Good morning Bishop,

My class has been very inquisitive and have asked a few quesions regarding the Bible.  One question my class has asked that I'm not too sure as how to answer is, "What percentage of the Bible was transmitted orally versus transmitted written?

Thank you for any insight you can provide to this question.
Best regards, M


Hello M,

I am impressed with the general question for students of an elementary-middle school. It really is quite a scientific question.

The question of how much of the Bible was ‘transmitted’ by oral tradition presupposes that we have an clear idea or definition of ‘oral tradition’.

In a sense, much of the Bible involving stories or histories would be ‘verbal’ before being set in a written version. However, in the Old testament there are poetic, legal and liturgical texts which  likely began in written form. And then, there are the New Testament letters of St Paul and others that began in written form. The first 3 Gospels are a big subject apart which carry the so-called ‘synoptic question’ as to which came first and influenced the others.

I have never seen  a statement in terms of % of the Biblical text having involved an ‘oral  tradition’.

Probably, what would be useful to anyone thinking in the terms of the question, is to explain that the ‘book’ of the Bible is not really a single book  but is rather a collection of inspired and varied texts which grew over many centuries within the faith experience of first, the people of Israel and then at the founding of the “New Israel”, the Church instituted by Christ, who is the Messiah as promised to the “old Israel”.

In other words, oral tradition as a literary and Biblical fact does not stand alone but is part of a larger process involving ‘inspiration’, ‘inerrancy’ and ‘canonicity’ as well as ‘tradition’ and ‘Synoptic question’ etc.  

Now, I know that such, is not the ‘stuff’ of religious ed. in elementary schools. However, for the teachers dealing with such questions, the answers eventually do need to take into account the ‘bigger picture’. And that bigger picture is accessible via on-line courses from Newman Theological College in Edmonton. And I assure you Biblical studies are very interesting ‘stuff’!

I can also say that having more scripture background helps avoid making ‘oral tradition’  carry a heavier load in the Bible than a scientific and yet faith filled perspective  provides or requires.

So, I have not been able to give you a simple answer of % of the Bible being transmitted via only oral tradition since there is no such consensus among  experts. But I have indicated the larger territory of the subject  and, I hope, also how interesting in themselves such subjects are.

Thank you very much for writing and I would be happy to visit your class and without using such terms, try to convey to them something of  the wonder of the Biblical worlds.


+bishop Paul