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How Reliable are Oral Traditions?

Another box in my upcoming new edition of my textbook.




Something to Think About

Box 5.3  How Reliable Are Oral Traditions?

If stories of Jesus’ words and deeds were in oral circulation year after year before being written down, how do we know whether they were changed significantly over time?  One way to answer the question is to see how “oral cultures” preserve their traditions generally.

In written cultures, such as ours…

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Did Jesus Call Himself God?
Mapping the Diversity of Earliest Christianity



  1. epicurus
    epicurus  October 24, 2018

    I think Mike Licona believes there was some rigorous process and determination in the ancient world to keep the oral traditions and retelling of stories free of or with little error. However given things he said in his debates with Bart, he seems like one of the scholars who makes the evidence fit his faith.

  2. Avatar
    fishician  October 24, 2018

    I recently attended a Bible study with my wife in which the leader trotted out the old assertion that oral cultures were very skilled at accurately memorizing large amounts of information. Having read Jesus Before the Gospels I countered that assertion with the points you mentioned, but I don’t think anyone was swayed. Would you say that one of the reasons fundamentalists are so intent on “proving” the accuracy of the Bible stories is because that is the only real “evidence” they have of what Jesus said and did? And if the evidence is flawed, then their belief system is at risk?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 26, 2018

      I imagine that made you very popular, huh?

    • Avatar
      doug  October 26, 2018

      That took some courage for you to speak up, fishician.

  3. talmoore
    talmoore  October 24, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman, I’m gonna go out on a limb here and speculate that your textbook is not used at Liberty University.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 26, 2018

      Except as an object of ridicule, of course.

      • Avatar
        Bewilderbeast  October 29, 2018

        As long as they pay for their to-be-ridiculed copy I’d be OK with that!

  4. Avatar
    brenmcg  October 24, 2018

    Not sure our modern sense is much different – most people would see jesus healing two demon-possessed men in matthew as the same story as jesus heals a demon possessed man in luke/mark

  5. Avatar
    brenmcg  October 24, 2018

    Hi Bart – off topic question but, when you were an evangelical christian beginning your new testament studies did you have a problem with markan priority? was it one of the things which made you stop believing in biblical inerrancy?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 26, 2018

      It’s hard for me to remember, but I *think* we subscribed to it.

  6. JulieGraff
    JulieGraff  October 24, 2018

    The first Christians were Jewish. Therefore they spoke Hebrew. Therefore when they were using words they knew it was not just a one level thing.

    Telling a story from A to B to The End is not even in the mental structure of the hebrew texts.

    Just as an example of the depth of the original text: The first word of the Torah is Bereshit… the last one is Israel… so the first letter is Beit (B) the last one is Lamed (L) and since hebrew is read from right to left, the word that emcompasses the hole Torah is Lev (B can also be said as a V) and LeV in hebrew means Heart.. .and so the hole torah is emcompassed in the Heart, and that is done by showing the importance of cycles as when reaching the end to go back to the beginning, it is dynamic! (the Torah is not fixed, that would be called Idolatry).

    So then not the first, at least I expect, but later Christians trying to put forth texts as a one level thing is a bit like trying to sell Flatland (see Carl Sagan’s Flatland, you can find it on youtube) as the orginal word of God. So then one may ask, when was the preserving of the tradition, either oral, writen, or in any shape way or form done?

    But then again, with the original texts, the depth of it is so intense, alpha, numerical and even geometrical, and the “Sod” it is hard for the tradition, oral and or written, to be lost… or misplaced! … and thats one of the beauty of it! 😉

    • Bart
      Bart  October 26, 2018

      My sense is that very few people spoke Hebrew in the first century — the language of Galilee was probably Aramaic.

      • JulieGraff
        JulieGraff  October 26, 2018

        Sorry, I should have been more precise. I ment spoke hebrew in a learning and teaching context.

        I once was told that people spoke aramaic (not hebrew) in their day to day living in reverance to the sacredness of the language of G.od and also in order to preserve it. Hebrew is more widelly used now and we can see their is a difference with the biblical hebrew and what we could call the hebrew slang.

