The gospels according to James and Thomas – an exercise in understanding oral tradition

Let me introduce you to William Robert Bell, my Irish great grandfather.  He died of the what was then called the Spanish Flu that swept the world in 1918, one hundred years ago.  He was 38 at the time.  He was married to Sarah Jane Gordon, and had three children, Ria, Thomas (my Grandfather), and Jimmy Gordon Bell.  From this point the names do get a bit confusing as the family followed the Irish traditions of naming children after relatives.

Jimmy married Susan, and they had two children Billy and Doreen.

Ria got married to Ernest Andrews and they had a son in 1931 name Thomas Andrews.

Thomas Bell was in the Royal Navy and met my grandmother Esther at a dance in Barbados.  After getting married in England (while on leave) they went to live with his family in Ireland where my Dad, James Ernest Bell was born.  In 1947, when my Dad was 8,  the three of them left Ireland and moved to South Africa where my grandfather found work on the mines.

Jimmy died in 1948 at age 40.  Ria died in 1949 at age 44.  Their mother, Sarah Jane Bell died in 1952 at age 52. After Sarah Jane died, her house was plundered by neighbors. Tom Andrews was able to recover her wedding ring which he sent to Thomas Bell in South Africa.  The gold from the wedding ring was used to create wedding rings for my brother and me.

The families lost contact with each other soon after.  Apart from some early sporadic contact, there has been no contact with our family since the 1960s, about 50 years.

Until a couple of weeks ago.

I had been contacted by a distant cousin on a genealogical website who was trying to trace some of her family roots.  With her help, I started to track down family records online.  We found some historical records, and then with a bit of luck, managed to find the burial record for Tom Andrews.  With a little bit more digging we found his family!

Here is where it gets relevant to Internet Monk readers.

Both my family and Tom Andrews family had created historical albums.  They were based off of some historical documents, but were in large part dependent on oral tradition.  On our side of the family, much of the connection had been lost in 1947 when the family moved to Africa, and was disconnected even more when my Grandfather, Thomas Bell died in 1979.  On Tom Andrews side, his one uncle had moved in 1947, his other uncle had died in 1948, his mom had died in 1949, and his grandmother in 1952.  In a span of 6 years he lost just about everyone who could connect him to the Bell side of the family.  In these historical albums we had two sets of family oral traditions.  One provided by father, James Ernest Bell, and one provided by Thomas Andrews before he died in 2009.  That is why I called this post the gospels of James and Thomas, because they set out to record as best they could the details of William Robert Bell, Sarah Jane Gordon Bell, and their descendants.

While they were both very similar in some respects, they were both very different, and both very inaccurate!  You see, I have been doing some further digging over the last few weeks, and so have found many of the original birth, marriage, and death certificates.

In the heritage albums, names were wrong, pictures were assigned to the wrong people, birth years were wrong, birth places were wrong, naval records were incorrect, ages at death were wrong, a birth order was wrong, the number of children was wrong, and some of the stories were wrong.

For example in the case of Ria, one album had her as the oldest child, born in 1900, the other had her as  second child, born in 1910.  In fact she was the 2nd child born in 1904.  On album told the story of her having to go work in a Linen Mill at age 8.  In fact, she was 12 or 13.  An album misidentified a picture of her as being her aunt.  (Both had the same name.)

Remember these historical details were coming from two people who both knew Ria directly.  She was James Gordon Bell’s aunt, and Tom Andrews’s mother!

Here is my point.

We should expect about the same level of accuracy (at best) when it comes to the Biblical Gospel accounts.  When Luke says that Jesus was “about 30” when he began his ministry (Luke 3:23), we can expect that to be about as accurate as James account of Ria dying about age 39 or Tom’s account of Ria dying at age 49.  In fact if you compare the possible dates of Jesus’ birth, we get a similar 10 year discrepancy, from before the death or Herod the Great in 4 B.C., or during the census of Quirinius in 6 A.D.  The fact that Luke uses the word “about” conveys the idea that this is information about which he is not at all certain.

What we read in the Gospels, is representative of how all oral traditions work.  Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John took the stories and events that they had either heard or witnessed directly, or had passed on to them, and recorded them as faithfully as they could.  Their knowledge wasn’t perfect.  Their sources were different.  The stories have inconsistencies. Trying to synchronize them can create more problems than it solves.

Had I not found the original documents, It would have been very difficult to figure out which details were correct in the historical albums.  James or Thomas, who had it right?  For future generations it would be even more difficult. We don’t have the original documents in the case of Jesus.  What we do have is four different accounts of what happened in the life of Jesus, and just like in my family, the major stories line up pretty well, but some of the details are sketchy.

Some people want perfection out of their Bibles.  For me, Jesus was perfect, and having imperfect human beings involved in the writing down of his story doesn’t bother me one bit.

