Helped by the article? Then support the work of TGC Canada!


Year after year the Bible is the world’s best-selling book. Fifty copies are sold every minute. It’s also the most shop-lifted.

There are some critics who concede that although we may be able to trust that some of the shorter sayings of Jesus have been remembered with accuracy, we can’t have that same confidence with longer stories, especially the longer speeches in the Gospel of John.

Weren’t Jesus and the disciples uneducated? Isn’t memory unreliable?

Some have made the accusation that passing down biblical sayings is like a child’s game of telephone. But this is inaccurate and a mischaracterization about how religious teachings have been preserved.

Let me offer five points of clarification. My focus is on the Gospels with a special word for the Gospel of John. (You can read the longer version of this article here).


It is wrong to assume that Jesus and his disciples were uneducated.

They would have been encouraged as Jews to learn how to read. Their ultimate motivation would have been to study the word of God.

German scholar named Rainer Riesner points out that “elementary education for boys until at least the age of twelve was widely practiced in Jesus’ day…”[1]

Although the title “Rabbi” was an informal title before the year 70 A.D., this was a term—along with disciple—which implied education. Dr. Craig Evans explains: “In the Jewish setting, an illiterate rabbi who surrounds himself with disciples, and debates Scripture and legal matters with other rabbis and scribes, is hardly credible.”[2]

The Preservation of Important Sayings and Stories

The idea that the transmission of the Scriptures was a sloppy process of word-of-mouth telling and re-telling is inaccurate.

Memory and oral tradition

We live in a technological era. We don’t really have to use our memories because we don’t need to. As a result, our memory muscles can get flabby.

In Jesus’ time the culture was highly illiterate. People made a significant effort to commit important information to memory.

In Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, Professor Richard Bauchkam concludes that much in the Gospels bear evidence of having been preserved in a way to make them easier to remember and transmit. Psychologists have studied what is called “recollective memory.” This involves one’s ability to recall certain kinds of information over time. Details in the Gospel texts show marks of having been preserved by someone who was actually there, and of having been recorded in a way so as to make them easier to remember with frequent rehearsal. Rainer Riesner argues that over eighty percent of the sayings in the Gospels are in easily-remembered form.[3]

Written records

Writing down sayings and stories and copying manuscripts was a high and holy task, not a haphazard one. One of the responsibilities of the biblical scribes was to copy religious texts. It was common for two scribes to watch over the shoulder of another as he copied and preserved a text. If even a single letter was incorrect, it would be pointed out.

The apostle Paul contributed many letters to the New Testament. When Paul talks about ‘handing on’ or ‘receiving’ a tradition, he is using technical words used in both Hellenistic schools and rabbinic academies to describe a formal process of carefully passing on important teachings.[4]

The T.V. series The Chosen re-tells the healing of the man at the pool of Bethesda (John 5:1-15). As the scene unfolds, one of the disciples records what is happening. Although the show obviously takes some poetic license, it’s not too far of a stretch. Bauckham explains: “it does seem unlikely that no one would have even noted down Jesus traditions in notebooks for the private use of Christian teachers.”[5]

The Gospel of John

John preserves many of Jesus’ longer speeches. As a result, critics think it less likely that they could have been remembered or preserved with accuracy. John also records events that are not found in the other three Gospels. Let’s first explore who wrote it since that detail figures in to our response.

When we look at the evidence we are directed to the conclusion that the author was John, one of the twelve apostles of Jesus. He was sometimes referred to as the “beloved disciple.” Professor and theologian J. Ramsey Michaels says: “The identification of the beloved disciple with John the son of Zebedee is found almost universally in early Christian tradition.”[6]

Irenaeus was a church father who lived in the second century. He was a follower of Polycarp who personally knew some of the original disciples. He wrote: “John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia.”[7]

Within the Gospel itself, customs and locations match perfectly with what we know about society and geography in the first century. Craig Blomberg highlights how the conversation between Jesus and Pilate at his trial “dovetails remarkably with Roman judicial procedure.”[8]  Or we could note that the excavation of the pool of Bethesda in the 1900’s revealed it to be exactly as John had described it.

Then there is this sincere statement within the text: “This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down” (John 21:24). So beloved was John that Jesus entrusted his own mother to his care while bleeding on the cross (John 19:26-27).

It is commonly held in biblical studies today that John brought together all the sayings and events in their final collated version after Matthew, Mark and Luke had already been in circulation. So to answer some of the critics, the reason John includes information not found in the other Gospels may be because (a) he didn’t think it was necessary to repeat stories and sayings which were already well-known and in wide circulation, and (b) he desired to share unique or longer teachings that he himself was privy to as one of the intimates of Jesus.

Professor Derek Tovey writes: “at every point where the beloved disciple appears [meaning the apostle John]… the narrative includes items of close detail which suggest ‘on the spot,’ eyewitness report.”[9]

Eyewitness Corroboration

Since the sayings and stories of Jesus were being shared in the lifetime of the apostles themselves it lends to their credibility. F.F. Bruce points out the logic: “It can’t have been so easy as some writers seem to think to invent words and deeds of Jesus in those early years, when so many of his disciples were about, who could remember what had and had not happened.”[10]

The intervention of God

This last point will perhaps only be compelling to those of us who are already Christians, but it might be the most compelling piece of information yet.

When we think about the “inspiration” of the Bible, we  think of 2 Timothy 3:16-17. However, consider John 14:26. While speaking to his disciples, Jesus said that the Holy Spirit “will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” Yes, the Holy Spirit taught the disciples “all things” and helped them remember everything that Jesus has said to them. Not some things, but all things!

In Knowing God, J.I. Packer says: “The words of men are unstable things. But not so the words of God.”[11]  True indeed. Brothers and sisters, the Gospels are firm, not flimsy—faithful, not fickle.


[1] Craig L. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (Downers Grove, InterVarsity, 2007), 57.

[2] Craig A. Evans, Jesus and His World: The Archaeological Evidence (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), 85.

[3] Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2006). See especially the chapter titled “Eyewitness Memory.”

[4] See comments in: Robert J. Hutchinson, Searching for Jesus: New Discoveries in the Quest for Jesus of Nazareth—and How They Confirm the Gospel Accounts (Nashville: Nelson Books, 2015), 36.

[5] Bauckham, Eyewitnesses, 289.

[6] J. Ramsay Michaels, John (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series) (p. 4). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[7] Ibid, 6.

[8] Blomberg, Historical Reliability, 227.

[9] Bauckham, Eyewitnesses, 398.

[10] F.F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (Leicester, UK: InterVarsity Press, 1981), 43.

[11] J.I. Packer, Knowing God (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1973), 15