Oral Tradition

Eerdmans Bible Dictionary says this about Oral Tradition:

There can be no doubt that most of the Bible existed first in oral form. The oracles of the prophets, the psalms of the Jerusalem cult, the parables and teachings of Jesus all were first delivered verbally. The major dispute among scholars concerns the length of time between the first verbal delivery and the time when the material was written down.

A few days ago at JAVA, I was sitting with some friends, and we were sharing stories of our childhoods, of when we broke our first bone, got our first stitches, etc. I began to share the story of how I broke my arm in 2nd grade. I shared how it was Friday Free Day in PE (or at least I think it was) and they brought out all those PE blue gym-mats and we would run up them and jump off. A girl who was ahead of me in line did a little 360 degree circle-spin-thingy (or at least, I think she did) and then the girl directly ahead of me did a somersault (or at least that’s how I remember it). So, in my desire to show them up, I tried to mix both of those fancy moves and landed on the ground, on my stomach on top of my right arm. Broke it. Right there.

Now, as I was telling this story, I began to wonder…”Did those girls really do those things? Maybe one of them just did a 360…could a 2nd grade girl do a somersault and land it?” Did the story that I tell actually happen as I remember it, or have I been simply creating these memories by telling and retelling this story so often.

Another example. One of the pivotal moments along my spiritual journey was when I went up to my mother, in our kitchen, and said to her, “I don’t think I’m a Christian mom.” I wrote about it in an essay, and have always thought about that moment. Last year I sent an essay to my mother, in which I relayed that moment, and she wrote back saying that she didn’t remember that event happening at all. So, what is up with that? Did I, in a sense, “create” that memory to help explain my spiritual journey to others? If so, why? Where did the initial memory come from?

So, here is the question and relation to the oral tradition of Scripture. IF the Bible first existed in oral form, and IF human nature is the same in antiquity as it is now — what would stop people from adding their own little bits, exaggerations and changing stuff around a bit? God? God would stop it? And if that is true – IF that happened – does it really matter? Regardless of whether or not the girl actually did a somersault in front me, I broke my arm. Regardless of whether or not I actually spoke those exact words to my mother, there was a time in my life when I doubted my faith as a Christian. To use a very basic example…regardless of whether God created the world in 7 literal 24-hr days, God Created. Regardless….see where I’m going….? Thoughts?


  1. Cory says

    Luke Timothy Johnson writes about this in his “The Writings of The New Testament” book which I read through in seminary (one of the best I might add).
    He parallels the gospels to remembering Grandma…and says that the basic form of rememberance is the short tale or anecdote. Older family members with longer memories correct the “errors of sequence” (No, she said that AFTER Grandpa died) and “false attribution” (Grandma didn’t say that; Aunt Hilda did). Here are some other quotes:

    “No one is in the least disturbed by a lack of exact chronology in these stories, by a certain amount of repetition, or by the failure to get all the details straight. This is not a biography that is being researched but a family remembering its beloved founder. The memory of her makes her come alive again, just as the eating of the pumpkin pie prepared according to her secret recipe almost makes her appear in the kitchen door.”

    “Sometimes it is hard to tell how much the shape of one family’s very real memories of its grandmother may be affected by…larger cultural patterns.”

    “That their grandmother happened to fit several of these stereotypes (typical grandmother), however, in no way diminishes their sense of her as real and singular in her presence to them.”

    1) the specific details of time and place are rapidly lost for the simple reason that they are largely irrelevant.
    2) the punch line or decisive gesture is remembered far more clearly than the setup or situation in which it is now enclosed.
    3)the more often stories are repeated, the shorter they get.

    Or better yet…GO SEE BIG FISH!

  2. says

    i agree with both you guys about oral tradition and what’s important (the meaning and purpose, morals, big events) and what’s not (specific details, chronology)…BUT i seem to remember reading somewhere about oral tradition and that people in the ancient world were actually very different from us in many ways. because nothing was written down and they depended on oral tradition they were able to remember much more and much more detail. i still agree with your points, but they were probably more accurate than we oculd have been.

  3. says

    good thoughts, my initial one is like that of lucas, since the oral tradition was the main form of passing on stories etc…they probably told them more frequently and with more accuracy, especially if the stories weren’t just to entertain the children before bedtime. Adam, you may not remember the specific details of your broken arm, but how many times have you told that story, and when was the last time, and why did you tell it? I think that these can be factors in the fuzziness of the details, but I could totally be wrong too.

