Monday, 20 August 2012

Oral Tradition, the Gospels and Justin Bieber

Some people struggle to understand how oral tradition could have accurately maintained the gospels before they were written down [assuming from what we know thus far], especially so and sometimes understandably from a western culture where information is passed on most commonly in literary form and not orally. I was given a perfect example of one of the many strengths of oral tradition within an oral culture yesterday when discussing with a friend about his problem with a specific line in a song that he felt was inappropriate. People at his church are used to singing that song the way it is, and more than likely enjoy it the way it is, the appropriateness of the line is not what's important here, its that if that line was changed nearly everyone would have noticed.

Justin Bieber

To use a more popular contemporary example I'll use a Justin Bieber song, say perhaps his popular hit baby featuring Ludacris. Now the popular chorus in that song is;

Baby, baby, baby, oh
Like baby, baby, baby, no
Like baby, baby, baby, oh
I thought you'd always be mine, mine

Now Justin Bieber has millions of fans all over the world who love him [each to their own] and sing his songs, know his song lyrics and all the dances. Imagine...I know its hard ..that a group of Justin Bierber fans met together weekly to talk about their love for him and would make a habit of singing his songs together as a group. But imagine this time someone in the group or a pair started to sing different lyrics and instead of the above sang instead;

Maybe, maybe, maybe, so
Like maybe, maybe, maybe so
Like maybe, maybe, maybe yo
You said you wouldn't mind, mind

Now we all know those bieberites would be on this like a honey badger would defend its kit [Baby honey badger]. They would in no uncertain terms let those who had changed what had been passed onto them through listening to the source of the lyrics that what they were repeating was incorrect. The strength of oral tradition is that the community protects the tradition [song lyrics in this case] from being changed because so many people are aware of what was faithfully passed onto them. The more people that know something the better it can be protected from change especially so in oral cultures where the information wasn't passed on in isolation but as part of a community.

What does this mean for the Oral Tradition of the Gospel?

In the same sense that the song lyrics are maintained, the gospels would have been passed on, memorised and protected by their community from change and especially so since they believed they were guarding and passing on Gods word. Remembering that unlike today where we rely on books and email to pass on and remember vital information. The first century Jewish community would have been highly proficient in the practice of retaining large amounts of oral information using specific mnemonics [memory aids] such as repeating something a certain amounts of times, and using music or rhyme which allowed many of the Rabbis and their students to eventually learn amounts of information we would today think almost impossible. In fact many of the devices used during that time are what many people spend thousands of pounds on at memory seminars to improve their memories today.

It should also be highlighted that that the community was not exclusively oral but was primarily so. The importance of highlighting the accuracy of oral tradition is important because many people today assume that because the gospel accounts were not written down for 25-60 years after Jesus death they must not be accurate. However as the example above demonstrates there are in fact some benefits to oral tradition that help to protect the message from change and actually perhaps have some merit over that of its written form.


  1. Why is it not possible that Jesus words were written down soon after he spoke them? He lived in a literate culture who had had writing for thousands of years. I would guess that the disciple Matthew was almost certainly literate....

  2. Hi Geoff,

    it is generally accepted by biblical scholars that there is little evidence to suggest that the gospels were written down very early. Mainly because in a oral culture there was simply little need to do so. In the disciple>teacher relationship the disciple would take great care to memorise what he was taught and the teacher likewise would teach in a way so that their key points were memorable. It only later became necessary to record the oral accounts of Jesus into a written record when people were getting older and the church was growing so that it became impractical for the apostles to travel everywhere sharing the gospel and the account of Jesus' life. Of course this doesn't rule out any of the disciples recording their accounts much earlier than many think but that simply that there is little evidence to suggest that this was the case. I personally do think the synoptic gospels were penned much earlier than is agreed upon like you appear to as-well.


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