Mark D. Roberts

Today’s post, as well as several posts to come, are excerpts from my new book, Can We Trust the Gospels? Investigating the Reliability of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
My favorite high school teacher was Mr. Bottaro. He was my English teacher in tenth grade, and I was blessed to have him in twelfth grade as well. Mr. Bottaro was energetic, incisive, and passionate. I can still remember his ardent reading of Dylan Thomas’s poem, “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night,” as he tried to get fifteen-year-old kids to think about their mortality. Mr. Bottaro was always talking about death and how taking it seriously helped us to live to the fullest.
One day during the spring of my senior year, my fellow students and I arrived in Mr. Bottaro’s class, but he wasn’t there. When the bell rang, we were still without a teacher. Then, about five minutes later, the school principal showed up. He informed us that Mr. Bottaro had died in his sleep the night before. We sat in stunned silence. Many students began to weep. It was one of the saddest days of my life.
During the days that followed, we reminisced plenty about Mr. Bottaro, in class, during the lunch hour, and after his memorial service. Apart from being a fine teacher, he was a character, and an eminently quotable one at that. In the telling of stories we shared our common grief over our loss and our common joy over having had such a wonderful teacher.
In those days of storytelling, the community of Mr. Bottaro’s students reinforced our corporate memory. By agreeing together about what our teacher had done and said, we celebrated his life and we fixed certain events and sayings in our minds. If, during that time, somebody had told a story about Mr. Bottaro that contradicted our common memory—if, for example, someone had accused him of playing favorites or of disliking “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night,” then we would have surely set that person right. Our community ensured the basic truthfulness of oral traditions about our beloved teacher.
And so it was with the community of Jesus in the first years after his death. Not only were there recognized leaders, those who had walked with Jesus and been inundated with his teachings, but also the whole community acted together to provide a place for the telling of stories about Jesus and for weighing those stories by community memory.
Sometimes you’ll hear skeptics talk about the oral period before the writing of the Gospels as if it were a free-for-all, a time when anybody could be inspired by the Spirit to put all sorts of words into Jesus’ mouth. But there is little evidence that this sort of thing actually happened, and plenty of evidence that it did not happen. After all, the early Christians believed Jesus was uniquely special as a teacher, and they believed his words were both authoritative and life-giving. Thus they had strong motivation to remember and accurately pass on what he had said, even when it was translated from Aramaic into Greek. The early Christian community helped to make sure this happened effectively. Here’s what Birger Gerhardsson concludes about the purported creativity of the oral tradition about Jesus:

My contention is thus that we have every reason to proceed on the assumption that Jesus’ closest disciples had an authoritative position in early Christianity as witnesses and bearers of the traditions of what Jesus had said and done. There is no reason to suppose that any believer in the early church could create traditions about Jesus and expect that his word would be accepted.

Gerhardsson’s observation is confirmed by the fact that so much in the oral tradition about Jesus does not reflect the needs of the early church. At some points it even appears to contradict those needs. If Christians were making up sayings of Jesus willy-nilly, and if these were being accepted uncritically by the church, then we should expect to have much more helpful instruction from Jesus concerning such contentious issues as Jewish-Christian relationships, the Sabbath, women in ministry, apostolic authority, and even his own messiahship. But this is not what we have in the Gospels. In fact, the community of Jesus’ followers carefully conserved what he had said, making sure the process of oral tradition was faithful to what Jesus really said and didn’t say.

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