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On the Accuracy of Oral Traditions

I have announced on the blog that my new book, Jesus Before the Gospels, will be available March 1.  The book is about how the stories of Jesus were passed along by word of mouth for several decades before being written, and about how modern studies of both memory and oral cultures can help us understand what probably happened to the traditions as they circulated orally from one person to another over all those years.

In reaction to a previous post on the topic, a reader made the following interesting comment:



The Iliad [of Homer] exists today in its modern form because of oral tradition.  We can be pretty sure that the story did not happen as it’s told to us, even if you leave out the part about kibbitzing gods (and we can be pretty sure that it wasn’t originally meant to be a literal recounting of the Trojan War, literalism never being the mission statement of poetry).  But inspired by it, Schliemann did go out and find Troy. Which we wouldn’t have known about at all. If not for the Iliad.  Oral tradition should not be underestimated.



This comment raises an intriguing issue (and answers the issue in a way I completely agree with).  If ancient writings based on oral traditions can be shown to contain reasonably accurate information about the geography, religion, and culture of the time that they describe, doesn’t that show that they can be accepted as generally relatively accurate?

This has long been argued.  It continues to be argued with some vehemence by proponents of the accuracy of the New Testament.  Let me give you one example dealing not with Jesus and the Gospels but with the apostle Paul and the book of Acts.

In Acts 14 we are told that…

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  1. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  February 10, 2016

    This reminds me of friar Joseph of Cupertino who was said to levitate off the ground and was seen by hundreds of people doing so. There are supposed to be numerous records that give accounts of him performing levitation. I’ve read books and articles that describe these accounts, but I haven’t found the primary source documents anywhere. Are you familiar with this story?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 13, 2016


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      sashko123  February 15, 2016

      I’ve heard of it! A friend of mine at a Starbucks in Sunnyvale was providing this account as evidence of miracles only a few months ago.

      • Avatar
        Pattycake1974  February 15, 2016

        I finally found out that Cupertino’s life was written by Robert Nuti in 1678 (15 years after Cupertino’s death) and again in 1773 by Angelo Pastrovicchi. Cupertino was unique in that he began having ecstatic visions at the age of 8 and was mentally slow. He was often bullied and had a troublesome life, even while being a priest, but mostly known for levitating in front of hundreds of people that include–Duke of Brunswick, a Spanish ambassador’s wife, and Pope Urban VIII. Cupertino was also said to be a part of the Inquisition at Naples for witchcraft.

        Anyway, I would love to read Nuti’s biography, but it’s at the Vatican Library and written in Italian. Another document was written by a cardinal archivist and is only available to scientists and scholars. 🙁

  2. talmoore
    talmoore  February 10, 2016

    Does Lourdes, France exist? Yes. Is there a cave a mile outside of town called Massabielle? Yes. Did Bernadette Sourbirous live in Lourdes in 1858? Yes. Could she and two other girls have been in and around the cave of Massabielle on February 11th of that year? Certainly. Did they actually see an apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary there? We’ll never know.

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    Scott  February 10, 2016

    I like to see modern, non-hypothetical examples of this, like your Metzger and the Squirrel story. Once we establish that Dr Metzger existed, was a professor well versed in Greek and taught at UNC, the rest of the details MUST be true.

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    flshrP  February 10, 2016

    And a number of famous Holy Land archeologists have used the OT and NT for over 150 years as guides for selecting sites for excavation. If you’re interested, get an (inexpensive) subscription to Biblical Archeology Review and enjoy the articles. The photography is excellent as are the articles that discuss the back stories on the controversies and infighting among these professionals. These can get nasty at times.

    BAR articles are similar in depth to Scientific American articles.

    Full disclosure: I’ve been a BAR subscriber for more than 20 years and am NOT paid to endorse BAR.

  5. Avatar
    godspell  February 10, 2016

    Well, disappointing as it is to learn that rumors of your gravity-negating powers are much exaggerated, I think you do clarify an important point–a story can be accurate in many key respects while still being wildly inaccurate in certain specific aspects.

    Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, and people in that era (or this) claiming something outside the realm of what we can prove to be scientifically plausible isn’t proof of anything.

    The tricky part comes when ancient sources claim something we know is possible. It is possible that a faith healing could seem to be effectual–there are documented cases of this. Mind over body. Since people do imagine supernatural events all the time, often by exaggerating and misundertanding real events, it’s entirely possible that some people in Lystra witnessed a faith healing (something we can be pretty sure Jesus’ followers attempted habitually, because it’s so widely documented), and got excited about it, translating it into their own religious beliefs. Things like this can and do happen. And the rest, of course, would be exaggerations of the author of Acts, based on oral tradition, that would leave out all the people who scoffed, who said the man wasn’t really cured, and the fact that maybe most people there didn’t experience the same story that was passed down to us.

    What really happened when Alexander the Great cut the Gordian Knot? (A story I absolutely believe happened, because it’s entirely consistent with what we know about his attitude towards problem-solving). Did everybody just say “Wow, he really is the True King!”? Wouldn’t some people have said “Hey wait a minute, that’s cheating! He’s supposed to untie it by hand!”? And did unfastening the knot really mean whoever did it was the rightful king? Whatever they would have said or thought about the event would have presumably been muted somewhat by the presence of his well-armed soldiers, in any event. So the story happened, got mingled with an earlier story relating to the famous knot, and was interpreted in the most favorable possible light by Alexander’s people after his death (when he really did begin to be seen as a sort of god).

    That story is no harder to believe than the one about Lystra, really. Once you allow for all the later embellishments that became associated with both stories.

    If the people of Lystra thought Paul and Barnabas were gods, or even men who could command the power of God, would they really have allowed angry Jews from a neighboring town to stone them half to death as heretics? Entirely possible some of the Lystrans joined in the fun.

  6. Avatar
    flcombs  February 10, 2016

    EXACTLY! Almost every day I see some one fact put out with a “The bible is proven correct!” header like I’m supposed to be amazed. I try to point out that I don’t know anyone that thinks the bible is ALL WRONG, just can’t be trusted to be ALL RIGHT. But one example I like to use along the historically true but story not true to people is the movie Titanic. The Titanic story is historically true, as are many of the characters and the context. But Jack and Rose and their story? NO. You can watch the movie, learn a lot about the Titanic and related events and be tempted to think their story is true (and likely many people DO!) Yet a bit of research easily shows they didn’t exist. In this case we have the known writer to tell us, as well as documentation on passengers. There are many “Historical Novels” and other movies that are the same way or even fill in fictitious dialog and details for true historical characters. For the Bible we frequently have little information to compare or verify the story or details. Given what we know about human nature and other documents, there is no valid reason to give the Bible special treatment or consideration.

    • Avatar
      godspell  February 14, 2016

      Well, nobody was supposed to think the central story was true in Titanic–that was billed as historical fiction. Some people might have gone to the movie and thought it was based on research (which it was, but research geared towards telling a romantic adventure that would bring people back to the theater over and over).

      A better example might be Moby Dick–who would believe a whale could sink a full-sized ship? But that did in fact happen, and Melville heard and read about it, and that, combined with stories about a real white sperm whale named Mocha Dick (who was notorious for both his size and his ferocity when attacked, and was only killed when he tried to save a pregnant female of his species). And most of his narrative was fiction, and sold as such–but we can be sure much of his material was drawn from his own experiences on a whaling vessel. The novel is certainly read by historians of that period to this very day.

      But what would people reading it thousands of years from now be most likely to dismiss as a storyteller’s largesse? The very aspects of it that seem most fantastic.

      Life can exceed fiction, at times.

      • SBrudney091941
        SBrudney091941  February 15, 2016

        Are you arguing then that we should remain more open to the most fantastic parts of the Jesus story being true? Of course, the love story of the film “Titanic” is not unrealistic and the destruction of a ship of that era by a whale, if seemingly fantastic, was physically and structurally possible. Not so virgin birth, miracles, resurrection or ascension to Heaven.

