Little thought is generally given by the beginning Bible student to the consideration of how the written text of the Bible came to us. If any thought is given at all, it is generally assumed that God handed the text to an individual (or group of individuals), and it has thus been passed on to us. A more thorough study of the biblical text, however, has led to the conclusion that behind a great deal of the written text of the Bible stands a long stream of tradition. Jeremiah admonished his people to look for the ancient ways in order to find the way of properly living with God (Jeremiah 6:16). His proclamation was that their long-standing tradition should have offered a proper guide for life.
Oral tradition appears to be the foundation of many written texts. A study of the New Testament helps us to realize that it was at least ten to twenty years after the death of Jesus before any of the Gospels were written. Prior to the writing of the first Gospel, the sermons of the apostles and many of the letters of Paul had been written. Yet during that time, the early Christians clearly knew a great deal about the life and ministry of Jesus. This information was passed on by word of mouth, becoming the traditions upon which the writers of the Gospels ultimately drew. Paul frequently referred to the traditions which he had received and which he passed on to the churches (1 Corinthians 11:23-25;
1 Corinthians 15:3-7). He also pointed out some things which he had not received from tradition (compare
The evidence for ancient oral traditions is even stronger in the Old Testament. The entire collection of the books of the prophets is made up of material which was originally spoken (preached). It generally appears that their sermons were passed on and remembered orally for a considerable period of time before they were ever written. Jeremiah had obviously preached for many years before his sermons were first written. At that time, he employed Baruch the scribe to record his sermons as the prophet dictated them (Jeremiah 36:1-4). Isaiah also appeared to have ordered his disciples to collect his messages for some future time (Isaiah 8:16). This evidence can be multiplied many times.
Since the work of Herman Gunkel in the early part of the twentieth century, most Old Testament scholars have almost universally accepted the idea that many Old Testament texts had a long history of oral transmission before they were ever written. To a contemporary student, such a thought often appears to make such texts suspect. However, anyone who has tried to hurry through a favorite bedtime story with a child will recognize that audiences familiar with a story ensure its accurate transmission.
It appears that the narratives were first used around campfires or in religious rituals. Either type of use is highly structured and deeply tinged with emotions which would guard the accuracy of their use. At the same time, even as a contemporary interpreter will take an old text and apply it to a new situation, these old traditions apparently were frequently retold to apply to the new situations which the people of Israel faced. (A comparative study of 1 and 2 Kings and 1 and 2 Chronicles makes it appear that such may also have been done with written texts as well.)
Oral traditions appear to have had their origin in the life needs of the community of faith. The German term Sitz im Leben (life situation) is normally applied to this. The point is simply that oral traditions arose, were preserved, and were passed on because the life needs of the community were being met. This recognizes that people hold on to those things which are meaningful and meet their life needs. (God used processes which met human needs to preserve His inspired Word.) The verses of Scripture which a person memorizes and treasures are held onto for precisely the same reasons.
Such traditions, then, clearly had their origin in historical situations. The children of Abraham held onto the stories of their ancestors because they heard God speak to them through those events, guiding them in facing similar situations. They also held on to other parts of the story as the basis for their faith that God's promised blessings were ultimately going to be fulfilled for them.
On the other hand, other types of materials were preserved because they aided in the human approach to God in worship. Here again, it was the human need to worship and serve which gave the basis for preserving and passing on material which helped them meet those needs.
These ancient traditions, then, were inspired by God to meet human need in real life experiences. They were preserved and passed on precisely because they had a very specific life setting, helping people to face life as it was with the strength of God to sustain them every day. Such traditions made it easier to understand what God was doing because they could hear Him speak through what He had done in other life situations.
Furthermore, study of these ancient traditions makes it obvious that materials which were used in similar life situations were generally preserved and passed on in similar “literary” forms. The use of common forms or outlines for similar kinds of material made it even easier to maintain the accuracy of transmitting the traditions.
The traditions of Israel and of the early Christians were obviously used by the worshiping communities as a means of maintaining and transmitting their faith. In the Old Testament these were apparently collected and preserved at the various shrines where Israel worshiped. In the New Testament, this was done among the many scattered congregations.
