October 30, 2008 by Michael Dewalt
Question: What are the gospels, and what is the oral gospel?
Answer: All recent critics admit that the contents of our four Gospels are intimately connected with more primitive accounts of Christ’s life, which may be described, in a general way, as an Oral Gospel. They are well aware that Jesus Himself did not consign to writing His own teachings, and directed His Apostles not to write, but to preach, the Gospel to their fellow-men. They regard as an undoubted fact that these first disciples of the Master, faithful to the mission which He had entrusted to them, began, from the day of Pentecost on, boldly to declare by word of mouth what they had seen and heard (cf. Acts 4:2), considering as a special duty of theirs “the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4). It is plain, too, that those whom the Apostles immediately selected to help them in the discharge of this most important mission had to be, like the Apostles themselves, able to bear witness to the life and teachings of Christ (cf. Acts 1:21 sq.). The substance of the Evangelical narratives would thus be repeated viva voce by the early teachers of Christianity, before any one of them bethought himself to set it down in writing. It can be readily seen that such Apostolic teaching was then inculcated in words which tended to assume a stereotyped form of expression, similar to that which we find in the Synoptic Gospels. In like manner, also, one can easily realize how the Apostles would not be concerned with the exact order of events narrated, and would not aim at completeness in telling what they “had seen and heard”. Thus, according to this opinion, was gradually formed what may be called the “Oral Gospel”, that is, a relation of Christ’s words and deeds, parallel, in respect to matter and form, to our canonical Gospels. In view of this, critics have endeavoured to find out the general contents of this Oral Gospel by means of the second part of the Book of the Acts, by a study of the doctrinal contents of the Epistles of St. Paul, and more particularly by a close comparison of the Synoptic narratives; and it may be freely said that their efforts in that direction have met with considerable success. As regards, however, the precise relation which should be admitted between our canonical Gospels and the Oral Gospel, there is still, among contemporary scholars, a variety of views which will be set forth and examined in the special articles on theindividual Gospels. Suffice it to say, here, that the theory which regards the canonical Gospels as embodying, in substance, the oral teaching of the Apostles concerning the words and deeds of Christ is in distinct harmony with the Catholic position, which affirms both the historical value of these sacred records and the authoritative character of the Apostolic traditions, whether these are actually consigned to writing or simply enforced by the ever living voice of the Church.