Let's begin with a thought experiment based on a personal experience of mine, one that some of you may possibly share.
When your preacher gets big, you get visitors. Some of them show up already knowing a lot, about who you all are, about what you all do, and about the famous personality whom you all gather around. Other visitors, however, show up having learned only small bits of info about what's going on, information intriguing enough to get them moving in your direction, and intriguing enough to spark lots more questions once they arrive.
Have you been with this guy very long? What's his story? Where's he from? How did this all get started? What's he like, really? Can you help me meet/see/talk to/follow him?
Jesus' disciples must have dealt with this often. With thousands of visitors, and with only one Jesus, the new people would naturally gravitate towards them. Over time, certain questions probably came up more frequently than others, and it's a worthwhile thought experiment to apply Jesus' own question historically.
Jesus said to his disciples, "Who do you say that I am?" Well, so? Who did they say that he was? I mean, during the time of Jesus' actual ministry, what did the disciples tell people about who Jesus was?
Back to the modern analogy, which is timeless enough in the basic dynamics. As any popular group quickly learns, the group-task of repeatedly answering 'FAQs' starts to generate a collection of routine and semi-routine answers. That is, the group as a whole develops one shared collection of frequently offered responses, which become regularly expressed with less and less variance by distinct individuals. Surprisingly, this happens not so much because of any social coercion or group pressure to emulate certain people in answering, but mainly because of a gradual and mutually shared discovery that certain phrasings and certain key details simply prove to be more direct, more efficient, and more helpful in creating positive responses to the persistent, repetitive FAQ experience.
Back to Jesus' disciples, we might be able to do slightly more than imagine. At least, it would be interesting to work through the Gospels and try to re-imagine these stories about Jesus - and Jesus' own stories and sayings - as if some version of them was already being shared very soon after the original events. The more you think about this, the harder it is to imagine things as wonderful as the Beattitudes or the Parable of the Forgiving Father (aka, 'the parable of the prodigal son') or the story about Levi's philanthropy - it's hard to imagine that these stories weren't being shared and repeated as soon as humanly possible.
Let's take, for example, the Lord's Prayer. From one angle, the Gospel story reflects to us that someone was asking for instruction in prayer and was given an illustration in actual words. From another angle, the Gospel text certifies that the words of the LP as we have them were eventually written down. Now, it's yet a third different question to inquire about what happened in between! But what seems more likely? Did someone reconstruct, years later, the kind of prayer Jesus would have prayed, and then attribute those words to him after the fact? ((** I'm not against the implications of that, btw. It's one possible explanation for the text that we have, and we could still take it as a very faithful rendition of Jesus' actual praying, not to mention (more importantly) of his driving passion in life. **)) Or instead, does it seem more likely that Jesus actually did answer someone's question and then pray something very close to those actual words? ((** Please note, I'm not answering that question! **))
The answer is, we don't know. Of course we don't know. And we'll never know. One theory seems more likely to some, and the other theory is clung to by others. Like many speeches in ancient histories, it may be that the LP is a reconstructed example of the kind of prayer Jesus was remembered as praying. Or, it may somehow be that there was such a prayer on some particular day, so unique, so impactful, so inspirational, and so peculiarly well ordered, that it simply happened to prove extraordinarily memorable.
If, then, Jesus did perhaps pray these words (or something very close to these words) of the Lord's Prayer as we have it today, at least once (or perhaps more than once) then is it not likely that his public prayer on one occasion (if not several) was so amazing and so quotable that - and here we come back to the thougt experiment from at top - that the disciples in this case pursued an active policy of repeating those words? As prayer, to God. As encouragement, to one another. And to new 'visitors', as one illustration of Who Jesus Was. (And if the words aren't "accurate like a courtroom transcript", they could be very close, being based on a recent and collective memory. More on this in a moment.)
In all this, please don't misunderstand. I'm not talking about the reliability of the text. I'm talking about the potential reliability of the text, based on this theory, that development of oral tradition may have begun from the earliest possible dates. (More on "potential reliability" below.)
Imagine for a moment - and this is *not* to write fiction freely but to illustrate the idea that we're grasping at here - imagine that one day someone walked up to the disciples and asked, Does Jesus ever pray? Seems like a likely and plausible question, doesn't it? And it seems equally likely and plausible that a variety of answers emerged, which gradually coalesced into a community FAQ response.
Continuing this thought experiment: let's suppose, for instance, on the first time someone asks, "Does Jesus ever pray?" that maybe one disciple starts to answer that question with an emphatic description of Jesus' devotion. But then someone else wants to prove that Jesus really does pray by giving a concrete example of Jesus actually praying, so that disciples begins offering their own remembered version of that one significant prayer. And perhaps at that point this new strategy seems to be helping, and so it (the strategy) piques the enthusiasm of some other disciples. Next, perhaps, another disciple or three might take turns interrupting and offering their own slightly different versions of different LP phrases. And so on. Or they discussed things among themselves later.