        I am pretty sure the first christians knew hebrew pretty well as they reference the Torah often, and the Torah is written in hebrew. They even go as far as using the different levels as for example the refference to 14 (the numerical for the hand… Yad, Yod Dalet, 10+4, also 14 phalanges in the hand) wish represent Action (when Moses was tired of keeping is hands toward the sky in the desert Aarron helped him to keep them there). Btw I often wonder if people are aware of the underground meaning of the hands beeing peirced! 😉

        • Bart
          Bart  October 28, 2018

          When the Christians quoted the Bible, they did so from the Greek translations available to them (often called the Septuagint). There is not any good evidence they read it in the Hebrew. The reason Aramaic was so widely spoken was taht it had been the language of the Persian world and became the lingua franca of that region.

          • JulieGraff
            JulieGraff  October 28, 2018

            It is an obligation for a jew to study the Torah, maybe not implimented so much these days, but back then I expect it was… and for a jew to study the Torah in any other language than hebrew makes no sense… that’s one of the reasons I do expect a big difference with the first christians, who where jewish, and the christians latter on using translations.

            What ever other language was spoken in the day to day living to me is less relevant than the real reason why they did so. If i want to protect the sacred language of the sacred texts and if I am living in the U.S I’ll speak english, If i live in Quebec, i’ll speak french, If I live in Germany, I’ll speak german… but when I study the sacred texts, I’ll speak hebrew as that’s the language they were written in. Any other translation is a bit like living in flateland (as I have mentionned) and that’s my point about the unreliability of the traditions when passed on without the original language.

          • Bart
            Bart  October 29, 2018

            Most Jews at the time could not read and didn’t have direct access to Torah scrolls. If you’d like to see the definitive study of Jewish reading in the time of Jesus, see Catherine Hezser’s magisterial book, Jewish Literacy in Roman Palestine.

        • JulieGraff
          JulieGraff  October 29, 2018

          “Most Jews at the time could not read and didn’t have direct access to Torah scrolls. If you’d like to see the definitive study of Jewish reading in the time of Jesus, see Catherine Hezser’s magisterial book, Jewish Literacy in Roman Palestine.”

          Maby not most jews but I dont think non readers without access to the Torah scrolls would have been able to mention underground levels of the sacred text as I mentionned here (example of 14)… and I dont think the translation of the Torah was what was used in the Temple or around it either (where it seems the first christians spent some time).

    • talmoore
      talmoore  October 26, 2018

      But the letter directly in the middle of the Torah is ayin, so that would spell bet-ayin-lamed, which is…Baal! Uh oh.

      This is how I like to mess with the Rabbis.

      • JulieGraff
        JulieGraff  October 28, 2018

        Baal is not a negative word in itself as it means Lord or Master…

        You may be reffering to the Canaanite god, wish is a normal thing to do based on the usage of translations (without the original meanings of words).

        As for example a Baal Teshuva (master of repentance) is regarded very highly, sometimes even more so than a Tzadik (someone considered righteous).

        • talmoore
          talmoore  November 1, 2018

          Evangelicals equate Baal with Satan.

          • Bart
            Bart  November 2, 2018

            Actually, I’m much better looking.

          • JulieGraff
            JulieGraff  November 2, 2018

            Talmoore as a lawyer would say ” I rest my case” 😉

            Your answer was pretty funny Mr. Ehrman! 🙂

    • Avatar
      Nexus  December 3, 2018

      Julie, I don’t quite understand this. Could you explain this circular writing style more thoroughly? Do scholars of the Torah believe that?

      • JulieGraff
        JulieGraff  December 4, 2018

        Hi Nexus, I’ll do so but please keep in mind that I am only a student of the Torah teachings, I’m not a teacher, so I can only answer you at the fly on the wall level that I’m at.

        First I don’t know if you are aware of something important about the circle and the line so I’ll start with this just in case:

        If you are situated on a point on a line, and you leave that point moving forward, you can only move away from your starting point, the source. But, if you are situated on a point on a circle, and you leave that point moving forward, you will eventually come back to the starting point, The Source.

        That is one of the reasons the circle is so important in the underground teachings of the Torah. When you leave The
        Source, you will eventually get back to it.

