The Gospels: Reliable Records of Jesus' Words
June 1, 2001
by Scot McKnight
"Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have."
—1 Peter 3:15, NIV
"Words to live by"— this is how the first followers of Jesus must have treated His words. The first- century culture was not a literary culture but an
The stories of Jesus would have been told and retold by His followers for decades. When the Gospels were written down, the stories gathered would not have been brand-new stories for the communities worshiping Jesus, but memories of stories they had heard again and again.
Oral cultures focus on important concrete elements. These elements become part of a tradition that all members learn and relive: births and deaths, events that shape history or create newness in the community, and crucial words of teachers and prophets.
The Gospels also contain those same elements: the birth, the death and the resurrection of Jesus; critical events in His life and in His teachings.
Teachers in an oral culture teach with a view to being remembered and to their sayings being "re-performed" by their listeners. Hence, Jesus' sayings are vivid(1) and memorable.(2) Further, many of Jesus' most memorable sayings are those that prevailed over His opponents.(3) Each saying was remembered, to be sure, but also had been stated by Jesus with a view to fix that memory.
Oral memories, however, permit a wondrous fixity with flexibility in retelling stories. Oral cultures enter stories in various ways and may exit the story just as differently, but the core of the story remains fixed and nearly verbatim. The Gospels show the same kind of fixity with flexibility. Luke is the only writer of the Gospel accounts to tell us that Jesus prayed just prior to Peter's confession (emphasizing the solemnity of the occasion),(4) while Matthew tells us much more about Jesus' words to Peter.(5) The main point—Peter's confession that Jesus is the Messiah—remains fixed and firm.
It would be unusual for Jesus to teach up and down the Jordan River for about three years and to perform stupendous deeds but not give His followers the impression that what He was doing was significant. Instead, as is true to His Jewish culture, Jesus expected His followers to remember. Remember they could; remember they did. The Gospels reflect the faithful and flexible memories of the followers of Jesus and the direction of the Holy Spirit.