By Matt1618


In this paper I will examine the reliability of oral tradition in reference to scripture. I will examine Kenneth Bailey’s article in the Asia Journal of Theology “Informed Controlled Oral Tradition and the Synoptic Gospels.” What does this article do, and how does it affect notions of modern scholarship? How does this interact with the many scholars who put into doubt many of the New Testament stories about Jesus? I will see how Bailey’s assertions affect not only the scholarship of people like Rudolf Bultmann, but also more recent scholars such as E. P. Sanders and others wary of the reliability of oral tradition. Do the criticisms of the reliability of oral traditions still stand? I will also examine arguments of those who are more receptive to the reliability of oral tradition. Many of the concepts asserted by both the defenders and critics of oral tradition, although in this study limited to the Synoptic Gospels, can likewise be applied elsewhere in the New Testament.

N. T. Wright gives us a short summary in his book the way that scholars view oral tradition and the early church (N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996) 134). The ones who are skeptical of the reliability of the oral tradition in relation to the church and scripture is most exemplified by Rudolf Bultmann, and modern scholars such as Dominic Crossan and E. P. Sanders. The traditions may have started with the historical person Jesus, but the church was in effect unorganized and the tradition was shaped by the needs of the people. The oral tradition’s concern was not about history, but in building up the faith of the community. The traditions about Jesus became uncontrolled and unchecked. By the time that the stories of Jesus were put into writing, the authors of the gospel wrote things that actually had no concern for actual history.

Wright also alluded to authors such as Gehardsson and Riesenfeld who suggest that Jesus taught his disciples fixed forms of teachings which were formal and controlled. The apostles learned directly from Jesus, and passed it on to leaders who would follow them and pass it on to others, in a formal, scholastic way; however, this tradition could only be passed on to the laity via these leaders to assure reliability. This tradition was tightly controlled. This formal, tightly controlled tradition assures the reliability of the gospel according to these authors.

Kenneth Bailey did a detailed study of the Middle Eastern culture to examine oral traditions and their reliability. As Wright notes, there are both informal, uncontrolled traditions that people such as Bultmann profess, and formal controlled traditions in the Middle Eastern culture; however, he found much more prevalent a way not found in either Bultmann or Gehardsson: informal, and controlled traditions. Bailey proposes that the informal, controlled traditions lay the groundwork for the Synoptic Gospels.

Bailey notes that in studies often the modern Western researcher can posit the tradition of the transmission of the Rabbinic schools or project some other tradition method modeled after the researcher’s own inherited Western experience or imagination. Bailey correctly notes that often the Western cultural models and mental attitudes is imposed upon the Middle Eastern cultural world, and thus a great deal of subjectivism is often involved (Kenneth Bailey, “Informal, Controlled, Oral Tradition and the Synoptic Gospels” Asia Journal of Theology, 5.1 (1991): 34)

Those from the skeptical school such as Bultmann and Crossan will denigrate the fact the Jesus and his tradition started from a peasant society. As the people are ‘uneducated’ it would be impossible for a tradition to be passed on accurately. On the other hand, the Gehardsson school will authenticate oral tradition through the formal training and quick passing of the oral tradition until it becomes a reliable tradition.

Bailey went directly into the Middle Eastern culture and experience and lived 30 years and studied it before his conclusions were brought. Of course no one can be perfectly objective, but his study of a culture that is much unchanged in some areas since bible times is noteworthy.

Bailey notes the reliability of formal, controlled traditions per that as outlined by Gerhardsson does exist. A second century poet and heretic Bardaisan disseminated his views by composing stanza after stanza of seven-syllable-per-line Syriac hymns. Nearly 200 years later, his material (and heresy) was still firmly entrenched in the Syriac community. St. Ephrem composed stanza after stanza of poetry using the same seven-syllable-per-line method that opposed his heresy. St. Ephrem’s hymns displaced Bardaisan’s heresy. At the ‘Atshai’ Syrian Orthodoxy seminary in Lebanon, the young students still converse in fourth century Syriac and sing Ephrem’s songs. There still is no need for books (Bailey 40). This has been passed on for almost two millennia through purely oral tradition in a formal setting.

In the village setting, Bailey saw more often an informal, controlled tradition. He saw the community preserving its store of traditions. There would be a gathering of villagers in the evening for the telling of stories and the recitation of poetry, stories, poems and other traditional materials that are told and recited through the evening, anyone can participate. Elders do the reciting and everyone else who listens are the informal “students”. How treasured and well kept are these traditions? One who was from outside the village and lived in the village for 37 years was not in long enough to be allowed in public to recite the village tradition. It was guarded as a treasure.

