Oral tradition and the historical Jesus

Sermon on the Mount - Jesus (like other rabbis) would have expounded and debated the Torah orally, though some may have made private notes (megillot setarim)

The Oral Tradition, is the cultural material and traditions transmitted orally from one generation to another. Although the Jews at the time of Jesus had a writing system, they had also developed an extensive oral tradition which remained an important aspect of Pharisaic scholarship until the Destruction of the Second Temple. [1] [2] [3] [4]


Sitz im Leben

Jesus was Jewish. Mary, his mother, was a Jew, and Judaism was the religion he practiced throughout his life. Jesus' teachings focused on the Jewish issues of his day — how to interpret the written Law of Moses, when the Kingdom of Heaven would appear, and how to behave righteously. [5] [6]

Like Jesus himself, his disciples were Jewish and Torah-observant. They thought of Jesus as a Rabbi and possibly a Messiah figure. [7] After the Crucifixion of Jesus, James the brother of Jesus,[8] became their leader. As Jews, this group worshiped at the Temple in Jerusalem, revered written Law (Torah Shebiktav) and the Oral tradition (Torah sheh-b'al peh). [9] This Oral Tradition interpreted the Law given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai. [10]

The Oral Tradition is often misunderstood as having been given, in its totality, on Mount Sinai along with the Law. Sometimes it is even pictured as a kind of secret lore that was passed on, person to person, whispered to select individuals throughout history from Moses on down to the present day. In fact, the Oral Tradition is analogous to judicial precedent: the ever-growing body of interpretation of the Law, with its cases, judgments and precedents. This tradition of debating, interpreting, agreeing upon, or continuing to disagree about the meaning of the fixed text was "Oral Tradition" of the Jews at the time of Jesus. [11] [12] [13] It was in this cultural context or Sitz im Leben that the Oral Tradition evolved in Christianity, as Jesus and later Christian rabbis, in true rabbinic style, offered their interpretation of the Torah forming a distinct Christian logia. [14] [15] [16] [17] [18]


A rich Oral Tradition had developed, along side the written one during the Second Temple period. This Oral Tradition was not simply hearsay. It represented the Divine will— an all encompassing Torah that would come to an abrupt end in the year 70. [19] In that year, the Second Temple at Jerusalem was destroyed , and the Hebrew community of Jerusalem was scattered though out the different nations of the Roman Empire in what is called the Diaspora. There was a new reality. [20] If the oral traditions of the Second Temple period were not written down, they would be lost. [21] This Oral Tradition (from Palestine before 70 CE) was transmitted orally for over a decade by the Palestinian Jewish Christians in Diaspora before the logia was written down. [22] [23] [24]

From Oral Tradition to written Gospel

Most critical scholars today [25] would accept the view that the texts of the first written accounts of Jesus Christ were based upon the Oral Tradition. [26] [27] [28] Some scholars believe these early writings were based directly upon the Oral Tradition, [29] [30] while others argue others argue that the Christian logia grew into pericopes, which were in turn collected into still larger accounts or proto-Gospels. Then the Gospel authors further developed these proto-Gospels into the final Gospels we have in our canon. [31] [32] [33] [34] [35] Scholars are in general agreement that the Christians up to the destruction of the Temple had no written Gospels being circulated among them. [36] [37] [38] [39] [40]

The writings of the Church fathers also tend to confirm that the Oral Tradition was the basis of the earliest gospels. Matthew was said to have been part of the scattered ie (the diaspora or Tefutzot תפוצות, "to scatter"). More importantly, the Church Fathers record that when he was about to leave, he reduced the Oral Tradition to written form. Papias stated "Matthew wrote down (synetaxato) the "logia" in the Hebrew language (Hebraidi dialekto), and each interpreted (hermeneusen) them as best he could. [41] [42] [43] Matthew's Hebrew Gospel was believed to be one of the earliest written and was circulated under the title the Gospel of the Hebrews. [44] [45] [46] [47]

When Peter (one of the Twelve disciples and a Jew) left Jerusalem,[48] [49][50] he preached the Gospel orally to the Jewish diaspora in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia Minor and Bithynia and eventually went to Rome.[48][51] [52][53] However it was Peter's scribe Mark who first reduced the Oral Tradition of Peter to written form. According to Jerome,[54] Mark set down these teachings of Peter in what is now called the Gospel of Mark

Modern scholars agree [55] that Mark composed the first gospel, in Koine Greek. Peter is said to have reviewed this work and given it his blessing, elevating the Gospel of Mark to the level of an eyewitness account. [56][57][58][59] The Gospel of Mark was widely circulated and scholars agree that it was a primary source used in the writing of later gospels.[60] [61]

The Evangelists

Today, most scholars believe the Christian Oral Tradition was what the first Evangelists drew upon when composing their gospels. This Oral Tradition consisted of several distinct components. Parables and aphorisms were the "bedrock of the tradition." Pronouncement stories, (scenes that culminate with a saying of Jesus), controversy stories (in which Jesus is in conflict with religious authorities) miracles stories (including healing, exorcisms, and nature wonders) and commissioning stories were also important aspect of the Christian Oral Traition.

