The Bible is a collection of sixty-six books written over a span of nearly 2,000 years. The first five books are five of the six oldest books in the Bible and were written by Moses nearly 1,500 years before the birth of Jesus. In Genesis Moses wrote about creation an event that took place 3,500 years before he wrote about it. How did Moses know what happened? One possible answer to these questions is that Moses relied on oral traditions passed down from Adam through Noah, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob until they eventually reached Moses. Oral tradition has also been suggested as the source material of other portions of the Old Testament and of the New Testament gospels. Is this what happened? Is the Bible based on stories that were passed down from one generation to another before finally being written down?
Some believe the Bible relies on oral traditions because they want to discredit the accuracy of Scripture. They argue that if Moses relied on stories passed down from generation to generation then no one can be certain those stories were not exaggerated or changed over the years. The game of telephone illustrates this problem. Get a group of people together and whisper a simple sentence into the ear of the first person who then whispers it to another person. By the time the last person hears the message it has changed completely. “I like fuzzy, red dogs” becomes “I drink large beverages.”
In the case of the four gospels the supposed use of oral tradition is offered as an explanation of how the legend of Jesus grew from a story about a famous teacher to become the story of a great miracle worker and the Son of God. In this case, the correction to that assertion is clear. The authors of the gospels did not rely on oral traditions passed down from previous generations. Matthew and John declared they were writing what they knew from their own experience with Jesus. Luke specifically states he “had a perfect understanding of all things from the first.” (Luke 1:3) Luke compiled eyewitness testimony to put together his gospel and Mark hints that he was an eyewitness of the crucifixion and the resurrection. The gospels were not based on generations of oral traditions, but were eyewitness accounts of those who were there.
The Gospels are not the only eyewitness records in the Bible. Most of the historical books of the Bible are first hand records written by people who lived through the events they describe. This still leaves the problem of events like creation that the authors could not have witnessed. In cases like those, the author may have relied on some sort of tradition handed down through the generations. However, some things must be revealed by God. Adam was able to tell what happened after he was created, but only God can tell what happened on the days before He created man.
We know some portions of the Bible rely on source materials. Luke points to his use of eyewitnesses as the source material for his gospel. Places in the Kings and Chronicles indicate reliance on non-Biblical sources for their information. The use of outside sources, including oral tradition, is not a problem. Nor does it require the material to be full of error, myth or legend.
The Bible is the inspired Word of God. God was moving through human authors to write His Word. He guided any use of source material so the apostles and prophets only wrote what is completely accurate. The use of oral tradition in the Bible, does not occur frequently and it does not mean the Bible is in error. “Thy Word is true.” (Psalm 119:160)