I was making my case against the resurrection and Jesus’ divinity tonight to a Christian and we ended up discussing oral tradition. His assertion was that there was enough of a check on what was being transmitted orally that we can be assured the information is reliable. For example, in the context of the story in Mark of the two women discovering the empty tomb, he said that this is probably true because, if it wasn’t, people that knew the disciples, who knew the two women, would have heard about it and put a stop to the story. I thought this was naive to the extreme but I’m not expert on oral traditions so I wanted to take it to you and see what you’d say about it.
I suppose I made your friend’s argument back when I was an evangelical Christian, but for the life of me I can’t see how any intelligent person with any experience of the world at all can make it. (I think I was intelligent at the time, but I certainly wasn’t experienced.) The reality is – as so many of us (most of us?) have experienced – you simply can’t stop people saying anything they want about you or about anything else. You simply can’t.
Suppose your friend read your comment here and called you up and corrected you: “No, that’s not what I said!” But now that you’ve put it out there, I’m repeating it. I don’t know your friend, and he has no way of contacting me to correct me. Or if he does send me an email to correct me, it’s too late – thousands of people have already seen it and may pass it along themselves. Is he going to contact all of them, along with the people they’ve told?
You could say it was different in the ancient world because there were no means of mass communication like today. But that only makes the problem worse. Because in that situation there is no way to know who is saying what and certainly no way to make for a massive appeal to retract what they’re saying. 2000 years ago someone could not publish a retraction on the Internet (not that even doing *that* does any good today).
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