Note again, this is just a hypothetical example. But after this kind of thing happened a few times, with any particular piece of testimony about Jesus, a remembered community version of that testimony would very likely begin to develop. ((** By the way, I'm also not against hypothetically supposing that someone among them was known to have had a very reliable memory, which could have often been helpful... but I'm also not insisting on that wishful thinking being true (aka, 'special pleading') because my point isn't to push the supposition that we have anything close to 'courtroom transcripts'. Again, not only is that not my argument here, that's not even remotely my focus, in this piece. **))
In sum, what I'm trying to suggest might be seen as a blending of work by Richard Bauckham and recent memory studies, such as those by Anthony Le Donne, in that I am starting to see the Gospel material as coming from the Memory of the Eyewitnesses. What that means is, no I don't think we have courtroom transcripts entirely and yes I do see a great deal of merit in the logic of what memory studies have to say about personal testimony. But on the other hand, I still don't see any logic in the idea that oral tradition didn't begin to reach final form until the eyewitnesses started to die off.
The Jews weren't all literate, but they were communally literate. They were a people of the book, and a traditionally encouraged oral readings, much more than oral recitation. Just how quickly the Jesus movement began writing things down is a completely separate question, but here's where I'm settling for now:
I do think there was a middle stage in between the actual Jesus events and the eventual Jesus writings. I do think the limitations of human memory affected the initial transmission of those stories. And I don't think that the entire text of any Gospel account is entirely "accurate" in the sense of a transcript, but I do think that any given portion of a Gospel account could be entirely accurate in the sense of a transcript.
Note, I do not say is. I say could be. and this will be the central refrain of my argument from here on.
Despite all of our best theorizing, we don't know which portions of remembered details may or may not happen to contain a great deal of accuracy. However, by the same token, we also don't know which remembered details don't contain a great deal of accuracy!
Therefore, in the case of the Gospel texts, it is my contention that any particular reference or phrase potentially could have made it through unscathed, or at least relatively unscathed due to limitations of memory. The basic quotes and descriptions of things in the text - not entirely, or on the whole, but in any particular case - are not guaranteed to be, but may potentially be, as reliable as any historical reference ever can be - and to be clear, I am arguing *not* that this is true of the Gospel texts in their entirety, or even on the whole, or in general, but I am arguing that it could be true in any particular case. In the end, we simply don't know that it's not. ((** I won't contend over supernatural assertions today, but naturally, the method I'm proposing is also subject to questions of basic historicity as well, obviously. For instance, if resurrection is simply impossible, then none of this logic can be applied to texts which purport resurrection. **))
Again, this boils down to merging Memory theory with the generally greater reliability of early eyewitness testimony. But again, I'm not trying to apologize for reliability here. What I'm after by increasing reliability is not defense of the sacred (!) but a justification for historiographical exercise.
Why is this a unique or a new suggestion? Here's an illustration to answer that question:
Although a police sketch is not the same as a photo, but a remembered face, drawn skillfully, can be very similar to the actual face. We might not have the nose quite right, but that mole on the cheek might be drawn almost exactly in the right place. If we're handed the sketch, we can easily pick the face out of a lineup. But if wey have only the sketch, having not seen the face, we still have seen something very much like the actual face. We don't know if it's the nose or the mole that's a bit off, or the part of the hair, or the tilt of the eyes. We don't even know if one or two of those details are completely contrived. Nevertheless, with a police sketch in hand we can proceed to more than merely trust that the overall image is very generally close. Critically, and practically speaking, we can do one other thing. If we're looking for this person, we can, should and morally must do this one other thing. We can walk around town looking for this face, while hypothetically considering that any given detail in the sketch could be a part of the telling combination that reveals, finally, which person you're seeking. Now, to complete the analogy, which I think actually holds up more consistently than most analogies do, we may or may not find Jesus' actual face on Main Street today... but while "looking" for the "real" Jesus, we can proceed to hypothetically consider that any given detail in the Gospels could indeed be a part of the telling combination of details which reveals, finally, which Jesus it is that we're seeking.
By the way, this applies not just to sayings but to phrases describing events, also. With memory theory being applied to early testimony from actual eyewitnesses, it's very plausible that any particular detail in a story may be a more or less if not perfectly accurate account of the historical aspect it attempts to describe.
Logically, this much is true: Not that a testimony is accurate, but that it could be accurate, for as much as we know. As with the sketch artist, memory theory suggests that it's most logical to suppose we have the accurate 'gist' more than all the trimmings in perfect detail. But, again, with individual details, it's not necessarily logical to assume that a text doesn't recount that particular detail with a great degree of accuracy.
In all this, I hope it is very clear that I'm not interested in defending a high view of scripture. In fact, I hope it is clear that I've personally retained a high view of scripture throughout this entire discussion, but I hope it's equally clear that I'm not pushing such a view. Not at all. The Gospels say what the Gospels say, and I can't make anyone believe what they say. My struggle is to figure out what we can say, what we can see, and what we can do with these sacred (but not sacrosanct) texts.
Where my interest lies is in building potential for hypothetical reconstruction of History based on the Gospel.
Personally, I think there is great potential indeed. How about you?