The Remarkable Reliability of Oral History


Hank Hanegraaff

Article ID:



May 14, 2024


Aug 24, 2020

This article first appeared in the Practical Hermeneutics column of the Christian Research Journal , volume 41, number 03 (2018). ). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.

“Imagine playing ‘telephone,’” writes Bart Ehrman, professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, “not in a solitary living room with ten kids on a sunny afternoon in July, but over the expanse of the Roman Empire (some 2,500 miles across!), with thousands of participants, from different backgrounds, with different concerns, and in different contexts, some of whom have to translate the stories into different languages all over the course of decades. What would happen to the stories?”1

Ehrman does not leave us guessing. Biblical stories would be “modified, amplified, and embellished” — even concocted with “reckless abandon.”2 Thus, they are no more reliable than ten kids in a circle whispering stories to one another on a sunny July afternoon. In other words, Jesus is not “a liar, a lunatic, or the Lord.”3 The l-word that best fits Him is “legend.”

While I confess that neither my kids nor I have spent much time playing “telephone,” we have spent more than one sunny afternoon seeing who could spot fallacies in the latest Ehrman talk or text. In the case at hand, he commits the anachronistic fallacy. As such, he judges people in the past by values and standards in the present. In sharp contrast to the present, past generations chose oral transmission as a principal means by which to pass along historical truths. As Plato famously proffered, written history is a mere accommodation for the forgetfulness that comes with old age.4

Post-Gutenberg, we are primarily people of the printed page. As the offspring of Johannes Gutenberg, and more recently Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, we associate sound education with the capacity for reading and writing, rather than the capability of memorizing and reciting. Not so the ancients. In a predominately oral culture, people practiced the principles of memory. Indeed, learning was virtually synonymous with memorization. This, of course, does not imply that the ancients did not employ written records. Instead, it is to put the emphasis on the right syllable. Manuscript repositories augmented mental recall, not vice versa.

If there is one thing preserved in the text of Scripture, it is the injunction to record God’s words on the tablet of your heart. Think back for a moment to the early stages of Scripture. In what may well be among the most memorable of all biblical texts, Moses exhorts the people of God to impress the words of the Almighty on the tablet of their consciousness. “Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates” (Deut. 6:4–9).5 Above all, exhorts Moses, “Do not forget” (6:12).

And Moses is not alone. Solomon, who prayed for a wise and discerning heart, implored his hearers to bind the Word of God around their fingers and their necks and to write it on the tablet of their hearts (Prov. 3:1–4). More poignantly yet, the Word made flesh entreated hearers, “Let these words sink into your ears” (Luke 9:44 NASB). Joshua, the “Jesus” of the Old Testament, likewise beseeched the people of the promise: “Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful” (Josh. 1:8). It was not enough to record the sayings of understanding on a common tablet; it was to be inscribed upon the tablet of one’s consciousness.

Not only were saints in an oral culture required to discipline and dedicate themselves to recall the sayings of understanding, but sages were predisposed to present their sayings in an inherently memorable fashion. Jesus, heir to the linguistic treasure trove of the old covenant tutors and a greater wisdom teacher than them all, was a Master of mnemonics. Employing repetition, rhythm, and rhyme, He forged the inherently memorable Sermon on the Mount.

In Jesus and the Rise of Early Christianity, Paul Barnett, Anglican bishop of North Sydney, Australia, underscores the reality that Jesus expressed His teachings “in a form that could be memorized in the parallelism of Hebrew poetry” — parallelisms that may well have “represented the greater part of his teaching.”6 The brilliant German New Testament scholar Rainer Riesner —a veritable academic superstar and author of the essay “Jesus as Preacher and Teacher” — determined that approximately “eighty percent of the separate saying units” spoken by Christ “are formulated in some kind of parallelismus membrorum [parallelism of members, i.e., lines of poetry.] To this one has to add other poetical techniques such as alliteration, assonance, rhythm, and rhyme.”7 Far from being merely pleasing to the ear, such mnemonic devices were purposefully powerful. “The poetical structure of the words of Jesus made them, like the meshalim [figurative language] of the Old Testament prophets, easily memorizable and could preserve them intact. Even the form of the sayings of Jesus included in itself an imperative to remember them. It seems that the use of mnemonic devices is very seldom studied from the point of view of the psychology of the memory, but our own experience demonstrates how easy it is to learn and even to reconstruct large bodies of material, if they are in a poetical form.”8

Riesner goes on to note that scholars who reconstruct the original wording of Jesus’ sayings recognize “a cultivated oral tradition.”9 In contrast to today’s theological students who drown in a “sea of opinions” and fear formulating concepts in concise, clear, and memorable prose, “Jesus condensed the main points of his theological and ethical teachings in summaries, the aphoristic meshalim” (e.g., parables or extended metaphors). “If Jesus created a deliberate formulation and a poetical form of a teaching, then it was done not to make his hearers forget but to make them memorize. This would have been possible through the highly poetic form of most of the sayings and supported by some rote learning, either encouraged by Jesus himself or spontaneously done.”10

Suffice it to say, the disciples recognized the intended summaries of their Master because of the poetic form in which He communicated them, the stress He placed on them, and the manner in which He repeated them in His longer speeches. “These narrative meshalim were consciously pre-meditated and intended for further meditation. This meditation would have been impossible without having the mashal as an identifiable, fixed, ‘oral text.’ Only such a text could ensure that one meditated not one’s own thoughts but ‘the mystery of the kingdom.’”11

All of this, of course, is completely lost on Ehrman. Ever the fundamentalist, he not only misses the majesty of the Master’s memorable meshalim but also demands that the disciples repeat His words with every jot and tittle intact. In other words, it is not enough for the disciples to capture the essential voice of Jesus; he demands they necessarily capture the exact verbiage of Jesus. As such, Ehrman makes a federal case out of the words of Christ before Caiaphas — which must surely have his students muttering under their collective breath. When Caiaphas asks Jesus if He is the “Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One,” Mark has Jesus responding with the following words: “I am. And you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14:61–62). Conversely, Luke has Jesus saying: “I am, and from now on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God” (Luke 22:69).12 Thus, from Ehrman’s perspective, there is a serious contradiction between Mark and Luke.