        And that is one of the Sod (secret teachings) of the Circumcision. It’s the revealing of the circle (I don’t have to draw a picture here) at the exact location where life is transmitted!

        Getting back to the text, as I just showed the importance of the circle, you can extrapolate to understand the importance of that circular writing, reading style. Yes the Torah scholars a very much aware of it as it is imbedded in the way they read the Torah. Every week they read a different part (paracha) of the Torah and when they get to the end, they start back at the beginning the next year. To understand the beauty of it, just imagine when you read something once, for example a parable, and you read it again the next year, you are not at the same place mentally, spiritually etc. so that circular reading is a big part of what makes the teachings alive!

  7. Avatar
    anthonygale  October 24, 2018

    As surprising as this might seem, if you think more about it, I don’t think it should be. Think how often stories are changed even in modern times. Ever see the movie Lincoln based on the book Team of Rivals? Or the show Vikings? Dare I even mention Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter? Writers of modern books, movies and shows have said they are less interested in telling what is fact and more interest in telling what it true. History is often mixed with legend. Sometimes the order of events is changed or maybe two distant events are portrayed as happening closer in time (or even at the same time). If even modern folks don’t insist on verbatim accuracy, why would ancient people?

    • Avatar
      Bewilderbeast  October 29, 2018

      So true. When I hear a good joke I almost always adapt it to my audience when re-telling it.
      When I tell stories of my childhood I make sure they sound good to my audience. When I tell stories of my childhood to my childhood friends I almost always add in something that’s patently not true (usually making me the hero or at least less the villain!). The people who were there know the truth, and laugh at and with me. Others listening might not know I have embellished or altered. If they ever re-tell that story, an alteration will have crept in.
      THUS – in my opinion – goeth oral history.

  8. John4
    John4  October 25, 2018

    The boxes are great, Bart. Why limit us to the new ones, lol?

    Many thanks! 🙂

  9. Avatar
    caesar  October 25, 2018

    Do conservative scholars generally accept the idea of oral tradition in the gospels? Or do they think that, for example, Mark got his info directly from Peter…and Matthew and John were direct witnesses, so as least 3 gospels are all eyewitness accounts? Do they think there were eyewitness accounts, plus oral tradition?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 26, 2018

      Particularly conservative scholars continue to hold to the idea that Peter was behind Mark, that Matthew and John were disciples, and that Luke did lots of research to make sure everything he said was accurate.

      • Avatar
        HenriettePeterson  November 6, 2018

        1. How could he, since he is clearly altering things in several places to prove his own agenda?
        2. Do you think that Christians back then had much less interest in perserving their sources intact than today?

        • Bart
          Bart  November 7, 2018

          1. Not sure which “he” you’re referring to. 2. Apparently so! They certainly changed them a lot!

          • Avatar
            HenriettePeterson  November 8, 2018

            he – Luke -> “and that Luke did lots of research to make sure everything he said was accurate.” If Mark was one of his sources and he changed Mark to make things sound more like he wanted things to sound, doesn’t that automatically mean *accuracy* wasn’t Luke’s top priority?

          • Bart
            Bart  November 9, 2018

            It probably means that he did not consider *Mark* to be sufficiently historical!

          • Avatar
            HenriettePeterson  November 9, 2018

            “It probably means that he did not consider *Mark* to be sufficiently historical!”
            That’s a sarcasm, right?

          • Bart
            Bart  November 11, 2018

            No, it’s actually what I think! He says that he had many predecessors, Mark was certainly one of them, and he implies that he is now (in contrast to them) get the story straight.

  10. Avatar
    Stephen  October 25, 2018

    I am fascinated by the question of what motivates an oral tradition to become literary. What makes people decide to write the stuff down? I know there is research on how oral cultures work. Is anybody doing research on why oral turns to literary?


    • Bart
      Bart  October 26, 2018

      Yes, there’s a good bit of research on this. Among other things, writing down a tradition more or less “cements” it for a community, and provides an “authoritative” version that can then be read from time to time.

