Jesus Christ died, rose again, and ascended into heaven around 30 AD, give or take a few years. The church he left behind was preaching, growing, and spreading within weeks, but the written gospel accounts which describe Jesus’ life and teaching for us today were not put on paper for another several decades. Our best evidence suggests the Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) were written at the very end of the 50s AD and into the early 60s, with John following a few decades later. This leaves a striking gap of around thirty years after the events recorded by the gospel writers before they first decided to put pen to paper. Unsurprisingly, this gap has become a popular target for skeptics who argue that it represents a period during which the gospel narrative could have changed substantially, with whole new episodes or ideas–perhaps even the notions of the divinity and resurrection of Christ–drawn out of imagination rather than history.
It’s easy to understand why the disciples would not have written down their accounts initially, living as they did in a fairly localized community within a society used to oral histories. And it’s equally easy to understand why, as the disciples aged and the church spread, the need for a more lasting and portable gospel record led them to write down the accounts that form the historical core of our modern New Testament. But whatever the reason, that period before the written gospels may seem like a vulnerability; an unfortunate happenstance which can only raise questions about the reliability of the gospel narrative. In fact, though, that divinely-ordained gap ought to be embraced by Christian apologists as yet another reason to be confident in the truth of the gospel narrative.
During the thirty years before the gospel writers recorded their accounts, records of Jesus’ life and teachings were maintained and shared by the early church through oral history, overseen by the authority of the twelve apostles who had accompanied him throughout his public ministry and who he appointed as the shepherds of his little flock of Christians. While this may strike us as a very precarious way to maintain any sort of lasting record, that is because we are children of the printing press and the internet–two inventions which, for all their advantages, have absolutely destroyed the human capacity for collective memory. If we want to understand how a first-century community would have maintained oral historical records, our own culture cannot offer any useful template. Fortunately, though, a great deal of recent research has gone into the question of how collective historical memory works in societies, ancient and modern, which rely upon it.
I discussed some of this research, and the light it sheds on the early church’s ability to maintain accurate historical records through oral tradition, in a recent episode of Answers for Ambassadors, so I will merely summarize the highlights here. Briefly, the stories of Jesus’ life and teachings would have been recorded and transmitted through the collective memory of the early Christians, overseen and curated by the disciples. The accounts would have been informed by the community’s own lived experiences and recollections, stored in memories far better trained than ours, and corrected when necessary by one another and especially by the authoritative apostles. In such an environment, anthropological research tells us it takes generations for any substantial error or mythologizing to creep in.
Of course, humanly speaking, oral histories may see slight changes in unimportant details over a couple generations, but it takes hundreds of years before real, substantial errors occur. To see the implausibility of a whole community “misremembering” details like whether or not Christ claimed to be divine, or whether he actually rose from the grave, one need only think of events in our own recent history. Thirty years ago puts us in the mid-1980s, amid the Reagan years. Surely it is impossible to imagine a present-day American community in which Reagan is collectively remembered as a Democrat? Or stretch the memory a decade more and imagine our fellow Americans remembering a Nixon who finished his whole term and was fondly dismissed by admiring countrymen. The idea is absurd, even though we lack the trained memories of first-century Jews and have far more information and misinformation to distract our attention. The deeper we dig into the reality of ancient oral history, the clearer it becomes that the worrisome gap between the gospel events and the written gospel records is in fact not worrisome at all.
But I believe we ought to go further than merely laying the challenge to rest. In fact, we can point to the period before the written gospels as one of the strongest reasons for believing that our Bibles do actually record real, historical events. The reason is simple: Oral history, the form in which the gospel accounts began, is inherently self-correcting and self-protecting, unlike written accounts. Once an error is in print, there it is. Its narrative becomes stronger than its fellows, so to speak. It takes on a certain authority among contemporary readers, and its ability to be independently copied and transmitted intact across both geography and history means it is far more likely to be accepted as truth, even if it isn’t.
Imagine a hypothetical gospel writer who has his own ax to grind. Within a year or two of Jesus’ death, our author writes a biased, inaccurate account, inventing some elements out of thin air. His story probably would not gain traction within the local Christian community at Jerusalem since it was obviously false in light of their own recent experience, but imagine a few copies spreading south to Alexandria, north to Asia Minor. They circulate and are copied; eventually they even spread back down into Palestine a decade or two later, after intervening years have made memories a little less confident in the face of printed and popular counterclaims. With a little luck, such an account–simply through the competitive advantage of being first into writing–might very well become accepted truth, then and now.
In contrast, oral history’s collective memory is necessarily democratic. It is curated by a community, and any new story is limited in its initial reach, since it is literally tied to someone’s memory and mouth. Growing among people who had recently experienced the very events being described and who had strong ideological reasons for wanting to maintain an accurate account, such a history would have a thousand guardians. False narratives, whether introduced by accident or intention, would be easily recognized and discarded. It would be hard to invent a more naturally inhospitable environment for any fabrication. And remember, this is merely a description of what oral history means in societies that depend upon it. Understanding how it would work requires no religious faith or presuppositions; adding our faith in the protective oversight of the Holy Spirit only introduces a supernatural certainty in what is already a remarkably effective means for preserving accurate history.
In fact, if one wanted to record events in a first-century community in a way that would give later readers every reason for confidence in the truth of the narrative, it would be hard to imagine a more effective strategy than to commit the initial story to the collective memory and community oversight of oral history overseen by a core group of teachers; then, once the whole group was familiar with the stories, commit them to paper within that same community, guaranteeing that only accurate, genuine accounts would be accepted and disseminated in written form. Interesting, isn’t it, that that is exactly the path God chose for his inspired word?