        • Avatar
          godspell  February 20, 2016

          The love story in Titanic is FAR more unbelievable than the story of the loave and fishes, Lazarus, or even the walking on water thing. Which would have come in handy for Jack and Rose, huh? 😉

          I do not believe any of the supernatural events described in the gospels actually happened, btw. I’ve made that clear many times here and elsewhere, but since I’m just one poster among many, you can be forgiven for not knowing that.

          There are some pretty amazing things described in the gospels that are not supernatural, and that is more what I was referencing.

          • SBrudney091941
            SBrudney091941  February 21, 2016

            All the different real love stories in the world that have actually happened and you find the one in the film “Titanic” unbelievable? Unbelievable. “More unbelievable than the story of the [loaf] and fishes, Lazarus, or even the walking on water thing”? I guess we live in different worlds. BTW, thank you for forgiving us.

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    Jimmy  February 10, 2016

    It amuses me when fundamentalist make the argument that since we know some of the people, places and things in the gospels can be verified therefore they must be telling the truth concerning the things we cannot verify. Responding the way you do, do you get the response that you are closed minded and presume naturalism ?

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    Tnewby4444  February 10, 2016

    One of your better posts.

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    DeanMorrison  February 10, 2016

    Best blog post yet Bart.

    I have an indelible mage of you levitating 4 feet off the ground now, as no doubt do others.

    Ask me or any other witnesses in a few years time, and it will be 4 metres.

    Since you quaint Americans cling on to Imperial Units, and the rest of the world are now in a different culture, that would only be natural.

    Mind you we might need to either retell the story to put you in the auditorium, or perhaps add another few verses to explain what happened when you banged your head on the ceiling 😉

    Dean Morrison (UK)

  10. Avatar
    DeanMorrison  February 10, 2016

    Of course the date is also significant.

    January 9th is Shrove Tuesday, better known in my country as Pancake Day, where for long forgotten reasons we ritually toss pancakes about 4ft into the air.

    Johanite Bartiologists will in a hundred years time be arguing that you were ritually tossed that far into the air by your student disciples, whereas Ehrmanologists will insist that the event happened the day before, on the day of the preparation of the Pancake mix 😉

  11. Avatar
    toejam  February 10, 2016

    Great analogy! One of my biggest gripes with evangelical/fundamentalist churches and proponents is the way they regularly misrepresent “liberal” scholarship. As an atheist, I like to attend different churches each week to keep my finger on the pulse on what is being taught and said in my community. I can’t count the amount of times I hear misrepresentation of non-evangelical scholarship. I hear these ones all the time:

    “Liberal scholars used to think that the book of Isaiah was written after Jesus died… but then they found the Dead Sea Scrolls!”

    “Liberal scholars think there was no King David”

    “Liberal scholars think that Jesus did not exist”

    Now it’s true that there are a handful of scholars who think such things, but they hardly represent anything close to the majority of scholarship – even among “liberal” scholars, and even *before* the “discoveries” that supposedly sent shock waves through the scholarship community (e.g. even before the DSS were found, I think most scholars accepted that it was written pre-Jesus). Yet these fringe views are told to the pews as being representative of non-evangelical scholarship, having the effect of making the whole enterprise of non-evangelical scholarship looking ridiculous, and this of course feeds into many of their beliefs that we are “suppressing” the truth, etc. I spend half my time in conversations with such people not trying to deconvert them, but trying to clarify that much of non-evangelical scholarship isn’t as wacky as they think!

  12. Avatar
    living42day  February 10, 2016

    Whether it’s the story in Acts or your illustration, the presence of plausible elements does not guarantee that the gist of the story is historically probable.

    Jesus scholars have given us a wide range of plausible figures, each of which is claimed to provide a reasonable approximation of the Jesus of history. Many of these carefully reconstructed figures are historically plausible, but that’s not enough. If Jesus scholars would limit themselves to what is probable, we would have a historical Jesus about whom there would be far more agreement but much less detail.