Bailey identified five types of material preserved in oral traditions for common people, with varying types of controls of the transmission: 1) Middle Eastern people express their values through proverbs, the creating and preserving of wisdom and sayings; 2) Story riddles - a teacher is presented with an unsolvable problem; 3) poetry - a distinct unlettered form of verse. The person who recites this is called a Sajali; 4) parable or story; 5) Well-told accounts of the important figures in the history of the village or community (Bailey 41-42).

Bailey identifies three types of flexibility exercised by the community in these five types of traditions: 1) No flexibility - Proverbs and poems (1 and 3 above). There are reciters who are bound to repeat word for word proverbs and poems. If the reciter quotes a proverb with so much as a word missing, he subjects himself to public correction, and thereby to public humiliation. Exact memorization of these types of traditions are taken for granted, with no changes in wording allowed.

2) Some flexibility - The telling of stories and parables (4 and 5 above). In a story some flexibility is allowed, and the order of events could be reversed. The flows of the story and its conclusion have to remain the same. The summary punch line is inviolable, as are the names of the characters in the story. Any proverbs within the story have to be repeated verbatim, otherwise the teller would be rejected. The story teller has a certain freedom to tell the story in his own way as long as the central thrust of the story is not changed (Bailey 42-44). To change the basic story line while retelling the account is unthinkable. Historical narratives important to the lives of individuals and villages also fall into this second level of flexibility that provides for both continuity and freedom for individual interpretations of the tradition. Flexibility is possible but authenticity is assured. Many of the Synoptic Gospels narratives and parables would fall into this category of flexibility.

3) Total flexibility - This is the type that Bultmann and Crossan assert is standard, where the substance of things are changed. Here is where exaggerations are possible. Bailey does admit that that this does occasionally happens; nevertheless, Bailey found that this only happens in jokes, casual news of the day, and material that is irrelevant to the identity of the community and is not judged wise or valuable (Bailey 45).

Bailey relates a tradition of the founder of the Egyptian Evangelical community, John Hogg. Hogg found the community in the 1850s and 1860s and there were many traditions of what he did. 50 years later, his daughter wrote the material based purely on oral stories told to her. Then 50 years later, Bailey separately and independently dipped into the same tradition in 1955-1965. Bailey found the same stories told with almost identical wording (Bailey 46-47). Neither exaggeration or embellishment occurred.

We see in Bailey’s study a relatively inflexible core of information which went along with it a community controlled freedom to vary the story according to individual perspective(Bailey 47). In the case of John Hogg, the material was preserved because he was the founder of that community. His deeds and actions were relevant to the lives of this Christian community. This was an affirmation of the identity of the reciters of that tradition. Bailey makes an important comment in relation to early Christianity and history: “In the light of the reality described above the assumption that the early Christians were not interested in history becomes untenable” (Bailey 50). The very words and deeds of Jesus affirm their own unique identity. Bailey observed a classical methodology for preservation, control, and transmission of tradition that provides on the one hand, assurance of authenticity and, on the other hand freedom within limits for various forms of that tradition. Bailey correctly notes that the same types of material that appear in the Synoptic Gospels include proverbs, parables, historical narratives, etc. that are the same forms that we have found preserved by informal controlled oral traditions (Bailey 50).

Bailey’s conclusion is that the informal yet controlled oral tradition “accounts for both event and interpretation, continuity and discontinuity, fixity and fluidity, and it is our suggestion that it can provide a methodology with which to perceive and interpret the bulk of the material (Synoptic Gospels) before us (Bailey 51).”

CRITICS OF THE RELIABILITY OF ORAL TRADITION Bailey’s thesis puts into question the theories of many modern scholars. Many take for a fact that the gospels were written late first century. Their theory is that there are many additions and changes to miracles, parables, and historical narratives in the gospels. Even if one grants late dating (which many scholars do not), Bailey’s thesis would validate the authenticity of the events recorded. I found in my research no critiques of Bailey’s study, which puts a dagger into the theories of modern scholars. Here I will put forth here some of the theories prevalent and in the next section see how Bailey’s theories interact with them in regards to oral tradition.