Needless to say — at least it ought to be needless to say — both Mark and Luke capture the essential voice of Jesus here. What Ehrman seems blithely unaware of is that his literalistic interpretation of the Jewish clouds metaphor is precisely what Luke sought to preclude. Christ was not telling Caiaphas that he would see Him riding on a cloud-chariot of sorts, but that with the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, the court that was condemning Him would understand that He had indeed ascended to the right hand of power as the Judge of heaven and earth.

The point that should be underscored here is that the disciples, moved by the Holy Spirit, codified the essential wisdom of Jesus — not the exact words of Jesus. Put another way, they left us a memorable oral tradition rather than the words of their Master on tape.13 Indeed, like their Teacher, the disciples employed vibrant associations, vivid imagery, and visual/emotive stimuli, so that we might not only read but remember. With the background music of the Law and the Prophets coursing through their minds, they wrote of their Master, the antitype who fulfilled all the types and shadows of the old covenant constructs. When the beloved disciple spoke of two witnesses, for example, he employed a language system already deeply imbedded in the minds of those familiar with the literature of the Old Testament (Rev. 11:3ff; see Deut. 19:15; cf. John 8:17).

In Zechariah’s day, the two witnesses were Zerubbabel, the governor of Judah who returned to Jerusalem to lay the foundation of a second temple, and Joshua, the high priest commissioned to preside over its altar (Zech. 3–4; cf. Ezra 3, 5–6; Hag. 1–2). In John’s apocalypse, this imagery is invested in two witnesses who, as literary characters in an oral tradition, represent the entire line of Hebrew prophets in testifying against apostate Israel. Like Moses, the witnesses have power to turn water into blood and to strike the earth with plagues (Rev. 11:6; cf. Exod. 7ff.). Like Elijah, they have power to call down fire from heaven to consume their enemies and to shut up the sky so that it will not rain for three and a half years (Rev. 11:6; cf. 1 Kings 17:1). Like Jesus, they become sacrificial lambs before the fury of a beast. Their corpses unceremoniously litter the streets of the very city in which their Lord was crucified. The city is figuratively called Sodom in that it epitomized human wickedness and heavenly wrath, and Egypt in that it is emblematic of the slavery from which only Jesus can emancipate. Their resurrection after three and a half days parallels the resurrection of Christ in much the same way that their three and a half years of ministry mirrors that of Messiah (Rev. 11:7–12).

In sum, the witnesses form a composite portrait of the Law and the Prophets, memorably culminating in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of a Prophet and Priest who is the earnest of all who are His witnesses and who will reign with Him in a New Jerusalem wherein dwells righteousness.

The vibrant associations, vivid imagery, and visual/emotive stimuli employed by John hardly mirror Ehrman’s sophomoric parlor game. Nor were writers of sacred Scripture, such as the apostle John, equivalents of “illiterate” schoolboys as Ehrman opines.14 Indeed, in context, the “unlearned” apostles astonished Jewish teachers with their knowledge and wisdom in much the same way as Jesus Himself had (Mark 1:22) — though He too was without the prerequisite rabbinic training demanded by Ehrman. An entire adult lifetime devoted to study and the ministry of the Word of God (Acts 6:2) can easily account for the literary expertise with which Christ’s disciples transmitted oral history in the context of an oral culture.15Hank Hanegraaff

 Hank Hanegraaff is president of the Christian Research Institute and host of the Bible Answer Man daily broadcast and the Hank Unplugged podcast. Hank has authored more than twenty books, including The Complete Bible Answer Book — Collector’s Edition, revised and updated (Thomas Nelson, 2016) and M-U-S-L-I-M: What You Need to Know about the World’s Fastest-Growing Religion (Thomas Nelson, 2017).



  1. Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 52.
  2. Bart D. Ehrman, Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene: The Followers of Jesus in History and Legend (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 259.
  3. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 1952, 1980), 52.
  4. Plato, Phaedrus.
  5. Unless noted otherwise, Scripture quotations are from the NIV.
  6. Paul Barnett, Jesus and the Rise of Early Christianity: A History of New Testament Times (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 162.
  7. Rainer Riesner, “Jesus as Preacher and Teacher,” in Jesus and the Oral Gospel Tradition, ed., Henry Wansbrough (Sheffield: JSOT, 1991), 202.
  8. Riesner, “Jesus as Preacher and Teacher,” 202.
  9. Riesner, “Jesus as Preacher and Teacher,” 203.
  10. Riesner, “Jesus as Preacher and Teacher,” 204.
  11. Riesner, “Jesus as Preacher and Teacher,” 205.
  12. Scripture quotations are Ehrman’s translation, Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know about Them) (New York: HarperOne, 2009), 51.
  13. See Darrell L. Bock, “The Words of Jesus in the Gospels: Live, Jive, or Memorex?” in Michael J. Wilkins and J. P. Moreland, eds., Jesus under Fire (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995).
  14. Bart D. Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005), 39.
  15. This article is adapted from Hank Hanegraaff, Has God Spoken? Memorable Proofs of the Bible’s Divine Inspiration (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2011), 17–22.


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