How Accurately were Oral Stories maintained in Jesus Day? Answer: Not very.

A Storyteller in Ancient Times

I hear it all the time from Christians:  People in Antiquity were very careful to maintain the integrity of oral traditions/stories.  Therefore, it is highly improbable that any significant embellishments were added to the stories of Jesus as told in the four Gospels, documents written just decades after his death.

Modern anthropologists say otherwise.

From New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman:

This is from Chapter 5 of  “False Memories and the Life of Jesus.”  This is the chapter where I discuss what anthropologists have told us about oral cultures and the way they preserve their traditions; it’s a crucial chapter since so many people seem to think that in oral cultures people have better memories that we do, and that they make sure not to change traditions that are passed along.  After discussing what we know about oral cultures, I say the following:

In summing up this assessment of what we now know from such anthropological studies, I think it is fair to say that people in oral cultures do not preserve their traditions intact with verbatim accuracy from one telling to the next.   They not only do not do so, they do not care to do so.   Story-tellers in oral cultures tell their tales in order to communicate with their audiences in very specific contexts.  Both the audience and the context will affect how the story is told or the teaching is recounted – whether it is told expansively or briefly;  which entire episodes will be added or deleted; which details will be changed, expanded, or passed over completely. 

Someone who then hears that version of the story or teaching will later tell her own version. Whoever hears that version will tell his own version.  And on it goes, until someone writes it down.   The gist of these stories is more likely to survive relatively intact over the course of time, but not always.   Elements are constantly added to the stories and other elements are deleted or altered.  For that reason it is extremely difficult to separate out the elements that have been added or altered to an “original testimony” (to use Vansina’s term) from the gist that represents a “true memory” of the past.

Still, as we saw in the last chapter, there are ways to do so.  If …

Reader:  Is the relative unreliability of Oral Tradition as proposed by Anthropologists a recent phenomena? I quite distinctly remember in the late 60’s (yes, that long ago) In an advanced class of Cultural Anthropology on West African Tribes being taught just the opposite, namely the reliability of same.


Ehrman:  Yes, it’s been *mainly* since the 60s. Some of the key works are by scholars such as Albert Lord, Jan Vansina, and Jack Goody.

To read the rest of Ehrman’s comments, you will need to become a member of his blog.  Click here.


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