Did people in oral cultures even care if stories were changed?  We do! We have an interest not just in story but in establishing with some kind of accuracy what actually happened in the past, whether it is about the Civil War, the assassination of JFK, or the last election.  Did people in oral cultures have a way to know the past with historical accuracy?  Did they care?

Here I end this thread on what we know about how oral cultures passed along their traditions – not just their myths and customs but also the past events that affected their communities, in what Jan Vansina calls “testimonies” about the past, as shared by word of mouth in non-literate cultures.  Were they concerned to repeat the past “accurately”?

Again this comes from my 2017 book Jesus Before the Gospels (HarperOne).



Traditions that are passed along by word of mouth in oral cultures experience massive changes not simply because people have bad memories.  That may be true as well, but even more important, as Vansina discovered, when people pass along “testimonies” about the past, they are telling the stories for a particular reason to a particular audience, and “the amount of interest [the teller] can arouse in his audience largely depends on the way he tells the story and on the individual twist he gives it.”  As a result, “the tradition inevitably becomes distorted.”[1]

Moreover, since the story is told from one person to the next and then to the next and then to the next, “each informant who forms a link in the chain of transmission creates new variants, and changes are made very time the tale is told.  It is therefore not surprising to find that very often the original testimony has disappeared altogether.”[2]

Anyone interested in knowing about the historical Jesus based on the chain of testimonies about him that eventually came to be written down should certainly sit up and take note.

From his experience, Vansina found very much the same attitude toward keeping a tradition “the same” as Parry, Lord, and Goody:  “It happens that the same persons with regard to the same series of events will tell two different, even contradictory stories.”[3]   Even so, as with these other researchers, Vansina found that despite enormous difference and even discrepant accounts, the “gist” of a report is often retained in the various retellings.   He did note, however, that this was not always the case.

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.Did people in oral cultures even care if stories were changed?

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 an “accurate memory” of the past.

Still, as we saw in the last chapter, there are ways to do so.  If there several written versions of the same event, say, in the life of Jesus, and they evidence differences large or small, especially if those differences create irreconcilable differences, then we know that something has been changed, probably as the stories were circulating by word of mouth among story tellers in the years after Jesus’ death (although possibly some of the changes were made by the people writing the stories down).  In addition, if there are reports that are completely implausible for other reasons, those too indicate where storytellers have been applying their craft in recounting the tradition while passing them along year after year prior to the appearance of the Gospels.

On the other hand, there are certain memories of Jesus extensively and thoroughly documented throughout our sources that are completely plausible and do not appear to represent the biased perspectives of later Christian storytellers.   These would be gist memories that provide a basic outline of what we can say about the historical Jesus.   We have seen all this with respect to the accounts of Jesus’ last days and hours.  We now turn to the written records of his life and teachings, to find altered, and even invented traditions.


At this point in the book I start showing in some detail how the findings of experts on oral culture affect how we should understand the Gospel traditions about Jesus, passed on by word of mouth in oral cultures for decades before seeing the light of written day.


[1] Oral Traditions, p. 109.

[2] Oral Traditions, p. 109.

[3] Jan Vansina, Oral Tradition as History (Rochester NY: Broydell and Brewster, 1985) p. 65.

Over $2 Million Donated to Charity!

We have two goals at Ehrman Blog. One is to increase your knowledge of the New Testament and early Christianity. The other is to raise money for charity! In fact, in 2022, we raised over $360,000 for the charities below.

Become a Member Today!

2024-02-19T18:20:56-05:00February 20th, 2024|Canonical Gospels, Historical Jesus|

Share Bart’s Post on These Platforms


  1. TomTerrific February 20, 2024 at 8:49 am

    Tremendously interesting and informative text, DrE.


  2. Seeker1952 February 20, 2024 at 9:38 am

    I need to reread your book. But I wonder if one could reasonably say that the “gist” of the resurrection stories – despite large discrepancies among gospel accounts – is “factual” in some way. I think you do say that at least a few of Jesus’s key followers must have had some sort of experience – maybe a vision/audition – that he was still alive or had come back to life. Would that be the gist of the resurrection stories?

    It just seems that the story’s discrepancies are often said to cast strong doubts on the possibility of a literal resurrection. But isn’t that possibility already barred by the historian’s lack of “access” to the miraculous? Though I suppose both things can cast doubt.

    Is it reasonable to think that – despite discrepancies – the gist of the empty tomb story is factual? An empty tomb is not a miracle. And it’s often used to support the conclusion of a literal resurrection. Or is the empty tomb implausible due more to it being very inconsistent with Roman practice?

    • BDEhrman February 20, 2024 at 6:53 pm

      Sure, one can certainly say the gist is factual, depending on how you define “gist.” I would say the “gist” is factual that the disciples came to believe Jesus left the tomb. To figure out if it makes sense that the tomb was actually empty you have to consider lots of other factors, including whether Jesus was likely to have been buried in a tomb on the afternoon of his crucifixion.

  3. Seeker1952 February 20, 2024 at 9:57 am

    I believe that Jesus’s execution was said by early Christians to be the unjust – not to mention extremely cruel – killing/murder of an innocent man.

