How were the New Testament documents transmitted in the first century AD?

Folio 41v from Codex Alexandrinus contains the Gospel of Luke with decorative tailpiece (courtesy Wikipedia)

By Spencer D Gear

It is not unusual to get this kind of theory propounded. Here it was on a large Christian forum on the Internet:

It’s blatantly obvious that there is a question to be answered: the three Synoptics have a lot of the same material – often word-for-word identical. How did that happen?
However much you bluster, any theory of authorship that fails to explain that overlap – in all its detail – is not satisfactory.[1]

The conversation continued by the same person (with interaction from others):

That would work [memorising a Rabbi or teacher’s words, word-for-word] if oral sources worked quite like that and if the overlaps between the gospels consisted of only context free words of Jesus.

But oral sources don’t work like that, and the overlaps include narration.
“Q”, if it ever existed , would appear to be a collection of sayings – which is the biggest problem with any hypothetical Q as a reconstructable stand-alone document.
but the overlaps between Matthew and mark, say, include narrative.[2]

This poster continued her scepticism towards the Gospel material:

It doesn’t matter how clearly “Matthew” and Peter remember the same events – their narration of those events won’t be word similar or remotely close to it unless one is copying the other. You can’t have “Matthew” and Peter independently writing accounts and have the similarities we have – it just would not happen. One has to have access to the other and be copying from it. Or they both have to be copying from a shared source.[3]

My response was as follows:[4]

Courtesy Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

I suggest that you read a Swedish scholar (former professor of exegetical theology, Lund University, Sweden) who challenges your view. He is Birger Gerhardsson and has published his investigations in Memory & Manuscript: Oral Tradition and Written Transmission in Rabbinic Judaism and Early Christianity and Tradition & Transmission in Early Christianity. I have these two volumes in one publication published by William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company (Grand Rapids, Michigan). Mine is a 1998 edition but they were originally published by Gerhardsson in 1961 and 1964. I have referenced them below as 1998a and 1998b.[5]

Gerhardsson searched for a model to demonstrate how oral formulations and oral tradition could have taken place. His aim was to find knowledge of possible techniques (1998a:xxxi). He set out to answer what he considered were three crucial questions:

  1. ‘To what extent did the Pharisaic teachers apply the Rabbinic principles of pedagogics during the first century A. D.’?
  2. ‘To what extent are we justified in regarding the pedagogics we find among the Pharisaic teachers as representative of the normal practices of the Jesus milieu as a whole, i. e. even outside the bounds of Pharisaism proper?’
  3. ‘To what extent did the teaching and transmission of Jesus and the early Church follow the principles of practical pedagogics which were common in their milieu, and to what extend did they create new forms?’ (Gerhardsson 1998b:12)

One of his conclusions from a long and extensive study is:

It is one thing to state that traditions have been marked by the milieu through which they passed; another to claim that they simply were created in this secondary milieu [a hypothesis of the form critics]. The evidence suggests that memories of Jesus were so clear, and the traditions with which they were connected so firmly based that there can have been relatively little scope for alteration (Gerhardsson 1998b:43; emphasis in original).

So Gerhardsson’s extensive research comes to rather different conclusions to yours. May I suggest a careful read of Gerhardsson’s seminal material that has been radically criticised by Morton Smith and Gerhardsson (1998b) has addressed Smith’s critique.


[1] Christian Forums, Apologetics, ‘Which gospel was first’, ebia #56, available at: (Accessed 4 July 2013).

[2] Ibid., ebia #62.

[3] Ibid., ebia #65.

[4] Ibid., OzSpen #70.

[5] Some of this material is made available online by Google Books HERE. Birger Gerhardsson has also written a smaller version, The Reliability of the Gospel Tradition (2001. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers).
Copyright © 2013 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 29 October 2015.