Although this Jewish/Christian midrash was generally considered reliable it was not historical, but theological in nature. Form criticism (Formgeschichte) was developed primarily by the German scholars Karl Ludwig Schmidt, Martin Dibelius, and Rudolf Bultmann.[62][63][64] The oral model developed by the form critics drew heavily on contemporary theory of Jewish folkloric transmission of oral material, and as a result of this form criticism one can trace the development of the early gospel tradition.[65] However, "Today it is no exaggeration to claim that a whole spectrum of main assumptions underlying Bultmann's Synoptic Tradition must be considered suspect."[66]

A number of other models have been proposed which posit greater control over the tradition, to varying degrees. For example, largely in response to form critical scholarship, Professor Birger Gerhardsson examined oral transmission in early rabbinic circles, and proposed that a more controlled and formal model of orality would more accurately reflect the transmission of the Jesus tradition in early Christian circles, and therefore that the oral traditions present in the gospels have been fairly reliably and faithfully transmitted.[67] Professor Kenneth Bailey, after spending a great deal of time in remote and illiterate villages in the Middle East, used his experience with orality in such places to formulate a similar model of controlled transmission within the early Christian communities, but posited an informal mechanism of control.[65] Controlled models of the Jesus tradition, and with them an evaluation of the gospels as possessing greater historical reliability, have been accepted by several scholars in recent years.[68][69][70]


The Oral Tradition may be accepted if it satisfies either two "broad conditions" or six "particular conditions", as follows:[71]

  1. Broad conditions of Reliability.
    1. The tradition should be supported by an unbroken series of witnesses, reaching from the immediate and first reporter of the fact to the living mediate witness from whom we take it up, or to the one who was the first to commit it to writing.
    2. There should be several parallel and independent series of witnesses testifying to the fact in question.
  2. Particular conditions formulated.
    1. The tradition must report a public event of importance, such as would necessarily be known directly to a great number of persons.
    2. The tradition must have been generally believed, at least for a definite period of time.
    3. During that definite period it must have gone without protest, even from persons interested in denying it.
    4. The tradition must be one of relatively limited duration. [Elsewhere, Garraghan suggests a maximum limit of 150 years, at least in cultures that excel in oral remembrance.]
    5. The critical spirit must have been sufficiently developed while the tradition lasted, and the necessary means of critical investigation must have been at hand.
    6. Critical-minded persons who would surely have challenged the tradition — had they considered it false — must have made no such challenge.

These and other methods of verifying oral tradition must be applied to the Sitz im Leben [72]


