Chapter 5 of my book Jesus Before the Gospels (tentatively titled) is called “False Memories and the Life of Jesus” (tentatively titled). The first part of the chapter deals with a very common misconception about oral traditions in oral cultures – a misconception I hear all the time from lots of people, including my students who get upset when I discuss how traditions about Jesus appear to have been altered in the process of retelling in the years before the Gospels were written. The misconception is that in oral cultures, people had better memories than those of us who live in written cultures, and that they went out of the way to make sure that they preserved their cherished traditions – including their sacred traditions – with great accuracy, since there was no other way to preserve them in a world without writing.
You may well have heard that yourself. You may well have believed it. It’s widely believed. But it appears to be wrong.
My hunch is that this is one of those modern myths that everyone hears and believes because it makes so much sense, and then passes it on to others, who believe it because everyone says so. But it does appear to be a modern myth.
There are several points to make. The first seems fairly obvious when you think about it, but most of us have never actually much thought about it.
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