Mark D. Roberts

In my last two posts I’ve been developing an analogy that helps to explain why we can trust that the oral traditions about Jesus accurately passed along what He really did and said. Here’s what I have so far:

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.

Still, my analogy needs more work. So here’s a new twist:

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. When you start talking the these people, you discover that they have all been trained to remember oral communications. Strangely enough, they all come from a place that depended on oral tradition rather than writing or visual images. So even though you might forget pieces of the lecture, odds are that your fellow listeners will not.

Obviously, this new twist in the story is meant to emphasize the benefits of oral culture if one is going to remember spoken words. The human brain is capable of amazing feats of memory, especially when it has been trained, either formally or informally, to remember accurately. In my book I mention the case of the Muslim Hafiz, who memorizes the entire Qur’an. Because you and I have other means to record information, and because we live in a literary and visual culture, it’s hard for us to realize that others could far exceed our ability to remember and pass along information with great accuracy. (Photo to the right: Mahyar Hussain Pur made news when, in 1998, at the age of six, he completed memorization of the Quran. The astounding part of Pur’s feat wasn’t the memorization itself, which isn’t unique among Muslims, but rather his age.)
So far my analogy has helped to illustrate three factors that increase the likelihood of the oral traditions about Jesus being accurate:

1. The motivation of the hearers.

2. The fact that the hearing, remembering, and telling happened in the context of a motivated community of eyewitnesses.

3. The influence of oral culture upon those who passed on the tradition.

This analogy isn’t quite perfect. It needs a bit more work, which I’ll explore 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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