I’ve been talking about how scholars began to realize in the early 20th century that the stories of Jesus in the Gospels were based on oral traditions that the Gospel writers inherited decades earlier.  But is that really a problem?  Here’s how I discuss the issue in my book Jesus Before the Gospels (HarperOne, 2016).


Many people, when they first consider the reality that the traditions in our Gospels must have circulated orally for decades before being written down, come up with a commonsensical response.  Surely the sayings of Jesus, and the accounts of his life, were actually memorized by his followers, so that they would be preserved accurately.  Aren’t oral cultures known for being able to preserve their traditions spotlessly?  After all, since they didn’t have written records to keep their memories alive, people in such cultures must have worked with special diligence to remember what they learned and to pass their stories along seamlessly from one person and one generation to the next.  Right?

Unfortunately, decades of intense research have shown that this idea is probably not right at all, as we will see at greater length in chapter 5, when I talk about what anthropologists have learned about oral cultures and how they preserve their traditions.   For now I want to focus on a specific question:  wouldn’t Jesus’ followers have memorized his teachings and made sure that the stories about his life were not altered as they were told and retold?

The scholar who is best known for advancing such a view was

a Scandinavian specialist in New Testament and early Judaism named Birger Gerhardsson.   Gerhardsson’s most significant book appeared in 1961, Memory and Manuscript.[1]   The book was written specifically to attack the views of the form critics, who continued to exercise their influence in his day, over 40 years after their work had begun to appear.  The virtue of Gerhardsson’s very long study was that it took seriously the reality that Jesus was a first-century Jew, and that to appreciate what it meant to be a Jewish teacher at the time we have to look at historical sources of information.

Gerhardsson was especially interested in what is called rabbinic Judaism.  That is the Judaism based on the teachings of the rabbis, as known from later Jewish sources such as the Mishnah and the Talmud.[2]   It is known from these lengthy and complicated sacred texts that rabbis developed distinctive teachings about the Jewish law, and in fact devised a set of laws that were corollary to the written law of Moses as found in the Hebrew Bible, the Torah.   These other laws are sometimes known as the oral law.

Gerhardsson maintained that an ancient rabbi would instruct his students in the oral law not simply by lecturing but by having them memorize his teachings.  Memorization was the very first step in learning, and it happened through constant repetition.  That is to say, even before a disciple could learn the interpretation of his rabbi’s sayings, he needed to memorize them verbatim, word-by-word.  Only then, once the teachings were memorized, would the student be allowed to engage in the task of interpretation.  In Gerhardsson’s summary statement:  “The pupil is thus in duty bound to maintain his teacher’s exact words.  But the teacher is also responsible for seeing that the exact wording is preserved… He must repeat it over and over again, until he has actually passed it on to his pupil or pupils, i.e., until they know the passage in question by heart.”[3]    Gerhardsson argued that since Jesus was a Jewish teacher, he too must have trained his disciples that way.  This is what it meant to be a rabbi.

This is obviously a very appealing view.  It situates Jesus in a Jewish historical context that we know about from other sources and it makes sense of the idea that his followers were disciples who would have been eager to commit his teachings to memory.  Unfortunately, very few scholars find Gerhardsson’s views convincing.  In part that is because there is almost no evidence for them.

Critics have noted several major problems.[4]   The first is that when applied to Jesus, the pedagogical practices of the rabbinic texts are anachronistic.  That is to say – at least to some degree — Gerhardsson is reading back into an earlier period information that we have for only a much later time.  As I pointed out, Gerhardsson bases his views on what we know from the Mishnah and the Talmud.   The Mishnah is the first surviving body of rabbinic materials, and it is usually dated to around the year 200 CE.  The Babylonian Talmud is much later, around the sixth century.    Jesus, of course, lived long before either one, as a teacher active in the 20s of the first century– nearly two hundred years before the Mishnah, the earlier of these texts.  Both the Mishnah and the later Talmud do preserve materials from earlier periods, but experts in rabbinic materials do not think that we can take practices written around the year 200 and assume that they have any relevance for the situation in the year 29.   That would be somewhat like taking American legal procedures of the year 2000 and saying that they applied to the 1820s.

Moreover, there is nothing in the tradition to suggest that Jesus was a rabbi in the later technical sense – or that anyone at all was in his day.  Rabbinic Judaism began to be a significant feature of the Jewish religion after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, when the rabbis (who were probably to be connected with the earlier Pharisaic form of Judaism) became prominent among Jewish teachers.   Jesus, of course, was living well before that.  What happened later is of limited relevance to the situation in his day.

It should also be stressed that, as anyone who reads the Gospels knows, there is not a single word about Jesus having his followers memorize his teachings.  He does not have a set “oral law” that he passes along.  He does not drill the disciples to make sure they remember his exact words.   And so Gerhardsson’s views appear to be anachronistic.

[1] Birger Gerhardsson, Memory and Manuscript: Oral Tadition and Written Transmission in Rabbinic Judaism and Early Christianity.   2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998; first edition 1961.

[2] These are sacred texts from centuries later.  See my discussion on pp. xxx.

[3] Memory and Manuscript, p. 133.

[4] See E. P. Sanders and Margaret Davies, Studying the Synoptic Gospels (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1989) pp. 129-32.

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  1. Bennett May 23, 2023 at 8:07 am

    I must have my dates scrambled. Didn’t Hillel live before Jesus, and wasn’t he instrumental in the development of the Talmud and the Mishnah? Wouldn’t he have been considered a Rabbi? Paul speaks of being taught by Gamaliel, who was the grandson of Hillel, right?

    • BDEhrman May 28, 2023 at 12:49 pm

      The Mishnah was produced around 200 CE and the Talmuds in the fifth and then sixth centuries. Hillel was active somewhat before the time of Jesus. Yes, later he was considered a key “rabbi” but at the time there wasn’t some kind of official designation of “rabbi” as there was later (by the rabbis who claimed Hillel as their forebear)

  2. TomTerrific May 23, 2023 at 9:39 am

    Excellent essay, Dr. B.

  3. Hank_Z May 23, 2023 at 10:44 am

    The sayings attributed to Jesus were worded differently in the Gospels. Thus, the Gospel provide only evidence against Gerhardsson’s thesis, rather than in favor of it. How did Gerhardsson handle that?

    • BDEhrman May 28, 2023 at 12:50 pm

      Yup, it’s always struck me (since I first heard of his work) as a real stumbling block!

  4. DoubtingTom May 23, 2023 at 11:54 am

    Besides, what need was there for memorization, since the end was coming any day?

  5. EricBrown May 31, 2023 at 11:52 am

    Love the article and it lands its point well. But I suspect you would be surprised how similar American legal procedures were in the 1820 to today’s. Precedent and interpretation would be very different, for sure. But the forms I think would be surprisingly familiar.

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