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Why the Oral Tradition is an Unacceptable Theory

  • May 27, 2019
  • By Ben van Noort
Why the Oral Tradition is an Unacceptable Theory

Why the Oral Tradition is an Unacceptable Theory.

Around the beginning of the 19th century, the oral tradition before the gospels was taken up as a scholarly theory by  German scholars.

Reformed Theology: Denial of Jesus’s Actual Words

I’ll take some books from my shelves and give quotes to show how the oral tradition became dominant in Christian theology.

N. B. Stonehouse in Origins of the Synoptic Gospels (1964) stated:
“It is obvious therefore that the Evangelists are not concerned, at least not at all times, to report the ipsissima verba of Jesus [the actual words of Jesus].” (p. 108)

And: “What is involved rather is that the Holy Spirit guided the human authors in such a way as to insure that their records give an accurate and trustworthy impression [cursive mine] of the Lord’s teachings.” (p. 109-110)

Stonehouse was a representative of the tradition of Reformed theologians (p.110): (since 1881) A. A. Hodge, B. B. Warfield, A. Kuyper, H. Bavinck, L. Berkhof, John Muray etc. They all had the opinion that we meet in the Gospels impressions of Jesus and his words, due to the oral tradition.

It is important to mention that the theologians above made a stand for the authority of Scripture.

Lutheran Theology: Denial of Jesus’s Actual Words

W. G. Kümmel in his Einleitung in das Neue Testament (1965, 1973, 1983) wrote about the subject: “Without any doubt a period of oral tradition preceded the writing of the Gospels, in which the transition from the Aramaic into the Greek language occurred.” (own translation; 1983, p. 21)

Lutheran theologians in Germany gave the impetus for the theory of the Formgeschichte, a supposed history of changing forms (of expressions, stories and theologies in the gospels), before World War II.

Critical theologians in Germany did not and do not submit to the authority of Scripture.

Evangelical Theology: No Certainty about Jesus’s Actual Words

J. McDowell summarizes with approval in “More Evidence” (1975):
“Critics of Form Criticism [Formgeschichte] feel that stories about Jesus would have been passed down accurately. They point to the Jewish tradition of accurate oral transmission and the fact that many who knew Jesus were still alive in this period.” (p. 215)
The author did and do not deny the oral tradition and believes that oral transmission can be accurate. But is it?

F. F. Bruce stated in the monumental The New Bible Dictionary (repr. 1976):
“Most of the material in our Gospels existed for a considerable time in an oral stage before it was given the written form with which we are familiar.” (p. 484)

D. Guthry wrote in his monumental New Testament Introduction (1985 repr.):
“The existence of such an oral period immediately subsequent to the events recorded in the Gospels is undeniable.” (p. 222)

I. H. Marshall, who was president of the FEET (Fellowship of European Evangelical Theologians) for many years, explained his position as follows:
“It is clear that the basic tradition of the sayings of Jesus was modified both in the tradition and by the Evangelists in order to re-express its significance for new situations;” (The Gospel of Luke, A Commentary on the Greek text, repr. 1989, p. 33).

R. T. France formulated the evangelical point of view of the oral tradition in the New Bible Commentary, 21st Century Edition (1994) as follows:
“As memories of Jesus’ life and teaching were shared, whether in written or oral form, they were collected together in different churches, and it is quite likely that the process of compiling what eventually became our four gospels was taking place simultaneously in a number of centers, and over an extended period.” (p. 900)

In his article The Authenticity of the Sayings of Jesus (in: History, Criticism & Faith; ed. Colin Brown, 1976) he stated:
“We can never, therefore, assume that we have the ipsissima verba Jesu [actual words of Jesus]. His sayings have been translated, and in many cases paraphrased to bring out the interpretation of the evangelist and/or some earlier transmitter of the tradition.” (p. 129)

Despite the acceptance of the oral tradition by these theologians, they all accepted the authority of scripture. This was for all of them the heart of their theological work.

However, what they have said about the gospels as books, is in need of a profound revision.

Why the Oral Ttradition is Unacceptable

Jesus regularly taught that his words are necessary for salvation (John 5:24) and for a convincing Christian life (Matthew 7:24). The oral tradition casts doubts on the words of Jesus: Are they indeed his? That is enough to define the theory of the oral tradition not only as suspect, but even as unacceptable.

“Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will never pass away.” Luke 21:33

It is clear that Jesus had great trust in the professional writers who followed him and jotted down his words on their wax tablets.

Editor: I did enjoy reading it and always learn a lot from your writing. 

By Ben van Noort, May 27, 2019