I have been discussing some of the many problems with assuming that oral traditions are passed along intact, without significant change, in oral cultures.  In graduate school we all learned that they are and did, so that, for example, the fact that we might have a saying of Jesus or story about him in a source 50 years removed from his life isn’t really a problem.  It would have been kept intact from the beginning without being changed.  That’s how oral cultures work and always have worked.

Nope.  Not true.  At least based on the hard-core research that actually examines the question.  My previous two posts have marshaled some of the evidence.  Here I continue on the theme, again in an excerpt from my 2017 book, Jesus Before the Gospels (HarperOne).


Given these realities (that oral traditions are constantly changed when told and retold in oral cultures), as attested by numerous anthropological studies, why is it that people in literate cultures so often claim that people in past oral cultures had phenomenal memories and worked hard to recount the details of their past with great accuracy and consistency?   As one expert in orality, the renowned cultural historian Walter Ong answers: “Literates were happy simply to assume that the prodigious oral memory functioned somehow according to their own verbatim textual model.”[1]   [That is, since we can compare two sayings/stories in writing verbatim – word for word – we have a sense of what “the same” means that people in oral cultures do and did not]

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