Beliefnet
Mark D. Roberts

In my last post I began to explain why we can trust the accuracy of the oral traditions about Jesus, using the following analogy:

You are diagnosed with terminal cancer. But your doctor gives you a ray of hope. If you can go and hear a lecture by a famed cancer researcher, you will receive information that will lead to your healing. So you go to hear the lecture. As it turns out, you’re the only one at the lecture. And you forgot to bring your notebook. When you ask if recordings or transcripts of the lecture will be made available, you’re informed that no recordings are permitted. So your task is to listen to the lecture and remember as much as you can. It’s your only hope.

If you were to believe that what the lecturer said could save your life, you’d be inclined to listen carefully and remember accurately. Similarly, the earliest Christians, who believed that Jesus was the Savior of the world and that His words brought eternal life, had strong motivation to recall and pass along correctly the sayings of Jesus.
But the sayings of Jesus were not given to a solitary individual sitting in a lecture. Jesus’s ministry was a public affair, for the most part. Yes, He taught His disciples privately at times. And surely He had one-on-one conversations with people. But the bulk of His teaching, as it’s captured in the New Testament Gospels, was presented in public settings, including synagogues, homes, open fields, and the temple courtyards. Many of those who heard Jesus believed in Him, thus regarding His words as extraordinarly important.
Therefore, my lecture analogy needs to be reframed in this way:

You are diagnosed with terminal cancer. But your doctor gives you a ray of hope. If you can go and hear a lecture by a famed cancer researcher, you will receive information that will lead to your healing. So you go to hear the lecture. When you arrive at the lecture, the room is filled with others who are in exactly the same predicament as you. They have the same cancer, and have come to learn how to be cured. As it turns out, they didn’t bring any means to take notes either, and there will be no recordings of the lecture. So your task, and the task of those sitting with you, is to listen to the lecture and remember as much as you can. It’s your only hope.

Now you’re not alone, but there are many other ears to hear and minds to remember. After the lecture is over, you get together with the others to reconstruct what the lecturer said.

So, how well do you think you and the others would do? My guess is that you’d be able to reconstruct with great accuracy the content of the lecture, even getting certain memorable parts verbatim. Not only would each individual listen carefully, but now the group would provide memory support and accountability. If you thought the lecturer said “Take ten aspirin tablets each morning” but the others heard him say “Take two aspirin tablets each evening,” you’d be inclined to go with the majority.
So far my analogy explains how strong motivation plus supportive community can help people remember, thus providing a rationale for why we can trust the oral traditions about Jesus. The early Christian oral tradition was passed on publicly, in sermons and teachings. Many of those who listened had themselves heard and seen Jesus. Thus there were strong checks and balances in the system.
But, even with this first round of tweaking, my analogy can still be stronger. I’ll explain why in my next post.
If you find this discussion helpful, you’ll probably like my newest book, Can We Trust the Gospels? You can order a copy by clicking here. Happy reading!

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