How Could People Have Possibly Memorized the Teaching of Jesus in an Oral Society?

One question that a number of you asked me was how did they get the opportunity to memorise a block of teaching if they only heard it once? That is a very good question. It is one that has occurred to me as well. My first response to help our understanding on this matter is to say it is highly likely Jesus repeated his teaching to the disciples over and over. Most itinerant preachers will repeat sermons or teaching points in a number of places. Given the fact that Jesus was speaking to people who were used to oral tradition it is likely that there were deliberate repetitive elements to enable people to remember what he said. This would have made it easier for the disciples to remember. Especially if they heard messages over and over. There are many places in the gospels, especially with the parables, where Jesus gives the teaching and then goes over the content again with the disciples after he has taught it to the crowd. This was the typical way the rabbis operated. Each rabbi’s yoke, or block of teaching and its interpretation, was repeated over and over in order for his disciples to memorise what he taught. I assume it was no different with Jesus and his disciples.

There are occasions in the gospels where teaching is similar, but used differently in different places. Little vignettes or pericope (the titled sections of the gospels) where the same story or teaching point pops up in a different context. This is something I myself do frequently. There is evidence that Jesus did the same thing. However I would add that it is possible it is not Jesus doing it, but the disciple who wrote the book who arranges the material differently. However, some of these examples are so masterful that it leads me to the conclusion that it was Jesus doing the arranging and not the disciple who wrote the book. One such example is Luke 11:1-13, where four pericope are combined as one in very thought provoking way. Yet those same elements are used differently and in different contexts in other gospels. One conclusion could be that Jesus used them that way in different places. If that is the case then it is highly likely that the disciples heard many of these stories and teaching points over and over from place to place. Therefore making it easier for them to memorize the content.

Or course we reject the thought of someone memorizing a large block of text or teaching off by heart. But stop and think afresh and anew about this. Children by the time they were 12 or 13 had memorized the Torah off by heart. That is what makes it workable for Jesus to quote from the Old Testament and be certain his hearers didn't just know the verse he was quoting but knew the whole passage or story by heart. That makes communication, interpretation and memorization that much easier, when you are all on the same page from the beginning.

Besides which it is far easier to memorize a block of connected text or teaching than to memorize the same amount of material of unconnected text. If you have never learned a whole chapter of Scripture before, you ought to try it. You will be amazed how it sticks with you. Given that fact, the idea of disciples learning Jesus teaching or what he said by heart is not so crazy. Well not so crazy for them. Perhaps unbelievable where we are concerned. I am convinced that in our 21stCentury society we have gone soft. People don't seem to have good recall or memory of the things they have heard in a sermon anymore. Neither do they know how to take good notes. Not that I am suggesting the disciples took notes of what Jesus taught them. I joked last week in the Nugget about John asking Jesus to repeat something so he could get the notes down. No, that didn’t happen. Why? Because they didn't have paper readily available? Well, yes maybe that is so. But it was more to the point that they were an aural society and were used to remembering things. The average person is woeful these days in their ability to take good notes because they are just not used to doing so. People often asked me how I can record what people say so thoroughly. Practice! But these days because of smart phones, I think we are actually using less and less of our brain capacity. We are dumbing down through the lack of use of our brain power. We human beings have far more ability that we give ourselves credit for, to our detriment. I have often done maths calculations in my head that a young person uses a calculator to do. They are then amazed that I can work it out without a calculator before they have got their calculator out and been able to use it. But now that I have a smart phone which can calculate all sorts of computations and combinations for me, I confess to finding that I myself am dumbing down. Ouch.

One of you asked how the disciples could amass the quantity of writing they produced in their book if it came from oral tradition to begin with? My simple, immediate answer to that question is to say they don’t have to have memorized their whole book by oral tradition first, before they started to write it down. Clearly the two can work hand in hand. There must have come a time when the disciples realized they needed to commit the teaching of Jesus to writing in order to preserve it for future generations. As the disciples who had walked with Jesus died off, the question of what constituted “Bible” or Scripture and the need to preserve it’s accuracy became more of a concern for the early church. That is why discussions concerning Canon and which writings were to be included and which not became an issue in the second century onwards.

But let me close this Nugget with one more interesting piece of evidence to the memory power of the human brain. The man who holds the world record for memory recitation according the records is Bhandanta Vicitsara. This Buddhist priest living in Myanmar (Burma) at the time, recited 16,000 pages of Buddhist holy writings from memory without a mistake in Rangoon in 1974.A sceptic at a God’s Awesome Book meeting in New Zealand put up his hand and asked. “When did he do this? You only have 1974 up there.” Well think about it. How long do you think it took him to recite 16,000 pages of text? It took most of 1974. Going for as long as he could each day. How long would it take you to read a book 16,000 pages long? The same thing is true for Jewish and Muslim children learning all or large portions of their holy books.When the human mind is trained to do so, it is capable of incredible feats of memorization. In terms of oral traditional, the passing on of large blocks of taught material and conveying it accurately to others is a mystery to us. But to learned people who function in oral societies every day, it is not a big deal. We humans can do it, we have just forgotten how.

The fact that the text of our Bibles came to us via oral tradition is not a problem. You don't need to question the factual accuracy of the Bible text simply because it came to us via oral tradition. There is nothing inherently suspect about oral tradition. Rest easy.

Feel free to send me any more questions you may have about oral tradition, text transmissions and the text of the Bible you want to ask. I will include them in following Nuggets before I move on to the next topic series I will tackle in the Nuggets.

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