Your thoughts and comments are welcome.

44 thoughts on “The gospels according to James and Thomas – an exercise in understanding oral tradition

  1. Challenging thoughts, Mike!

    I appreciate the idea that God could use the highly flawed medium of oral tradition to flawlessly convey his eternal truth. And I don’t think a lack of perfect accuracy on the exact number of fish caught in John 21 necessarily impinges on the inerrancy of the eternal truth of the story. (The purpose of the number in this instance is simply to prevent the “fisherman’s tale” from growing too many arms and legs anyways.)

    Where I get uncomfortable is when we begin to draw two seemingly arbitrary lines:
    1. To assert that the Holy Spirit, inspiring the writers through various genres and mediums, is incapable of overcoming human err to bring precise information to mind for the authors. I’m not saying he necessarily had to – I’m OK with “God won’t,” but I’m not ok with “God can’t.” And I have not seen sufficient justification for me to completely by the “won’t” in this instance.

    2. If we can attribute so much err to oral tradition, overemphasizing the human element of err over the divine element of inspiration, we become the determiners of what can or should not be taken as truth in these accounts. That places nearly the entire moral teaching of Jesus subject to our own ulterior motives.

    For me, it is easier to resolve the many apparent contradictions and be left with a Christ who can instruct me against my own selfish inclinations, rather than be left with “That’s how this apostle remembered Jesus taught, but I think it more likely that Christ would really mean ________.”

    But either way, having read this, I do find it easier to take the peripheral details with a grain of salt.


  2. A strain of flu that triggered a cytokine cascade, where the immune system overreacted to the virus to where its response did as much damage (if not more) as the virus.

    Medicine where the only antipyretic to take down that flu’s killing fever was aspirin, to where autopsies showed as many signs of fatal aspirin overdose as viral/cytokine cascade lung tissue destruction.

    One of my writing partners read me some passages from a history book about the 1918-19 flu pandemic. About as the disease spread, one town that hadn’t been hit yet asked a town that had “What can we do to prepare?”

    The answer: “Put half your able-bodied men to work building coffins, and the other half to work digging graves. And when the flu gets to you, it still won’t be enough.”


  3. Clay Crouch, I’m not sure I understand your question, but my short answer is “no”. All Christians have the Holy Spirit present in them. I do, however, think there is a difference between whatever happened in the writings which the Church, led by the same Holy Spirit, accepted as the canon of Holy Scripture and what I or anyone else has written or will write outside that canon in the 21st or any other century. I hope this is clear and doesn’t make my comment even more confusing. Thanks for your question.


  4. My mother said that my grandfather, a coal-mining slovak, stayed drunk through most of 1918 to avoid the epidemic….


  5. It’s not that I don’t trust them…I just don’t know why I should, or why I should place any person/tradition over myself.

    I already know I am smarter than Augustine was; this isn’t a pride statement, just a fact. His theology was flawed and corrupt. I would happily share a drink with him and talk with him about his ideas and my own. But he’s not an authority to me, nor will I put myself under his descendents’ authority. Augustine and I are equals. There’s nothing inherent in him that makes him ‘more’, nor in me, and there are things in both of us that make us ‘less’.

    So I don’t know about the Orthodox. But I don’t accept any claims of it’s claims or bishops de facto.


  6. Ric ‘n Rick, do you suppose that the Holy Spirit has ceased breathing into us poor slugs of the 21st century?


  7. Yes! Thank God for the mystics and the desert mothers and fathers. But, yes, Jesus spent his life in the dirty world of the rest of us.


  8. Tangential to the main point of the thread but the Influenza epidemic of 1918 was murderous and brutal. My understanding is that more American soldiers died of the flu than were victims of combat. Because of poor hygiene and close proximity the flu swept through the camps to devastating effect. Imagine surviving the war only to succumb to the epidemic.


  9. Most of the world is outside both the study and the monastery. God’s Kingdom finds its center and home in that world.


  10. I retract my statement. You already acknowledged your poor example, so I shouldn’t pile on. I do, however, wonder what should give your bishops a hearing from us if not your example. I suppose you will say the Saints provide that example, but many of us think that your hagiographies and lives of the Saints are in significant part PR. The only thing that will convince us is real, living, contemporary examples, exhibiting more than the degree of empathy that is common to much of the human race, Christian or non-Christian.


  11. Oh Burro, I wish you and I could sit down and have a nice long conversation. I admire this place but in the end exchanging posts on the internet is a lousy way to communicate.

    I do take your meaning. But reality has a way of impinging upon even the most hermetically sealed environment.

    I want to know the truth. Whatever that is. But I do not assume that truth will necessarily please me. We are so given to self-deception and wishful thinking that we should almost always mistrust our perceptions.

