I’ve been discussing modern explanations of how the traditions about Jesus found in the Gospels could in fact be historically accurate even if they were passed on by word of mouth over the years and decades before anyone wrote them down. The natural suspicion is that stories that get told and retold by different story tellers in different times and places year after year will change, somewhat significantly, and that some tales and sayings attributed to an important figure will be invented, with no historical basis at all. It happens all the time.
It probably has happened to you. Someone says you did or said something and it’s just not true. Most of them time when you find out about it you are not amused – especially if it’s someone who actually knows you. At other times you might think it is indeed amusing.
But isn’t it different with the ancient world, and especially with stories being told about Jesus? In my previous posts I talked about the theory of a New Testament scholar (Gerhaardson) that Jesus’ followers memorized his words and deeds and passed them along making sure they didn’t change them, and showed why it the theory just doesn’t work.
But there’s another relatively more recent theory that a lot of people think sounds completely plausible and compelling. Here is how I discuss it in my book Jesus Before the Gospels (Harper, 2016).
The theory is put forth by an author named Kenneth Bailey, whose views have been championed by several scholars, including the New Testament expert James Dunn. Bailey is not himself a specialist in the New Testament. He is a Christian who has spent decades as a teacher in the Middle East. On the basis of his extensive experience, he has written books about how modern Middle Eastern culture can illuminate the life and teachings of Jesus from the New Testament.
Most important for our purposes here is an article he wrote in 1991, called “Informal Controlled Oral Tradition and the Synoptic Gospels.” In this article Bailey argues that the early communities of the followers of Jesus were very similar to villagers in the Middle East today, who have traditions they pass along in informal contexts in which they take measures to ensure that the traditions are preserved accurately.
Bailey relates, from personal experience,