  4. says

    Adam, good questions and thoughts, and many of us have had them. Does it really matter? I remember watching a documentary on the history channel on the old testament, and they were referring to the flood. Many of us have heard that many ancient people have a flood account in their history. But these scienctists were saying how the flood wasn’t global, but only in the eastern part of the world. Now if I agree with that, has my faith really changed?

    Take the miracles of Christ. If there were a gospel account of Christ healing a man, but it was really a woman, does that make any difference?

    The most important part of a story is not what is found in the small details. Rather its the beginning, the characters, the plot, the climax and the ending.

  5. says

    Yes, Lucas – I remember hearing that too, and I was thinking about that as I wrote this post. They definitely had more experience in story-telling/story-relaying than I do. I haven’t told my broken-arm story as often as the ancients shared God’s stories.

    Whoa there Kevin — are you really going down that road? The Bible isn’t 100% factual (*gasp*)

  6. says

    I think that there are a couple of levels of this. First there is the anecdotal oral tradition in the manner that you have talked about. In addition to that though, there were those parts of the tradition which were passed on as scripture in the sense of reciting an established psalm, speech or whatever.

    I think that the memory skills and stuff would apply to make the latter more reliable, but not necessarily the former.

  7. says

    I’m far down that road, Cleave. Gotta keep it quiet, though. If too many people hear me suggest the repetition in the first creation story is simply a storytelling tool to help remember the story and that the significance is in the truths that are passed on from generation to generation, that the importance is /that/ God created, not /how/ God created, I might have to give back my secret decoder ring.

  8. says

    To state it less imaginatively, rejecting the idea that a truthful story requires a factual story, does not in any way require a rejection of absolute truth. Nor does this require a slide into theological relativism.

  9. Nathan says

    It may not require a slide into theological relativism, but it can certainly go there. This kind of argument always opens a door that can lead to the questioning of the very fundamentals of the faith. For instance, you say you do not necessarily hold the Bible to be factually true. Then how do you know the resurrection factually happened? How do you know it, and most of what Christ said, wasn’t made up or added in? And if it was an invention from a later copyist, what makes you think it is in the least bit relevant for your life and faith?

    These are the kind of questions that can come – how do we know where to draw the line and how do we articulate that to others?

  10. says

    Great questions, great discussion!

    “This kind of argument always opens a door that can lead to the questioning of the very fundamentals of the faith.”

    Nathan, you say that like its a bad thing.

  11. says

    The shift from oral history to the written occurred at the time of Nehemiah and Ezra. JESUS READ the Torah in the temple,HE didn’t recite it from memory,although being the Author HE certainly could have. JESUS told parables, which are not a recounting of something that actually happened,but a telling of spiritual truth. However,HE spoke in parables to fulfill prophecy
    Psalm 78:1-4 among others, if the “error prone” Bible can be believed. The interesting thing is that we have no evidence that the disciples spoke in parables or stories, They “preached” JESUS and HIM crucified!The problem with the entire discussion,as with most pomo debate is,that GOD is left entirely out of the equation. HE is not just some nebulous unknowable being who has left everything to us to figure out. Thank GOD!!!!!
    The fullness of GOD is revealed in CHRIST who is then revealed in HIS Body,the Church which has the revelation of the written WORD through the power of the interperater,the HOLY SPIRIT. Col 1:15-20. The Scriptures were written through the power and inspiration of the Spirit of GOD, who is more than capable of overcoming man’s fallibility. The Sovereignity of the Almighty is a missing link in the Church today, which has incredibly seriuos consequences for us all. If the Bible cannot be depended on,then it leaves me to rely on my subjective experiences and impressions,or worse, relying on yours. There is this romantic notion in post modern philosophy of us sitting around like the ancients before the tribal bonfire swapping legends. You’ve all seen the Ring Trilogy too many times. Even Bilbo and Frodo WROTE the story down. The incarnation has made all this nonsense unecessary. Men prefer this apophatic ideal of the “great and powerful Oz”,the mysterious, beyond our knowing,otherworldly, creator. The “deconstructing” and redefining of GOD and the Gospel sets men up as the “authority”. This position is as arrogant as those who claim to know everything. We don’t know it all yet,1 John 3:1-3,but what we do know,we know clearly,otherwise we are of no good to any man and we have no right to claim to be the Body of CHRIST. So screw oral tradition quit sipping your latte’s and engaging in open-ended neverending debate and get about to the work of the Kingdom.
    If this offends, some I am sorry,but like Mark Driscoll,a man after my own heart, I don’t care what you think of me and I stand by what I know to be the Truth.

    Chris P.