  11. Avatar
    nbraith1975  October 25, 2018

    Given the problems and questions that have arisen regarding the authenticity of the Bible; if in fact Jesus was the son of God, and maybe God incarnate (as some believe), and if he knew he wouldn’t be returning for at least 2K years, why didn’t Jesus (or God) make indisputable provisions in writing or historical evidence for the preservation of his words and deeds? After all, the written and historical evidence since Jesus’ death has only led to thousands of Christian denominations and spawned many conflicts and wars leaving untold thousands dead. And today we are no closer to any consensus of facts regarding Jesus’ life or words, other than he probably was a real person, than were known about him probably a year or so after he died.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 26, 2018

      Lots of different possible answers! A theologian might say, for example, that he entrusted the work of preservation to the Spirit….

  12. Avatar
    Boltonian  October 25, 2018

    The late 19th and early 20th century in England saw the first folk revival, led by the likes of Rev. Baring-Gould, Cecil Sharp and, a bit later, Vaughan-Williams and Percy Grainger. There was an argument about whether to retain the purity of the songs or view them as part of a living tradition, which succeeding generations of singers adapted to their own circumstances. The purists lost because there is no such thing in traditional folk-song as the ‘Original.’ All singers tailored the songs to their audience: after all they wanted paying and to be invited back.

  13. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  October 26, 2018

    Those new to the blog may find Dr. Ehrman’s “Jesus Before the Gospels” of interest since it deals with oral traditions in a very helpful and easy to understand way.

  14. Avatar
    moose  October 26, 2018

    Mr. Ehrman. I’m fully in line with what you write about Oral Traditions. My concern is the source of these Oral Traditions, and I’ll show my concern with a thought experiment that may seem ridiculous at first glance. This thought experiment is based on the assumption that Christian texts are a form of midrash, pesher, targum, etc. of texts in the Tanakh, and that the familiar names in the OT have been changed for this purpose.
    Let’s start with Acts 18 where Priscilla and Aquila have recently arrived Corinth because that Claudius had commanded all Jews to depart from Rome. Let’s suppose this is a rewrite of Esther and Mordecai who fled Nebuchadnezzar. That is, Priscilla is Esther, Aquila is Mordecai and Claudius is Nebuchadnezzar. Esther and Mordecai ended up outside the palace of Ahasuerus/Xerxes/Artaxerxes, which it seems to be some confusion about in early jewish traditions.
    Now, Nehemiah was a governor under the same Artaxerxes. Nehemiah was sendt to rebuild the Temple, and so we have an apparent connection between Esther, Mordecai and Nehemiah that fits the story, if we assume Apollos is meant to be Nehemiah.
    Now let’s assume Titus is Daniel – the penitent thief on the cross. Daniel’s connection to Nebuchadnezzar was of great concern for the early jews. Some believed Daniel’s close relationship with Nebuchadnezzar made him responsible for the fate of the Jews. In Paul’s letter to Titus he says: “Do everything you can to help Zenas the lawyer and Apollos on their way and see that they have everything they need”. Or in other words: – Daniel, do everything you can to help Ezra the lawyer and Nehemiah on their way(…).
    Finally. Paul as a Pseudonym for Jeremiah the Benjamite – the vessel of Christ. Who also had had a problematic relationship with Nebuchadnezzar.

  15. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  October 26, 2018

    I agree that if Jesus were, indeed, God that He would have made this claim loud and clear in the Synoptic Gospels since this would have been this most important thing Jesus said..

    • Avatar
      Sinseitional  November 17, 2018

      Love this topic, but here’s my query.
      If the “Word of God” was so important to the monotheists of Israel–and the offshoot factions that followed–why was the vast majority of the population illiterate?

      Whether we’re talking about the time when Hebrew was the vehicular language, or Aramaic, or Greek, wouldn’t they want to actually read this infallible word for themselves?

      Along the same lines, I’m curious about schooling available in ancient Israel, for instance. Did the priesthood actually WANT an illiterate populace? Or perhaps it was a case of the literate class wanting a monopoly on the forming and editing of scripture.

      I’m unsure of the structure of society at the time, and it’s probably more a case of the literate class taking advantage of being in said class, but can anyone point me to recommended scholarship on the topic?

      Much thanks.

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