Are the Gospels Reliable? Part 1 – Wasn’t Everyone Illiterate?

So in the first post, we laid out the main issues with the reliability of the gospels and gave a general introduction.  This time, we want to dig deeper into a first response to the main issues by answering the question – Was the first century Palestinian culture so much of an oral culture that it would be nearly impossible to have written down the accounts of Jesus accurately?  Wasn’t everyone illiterate? Let’s jump in and see.

First, we have to admit the answer to the first part of the question is yes.  The first century Greco-Roman culture was certainly a predominantly an oral culture.  Meaning that any story telling or news or even history for the most part is oral, not written. 

Primary reason is that the majority of the culture was illiterate.  Now, right away when we say “illiterate” we tend to jump to the conclusion that no one could read or write, but this isn’t necessarily the case.  Sure, some could neither read nor write, but we also have to realize that there were people on various points along the illiteracy continuum:  some could read, but not write.  Some might have been able to write some, but not read very well.  How many could read AND write? Timothy Paul Jones writes (do you see the irony there?!) “According to some estimates, fewer than 15 percent of people in the Roman Empire could read and write. The percentage of persons who possessed the capacity to produce literary texts would have been even lower.” (Timothy Paul Jones, Why Should I Trust the Bible, 74)

However, let’s push on that a little bit.  First, we do know from the many times that the Bible (and other historical books) mention “scribes” that there were people who COULD read and write and it was their profession to write down what others told them who could not do so themselves.  So isn’t it entirely plausible, if not highly likely, that scribes helped write the gospels?  Of course.

Furthermore, literacy rates were closely related to one’s own profession.  Meaning if you had a profession where you needed to read and write, then by golly…you could most likely read and write.  So, think about this – Matthew was a tax collector, so he probably had to be literate and Luke was a doctor.  Two gospel authors right away that most likely were literate, as opposed to dumb illiterate fisherman. 

But there is one more consideration in our defense of the reliability of the gospels as written by the original authors – a little thing called “informal controlled tradition.”  Hear me out…

Informal controlled tradition means that just because a culture was predominantly oral, didn’t mean that they had no way to accurately remember historical events, in fact they had specific ways that stories were told to ensure their accuracy.  The environment in which such stories were told was “informal,” usually in small groups, but the way they are told and more importantly, told accurately, is very much in control. 

One leading scholar on this topic writes “it is a carefully nurtured methodology of great antiquity that is still practiced and held in high regard by Christians and Muslims.” (Kenneth E. Bailey, “Informal Controlled Oral Tradition and the Synoptic Gospels, Themelios Journal, Volume 20, Number 2)

Basically, there is really good evidence that middle eastern cultures could not only remember a story accurately, but continue to do so for generations, up to and including present day!

Bailey reports additionally that stories had varying levels of controls put in place to assure accuracy from no flexibility in the case of poems or proverbs, to some flexibility for historical persons and events, to total flexibility for jokes or casual news.  So there is a diff between golf stories and history.

We agree that cultures were very much oral, but it is compelling evidence that there were controls in place to makes sure they were remembered accurately…especially with something as important as the arrival of the Messiah.

Bailey writes “…the types of material that appear in the Synoptic Gospels include primarily the same forms that we have found preserved by informal controlled oral tradition such as proverbs, parables, poems, dialogues, conflict stories and historical narratives…The stories had to be told and controlled or everything that made them who they were was lost.”

So pulling this first question together – was the first century Greco-Roman culture in Palestine a predominantly oral culture?  Yes, predominantly, but not exclusively.   There were some that could in fact read and write – even some who wrote the gospel accounts.

Did the predominantly oral culture mean that it was nearly impossible for them to accurately remember the historical events surrounding Jesus?  No, we have good evidence that an oral culture utilized informal controlled tradition to accurately record historical events in the absence of written records.  When it was time to record the events in writing, even if it was years later, they could do so with very good accuracy. 

But what about the accuracy and integrity of the gospels?  Even if they were written down from such a thing as informal controlled tradition, weren’t they intentionally changed as our friend Dr. Ehrman claims in our first post?  Tune in for the next post to explore that question!


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