The Oral Period
In preliterate cultures, knowledge is passed down from generation to generation using oral techniques that are effective for their purpose, although they give the knowledge a specifically oral shape, lacking an historical dimension in our sense of the term. The most striking example is the preservation of the story of the fall of Troy for the five hundred years between the thirteenth and eighth centuries B.C. when the use of letters had been forgotten to the time that the revival of literacy allowed it to be written down as the epic poem The Iliad.
These techniques have been the subject of extensive scholarly study. Beginning in the early 20th century, they were applied to the ‘oral period’ of the historical books of the Old Testament, where in some cases centuries separated the events described and their writing down. Later, some scholars attempted to apply them to the New Testament as well, positing an ‘oral period’ between the events of Jesus’s life and the Gospels.
But no such oral period exists in the first century. The culture was not preliterate. Even those who could not write could go to the professional scribe in the marketplace. We have no reason to believe that there were no written texts available to Christians before the Pauline epistles and the Gospels—indeed, several are posited by scholars, like Q. And living witness had not died out—there was no need to depend on techniques of orality.
Take a modern example. If someone were to tell me that the Isle of Wight Festival of 1970 really took place on the Isle of Man, I would know that they were wrong for the simple reason that I was in fact there, and I know others to whom I can appeal who were there also. But the gap between 1970 and today is the same as that which exists between the Crucifixion and the Gospel of Mark. Witnesses to the events of Jesus’s life were still alive when the epistles of St Paul and the earliest Gospels were written—there was no need to depend on an oral tradition.
It is necessary to stress that a significant part of what would later constitute the New Testament canon was established within the lifetime of those who experienced the events because some make use of a supposed ‘oral period’ to drive a wedge between Jesus and the Church. A typical example, but just one among many, is John Shelby Spong, retired Episcopalian Bishop of Newark, New Jersey, who stressed in The Sins of Scripture (2006, p. 23), ‘Not only was the Jesus story in the gospels written some forty to seventy years after the earthly life of Jesus had come to an end, but it was written quite deliberately with the Hebrew scriptures open so that the story of Jesus could be conformed to those expectations.’ He makes use of the notion to suggest that the Church could—and did—say anything it wished about the witness of Jesus without there being anyone in a position to contradict. This is simply not so.
But the living link between the events of Jesus’s life and the Church at the beginning of the second century goes further than living witness. It includes what might be called ‘living memory.’
An example will clarify what ‘living memory’ means. My father witnessed the visit of the British dirigible R100 to Ottawa in 1930, and described the scene to me on a number of occasions. This gives me an awareness of that event that is not historical in the strict sense but is in fact better than historical, because it is the substance out of which our lives is made—the lived experience not only of ourselves but of those we have known and trusted.
But living memory bridged the gap between the Crucifixion and the first and even second decade of the second century, the time when we have the witnesses to the faith called ‘the Apostolic Fathers.’ The link between the life and witness of Jesus and the life and witness of the early Church is continuous and uninterrupted.