In my previous post I discussed a seemingly-plausible explanation for how modern ways of telling stories in small communities in the Middle East today can show that the Gospels may well represent literal word-for-word depictions of what Jesus said and did. Here I show why in fact the theory does not work, as laid out in my book Jesus Before the Gospels (Harper, 2016)
As we have seen, Bailey argued that modern tellers in the Middle East today work in a small community context, where the stories of a village’s past (its key figures, its main events) are circulated in group meetings in the presence of others who observed the events as well and make sure to correct what a particular story teller says when he gets a detail awry. That, Baily argues, is what happened in the ancient world as well — so stories about Jesus were preserved intact through the presence of others who knew them and could provide checks and balances for accuracy.
The problem is that this claim (whether or not it’s actually true) presupposes that storytellers of a village’s traditions (in the modern day) were eyewitnesses to the events they describe, so that one member of the community can set another one straight when they get something wrong. But how does that apply to the Gospel accounts of Jesus? What would make anyone think that the only people telling stories about Jesus – even in Palestine in the first century – were eyewitnesses who observed what Jesus said and did? Are we to imagine that eyewitnesses fanned out and rooted themselves in every village of Palestine where someone told stories of Jesus, to make sure no one got any of the facts wrong? Not only is that inherently implausible, but according to the New Testament book of Acts, the disciples of Jesus stayed for the most part in Jerusalem once the church had begun after Jesus’ death.
Even if eyewitness did settle in all the villages of Palestine, how would that relate to our broader concern, which is how the Gospel writers got their information? The Gospel writers were not from Palestine. We don’t know what cities they lived in, but they were in Greek-speaking areas of the Roman empire. What are the chances that in their churches only eyewitnesses were telling the stories?