Bultmann starts with the presupposition that Jesus never believed himself to be the messiah. He asserts that we can “now know almost nothing concerning the life and personality of Jesus, since the early Christian sources show no interest in either, are moreover fragmentary and often legendary” (Rudolf Bultmann, Jesus and the Word, trans. Louise Pettibone Smith and Erminine Huntress Lantero (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958) 8-9). According to Bultmann, much of what is reported is legend, which he defines as such:
Legends are those parts of the tradition which are not miracle stories in the proper sense, but instead of being historical in character are religious and edifying. For the most part they include something miraculous but not necessarily so, as e.g. the cult legends of the last supper do not exhibit anything distinctively miraculous....This context can be the life of some religious hero: that yields a biographical legend or the context may be the faith and the cult of community; that yields a faith-or cult-legend.... I do not think it is possible to separate historical stories from legends, for although there are admittedly some passages of a purely legendary character, the historical stories are so much dominated by the legends that they can only be treated along with them (Rudolf Bultmann, The History of the Synoptic Tradition, trans. John Marsh (New York: Scribner’s, 1963) 244-246).

Bultmann thus argues that the tradition that formed the gospel was uncontrolled (Bultmann, The History of the Synoptic Tradition, trans. John Marsh (New York: Scribner’s, 1963) 370). The passion and resurrection was the center of the story. Tradition had to be presented as a unity, and Jesus had to be pictured as the Son of God, suffered, died, and risen. All the events in his life were enhanced to suit that purpose. According to Bultmann, the Christ myth gives Mark’s book a biographical unity based upon the “myth” of kerygma. Matthew and Luke enhanced the myth and thus completely violated the historical tradition. This conclusion is in direct opposition to Bailey’s analysis.

Bultmann stressed that all events in the gospel are a product of the Hellenistic Church. Supposedly the gospel’s origin rests on two factors: 1) On the Hellenistic church taking over the Palestinian tradition, as can be seen by the gospel being written in Greek. 2) On new motives in the Church which produced the shaping of the traditional material into a gospel.

Bultmann also charges that once the wealth of the oral tradition dried up, the need grew for a full and definitive story of Jesus. The Christ who is preached is the Christ of faith and the cult (Bultmann, The History of the Synoptic Tradition, trans. John Marsh (New York: Scribner’s, 1963) 370). The kerygma of Christ is cultic legend and the gospels are expanded cultic legends.

E.P. Sanders and Margaret Davies are more recent scholars who attack the authenticity of the oral tradition and thus the gospels. Sanders quite as a matter of factly writes that two views of oral tradition should be dismissed: 1) Jesus lived in a pre-literate society where everyone memorized everything. In fact, according to Sanders, memorization was no more automatic then than now; 2) In fact, in Jesus’ day, the time of oral epics was long past.

Following Bultmann’s theory, Sanders writes that the early Christians altered and reapplied stories and sayings of Jesus. Due to what he perceives as a ‘synoptic problem’, they felt quite free to make up material and attribute it to Jesus (E. P. Sanders and Margaret Davies, Studying the Synoptic Gospels (Philadelphia : Trinity Press International, 1989) 138). He saw for example, the early Christian community having a long laborious dispute in regards to the binding of Jewish dietary laws (Acts 10, 15, and Gal. 2). In order to settle the dispute, supposedly Mark or his predecessor created a saying of Jesus which declared all foods clean. The reason for creating this saying and attributing it to Jesus is the fact that people believed in revelation and could thus attribute it to him. The Sanders argument that this was made up in Mark to settle the dispute is questionable because none of those Christians who wrote any of the scriptures alluded to Mark 7 to settle the dispute.

He quotes Paul as attributing new sayings to Jesus and stated that in reference to spiritual gifts prophets quoted the Lord (1 Cor. 2:9-13; 14:1-3). Further, when Paul had the thorn in the flesh, Jesus replied “My grace is sufficient for you...” (1 Cor. 12:9) (Sanders 140). From those statements in scripture, Sanders draws the conclusion that therefore, people can create sayings of Jesus and put it back in the gospels. Elsewhere Sanders lauds Schweitzer, whose work he saw as brilliant. Schweitzer wrote that Jesus died disillusioned (Sanders 27). Sanders saw Schweitzer as objective.

Oivind Anderson also asserts that oral tradition can easily stray from the facts. He downgrades any historical character of oral tradition:
“There can be no sense of history. As there are no testimonies, independent of the oral tradition and by which tradition may be checked, so there can be no recourse to an indisputable, immutable source for ‘how it really was’ and more importantly - no need is felt for a definitive version of the past because no use can be made for it. Therefore, there can not be an exposition of the past in an oral culture, only exploitation. The past is embedded in the present. It may be stated as an ‘oral law’ that the present takes precedence over the past” (Oivant Anderson, “Oral Tradition”, Jesus and the Oral Gospel Traiditon, ed. Henry Wansbrough, vol. 64 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1991) 23).