    But the Romans are the ones who killed him and was that unjust from the standpoint of existing Roman law and practice? If the historical Jesus did claim to be the messiah and, eventually, after the coming of God’s kingdom, king of the jews – as indicated on the cross – maybe the Romans did act justly by their own lights (allowing that they may not have felt any compulsion to act justly as opposed to simply preserving their domination). Maybe they didn’t understand that God’s kingdom needed to come first and that Jesus simply predicted it was going to happen rather than act as a cause of it happening, But that distinction would have been understandably lost on the Romans.

    On the other hand, the Sadducee’s may have acted unjustly in the sense that they were “out to get” Jesus for attacking the Temple and their power and were afraid of a major disturbance during Passover which would have led to a general increase in Roman oppression.

    • normative February 21, 2024 at 11:13 am

      I don’t know if “justice” is the right lens to think about the motives of an imperial occupying force, but it’s certainly *understandable* why they’d want to nip this in the bud. Jesus is seemingly predicting not only the overthrow of the existing order, but probably also (at least privately) his own installation as ruler.

      We can’t even really say with any confidence the Romans misunderstood what Jesus was up to. Had he lived and gathered more followers, would he have been content to wait for God to wipe away the Romans, or might he have begun encouraging uprisings as the means by which the righteous help bring about the new Kingdom? We have no idea. We only think that wasn’t his agenda because of later retcons that make the “Kingdom” spiritual rather than terrestrial.

    • sLiu March 1, 2024 at 7:46 pm

      man doesn’t understand Jesus was God & as I learned everything [time] is predestined.
      anyways Jesus trashed the temple.

  4. normative February 20, 2024 at 11:24 am

    One interesting implication of this account is that we should perhaps be more attentive to elements of the story that would be modified based on the intended audience. Historians often invoke criteria of “embarrassment” or “dissimilarity” to suggest we can assign higher probability to claims that the *tellers* of stories about Jesus would not wish to invent. But if stories are framed to engage the audience, then it seems at least as relevant whether a claim is one the intended audience would wish to hear. We seem to see this to some extent in the written Gospels, as the stories circulating among gentiles in imperial power centers progressively make the Jews more culpable in the death of Jesus and Rome (via Pilate) more innocent. Are there other elements that make most sense as alterations geared toward making the narrative more palatable to an audience far removed from the cultural context of Jesus’ original ministry?

    • BDEhrman February 25, 2024 at 5:11 pm

      Yup, that is pretty much what dissimilarity/embarassment is asking about, only from a different perspective. In part, inlight of the *audience* what is a story teller not inclined to hvae made up? It’s important to realize thought that criteria like this are *positive* not negative. You cannot use them to show what probalby did happen, what did not (if something fits *well* with what story tellers and their audiences would want to hear that doesn’t mean it is necessarily made up. If it’s contrary to what they would want ot hear then it more likely is NOT made up, i.e. historical. Big Dif. See what I mean)

  5. mini1071 February 20, 2024 at 5:09 pm

    With all of this burden on the historicity of oral transmission, we still rely on multiple attestation as an important criteria to suggest historicity. That is correctly applied multiple attestation between Mark, Q, M, L , John and perhaps non canonicals. Has any of this analysis been extended by anyone with respect to the veracity of that criteria? Perhaps the probability that the same (perhaps more popular pure [but reasonable] story amongst Greek speakers) found its way into more than one “source” over those 4, 5 or 6-7 decades? After all, we have multiple flood legends, virgin birthed demigods and so forth transmitted orally until eritten. More recently, how many times has Pygmalion been rewritten…

    • BDEhrman February 25, 2024 at 5:13 pm

      Oh yes, that’s always part of the consideratoin. That’s why the MORE independent sources the better, since MANY indepdentent sources are less likely to have heard exactly the story then, say, just two.

  6. blakemaczka February 20, 2024 at 6:35 pm

    Hi Mr. Ehrman,

    I have an unrelated question. I’m fascinated by the idea of discovering lost texts and I’ve been avidly following the Vesuvius challenge (https://scrollprize.org). Are you familiar, and is this actually a way we could uncover more texts? If not, what is our best bet for finding more? The stories of the finds of the Nag Hammadi are too intriguing. There must be more out there waiting to be discovered! Right?


    • BDEhrman February 25, 2024 at 5:14 pm

      Yup, this is an amazing development. It applies just now to texts that have been carbonized, and there aren’t LOTS of that kind of thing out there. These are there only becayuse of the eroption of Mount Vesuvius near a rich man’s library! Most manuscripts near severe heat are reduced to ashes.

  7. JDUSA February 23, 2024 at 8:52 pm

    I know many of my evangelical friends study the old and new testaments word by word, sentence by sentence, often missing the general story and missing the opportunity to contemplate what wisdom if any the general story might want to express. They get excited when they find connections across the Bible that begin in Genesis that often rely only on exact phrasing in their modern English Bible. But if the Old Testament stories like Adam and Eve, Noah, etc. were oral stories told around a campfire until consistent writing eventually came about, wouldn’t that make the exact sentences and words (even in Hebrew) really not matter so much today? Because it seems so unlikely that early humans (or any humans) would be hyper careful to share oral traditions “word for word.” And it seems very unlikely that the exact phrasing (even in Hebrew) that we have today is the exact phrasing each person spoke orally from the beginning. The Bible is often studied by modern evangelical Christians in the same way as the Constitution of the United States, where each word actually does specifically matter. Is there a justification for studying very old stories in the Bible this way? Even Jesus doesn’t seem to always use the same exact phrasing as what we read when we turn back to what he was referencing.

Leave A Comment