  12. says

    Chris, I agree with you that “God is revealed in Christ” and that god is not unknowable or mysterious beyond comprehension. God has made godself knowable in the most immediate of forms: a human life. But this discussion is specifically about the revelatory function of scripture, which is a different issue than a discussion of Jesus-as-god’s-revelation. To ask questions about the factuality of scripture is not necessarily to question the knowability of god or Jesus.

    I’m curious as to which specific “post modern philosophers” convey the notion of swapping legends around a campfire??

  13. says

    I thought I was addressing the issue. GOD made Himself knowable in CHRIST and also through the Scripture. The Scriptures exist as confirmation of our subjective knowledge and experience and therefore must be trustworthy and factual or we are stuck relying on ourselves. Every man’s revelation then becomes truth to the point that Truth is unknowable. Of course the Holy Spirit is the one who guides us into all Truth, but since HE is the interpreter of the Word,
    He will not contradict what has been written. Subjective revelation is then proved to be of GOD. So, not every impression, thought or opinion that we have, is the revelation of GOD. In the world today, current society, with some exceptions, has no background in oral traditions, so I must believe in the infallible writings of GOD as revealed to me through the power of HIS Holy Spirit. Matt 7:24-27. We would know nothing if we if we hadn’t read it. CHRIST is the WORD and the Scriptures are the Words that reveal HIM as WORD. My thought is that the original question in this discussion is irrelevant and without foundation. While it is true that we may not know if JESUS cured the paralytic man or maybe a woman, or if it was a hangnail and not paralysis; there is nothing in evidence that would prompt asking such a question. (other than boredom or our own fertile imaginations.) 2 Cor 10:4-6. True and honest debate and discussion does not operate on the “what if” approach. Which leads me to my “campfire” comment. First I will apologize for my facetious manner. I was addressing the post modern mindset in general. I find in visiting most of the emergent sites, constant references to metaphor, storytelling, ancient/future, etc. etc. There seems to be a concerted belief that the Church must return?? or is returning??? to these methods. To me, these are simply time consuming activities to make us feel good. More “good ideas” and fertile imagination. People won’t care about our stories when they are spending an eternity apart from GOD.

    Chris P.

  14. says

    You’re right that Christian “emergent” discussion does refer to narrative, legend, etc. quite a bit. But in terms of actual “post-modern” philosophers/theorists, I can’t think of any who utilize those terms. It’s an important distinction, but I suppose not too relevant to this conversation.

    Anyways, if we agree that it is Jesus who is the revelation of god, then the primary function of scripture is to fix the identity of Jesus. Beyond that, the Bible serves no useful authoritative function, and details that are not essential to fixing the identity of Jesus are neither here nor there, since it is Jesus who is the Lord of the church, and not the Bible (Which, by the way, never references itself as “Word of God.” Nor could it, since it didn’t exist as the “Bible” until well after its composite parts had long sense been written. That fact alone destroys all proof-texting defenses of the bible as inerrant.)

    But the identity of Jesus can be communicated through other means besides scripture, as it was in the decades before any of the NT had been written, and the centuries before the NT was circulated and universally accepted as such. If every bible disappeared off the face of the planet, the ministry of the church would not come to a screeching halt. So a discussion of oral tradition, and its embodiment in the life of communities, is relevant and important. I’m actually not opposed to the inerrancy of scripture, but I don’t think it’s a necessary doctrine.

  15. Nathan says

    “Anyways, if we agree that it is Jesus who is the revelation of god, then the primary function of scripture is to fix the identity of Jesus.”

    IF that is the primary function, that does not preclude other functions, such as presenting moral or doctrinal guidance. That the identity of the Christ is of paramount importance does not lessen or negate the other functions of Scripture as you allege.

    “Beyond that, the Bible serves no useful authoritative function,”

    Really? Prove it. Demonstrate to me that throughout recorded Christian history, some segment, preferrably in the early church, did not believe the the moral and doctrinal guidance contained in the OT and the NT writings were not “useful” or important. You can’t. The truth is that scripture serves numerous functions other than identifying Jesus and certainly does serve a useful authoritative function outside of it.

