Obviously, for the Christian, the gospels are the primary source for information about Jesus. However, critical scholars and skeptics have called into question the reliability of the gospels. By even the most conservative reckoning the earliest gospel (usually understood to be Mark) cannot have been written before the mid 50’s CE (Carson, Moo and Morris, An Introduction, 21.). Therefore, at the very earliest, the first gospel must have been written at least twenty years after the events of Jesus’ life. We must, then, come to grips with the gap from the events to the writing of the events. Does this mean that the outlook for seeing any historically accurate information about Jesus is, as one scholar has commented ‘bleak’? I do not think so. But, we have to accept that behind the literary texts we know as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, there is an oral tradition spanning at least 20 and possibly 40 years. For us to have any faith in the historical accuracy of the gospels we must have an understanding of this oral transmission.

Bultmann: Informal Uncontrolled Tradition

In order to understand how important a proper view of the oral tradition is for historical Jesus study, we must at least have a passing understanding of the view that has dominated much of New Testament study in the last century. The person most credited with this view is Rudolph Bultmann. He argues that “we can now know almost nothing concerning the life and personality of Jesus, since the early Christian sources show no interest in either, are moreover fragmentary and often legendary; and other sources about Jesus do not exist” (Bultmann, Jesus, 8). His view was that the sources (i.e., the gospels) do not tell us anything about Jesus but about the early Christian community. He writes that “What the sources offer us is first of all, the message of the early Christian community, which for the most part the Church freely attributed to Jesus” (Bultmann, Jesus, 12). In other words, when we read the words of Jesus in the gospels, what we are really reading are the words of the early church which they attributed to Jesus. So, according to this view, we cannot know anything about Jesus, the best we can do is to know something about the early church which created much of the tradition we find in the gospels. Obviously, if this view is accurate it has massive implications for our faith in the historical viability of the gospels. 

Informal Controlled Tradition

In 1991 Kenneth Bailey wrote a really fantastic essay in which he proposed another way to view the oral tradition behind the gospels, a view he called informal controlled tradition (Bailey, “Informal Controlled,” 4-11). After living in the Middle East for years, Bailey reflects on the way this oral society transmits its stories. He concludes that the way these societies transmit their stories is done in an informal setting, but a controlled setting. The picture is one of a village gathering where the community is “preserving its store of tradition” (Bailey, “Informal Controlled,” 6). 

This practice of ‘preserving’ traditions has some significant controls placed upon it. First, “Only those within the community who have grown up hearing the stories have the right to recite them in public gatherings” (Bailey, “Informal Controlled,” 6). This is very similar to the gospels concern for hearing the story from “those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word,” (Lk. 1:2). Second, stories which are important for the communities identity were allowed some flexibility in the details but the “central threads of the story cannot be changed” (Bailey, “Informal Controlled,” 7). Bailey gives several examples of how this works out in practice. He tells of times he asked several different people for the same story. What he found was that each time he was told essentially the same story, with some flexibility but often the key lines of the story were verbatim the same regardless of the teller! 

Bailey suggests that the gospels were transmitted as informal controlled oral tradition. Similar controls would have been put in place for the transmission of the gospels: “The witness was required to have been an eyewitness of the historical Jesus to qualify as a huperetes tou logou [‘servant of the word’] (cf. Lk. 1:2). Thus, at least through to the end of the first century, the authenticity of that tradition was assured to the community through specially designated authoritative witnesses” Bailey, “Informal Controlled,” 10). He goes on to note that for these communities “To remember the words and deeds of Jesus of Nazareth was to affirm their own unique identity. The stories had to be told and controlled or everything that made them who they were was lost” (Bailey, “Informal Controlled,” 10).

James Dunn has picked up this suggestion of informal controlled oral tradition and shown, conclusively in my opinion, that this model does make the most sense of the gospel traditions as we have them. He examines text after text which shows the classic control and yet flexibility of the informal controlled tradition (Dunn, Jesus Remembered, 210-54). I offer one example which shows evidence of being transmitted by this informal controlled method:

The Stilling of the Storm

Matt. 8:23-27 Mark 4:35-41 Luke 8:22-25





23 ¶ And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him. 


