Jesus of Nazareth lived between 6-4 BC and 30-33 AD. When he died, he was in his mid- to late-thirties. That’s about as good as we can get. The documents and historical sources don’t allow us any more precision. The first Gospels written about Jesus—perhaps in this order, Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John—are not written until 30-40 years after his execution. The period in between we call the period of oral tradition. In this time, the stories of Jesus are told and retold, and then they are written down in the books we have today. Now this does not mean there were not written sources during the period of oral tradition. It means we just don’t have them. Why? Because like most things written 2000 years ago they did not survive. If, as some believe, the stories of Jesus are taken up in longer narratives like Mark or Matthew, going to effort to preserve preaching or teaching notes did not need to happen. That is the only way they would have survived. But even after the Gospels are written down, that did not end the oral traditioning of the stories. Why? Because 90% of the people could not read. So there was a need to tell and retell the stories over and again in oral form and fashion.
If you are 20 years old, then thirty to forty years sounds like a long time. But in historical terms, it is not long as all. To take an analogy from the time I am writing, 2018, go back thirty to forty years and we have the Reagan administration in America, John Paul II in Rome, and Gloria Estafan and the Miami Sound Machine’s hit song “Anything for You.” Are there people today who can tell us what was happening in the 1980s? What do you think?
Scholars think John’s Gospel may be have been written last. Perhaps sixty years after Jesus’ execution. So, in historical terms, again that is not a long time. That is the late 1950s when Eisenhower was president, John Paul XXIII started his papacy, and the Everly Brothers were crooning “All I Have to Do Is Dream.” Are there people around today who can tell us what was happening toward the end of the 1950s when rock n’ roll is in its infancy? What do you think?
Some scholars make the case that oral tradition is like the “game” of telephone. In this party game, one person whispers something in the ear of another, then he/she in turn whispers to the next person and on and on. Then by the time you go all the way around the room, you compare notes and everyone has a good laugh because the message has changed. That is not at all how oral tradition societies pass on their most precious stories. It’s baffling to me that a “parlor game” designed to get laughs at a party could in any way be identified with the passing down and handing on of religious tradition.
Oral societies, like those that existed around the Mediterranean world in the first century, privileged the living voice over the written record. That may sound strange to westerners who have to see everything in writing (often because you want to use it against them).
A better example of oral tradition would be this: Do you think you could teach someone the Lord’s prayer? You have heard it hundreds of times. You’ve internalized it. And even if you say “debts” rather than “trespasses” (a distinction in the English language translations), you still can pass it along in a fixed and stable form. This is what happened to the Jesus stories. They were told and retold. They took on fixed forms. Then they are handed down. This happened early enough that there were authoritative voices who could correct the record if something got off kilter.
With the passing of Senator John McCain recently, people are telling and retelling stories about him. When he and his fellow soldiers were prisoners-of-war in the Hanoi Hilton during the Vietnam war (early 1960s), they were eventually allowed to hold religious services. Not at first, but eventually. John McCain stepped in to lead those services in part because his great grandfather had been an Episcopal priest, and John grew up with the Anglican liturgy. “Bud” Adams, one of his fellow prisoners, told news agencies that John did an excellent job leading the liturgy because he remembered it nearly word for word. Now, we might quibble over this or that wording to part of the service, but I bet you that then prisoner McCain did a good job handing on the liturgy he heard as a boy and later young man.
Father Mario Arroyo is a good friend of mine. He is a Catholic priest and native of Cuba. He and his family came to the USA after the revolution in the 1950s. Father Mario is a fan of 1960s and 70s pop music. When he hears just a few notes of a song, he can tell you the name of the song, the artist, and begin singing it nearly word for word even if he has not heard the song in 20-30 years. The songs of his youth imprinted in his mind, and they will likely never leave him. Those are better analogues for how oral tradition is passed on than the game of telephone.
There have been a lot of important anthropological and social studies done of oral societies because oral cultures still exist today. Studying these cultures is probably a better idea than going to party and studying the silly games people play to make some argument about oral tradition.
John McRay died recently. From 1980 to 2002 he taught in biblical studies at Wheaton College, the place I now teach and where I serve as Dean of the School of Biblical and Theology Studies. When he retired, he was awarded emeritus status.
I never met John personally, but I did know him through his books. I used his book on Paul the apostle in undergraduate courses at Houston Baptist University, until Randy Richards, Rodney Reeves and I wrote our own. It was a solid book on the apostle, but I didn’t always agree with him.
Perhaps John’s greatest accomplishment in scholarship came through his study of the New Testament through the land and material culture of Israel. He was part of the digs at Caesarea (Maritima), Herodium and Sepphoris, three premiere sites in Israel. Through his passion for the people and the land–and students–he became a beloved member of the Wheaton faculty.
If you’d like to know more about John, there is a good article about him on his Wheaton Emeritus site:
I’m grateful now to be a small part of the history of a college that has done so much to serve the church and benefit the world.
Today, I led in Graduate orientation at Wheaton College and we had students from China, Zimbabwe, England, Colombia, and all around the country. In part, the success of our program goes back to people like Dr. John McRay. Rest in peace, John.