If any of the biblical records were initially handed down as verbal instruction and not preserved in writing until decades after the fact, is the reliability of the information then contestable? To listen to some critics, you would think that oral tradition in antiquity was comparable to present-day teenagers playing the game of "Chinese whispers," "telephone," or "grapevine." One person whispers something to the next, who whispers what he/she thinks was said to the next person and so on, until the last one announces what is usually a distortion of the original message that bears little resemblance to what was initially spoken. Does this modern-day demonstration of cumulative error and the fallibility of human recall realistically illustrate how biblical teachings were passed on?
It is important to consider the transmission of data from an ancient-oral-culture perspective rather than a contemporary-literary-culture perspective. Without the aid of modern recording devices, memory among the ancients was generally much sharper and more dependable than it tends to be today. Our current approach focuses primarily on written means of preserving information, with much less attention given to memorization and the amazing ability of a trained mind to accurately preserve large portions of material. Earlier civilizations, however, particularly the Jews (with their strong desire to preserve the oral Torah), carefully developed their minds along with various memory devices for the meticulous preservation of verbalized instruction. And the Jewish method of memorization provided a model for the early Christian community.
In the earliest period of the Christian movement, the gospel story would have been repeated much the same way by the apostles and those who "continued steadfastly" in their teaching (Acts 2:42). When the multitude of disciples were forced to flee from Jerusalem and were scattered abroad disseminating this message (Acts 8:4), the same collection of statements would have comprised the nucleus of their preaching. Moreover, if supernatural governance is admitted, the Holy Spirit would have provided assistance not only through revelation and inspiration, but also by sharpening the memories of eyewitnesses (John 14:25-26).
The eyewitnesses were still around while these oral traditions were circulating and would surely have guarded against significant variation. It is interesting to note that the highest percentage of literary agreement among the Synoptic Gospels is in sections where sayings of Jesus are recorded. Although most critical scholars are quick to assume literary dependence (when the oral-transmission argument does not suit their agenda), this more likely evinces precision in reporting and the extreme care of the early church to preserve the Lord’s teachings.
--Kevin L. Moore
Addendum: Another important consideration is the function of collective memory in antiquity. Social memory (remembering together) strengthens memory and recall. Each person would no doubt have his/her own unique perspective and recollections. When compared, there would naturally be variations, yet combined without distortion. When the Houston Chronicle and the Dallas Observer report on the same Cowboys vs. Texans football game, we would expect different presentations of the facts without distorting the facts. Both the similarities and the differences among the Gospel accounts, without compromising the integrity of the collective whole, are exactly what we would expect.
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