You all have heard about the legendary great memory capacity of elephants. But we might ask ourselves, what does an elephant really have to remember? Your local zoo elephant certainly won’t be called on to write down an account of what went on at the zoo 25 or 30 years ago. But how about the gospel writers? If the gospels were written down 25 to 30 years after the events, how do we know they are accurate history? Couldn’t the writers have forgotten important details? And why did they wait so long to write them down?
One of the main reasons we don’t see written accounts immediately after the events was that the main priority of the apostles and their associates was to proclaim the gospel by word of mouth. They were not concerned at that point about giving out written pamphlets or books for people to stick on their shelves, but they instead were looking to preach the word everywhere. However, there is no reason why some small documents couldn’t have also been written along with the oral tradition and later incorporated into the gospels, but there is neither proof nor disproof of this.
What we do know is that the word of mouth gospel spread very quickly to other cities and nations. What this means is that once the message went out, it would be next to impossible to alter it later down the line without detection and some conflicts. And the older generation Christians would also detect any new twists to what they had already heard. And there were other witnesses besides the disciples that saw and heard Jesus who were still alive 30 years later and would detect any changes in the message.
Laurence J. McGinley commented on the theories of the Form Critics and their skepticism of the historicity of the events of the gospels: “…among those eyewitnesses were bitter enemies of the new religious movement. Yet the tradition claimed to narrate a series of well -known deeds and publicly taught doctrines at a time when false statements could and would, be challenged.” (McGinley, Form Criticism of the Synoptic Healing Narratives, Woodstock, MD, p. 25, as in McDowell, More Evidence, p.211)
Finally. In the disciple’s oral tradition, they repeated sayings and stories continually, and by this constant retelling imprinted them onto their memories. And rather than individual memories of what someone told someone else, they memorized and recited as a group, forming a powerful collective memory and producing cross checks on the information not possible if dependent on individuals only. And many if not all of this group were eyewitnesses as well.
So with all due respect to elephants, the gospel writers did more than just pack their trunks and forget.