel writers would do so. Yet they do.

As far as the stories of the resurrection are concerned, it is much more likely they are based, not on any eye-witness accounts, but on the scant mentions of the mystical, risen Christ of the kind we find in Paul’s letters, filtered, primarily, through Mark. As such, they are a fleshing out (almost literally) of hearsay reports of a limited number of visions that, by the time the gospels came to be written, had embedded themselves in the traditions of the early church.