Elsewhere Andersen asserts that in oral communication the transmitter may transform the situation. It is in the nature of tradition to be adaptive. The oral situation is structured but open. Supposedly, in oral culture new elements are accommodated and new versions are developed to assist the needs and aspirations of the culture (Anderson 18, 22). Kelber writes that orality’s prime concern is “not to preserve historical actuality, but to shape and break into memorable, applicable speech” (Werner H. Kelber, The Oral and the Written Gospel (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1973) 71).

Andersen writes that the written text is needed to serve as a basis for learning the message by heart. The means to check it meaningfully establish themselves only when writing has made the text available as an object and a fixed entity outside and independent of the mind. Andersen then writes that “Facts of the narrative soon part company with the facts of history ”( Andersen 40-41, 51.

We have seen some of the reasons that scholars reject oral tradition as being an accurate transmission of the facts. First, we saw Bultmann write that history was not important to those who relied on oral tradition. Their main concern was the Post Easter faith, and legends were created to support that faith. The other scholars mentioned likewise asserted that historical accuracy was not important to the transmitters of the kerygma. On the contrary, Bailey’s study showed that in the Middle East, those things that were important to the community, found their identification in their origins. Foundational facts were not allowed to be changed. The Christian community was founded by Jesus Christ, and thus the whole community’s basis was in the person of Jesus Christ and the things that he did. The culture would not allow such changes as imagined by Bultmann, Sanders, etc. Sanders’ theory that denigrated memorization is refuted by both the study of Hogg and the ancient Lebanese Christian community, both past and present.

Definitely related to the issue above is the method of transmission of the above data about Christ. Bultmann, Sanders, etc., believe the tradition that transmitted the theology and history of Jesus was informal and uncontrolled. There was no leadership that controlled this tradition of the stories of Jesus, and thus was informal. The stories about Jesus were easily shaped to the transmitters need and were uncontrolled. They trumpeted that there was no history of scholarly control of this tradition. Bailey’s study showed that this Western idea of oral tradition was out of step with the tradition of the communities of the Middle East. In the villages, recitation of the very types of stories that are found in the Synoptic Gospels were practiced, and all participated.

Bailey’s example of the story about Hogg (see pp. 5-6) showed that the communities passed these traditions more often informally but carefully maintained over a period of 100 years, stories about the founder of their community. The written transmission (done by independent Western authors 50 years apart) of the oral tradition in regards to the founder of a community showed no altering of facts. This debunks Andersen’s theory that “facts of the narrative soon part company with the facts of history.” Bailey also showed that this tradition was known and transmitted from the top of the community to the bottom. So the fact that critics made much that the people “only” could transmit the stories orally, and were not educated in the western sense, did not mean that stories were uncontrollably changed. Invention of new stories was not present, although some freedom was given in presenting different aspects of the events. The main things could not be touched.

The theory of Sanders that since Paul and others believed in continuing revelation, and others in the community felt free to make these stories up because they believed in this continuing revelation is a stretch and does not match with Bailey’s study of the culture. If main things were changed in stories that altered the facts, it was in effect anathema to the community. In the Middle Eastern villages, no new stories were added that would effect the foundation of the community. If Bailey’s analysis is true, the fact that there were prophets in the New Testament church gave no one the liberty to make up new stories about the founder (Jesus).

OTHER AUTHORS ON ORAL TRADITION RELIABILITY When the only way of transmitting information is limited to oral tradition, tremendous deeds can be accomplished. Bailey had found people who had stores of data in his mind, and when he asked the person for such a such a fact, he was able to pool through his mind, until he could recite the answer for a question. Leon-Dufour mentions an illiterate Indian mother who could recite in total a Hindu prayers as long as his book (285 pages) (Xavier Leon-Dufour, The Gospels of the Jesus of History, trans. and ed. John Hchugh. (New York: Desclee Company, 1968) 195). It is also well known for example that illiterate Muslims can in some cases recite the whole Quran.

There are other factors that can be pointed to that show the likelihood of the oral tradition during the time of Christ to be pointers to a reliable written text. Leon-Dufour writes:
1) “ The ancients were in a world in which memories are far more exact than in our own; 2) Even in English, many of Jesus’ sayings are unforgettable; 3) Many of the sayings which we possess in Greek are evidently translations from Aramaic.*( M. Black documents this in “An Aramaic Approach to the Gospels”. However space precludes discussion. 4) From the beginning, the gospel was preached both in Greek and Aramaic. These arguments favor the reliability of oral traditions about Jesus” (Leon-Dufour 196).

