Did Early Christians maintain accurate Oral Traditions?

In my discussions with Christians regarding the historical accuracy of the Gospels, I often point out the fact that we have very little information about the historical Jesus prior to the writing of the first Gospel in circa 70 AD, and, we have zero information about an Empty Tomb owned by a Joseph of Arimathea prior to that date.  The Christian writings we do have from pre-70 AD, the writings of the Apostle Paul, mention nothing about Jesus’ alleged virgin birth, his birth in Bethlehem, any of his miracles, sermons, parables, or the details of his death.  The writings of Paul say nothing about the Empty Tomb of Arimathea.  Therefore, how do we know that some of the stories in the first Gospel, Mark, are not simply embellishments which developed over the approximately forty years between Jesus’ death and the writing of Mark, either in a gradual process or invented by the author of Mark himself?

Christians often respond with this statement:  “The early Christians maintained very accurate oral traditions.  Therefore, no embellishments could have been added in those forty years.  We can be very confident, therefore, that the Gospel of Mark accurately reflects the sayings and deeds of Jesus.”

Me:  “How do you know that for a fact?”

Christians:  “The first Christians were Jews.  Jews of that time period maintained very accurate oral traditions.   And not just the Jews, many of the cultures around the Mediterranean were oral-based cultures.  We know that oral-based cultures of the first century maintained very accurate oral traditions.”


Well.  That is not what the experts say!

New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman has written a new book, Jesus Before the Gospels, which deals with exactly this issue:  How did ancient oral-based cultures preserve their stories and traditions, and in particular, how did the earliest Christians remember Jesus, his sayings, and deeds?  Erhman draws on the expertise of scholars in the fields of sociology, psychology, and anthropology to present compelling evidence that directly contradicts the above Christian claim. Here are some excerpts:

The net result of Bartlett’s experiments is that when we remember something, we are not simply pulling up an entire recollection of the past from some part of our brain.  We are actually constructing the memory from bits and pieces here and there, sometimes with more and sometimes with less filler.  In the process of this construction project, which we are undertaking virtually all the time, errors can happen.  There can be massive omissions, alterations, and inventions of memory.
–page 135

The consensus among both anthropologists and cultural historians , in fact, is quite the opposite of what we might assume about oral cultures.  As orality expert David Henigie indicates, people in oral cultures “generally forget as much as other people”.  And because that is the case, people in such settings are at an extreme disadvantage in comparison with those of us in literary cultures.  If they forget something, they “lose it forever”.  For us it is usually not lost, since we can look it up.

…Oral tradition destroys at least parts of earlier versions as it replaces them.

…traditions in oral cultures do not remain the same over time, but change rapidly, repeatedly, and extensively.  That is especially important in considering traditions about Jesus in circulation in the early church, among people who were by and large illiterate, during the first forty to sixty-five years of Christianity, before our Gospels were written.                 
—pp. 182-183

(Classics scholar) Albert Lord persuasively made a crucial point that has been confirmed and reconfirmed by studies since his day:  oral cultures have a different conception of tradition from written cultures.   …Those passing along traditions in oral cultures are not interested in preserving exactly the same thing.  They are interested in making the same thing relevant for the new context.  That necessarily involves changing it.  Every time.    —p. 185

(Modern research demonstrates that) Memory is not simply information and experiences from an earlier time.  It is also, at least as much, what is happening now.  How we remember the past is intricately connected with what we are experiencing in the present.  In a very real sense, we do not have any direct, unmediated access to the past.  We have access to it, in our minds, only through the fallible and malleable process of memory.   —p. 288

Gary:  Therefore, the Christian claim that we can be certain that the earliest Christians, prior to the writing of the Gospels, accurately maintained the oral stories of the Gospels is yet another baseless assumption.  In fact, we know that the stories about Jesus did change, as anyone reading the Gospels in parallel can see for themselves.


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