  13. SBrudney091941
    SBrudney091941  February 10, 2016

    John Grisham and other fiction writers often use real place names and other facts in their stories. None of them make their fictional stories historically true.

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    dragonfly  February 11, 2016

    Yes, but if you could prove that the alter was inside the city, that would prove that the story couldn’t be completely true. In that sense it does have a bearing on the possibility of the story being true. Of course even if the alter was inside, the main point of the story could still be true. Apologists would *like* to prove the bible completely true, but they *need* to not have it proved false. When they say “See! The bible is true!” they mean “See! It’s still possible the bible could be true!”

  15. Avatar
    dragonfly  February 11, 2016

    If you interviewed the students a week later, I wonder how many of them could actually remember what the lecture was about…

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    RonaldTaska  February 11, 2016

    Your UNC example is a very good one and is clear and helpful.

    Interestingly, I just had a very similar discussion with someone who contended that the details in the Noah story obviously mean that this is a historical not a literary story. In other words, the story reads like history.

  17. Avatar
    Wilusa  February 11, 2016

    Say, I have a question – not about this, but suggested by what I know you do and don’t believe about the events surrounding Jesus’s death.

    You believe that what Judas “betrayed” was that Jesus had been calling himself, among his disciples, the future King of the Jews – an offense for which the Romans would be likely to crucify him. And you don’t believe there was a preliminary trial by the Sanhedrin, because it was the Feast of Passover.

    So…is it possible Judas didn’t go to the Temple at all, but directly to the Romans?

    Would Jesus and his disciples – probably spending their first-ever Passover Week in Jerusalem – even have known Pilate and his guard were in the city? And if so, would Judas have known *where* they were?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 13, 2016

      Yup, it’s possible. If so, then the “Jewish trial” would be a later legendary addition meant to put blame on *them*.

  18. Avatar
    Wilusa  February 12, 2016

    A thought suggested by the recent post about “visions,” “mass hallucinations,” etc….

    I can accept all that. But for some reason, I *can’t* accept that Paul was *converted by* a “vision”!

    I realize I can’t work myself into the mindset of an unpleasant long-ago fanatic. Ugh. But I can’t help thinking it makes more sense that he invented the story. Invented it for two reasons: because he didn’t want to give credit to whomever it was whose arguments had *really* “converted” him, and because he wanted to claim he was just as good as – *better* than! – disciples of Jesus who’d allegedly “seen” him after his death.

  19. Avatar
    sashko123  February 15, 2016

    It seems to me that the problem is that evidence which is consistent with two different theories cannot be evidence for one of them. It is the evidence which would support one while conflicting with the other which distinguishes between two possible theories, isn’t it? So, if you have a fact which is consistent with either a miraculous account or a naturalistic account, how can the fact be used to favor a miraculous account? Favoring the miraculous account defies logic, but harmonizes with bias. Over the Christmas holidays, I discussed the miracle of the virgin birth with my parents. My dad said that he believed Mary was a virgin precisely because it was unlikely that anybody would make it up. I replied, of course, that I doubted it happened, because virgins do not get pregnant (well, back then). I have a hard time understanding how otherwise reasonable people can minimize both human creativity and scientific knowledge. Well, no I don’t. Belief demands a press agent.

  20. Avatar
    Jana  February 27, 2016

    What is fascinating in your account of Paul and Barnabas is the crowd interpretation of their actions. It seems that the crowd interpreted according to their own cultural and literate background? (this is a question). It reminds me of Miguel Leon-Portilla’s book “Broken Speak .. An Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico”. The Aztec interpretation of the same wars described by the Spaniards was filled with the supernatural and radically different. A personal anecdote … Occasionally, I am invited to sacred Maya ceremonies which are said to be 2000 years old. The shaman is said to recite memorized verse past down through generations and spoken in ancient Maya (not today’s vulgar Maya) in keeping with their sacred oral tradition and yet at the last one I attended, Catholic words and even a cross had been included.

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