Have you ever played Telephone? You know, the game in which one person whispers a sentence to someone else, that person whispers what she or he hears to the next person in the circle, and so on? At the end, the first person and the last person reveal their sentences,
and everyone laughs at how much the sentence changed between the first and last communicators. According to New Testament critic Dr. Bart Ehrman, this is precisely what happened to the earliest stories about Jesus.2
“What would happen” – according to Dr. Ehrman – is that the stories about Jesus would end up radically changed. “Stories were changed with what would strike us today as reckless abandon,” Ehrman claims. “They were modified, amplified, and embellished. And sometimes they were made up.”3
But are Dr. Ehrman’s claims true? Did the earliest Christians actually change stories with “reckless abandon”?
As it turns out, historical evidence from the first century A.D. simply doesn’t support Dr. Ehrman’s reconstruction.
HOW FIRST-CENTURY ORAL HISTORY FUNCTIONED
In the first place, there is a vast difference between how oral history would fare in today’s world and how accurately people in the ancient world might have preserved the same tradition. People in today’s technologized world – surrounded by high levels of literacy and easy access to writing materials – are accustomed to recording important information in written form. So, most people today probably would have a tough time maintaining consistent, reliable oral history for more than a few months. Not so in the ancient world. Especially among the Jews, important teachings were told and retold in rhythmic, repetitive patterns so that students could memorize key truths.4 As a result, it was possible for a rabbi’s oral teachings to remain amazingly consistent from one generation to the next.
These rabbinic patterns of rhythm and repetition are present throughout Jesus’ teachings. For example, the word “blessed” begins each line of the Beatitudes and Jesus repeats the phrases “you have heard it said” and “but I say to you” in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5: 1 -7, 21-47). Such patterns are distinct features of ancient oral traditions.
What’s more, there is evidence that it wasn’t only Jesus’ teachings that circulated orally. It seems that brief summaries of the essential events of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection circulated in the same way. Let’s look at one example of how oral histories were passed from one group of Christians to another. A short time after Jesus died on the cross, a consistent oral account of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus emerged-apparently from eyewitnesses of these events!
So, where can you find this oral history?
It’s found in the New Testament, in the writings of St. Paul. While dealing with some theological controversies in the city of Corinth, the apostle Paul recalled and recorded an oral account of Jesus’ resurrection. St. Paul’s primary purpose in preserving these words was to remind the Corinthians of the truths that he had proclaimed among
them three years earlier, around A.D. 50. Yet there are clues in St. Paul’s words that show how quickly an oral account of Jesus’ resurrection emerged among his first followers and how consistent the tradition remained as it circulated. Here’s what St. Paul said to the Corinthians:
For I handed over to you what I also received:
That the Messiah died on behalf of our sins according to the Scriptures,
And that he was buried,
And that he rose on the third day according to the Scriptures,
And that he was seen by Cephas,
then the Twelve;
then, he was seen
by more than five hundred brothers at once; . . .
then, he was seen by James,
then by all the apostles.
(l Corinthians 15: 3-7)
So, how can scholars know that these words actually came from an early oral history? In the first place, St. Paul introduced this summation with two Greek words that clearly indicated it was oral tradition. These two words were paradidomi (“handed over” in the translation above) and paralambano (“received”). Ancient readers understood
these two words – when used together – to imply that the writer was quoting words that he or she intended to become oral tradition.
HOW THE STORY STAYED THE SAME
A fixed tradition emerged less than thirty-six months after Jesus’ crucifixion, near the place of His death, at a time when Jesus’ first followers and family members were still living! It is therefore unlikely that the earliest Christians recklessly changed these traditions. Otherwise, how could St. Paul – writing three years after he first visited Corinth – have said to the Corinthians immediately before he quoted this oral history, “I am reminding you, brothers, about the good proclamation that I proclaimed to you” (1 Corinthians 15:1)? For St. Paul to have made such a statement, he must have proclaimed a similar tradition in each place that he visited. And there’s every reason to believe that this same tradition was the one that St. Paul heard in Jerusalem, only months after Jesus’ death.
So, is Dr. Ehrman correct when he implies that two decades pass before any clear tradition about Jesus’ resurrection emerged?
The historical evidence suggests the precise opposite: Within months of Jesus’ death, a consistent oral account of Jesus’ resurrection emerged among his followers. What’s more, this tradition did not change from person to person, like a game of Telephone gone terribly wrong. To the contrary, the tradition remained relatively unchanged throughout the first two decades of Christian faith.