  16. says

    Nathan makes a good point. There are segments of the Church today who completely throw the Scripture away as irrelevant. The emergent church criticizes to no end all the modernist churches who are completely absorbed in culture. The reason why is thatWORD of GOD is held in no regard,therefore anything and everything is brought in as framework. The ec is in danger of making the same mistake. Sweet or McClaren’s latest tomes are given higher place than Scripture. Jesus states it plainly in these verses. My question is;what part of the Bible doesn’t testify of JESUS? John 5:37-47. Ask yourselves why Mars Hill and John Piper’s Bethlehem Baptist are exploding in growth. It is because they are hearers and doers.1John 3:18 James 1:22-25. You can’t neglect either.
    I have found that people are drawn to those who expound straight out of the WORD. I call it prophetic teaching as the prophetic is simply the Word of the LORD proclaimed. I am making a distinction between those who teach Scripturally and those who are using a couple of proof texts to promote their latest agenda or revelation. On one hand we have those who see visions of sixty foot JESUS’and have given birth to the monster of “christian television” and worse,and on the other we have no room for the Bible as authority. There is “abuse and unuse”. Either way you will arrive at the same result;a Church that is saltless,dark and without foundation,looking like the rest of the world.Matt5:13-16 Matt7:24-27
    Chris P.

  17. says

    Chris, If numeric growth is the criterion for possession of truth or divine favor, then the “monster” of christian television and the fastest growing segment of Christianity, Mormonism, not to mention another of the fastest growing religious groups in the US, Jehovah’s Witnesses, have way more truth than Driscoll and Piper. Or, more plausibly, all of the above can be readily explained by the fact that human beings have a deep-seated need to make sense of the cosmos which results in an eager acceptance of simple, black and white, absolute certitudes. That’s not to comment on whether any of the above are right or wrong, it’s just sociology 101.

    You’re absolutely right that every passage in the Bible is associated with the identity of Jesus in one way or another, and thus extremely important. But, just as you can know me without knowing what I ate for breakfast this morning, some passages are more centrally constitutive of the identity of Jesus Christ than others.

    Nathan, Prove it? Ok, Jesus says, “It is written … but I say unto you,” clearly placing his own authority high above that of scripture and relativizing scriptural authority. Further, the earliest church, with no written record of Jesus, relativized and reinterpreted all of the OT in light of their understanding (orally transmitted) of the person of Jesus. As far as your blanket appeal to christian history, I’m not sure what’s at stake here. I think a central problem here is that much theology and ethics are inherently backwards looking (privileging tradition and scripture), whereas Jesus was eschatologically forward looking in his theology and ethic, as demonstrated in his notion of the “kingdom of god.” Too frequently people are trying to reproduce theological or ethical positions that were formulated in centuries past in social contexts that bear no resemblance to ours instead of attempting to foreshadow, embody, and express a future age of shalom: justice, peace, and holistic harmony between god, humanity, and creation. That should be the guiding principle for our ethical and theological positions, not John 3 this or Amos 4 that. Having said all that, I think scripture and church history are great. I just think Jesus and the age to come are way better and I get concerned when I see them taking a back seat to John 3 this or Amos 4 that.

  18. says

    “You are wrong,because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of GOD.” Matt 22:29
    This was Jesus’ way of saying,”You don’t know what you are talking about.” Nothing personal.
    Point 1:
    I said this in my last comment;
    “I am making a distinction between those who teach Scripturally and those who are using a couple of proof texts to promote their latest agenda or revelation.”
    Since when did mormonism become a segment of Christianity? I am using Mark Driscoll and John Piper as examples within the actual Body of CHRIST. There are plenty flocking to all the false teachings out there,Jehovah Witnesses included. Jesus told all who believed on HIM that
    HE is the TRUTH and that all Scriptures testify of HIM,therefore I can confidently believe in the inerrancy of the WORD. As for TBN and most of the “blab and grab” proponents; they pander to peoples’ greed and self-centeredness,(for which they will be held in account),rather than a search for Truth. If people are looking for “black and white,absolute certitudes,it is because we are made that way. We are promised that if we keep asking, seeking, and knocking, we will find ANSWERS!! I find your attitude condescending. Thank GOD we have the ec to tell us that you can’t know anything for a certainty. I will never book a cruise with guys like you at the helm since I want some assurance that we will find land at some point.

    Point 2:
    This is always what I find truly amazing. You quote Scripture to argue aginst the use of Scripture. (This makes as much sense as the statement that absolute Truth can’t be known;which is by itself a truth claim containing an absolute.) Everything recorded in the Gospels and
    and elsewhere that JESUS spoke is a part of the Sriptures. Of course HE has authority over the written Word. The book is about HIM!
    The FATHER=Author
    The SON= Content
    The HOLY SPIRIT=Revelator and Interpretor.
    The early Church had the “written letters’ though not all of them and not in present form,so they didn’t rely on just oral tradition. Also I suggest reading the early Church fathers especially Ireaneus as proof of the use of the written Word. Which brings me to,

