The Reliability of the Gospel Tradition

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The historical reliability of the Gospels has been discussed from the Enlightenment onwards. At present, many scholars assume that the canonical Gospels as we have them are essentially fictions constructed near the end of the first century to meet the needs of the Christian movement of that time and that they give us very little reliable information regarding the life and teachings of Jesus. But have these scholars really understood the nature of the written Gospels?

Birger Gerhardsson has devoted almost the whole of his academic career to the study of the oral tradition that is the basis of our canonical Gospels. His groundbreaking doctoral dissertation, Memory and Manuscript, drew a parallel between the way in which the rabbis taught their disciples and the way Jesus taught his disciples: both required memorization of the master's teaching. Rabbinic disciples handed on their masters' tradition with great care, and we can be sure that the disciples of Jesus would have been no less careful with what he taught them!

The Reliability of the Gospel Tradition presents three studies that illuminate how the early Christians passed on tradition. "The Origins of the Gospel Tradition" gives an accessible review of the debate regarding the extent to which the New Testament evangelists enable us to hear the voice of Jesus. "The Path of the Gospel Tradition" contains a critical discussion of the approach of the form-critical school to the problem of the early Christian tradition, ending with an alternative sketch of the path of the tradition. "The Gospel Tradition" offers a rather detailed picture of various aspects of the content and method of early Christian tradition and assesses the reliability of the four oldest of the extant written records.


"In the current climate of skepticism I know of nothing more helpful than Birger Gerhardsson's writings, and that is why I am particularly delighted that the pieces that compose the present volume are again available in print. New generations of students deserve to have them, not merely because they ultimately vindicate the church's estimate of Jesus, but because they are true to the nature of the Gospels themselves and to the purpose of those who wrote them."--Donald A. Hagner (from the Foreword)

The Author

  1. Birger Gerhardsson

    Birger Gerhardsson

    Birger Gerhardsson is professor emeritus in the Faculty of Theology at Lund University, Sweden. He is the author of Memory and Manuscript: Oral Tradition and Written Transmission in Rabbinic Judaism and Early Christianity and Tradition and...