    If you want to put it such stark terms I suppose I do prefer the study to prayer.

    Are we both hiding you and I? You in your monastery and I in my study? Do you think the Kingdom will have room for such as us?


  12. The dirt poor peasants of medieval Europe were constantly worried, despite their penury, about dying and going to hell for failure to believe and do the religiously prescribed things. The medieval development of the doctrine of Purgatory, and the willingness of those peasants to part with the little wealth they had to procure indulgences, give ample witness to that fear.


  13. Why should we? What about your trust in them would commend them to us? You say that your prefer the monastery to the academy, and prayer to study; and yet one wouldn’t know that from your intellectual pronouncements, such as, “If the 20th century….etc.” Is that an attempt at prophecy? Sure doesn’t sound like it. It sounds more like Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov than it does Alyosha.


  14. Sure. No argument from me. I agree. I was just pointing out one of the reasons that some people, I would say many people, expect perfection from the scriptures, when they don’t expect it from the family biography passed down from generation to generation. Errors in the family biography have nothing to do with redemption, however it’s understood; errors in the scriptures are believed by some, I would say by many, to be incompatible with its ability to convey knowledge necessary for salvation. Hence the higher standard of perfection for the accounts given in scripture as compared with just about any other story-telling or biography: the existential risk of imperfect scriptures is thought to be immeasurably higher than the risk of imperfect family lore.


  15. Actually, I was thinking between men and men.

    All knowledge is shepherded by magisteria. The reason you aren’t Orthodox, apart from my poor example, is that you don’t trust our bishops.


  16. Faith is the opposite of certainty? For me Faith = Trust, and Trust is all about certainty.


  17. –> “The Gospels weren’t written in order to establish Facts. They were written to explain Reality (which may include Facts, but is greater than any fact or sum of facts).”

    Trying to wrap my head around those two statements to see if they’re true. (I’m analyzing them against Luke 1:1-4.)


  18. I agree with both RDavid and Dana. The reality of Ria is not diminished by the incorrect details. At the same time, I only have to go back 100 years to find family members who could neither read not write!


  19. Tell me who you believe and I’ll tell you what you believe.

    ‘Well I choose to believe God over the vain philosophies of man…’

    excuse me while I choke up this bile.



  20. Yes. Good points, RDavid.

    The Gospels weren’t written in order to establish Facts. They were written to explain Reality (which may include Facts, but is greater than any fact or sum of facts).



  21. –> “If the 20th century belonged to physics, the 21st will be dominated by biology.”



  22. Good point. Heck, think about the difference between writing down in a culture that’s used to PROSE and writing down in a culture that’s used to TEXTING…!


  23. Once again.

    Tell me who you believe and I’ll tell you what you believe. I don’t know why we would be so surprised that epistemology would have a social structure,or even primarily social, but it appears to me that socially organized epistemological constructs, “churches” if you like, would have immune systems that would guard their perimeters and the transmission of their DNA. Substantial segments of the population are right to lose their **** about Ehrman and his fantasies. I don’t believe he can tell us any more about the ‘historical Jesus’ (that recurring haint of infidelity) than Albert Schweitzer could.

    As I said a couple of days ago, the Orthodox church is a fait accompli. You, at least, will not mistake my meaning.

    This is why I prefer the monastery to the academy, and prayer to study.

    If the 20th century belonged to physics, the 21st will be dominated by biology.


  24. Perhaps there is a difference between writing down in a culture that is used to oral tradition and orally passing on information in a culture that is more used to writing things down. We also need to remember the influence of the Holy Spirit, the “God-breathedness” with the Bible (divine-human authorship).


  25. Excellent post. The sad part is the laity is so ignorant of Biblical scholarship, stuff taught in every reputable divinity school and seminary in the land, that when a mainstream scholar like Bart Ehrman writes a book simply pointing this out, that substantial segments of the population completely lose their ****. Nice for Ehrman since it turned his book into a bestseller but there were a lot of red-faced clergy scrambling to answer tough questions they should have brought up themselves.


  26. John Dominic Crossan is worth reading on this topic. “The Birth of Christianity” would be a reasonable place to start.


  27. That is weird. Our society keeps records of land ownership obsessively. In many parts of the United States it is possible to trace the ownership back to a grant by some European monarch. Dig into the county archives and you might work your way down to fancy documents with ribbons and seals. The courthouse burning down is a real thing, so it is not terribly surprising to find that all the records from before that fire are lost. But a random gap in the record is very odd.