A comparison of
Psalms 14:1 and
Psalms 53:1 can be seen to illustrate this process. The two psalms are almost wholly identical. Yet the name for God in
Psalms 14:1 is Lord (Hebrew, Yahweh) and in
Psalms 53:1, God (Hebrew, Elohim; compare NAS). It appears from other studies that Yahweh was preferred in Judah and at the Jerusalem Temple while Elohim was preferred in the Northern Kingdom of Israel, possibly at Bethel. It appears that this particular psalm was a favorite among Hebrew worshipers. However, when the kingdom divided, one nation preserved it with one divine name while the other used the tradition to meet their own particular needs with the other name for God. Each worshiping community was inspired to use the same hymn to worship God, but they used it with their own particular name for God. The same types of processes appear to be demonstrable in other instances.
Further, such worshiping communities also appear to have preserved those particular traditions which were most meaningful to them. Thus Jerusalem, the City of David, appears to have had major interests in the Davidic traditions. Bethel, on the other hand, was significantly involved in the life of Jacob. It appears that traditions concerning Jacob had a very special meaning to those who worshiped at Bethel. Paul clearly referred to conflicting traditions and allegiances at Corinth (1 Corinthians 1:10-12). Such conflicts arose as the worshiping community sought to assimilate a variety of traditions into one tradition.
Obviously, in the Old Testament all the traditions of the various worship centers and worshiping communities ultimately were assimilated in Jerusalem. In the ongoing history of the nation, all other shrines ultimately passed away as the nation finally centered its entire worship experience upon the Jerusalem Temple. The New Testament experience was different in that the Christians' worship did not shrink inward to one place but spread outward to many. It was the New Testament itself which became the focal point of New Testament traditions rather than any specific worship center.
Oral traditions were recorded as written traditions at certain critical points in history. This is particularly true in the Old Testament era. It appears that the worshiping communities were generally quite content to use their traditions in predominantly oral form until a crisis arose which threatened their continuity. This contentment with things as they were was probably bolstered by the fact that reading and writing were skills limited primarily to the professional scribes in Old Testament times. Everyone could handle oral tradition, only a few could handle written traditions.
However, when historical crises arose which threatened the continued stability or existence of a worship center or of a worshiping community, then it appears that the traditions were committed to writing lest they be lost. Such situations arose when the nation divided following the reign of Solomon, when the Northern Kingdom fell before Assyria, and when Jerusalem fell under the onslaught of Babylon. At such times, there appear to have been large scale writings of traditions.
It appears that the New Testament traditions were written under the impetus of historical crises, but these were of a different nature. The Gospels were apparently written when those who had known Jesus in person began to die. There appears to have been a fear that the traditions would be lost unless they were recorded for future believers. Other New Testament materials were written to meet the crises of missions and evangelism. More people could read and write by this time. The written materials allowed people to receive the good news who had never heard a Christian preacher. As always, the handling of these materials was done under the inspiration of God's Holy Spirit.
The study of the transmission of these ancient traditions allows us to perceive the human dimension of the transmission of biblical materials as well as come to a deeper understanding of the nature of God's inspiration. The common characteristics of material preserved at specific worship centers allow us to identify many of their interests, concerns, and historical roots. On the other hand, the differences between traditions sometimes give an even greater insight into the basic human issues with which those who transmitted particular traditions were concerned. As an illustration, note that Mark says of the woman who had been plagued by the issue of blood that she had spent all her money on physicians yet had steadily gotten worse (Mark 5:25-26). Luke, on the other hand, left out that bit of a sarcastic criticism of doctors (Luke 8:43). The difference in the way these two writers handled the same tradition reveals Luke's human sympathetic concern with doctors. This adds depth to our understanding of the man who was himself a physician.
This kind of study has left us with both a deeper understanding of the practices by which God has inspired, recorded, and preserved His Word and a greater awareness of the fact that God worked with human beings who had all of the feelings and concerns to which humanity is heir. The biblical traditions are rooted and grounded in the divine meeting of human need. They have their basis in real-life situations and were preserved by a living, worshiping community. This allows these same traditions better to meet present human need in the real-life situations of contemporary communities of faith. See Bible, Formation and Canon of; Inspiration; Revelation.
Robert L. Cate