  1. ^ Henry Wansbrough (Ed), Jesus and the oral Gospel tradition, Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004. p 121
  2. ^ Jan Vansina, Oral Tradition as History, James Currey Publishers, 1985. pp 27- 28
  3. ^ Hermann Strack, Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash, Jewish Publication Society, 1945. pp 11-12.
  4. ^ Grayzel, A History of the Jews, Penguin Books, 1984. p 193
  5. ^ Bart D. Ehrman, Lost Christianities: the battles for Scripture Oxford University Press, 2003. p 96
  6. ^ Barrie Wilson, How Jesus Became Christian, Random House, 2009. pp 1-2 & 103
  7. ^ D. Ehrman, Lost Christianities: the battles for Scripture Oxford University Press, 2003. p 97
  8. ^ Some scholars believe "brother" did not mean "brother" but rather cousin or relative.
  9. ^ Ted Falcon & David Blatner, Judaism for dummies, John Wiley & Sons PUB, 2001. p 77
  10. ^ F.L. Cross & E.A. Livingston, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, Oxford University Press, 1989. p 957 & 722
  11. ^ Barrie Wilson, How Jesus Became Christian, Random House, 2009. p 37
  12. ^ Ahavat Torat Israel P 1
  13. ^ Joseph Barclay, The Talmud, BiblioBazaar, LLC, 2009. p 14
  14. ^ Council on the Study of Religion, Journal of ecumenical studies, Volume 17, Temple University, 1980 p 181
  15. ^ Akili Kumasi, Fatherhood Principles, GIL Publications, 2009. pp 109-107
  16. ^ J. P. Moreland, The God Question, Harvest House Publishers, 2009. pp 111-115
  17. ^ Brad Young, Meet the rabbis: rabbinic thought and the teachings of Jesus, Hendrickson Publishers, 2007. pp 3-203
  18. ^ Christian Logia is generally defined as a collection of sayings that preserved the teachings of Jesus. They are parables and statements about the law from the beginning of Christianity. R. Nuss, The Anatomies of God, Universe Pub, 2010. p 189
  19. ^ H. Patrick Glenn, Legal traditions of the world: sustainable diversity in law, Oxford University Press, 2007. pp 94 - 97
  20. ^ For Jews it became necessary for it to be written down in the Mishnah (part of the later Gemara which would form the Talmud.
  21. ^ Joseph Spitzer, Caring for Jewish patients, Radcliffe Publishing, 2003. p 25
  22. ^ J. Kanagaraj, Journal for the study of the New Testament, Volume 158, Continuum International Publishing Group, 1998. p 43
  23. ^ Laura S. Smith, The Illustrated Timeline of Religion, Sterling Publishing Company, Inc., 2007. p 34
  24. ^ Sydney Temple, The core of the fourth Gospel, Mowbrays, 1975. p 21
  25. ^ There is consensus among modern scholars that it is unlikely that the gospels were composed as Jesus expounded and debated the Law, though some of his followers may have made private notes called megillot setarim.
  26. ^ David Barrett Peabody, One Gospel from two, Continuum International Publishing Group, 2002. pp 11-12
  27. ^ Helmut Koester, From Jesus to the Gospels, Publisher Fortress Press, 2007. p 64
  28. ^ Earl Richard, Jesus, one and many, Glazier Pub, 1988. p 100
  29. ^ Charles Beard, The Theological review: a quarterly journal of religious thought, Volume 15, pp 117-121
  30. ^ Ernest Renan & William G. Hutchison, Life of Jesus, Kess. Pub 2003. p xix
  31. ^ Delbert Royce Burkett, An introduction to the New Testament and the origins of Christianity, Cambridge University Press, 2002. p 124
  32. ^ Wisconsin Lutheran quarterly, 1994
  33. ^ Catherine Upchurch, The Four Gospels, Liturgical Press, 2009. p 1-2
  34. ^ Arthur G. Patzia, The Making of the New Testament: Origin, Collection, Text & Canon, InterVarsity Press, 2011. pp 52-88
  35. ^ David E. Aune, The Blackwell companion to the New Testament Vol 28, John Wiley and Sons Pub, 2009. p 248
  36. ^ Daṿid Weiss Halivni, Revelation Restored: Divine Writ and Critical Responses, Westview Press, 1998. p xiii
  37. ^ Zusha Kalet, Kabbalah of Yeshua, LuluPub 2007. p44
  38. ^ R. Travers Herford, Christianity in Talmud and Midrash, KTAV Publishing House Inc, 2007. pp 1-34
  39. ^ Henry Wansbrough, Jesus and the oral Gospel tradition, Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004. pp 9-59
  40. ^ Barry W. Henaut, Oral tradition and the Gospels, Continuum International Publishing Group, 1993. pp 13-53
  41. ^ Joel B. Green, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, InterVarsity Press, 1992. p 527
  42. ^ The first reference to the Hebrew text written by the disciple Matthew comes from Papias. Papius was born about thirty years after the crucifixion and eventually became Bishop of Hierapolis in Asia Minor. Papias starts by discussing the origin of the Gospel of Mark, and then further remarks that "Matthew composed the logia in the Hebrew tongue and each one interpreted them as he was able". According to Ehrman this "first gospel to be written" is not a reference to the canonical gospel, since the canonical Gospel of Matthew was originally written in Greek and not Hebrew. Although most scholars agree, it goes against the teachings of the Catholic Church - Bart Ehrman, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, Oxford University Press, 1999. p 43
  43. ^ "Jesus was a Jewish Rabbi and one of his followers, Matthew down his teachings in the local dialect." (See Occam's razor) There is substantial historical evidence in support of this position including 75 ancient witnesses who testified to the fact that there was a Hebrew Gospel in circulation. Google Link Twelve of the Church Fathers testified that it was written by the Apostle Matthew. Google Link No ancient writer, either Christian or Non Christian, challenged these two facts. Google Link