  28. As a hobby genealogist, this story rings bells. I self published a book on a pair of my great^Nth-grandparents who immigrated to the U.S. shortly before the Civil War and settled in eastern Ohio and their descendents (thirteen children, …) For one of their children who went West to make his fortune, there was a newspaper account in their hometown of his death: “died of falling down a mine” in Colorado. That makes it sound like he accidentally fell into the mine and died. So that is what my branch of the family believed as tradition, and what I first found in the newspaper while researching. But in researching further, I found the Colorado government’s mine safety report – which says that he died while in the mine when part of the roof of the mine fell down on him. Very different picture of what happens. And both of those records were put into the written form I found in both less than a year from the incident and in at most a couple rounds of transmission (someone at scene to wife, wife to hometown family, hometown family to newspaper versus someone at scene to mine official, mine official to government official, government official to annual report).


  29. Comfort and success enable a number of indulgences that wouldn’t stand in the heat of struggle and necessity.


  30. Yeah, this isn’t always a logical progression thing. I don’t know anyone who ‘logically’ got saved. This is deeper. It’s highly irrational and a felt thing.


  31. many people believe that if they get the facts about Jesus (and God in general) wrong, they burn forever,

    And we have to let them keep believing that at some point. We can’t convince or persuade otherwise. But we don’t need to keep living in that lie. And we can provide an example they can look to to save themselves from themselves and their false savior.


  32. I would say most Christians I know while they do not articulate it well understand they have faith which is the opposite of certainty. Like it is said , you do not need a mountain of faith , just a little. For the firm Bible believers who take it literally, their faith is that while they do not understand from their perspective how it is possible , they have faith that it is .

    The faith boils down to John 3.16. that Jesus is their Savior. Many times I heard my little old Grandmother say only God knows why certain things are unclear, hard to believe, hard to follow and confusing in the Bible but her faith was in Jesus that she found out about in the Bible. The old hymn I Love to Tell the Story, Of Jesus and his Glory, To Tell the Story of Jesus and his love, summed it up to my poorly educated, trust in the Bible and took the Bible as truth while not really truly understanding every nuance of it, she took the story on faith, dare I say faith alone?


  33. Jesus didn’t issue notebooks to the Disciples, and they didn’t write down everything like the Noth Korean entourage that hangs on every word of the General. Maybe they would have been more meticulous if they had realized his divinity from the beginning. We have several people in our family who are genealogical hounds.We often come up with differences in particulars Even people we know are described in different narratives based on how those persons interacted.


  34. I understand what you are saying and don’t fully disagree, but there are some things that may need to be kept in mind:

    First, we need to be careful about equating 20th Century western oral tradition practices with 1st Century Jewish oral tradition practices.

    Second, the subject matter can impact on the reliability of the tradition.

    Finally, the genre of the gospels is not the same as 20th Century family records. There were theological implications expressed, etc…

    Again though, I get your point.


  35. > what sort of people believe this?

    I was close to being one for a time.

    IMNSHO, it is pretty easy to get there when one is generally comfortable and success comes fairly easily [which is most white people in the Unites States]. Especially if you have a personality with an Order-n-Structure preference.

    It is easy to be distracted/captivated by Theology [or Biblicism masquerading as Theology] when there is a lack of overwhelming problems. And then, when so accommodated, to hide behind that Theology when the waves do come. At least until the boat finally just breaks apart beneath you.


  36. This! Completely. I have the same thing – a big box full of family documents going back to the mountains of eastern europe. I knew my Great Grandmother on father’s side, I live in a house built by my Great Grandfather on my mother’s side. And? I know there is stuff that cannot all be true [ because math ], and there are notable gaps in the documents [ there is no initial public record of sale for the property I live on, and the city’s street & insurance map for that decade is just a blank space where my neighborhood is – at which point the Archivist said, and I quote: “That’s really weird, I haven’t seen that before” ]

    So when if I tell you my families story – it is an amalgamation of amalgamations; many events clearly are +/- 20 years. I do not feel that makes it “false”.

    And we always have to remember what the story is for.


  37. “many people believe that if they get the facts about Jesus (and God in general) wrong, they burn forever”

    Hi Robert F.

    what sort of people believe this?

    I have heard that there are some people who feel that if a person in a third world country dies without knowing about Jesus, they will go to hell . . . . but that doesn’t make any sense, if you consider that God is just and compassionate and above all, merciful

    if people are cherry-picking verses that point to God as unjust, and they know it, how do they justify presenting Him in that fashion?



  38. Some people want perfection out of their Bibles.

    Because they think that salvation requires having correct knowledge. No such salvific question rests on the accuracy of the information you have about James and Thomas. In the case of the Gospels, the existential investment is much higher ; many people believe that if they get the facts about Jesus (and God in general) wrong, they burn forever, and they believe that based on their interpretation, and traditional interpretations, of the Bible. What’s the worst that can happen if you have wrong facts about your forbears?


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