Beliefnet
Mark D. Roberts

If you’ve been following my blog in the past few days, you know I’ve been developing an analogy that helps to explain why we can have confidence in the oral traditions about Jesus. So far, here’s what I have:

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.

There is still something missing, something crucial that helps to give us confidence in the oral traditions about Jesus. To what I’ve already written, you must add the following:

The lecturer, who had given his talk many times before, was familiar with situations in which the audience was unable to take notes and in which there would be no recordings. So rather than just lecture on in the normal way, he carefully presented his material so that his listeners would be more apt to remember what he said. He used dramatic imagery and verbal structures to promote memory. He wanted to be sure that what he said would be accuarately remembered and passed on to others.

For the most part, the teachings of Jesus were presented in the distinctive style of an oral culture. Some of the longer discourses in the Gospel of John are not in this mode, but most of the other teachings of Jesus are suitable for easy memorization. The same could be said for the stories about Jesus. They were told in commonplace oral forms that provided structure for accurate transmission.
So, here’s the analogy in its final form:

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.

The lecturer, who had given his talk many times before, was familiar with situations in which the audience was unable to take notes and in which there would be no recordings. So rather than just lecture on in the normal way, he carefully presented his material so that his listeners would be more apt to remember what he said. He used dramatic imagery and verbal structures to promote memory. He wanted to be sure that what he said would be accuarately remembered and passed on to others.

What does this analogy demonstrate? The memorizing and accurate transmission of oral material is accentuated by:

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.

4. The effort of the speaker to use forms of speech that strengthen memory and transmission.

Admittedly, this analogy doesn’t prove that the early Christians perfectly transmitted everything Jesus did and said. But it does show why so many of the analogies used by skeptics fall short. Yes, I might forget a lot of things these days, but I wouldn’t be apt to forget something upon which my life (or afterlife) depended. And, yes, I might forget a lot of things these days, but I’m often helped by the memories of others. Indeed, I’m not the best at remembering oral material, but I do not live in an oral culture. I’ve learned to depend upon note taking and other kinds of memory aids. Finally, I may forget things like phone numbers, but when a good joke has a predictable structure, I can remember it quite accurately. If you don’t believe me, let me tell you the one about the minister, priest, and rabbi who walked into a bar . . . .

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