  44. ^ "They (the Apostles) were led to write only under the pressure of necessity. Matthew, who had first preached the Gospel in Hebrew, when on the point of going to other nations, committed the Gospel to writing in his native language". - Eusebius, Hist. eccl., 3.24.6 >>> William Hendriksen, Exposition of the Gospel according to Matthew, Volume 9, New Testament commentary, Baker Book House, 1973. p 96
  45. ^ " The very first Gospel to be written was by Matthew, once a tax collector but later an apostle of Jesus Christ. Matthew published it for the converts from Judaism and composed it in Hebrew letters." - Eusebius, Hist. eccl., 6.25.4. >>> David Edward Aune, The Westminster dictionary of New Testament, Westminster John Knox, Press, 2003. p 297
  46. ^ "They too accept Matthew's gospel, and like the followers of Cerinthus and Merinthus, they use it alone. They call it the Gospel of the Hebrews, for in truth Matthew alone in the New Testament expounded and declared the Gospel in Hebrew using Hebrew script." - Epiphanius, Pan. 30.3.7.
  47. ^ "In the Gospel of the Hebrews, written in the Chaldee and Syriac language but in Hebrew script, and used by the Nazarenes to this day (I mean the Gospel of the Apostles, or, as it is generally maintained, Matthew's Gospel, a copy of which is in the library at Caesarea), we find . . ." - Jerome, Against Pelagius 3.2
  48. ^ a b "Peter, St. " F. L., Cross, The Oxford dictionary of the Christian Church, Oxford University Press, 2005
  49. ^ J. P. Moreland, The God Question, Harvest House Publishers, 2009. pp 111-115
  50. ^ Brad Young, Meet the rabbis: rabbinic thought and the teachings of Jesus, Hendrickson Publishers, 2007. pp 3-203
  51. ^  "Fathers of the Church". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913. .
  52. ^ Thomas Patrick Halton, 1999 On Illustrious Men], v. 100, CUA Press. pp. 5–7.
  53. ^ The Early Church Fathers Chapter 1
  54. ^ Then too the Gospel according to Mark, who was his disciple and interpreter, is ascribed to (Peter) him. Jerome, Vir.ill. 3
  55. ^ The hypothesis that the Gospel of Mark was the first written of the canonical gospels is known as Markan priority. According to the two-source hypothesis the authors of the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke used the Gospel of Mark among other sources in writing their gospels. See the synoptic gospels.
  56. ^ Mark, who had been Peter's interpreter, wrote down carefully, but not in order, all that he remembered of the Lord’s sayings and doings. For he had not heard the Lord or been one of his followers, but later, as I said, one of Peter’s. Peter used to adapt his teachings to the occasion, without making a systematic arrangement of the Lord’s sayings, so that Mark was quite justified in writing down some of the things as he remembered them. For he had one purpose only – to leave out nothing that he had heard, and to make no misstatement about it. - Papias, quoted in Eusebius History of the Church, trans. G.A. Williamson (London: Penguin Books Ltd., 1965). 3.39.15 / pp. 103–4. Also available online
  57. ^ Irenaeus, Haer 3.1.
  58. ^ Tertullian, Against Marcion 4:5
  59. ^ Mark the disciple and interpreter of Peter wrote a short gospel at the request of the brothers at Rome embodying what he had heard Peter preach. When Peter had heard this, he approved it and published it to the churches - Jerome, Vir.ill. 8
  60. ^ See the Synoptic Gospels
  61. ^ , Hermann Strack, 1945 Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash, Jewish Publication Society. pp. 11-12.
  62. ^ Schmidt, K. L. (1919). Der Rahmen der Geschichte Jesu. Berlin: Paternoster.
  63. ^ Dibelius, M. (1919). Die Formgeschichte des Evangelium 3d Ed. Günter Bornkamm (ed). Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr.
  64. ^ Bultmann, R. (1921). Die Geschichte der synoptischen Tradition. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht.
  65. ^ a b http://www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/article_tradition_bailey.html
  66. ^ Kelber, W. H. (1997). The Oral and Written Gospel: The Hermeneutics of Speaking and Writing in the Synoptic Tradition, Mark, Paul, and Q. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. p. 8.
  67. ^ Gerhadsson, B. (1998). Memory and Manuscript: Oral Tradition and Written Transmission in Rabbinic Judaism and Early Christianity with Tradition aand Transmission in Early Christianity Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
  68. ^ Wansbrough, H. (Ed). Jesus and the Oral Gospel Tradition London: Sheffield Academic Press
  69. ^ .Dunn, J. D. G. (2003). Jesus Remembered Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
  70. ^ Funk, Robert W. and the Jesus Seminar. The acts of Jesus: the search for the authentic deeds of Jesus. HarperSanFrancisco. 1998. Introduction, p. 1-40
  71. ^ A Guide to Historical Method, 261–262)
  72. ^ See J. Vansina, De la tradition orale. Essai de méthode historique, in translation as Oral Tradition as History, K. E. Bailey, "Informed Controlled Oral Tradition and the Synoptic Gospels", Asia Journal of Theology [1991], 34–54. Compare Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy.

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