24 A windstorm arose on the sea, so great that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. 

25 And they went and woke him up, saying, “Lord, save us! 


We are perishing!” 

26 And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” 

Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a dead calm




27 They were amazed, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?” 

35 ¶ On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.”      

36 And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 

37 A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 

38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; 

and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” 




39 He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm

40 He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” 

41 And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” 



22 ¶ One day he got into a boat with his disciples, and he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side of the lake.” So they put out, 

23 and while they were sailing he fell asleep. A windstorm swept down on the lake, and the boat was filling with water, and they were in danger. 

24 They went to him and woke him up, shouting, “Master, 


Master, we are perishing!” 




And he woke up and rebuked the wind and the raging waves; they ceased, and there was a calm

25 He said to them, “Where is your faith?” 


They were afraid and amazed, and said to one another, “Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?” 

No one reading these accounts would doubt that they are the same story. However, they are different enough to suggest that they may not have the same textual source. If we assume that these are more like different oral retellings of the story within a community that transmits its histories by informal controlled tradition then it makes sense. The basic story is the same: 1) Jesus is with his disciples in a bout, 2) a great storm comes up while Jesus is asleep, 3) the disciples wake Jesus, 4) he rebukes the wind and sea and brings calm, 5) Jesus questions the disciple’s lack of faith. Several lines are remembered verbatim: ‘he got up and rebuked the wind(s), and there was a calm’; ‘who is this that even the wind(s) obey him?’ (Dunn, Jesus Remembered, 217).

All this is very helpful for having faith in the historical accuracy of the gospel traditions, but Richard Bauckham has argued that informal controlled tradition does not take the case far enough. He argues that the gospels are a case of formal controlled tradition, whereby the eyewitnesses to the event function as official “qualified traditioners” (Bauckham, Jesus, 240-318). His book is, in my opinion, a conclusive argument that “the Gospels put us in close touch with the eyewitnesses of the history of Jesus” (Bauckham, Jesus, 472). Thus, Bailey and Dunn introduce us to the concept of careful oral transmission, but Bauckham argues even further, that the gospel traditions are formally controlled because the eyewitnesses to the events were present in the communities to be questioned at any time! This is explicitly what Luke tells us he did (Lk. 1:1-2), but it is also the way Paul speaks of passing on tradition (e.g., 1 Cor. 11:2, 23). He furthermore points out that the 

ancient historians – such as Thucydides, Polybius, Josephus, and Tacitus – were convinced that true history could be written only while events were still within living memory,” but furthermore, “the ideal eyewitness was not the dispassionate observer but one who, as a participant, had been closest to the events and whose direct experience enabled him to understand and interpret the significance of what he had seen. (Bauckham, Jesus, 8-9)

In other words, in the mind of the ancient historian eyewitness testimony by those involved in the event was the most accurate form of history. The gospels then, as eyewitness testimony, fit the ancient understanding of accurate history. In light of this understanding of the gospels as some form of controlled oral tradition, protected by communities and eyewitnesses, we can conclude with Dunn that the best test for historical information about Jesus “is almost alwaus concord and coherence with the Synoptic tradition” (Dunn, Jesus Remembered, 328). In other words, the synoptic gospels are the primary, normative and most accurate source for information about the historical Jesus.


Kenneth A. Bailey, “Informal Controlled Oral Tradition and the Synoptic Gospels,” Asia Journal of Theology 5 (1991): 34-54, reprinted in Themelios 20/2 (1995): 4-11; Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006); Rudolph Bultmann, Jesus and the Word (New York: Scribners, 1958); Rudolph Bultmann, History of the Synoptic Tradition, trans. J. Marsh (New York: Harper, 1963);  D.A. Carson, Douglas J. Moo and Leon Morris, An Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Pub. Co., 1992); James D.G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003).