Many of the sayings of Jesus are indeed both revolutionary and unforgettable, even to those of us in the 20th century. All the more would they be unforgettable to those who were organized specifically around his person. These people would risk persecution precisely because they would vouch for the authenticity of this oral tradition.

There was no doubt a living tradition that existed before the bible was written. According to Gieseler, in antiquity memorization was a living reality, and was cultivated successfully and was more reliable than fixed documents. The fact that it took years for scripture to be written and canonized show that there was a relative indifference of the early church as long as the living tradition existed (Boe Reicke, The Roots of the Synoptic Gospels (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988) 11).

I will also look briefly look at Riesenfeld who wrote that the authenticity of the oral tradition is verified (or controlled) as Bailey’s research is found, but in a formal way as opposed to the informal way that Bailey found. Riesenfeld asserts that according to scripture, the apostles were devoted to service of the Word (Acts 6:2). This would include the recounting of the words and deeds of Jesus (Harald Riesenfeld, The Gospel Tradition (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970) 18).

Riesenfeld theorizes that the church used the synagogue method of oral teaching with teachers and pupils. It would be formally controlled. He writes that the tradition is “The rigidly controlled transmission of matter from one who has the mastery of it to another who has been specially chosen to learn it”(Riesenfeld 16) There would be authorized bearers of this tradition and the teacher watched over its memorizing by approved pupils, who when they became teachers, would likewise pass it on. It would not be entrusted to everybody, as Bultmann alleged, to twist to their own use. Scripture would be based on this reliable tradition.

We have seen that the Syriac Christian community does indeed formally pass on tradition for centuries (St. Ephrem); nevertheless, Bailey’s study shows that most oral traditions are passed on informally.. That does not destroy the concept of an accurate transmission of the tradition. Even in an informal process of handing on tradition, the tradition is still controlled, even if diffused throughout all of Christian society.

Bailey’s study has shown that the culture of the Middle East is a far cry from the 20th century Western civilization’s assessment of it. Western scholarship has an inherent skepticism of oral tradition and its reliability. This skepticism is played out in the rejection of many scholars of the authenticity of the events as portrayed in the written gospels. Bailey has shown that oral tradition that he found in the Middle East can lay a big foundation for our understanding of the similarities and dissimilarities found in the Synoptic Gospels. Tradition as studied by Bailey is shown to accurately reflect events that are foundational to the community. The Christian community’s whole foundation is based on the person of Jesus. We saw the whole community that was founded by Hogg telling the same stories about him 100 years and 50 years after the events. These oral traditions were documented by two separate writers (Hogg’s daughter and Bailey) in almost identical words..

We also saw that there was sufficient variability, and flexibility given to the transmitters of the stories, to tell these stories in his own way. One event can be looked at in different ways, but the core of the story was not allowed to be changed. Order of events were allowed to be changed. That exactly fits the description of the Synoptic Gospels. Variations and emphases are different, but the core of the stories are maintained.

The assumptions and assertions of those who criticize the authenticity of oral tradition, and thus the gospels, Bailey has shown to be false. The creative ability of the cultures, as elaborated by Bultmann, Sanders, does not mean that they were able to alter facts, or invent legends. As many try to date the scriptures late, and thus make it second or third generation Christians who actually wrote, the Bailey thesis could even grant, but still would not affect the authenticity of the events of the gospel.


Anderson, Oivant. “Oral Tradition”, Jesus and the Oral Gospel Traiditon. ed. Henry Wansbrough. vol. 64. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1991.
Bailey, Kenneth. “Informal, Controlled, Oral Tradition and the Synoptic Gospels.” Asia Journal of Theology. 5.1 (1991) 34-54.
Bultmann, Rudolf. Jesus and the Word. Trans. Louise Pettibone Smith and Erminine Huntress Lantero. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958.
Bultmann, Rudolf. The History of the Synoptic Tradition. Trans. John Marsh. New York: Scribner’s, 1963.
Kelber, Werner H. The Oral and the Written Gospel. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1973.
Leon-Dufour, Xavier. The Gospels of the Jesus of History. Trans. and ed. John McHugh. New York: Desclee Company, 1968.
Reicke, Boe. The Roots of the Synoptic Gospels. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988.
Riesenfeld, Harald. The Gospel Tradition. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970.
Sanders, E. P. and Davies, Margaret. Studying the Synoptic Gospels. Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1989.
Wright, N.T. Jesus and the Victory of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996.

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