    Continue reading about Birger Gerhardsson


"During a single academic career few scholars have seen their work rejected as vehemently by members of the academic community as Emeritus Professor Birger Gerhardsson from the University of Lund in Sweden. Few scholars have experienced a more significant vindication by his former critics than Gerhardsson, now in ripe retirement. The central issue at stake concerns the touchstone of the historical Jesus research, namely, the nature and reliability of the oral tradition that preceded the manuscripts of the New Testament. Since the publication of his seminal doctoral dissertation, Memory and Manuscript: Oral tradition and written transmission in Rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity (1961), Gerhardsson has proposed a thesis that challenged the dominant paradigm of the Form Critical School, and in recent years a basic tenet of the Jesus Seminar. As explained in the Foreword, by Donald A. Hagner of Fuller Seminary, both the latter movements employ a negative assessment of the reliability of the oral tradition. Drawing on present-day experiences of memory, they conclude that the oral traditions underlying the gospels were basically unreliable. This led to the conclusion that there was a fundamental contrast between oral culture and print culture. In the former, they conclude, it was impossible accurately to hand on material. Gerhardsson's contribution consists in a painstaking textual analysis of the dynamic of oral transmission in Rabbinic Judaism, which he later extended to the early Christian tradition. He developed a sophisticated typology of different categories of tradition and the complex interface between manuscript writing and orality within each type of tradition. This is then also the main contribution of the three essays included in the volume under review. He concedes that in his first works he perhaps too readily assumed that the rabbinic sources after the second century reflected practices of the previous two. He also points out that the private written notation of the Hellenistic world still need further investigation. However, his cardinal view that material could and was transmitted with great care and accuracy remains unchanged. As Hagner puts it, though we do not have the ipissima verba of Jesus, Gerhardsson's work shows that we do have the ipissima vox. Apart from a fresh preface by the author, the volume consists of the reprints of three essays that have appeared separately. In his first essay ('The origins of the Gospel tradition' [1976] ) Gerhardsson establishes a context for understanding the memorization, employing the dual foci of text and commentary, tending toward brevity, and the use of didactic and poetic devises and repetition. Writing on different levels could have supported a practice of recitation of authoritative tradition. Though Jacob Neusner dealt with the same source materials in his 1971 publication The Rabbinic Traditions about Pharisees before 70, he and his mentor Morton Smith proposed an opposite view, namely, that the memorizing technique used by the rabbis was a radical novelty, introduced by the rabbinical schools during the second century. Neusner maintained that it was only after the fall of the Temple that the oral Torah was to be handed down verbally without any help from official books. Gerhardsson remains unconvinced and comments: 'I must of course lament the way he caricatures my position.' The form-critical school also held the view that the practice of oral transmission was a late development. In contrast to Gerhardsson's position they maintain that the early church was not disposed to passing on a tradition for it lacked that perspective on the future which is necessary for doing so. However, Gerhardsson shows convincingly in the first of the three essays that the early church indeed distinguished between what was said 'by the Lord' and what was said by someone else 'in the Lord' (cf. 1 Cor 7:10 and 12). He convincingly demonstrates from a wide range of corroborative evidence that such a distinction is indeed reflected in the early church. In his second essay ('The path of the Gospel tradition' [1983]), Gerhardsson focuses mainly on the reliability of the Jesus tradition as he engages in debate with the form-critical school. A main point of criticism is that this school mistakenly incorporated the 'Apostolos' (writing containing apostolic instruction) into the 'Evangelium' (writing containing Jesus material), the former being an interpretation of the latter. Both are traditionally seen as constructions by the church toward the end of the first century. Against this Gerhardsson maintains that the 'Evangelium' should be the starting point for scholarly investigation. Thus re reverses the burden of proof. The form-critical school places the burden of proof on the person who views the Jesus materials as authentic. However, because of the priority and reliability of the Jesus tradition, the burden of proof should rather rest on those who regard it as inauthentic. In the third essay ('The Gospel tradition' [1986] ) a detailed review is given of the content and method of the early Christian tradition. He develops his previous work on Jewish tradition and applies is to the Christian tradition. For this he distinguishes between an 'inner' and an 'outer' tradition. Jesus' inner tradition, i.e., his engagement with norms, values and beliefs, consisted in an eruptive re-formulation of the Jewish mother-tradition. The outer tradition has to do with the observed manifestations of the tradition through word-tradition, behavioural tradition, institutional tradition and material tradition. His main focus is on the word-tradition. Here he assesses in detail the reliability of the four oldest extant written records of the Jesus tradition. His main interlocutors are Werner Kelber and Martin Dibelius. A significant point he makes is that although there was considerable literacy in Palestine in the first century, this was never in competition with the oral tradition. If notes were taken by Jesus' disciples these would not have had any significant influence on the development of the oral tradition. After an eventful personal encounter with Jacob Neusner in Sweden, both scholars came to an understanding resulting in Neusner writing a Foreword to the 1998 re-edition of Memory and Manuscript. Here he explains his change of mind and mentions that he has come to realize that there is space for a 'paradigmatic' (read "contextual') approach. To this Gerhardsson responds in the volume under review: 'Dr. Neusner recommends my book unreservedly, at the same time apologizing for the negative criticism he leveled against it in his youth. It is not easy for a scholar to admit being wrong earlier. Jack Neusner has the moral courage to do so'. Finally Gerhardsson has come to terms with the reason why it took the scholarly world so long to take his work seriously. The three essays, together with his Preface, can be seen as the final statement of an eventful career. It is a re-cap of his most important positions, fine-tuned to the ears of the present day scholarly audience. The detailed and material discussions of specifics in the New Testament text add weight to his general challenge to the dominant historical-critical paradigm for the historical Jesus research. It is foreseen that his work will gain in importance."
--The Heythrop Journal

"The Reliability of the Gospel Tradition is a revision of Gerhardsson's earlier work, The Origin of the Gospel Tradition, which has been out of print for over twenty years. It is a 'must read' for any serious student of the Synoptic Gospels. Gerhardsson looks at whether the tradition presented in the Gospels is an accurate record of the life of Jesus and therefore enters into the debate surrounding 'The Quest for the Historic Jesus.' This book is a response to the proponents of Form Criticism and of the so-called 'Jesus Seminar.' The value of Gerhardsson's work is that it answers the critics of historicity by history, rather than by theological assertions. Gerhardsson studies what is known of the transmission of tradition at the time of Jesus in order to argue against what he perceives as an overemphasis on the division between oral tradition and inscripturation. According to Gerhardsson, the continuum from the stage of orality to that of textuality is central to any assertion concerning the authenticity of the Gospel texts. Gerhardsson avoids doctrinaire assertions. He does not argue that the Gospels present the very words of Jesus (ipsissima verba) however he also rejects the equally 'fundamentalist' claims of those who deny the authenticity of the majority of the text and reject all conclusions but their own. Gerhardsson gives clear historical arguments for why we can discover the very voice of Jesus (ipsissima vox) within the text of the Gospels. I do not agree with all of Gerhardsson's conclusions, and I would have preferred him to have given more interaction between his historical conclusions with the doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture, but I would still recommend this book. It is short, irenic, and engaging."
--Reformed Theological Review

"Gerhardsson's work serves as a stimulating alternative to form-critical approaches to the gospel tradition and will continue to encourage those who regard the gospels as thoroughly reliable history. This handy book makes Gerhardsson's thinking readily available. A foreword by Donald Hagner praises Gerhardsson's studies, which 'vindicate the church's estimate of Jesus,' as an antidote to the 'silliness' of the Jesus Seminar."
--Religious Studies Review