How long can oral tradition preserve information? The available evidence shows that, while the idea of preserving a complete story, word for word, in all its details and in order over even relatively short periods is all but impossible without the aid of writing, small pieces of information and tradition certainly can be preserved. One need not only think of the jokes, nursery rhymes, children’s games and assorted customs that have circulated and been passed on from one generation to the next. In the ancient world too we can find evidence of the same bit of local lore appearing in a written work by someone who visited the area, and then again centuries later.
The issue is not how long a tradition can be preserved. Oral cultures are perfectly capable of inventing stories and making things up, only to then pass those stories on faithfully for centuries. The distinction between fidelity of transmission and accuracy of information is crucial to a historian.
In this blog entry, I want to draw attention to a nugget of apparently authentic historical information in the Gospel of Peter, one that I briefly mentioned on a previous occasion. I have no particular interest in claiming that the mode of transmission was exclusively oral or written. The Gospel of Peter, in fact, shows how complex the realities of transmission of information could be. The Gospel of Peter shows knowledge of stories found in the Gospel of Matthew, as well as one that I think was originally found in the Gospel of Mark. But I have no reason to think that the author was sitting with a copy of either Gospel in front of him. Most likely, the stories circulated among most Christians orally, passing from oral tradition into writing and back again, as written Gospels influences the oral tradition.
The detail I have in mind is the reference to the disciples being in hiding after the crucifixion because it was feared that they would set fire to the Temple. I can conceive of no other explanation for the presence of this detail than that it was a piece of relatively well-known historical data that was nonetheless not included in the earlier written Gospels. To my mind, it is inconceivable that a Christian author would have created this accusation against Christians, especially after the Christians themselves had been accused of setting fire to Rome. On the other hand, this detail seems historically plausible in light of what we know about Jesus: he had predicted the Temple’s destruction, and so in some ways it was quite natural for the authorities to suspect that some of his followers might take matters into their own hands and forcibly bring about the fulfillment of Jesus’ prediction.
This does not mean that the Gospel of Peter is generally reliable. On the contrary, most of it seems like further unhistorical elaboration of material in Matthew that is itself quite likely unhistorical. The historian’s job is not to generalize. Even works of fiction occasionally refer to actual historical events; even top-notch historians get things wrong. The Gospel of Peter on the whole does not contain reliable information, but this particular piece of information seems to be absolutely credible.
Taking seriously the fact that, on the one hand, a culture that still maintains a strong oral component can remember and preserve both historical and unhistorical information over extended periods, it is appropriate for historians to sift through not only the canonical Gospels but significantly later sources, looking for nuggest of historical gold. This particular detail seems to be such a nugget.