    Point 3:
    There is a necessary “looking back” in our theologies,(not backwardness),but we need to build on #1 the foundation of apostles and prophets which is the WORD. #2 the Capstone,CHRIST JESUS is set on that foundation and #3 we are the living stones being built up on the Capstone into the Temple of the living GOD.This has been occuring over the centuries. So your critique that we are backwards is not viable. Whatever happened to the “ancient/future: thing? TRUTH transcends time,culture. We are in the world but not of it! Eternity has stepped into time! (thank you Michael Card) The kingdom of GOD is in our midst ,but not yet here.We are seated with HIM, and HE is seated at the right hand,both now and yet to come. We are the BODY of the risen SAVIOR,LORD and and KING!We stand with HIM outside of all time,historical,cultural and sociological constraints. Along with all who have gone before us. Your defining of Shalom is right on,but it is here now and still coming. How do I know this? The,forward looking, Bible tells me so. You can’t seperate GOD from HIS book. So I find JESUS and the age to come to be the substance of John 3 and Amos 4!!!
    Thank you LORD that the Scriptures and the power of GOD intersect in CHRIST JESUS!!

  19. says

    Hi Chris. Thanks for your response. I find it quite fascinating, rhetorical flourishes and all, and I simply can’t resist raising a few more questions. But I think we do agree on some important points. I guess what troubles me the most is the characteristic placement of scripture as “#1” and Christ as “#2.” More than anything that is what I disagree with and feel is harmful. I know you’re trying to equate God and the bible, and Jesus and the bible. But they’re not the same. The bible is a linguistic entity, God is not. God is not a book, a collection of books, or the words and sentences in a book. I think the confusion results from the imprecision with which the term “Word” gets thrown around. God is in fact separable from the Bible. Before any bibles existed, god still existed.

    I guess I’ll try to limit my remarks to that, no need to beat a dead horse, although I must defend myself from misrepresentation on one point: I never argued against the usage of scripture, so I’m not guilty of using scripture against itself. The issue is HOW scripture functions and how essential the function of scripture is (versus oral tradition, for example). I think we answer those two questions differently, which is fine. To each his or her own.

    I’m always puzzled by the whole “it’s an absolute truth that there are no absolute truths” accusation. To state “there are no absolute truths” is no more (or less) of an absolute truth than to say “there is a tree in my front yard.” Both sentences are dependent upon and conditioned by a whole system of arbitrary, contingent, conventional symbols (words) and the manner in which our linguistic community uses those symbols. So neither sentence can be considered absolute (i.e., unconditioned, non-dependent). There’s no self-contradiction whatsoever in the claim that “there is no absolute truth.” But that doesn’t mean that those sentences don’t have truth-values or that they are subject to the whim and opinion of any particular person. It just means they can only be evaluated within a given cultural context, hence they are relative to that context, hence they are not absolute. We can have every thing we want out of good ol’ garden variety truth, with no adjectives attached.

    Have a good night, It’s past my bed time. Thanks for the conversation.

  20. says

    One last time and I will call it quits. I do not and have never placed the Scripture above the Triune GOD! I agree with Graham Cooke, who comes out of the very charismatic side of the Church, that the hierarchy of authority (for lack of a better way of saying it) is set up as;
    1. The Triune GOD
    2. The Scriptures
    3. The individual believer
    4. Apostles prophets,evangelists,pastors,teachers elders,deacons etc. These by the way are individual believers first and holders of these “positions second.
    Oral tradition is inferior to written word. The discovery of ancient manuscripts has proved that the written word has survived remarkably intact.
    The arguement for me has always been the earthbound view that since men have written Scripture it is totally unreliable and some how the “enlightened” must correct this. GOD is sovereign and has allowed things to be as they are as a part of HIS redemptive plan. Men have messed up the world since the garden and GOD is allowing this so I seek HIS order in the chaos,as Oswald Chambers taught. HE is in the business of making it right, it is NOT our job. So according to JESUS’ parable of the wheat and the tares we let them grow together until HE sends HIS angels to reap the wheat and bundle and burn the tares. There is no utopian kingdom untl HE comes and establishes it. As far as absolute, objective, truth; it does exist and utside of cultural context. I say again,and this is not rhetoric as you put it, Jesus transcends culture,tie etc.Of course HE entered the world in Palestine at a certain time of the Father’s choosing. We can say that HE came into a certain culture,but we must remember the culture HE entered was the culture HE made. Israel was choosen by HIM out the rest of the world which would then make them as something beyond the ordinary evolution of men. The problem in most pomo discussion is while they believe in a transcendant, mysterious GOD they rule out HIS sovereignity. HE didn’t leave everything up to us. Thank HIM!! HIS ways and thoughts are not ours.
    I’m done and my apologies and thanks to Cleave for allowing us to disagree and take up space on his blog.

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