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“The Same” Traditions in Oral Cultures

As I have been discussing my next book Jesus Before the Gospels, I have been trying to summarize the issues I’ll be addressing and the points I’ll be making, without spilling all the beans and stealing my own thunder.  My idea is to get people interested in the book without making them think they don’t now need to read it!  I’m not sure how successful I’m being at that, but it’s at least the goal.

As I started indicating in the previous post, chapter 5 deals with issues involving oral tradition as preserved in oral culture.   It turns out that most of what many (most?) of us have heard about oral cultures, or what has to many (most?) of us seemed commonsensical about them, is wrong.  At least in so far as research has been able to show, by actually studying oral cultures.

What many of us have heard or thought is that oral cultures were particularly keen to keep their oral traditions intact and preserved without significant (or any) variation.   We’ve heard stories about how this culture or another preserved its sacred traditions for centuries without changing a thing.   But it appears that this view is bogus.  There is no evidence for it.  On the contrary, all the evidence appears to indicate that this very *idea* that traditions should be preserved from person to person, year to year, decade to decade, actually the same without any changes, is an idea that can be found only in written cultures.

Since the advent of massive literacy…


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On Being Controversial
Differences Between Oral and Written Cultures



  1. Avatar
    Adam0685  April 17, 2015

    Extremely fascinating!

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    jlparris  April 17, 2015

    I am looking forward to the publication of your new book.
    I found this reference, on Amazon, to a new publication: The Gnostic Notebook: Volume One: On Memory Systems and Fairy Tales. The description on Amazon is:
    “An ancient Latin text, the Ad Herennium, lays down instructions for building effective Memory Systems. These instructions just happen to mirror one of the central images of Christianity as found in the Gospels. Were the Gospels constructed to act as a type of literary memory system? Could it be that the authors were actually adepts at the Art of Memory? Perhaps the tri-fold nature of the Synoptic Gospels is not a historical accident, but is actually a method of encrypting the data contained within the miraculous tales of Jesus the Wonder Worker.

    “More importantly, perhaps this correspondence is a signifier to anyone familiar with the Art of Memory, that here is something screaming for attention, begging to be decrypted, promising, knock, and the door will be opened.

    “The Gnostic Notebook is an examination of hidden layers of meaning uncovered within various classic and ancient texts including the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales and the Gospels. The meanings are decrypted using a variety of steganographic and cryptographic techniques. These hidden readings are not the usual esoteric or Freudian interpretations, rather they seem to reveal actual, undeniable information encoded into the texts ages ago.”
    I have not read the book, and don’t intend to, even to find out if Q refers to memory masters, but thought the publication of a book on the topic at this time could be of interest.

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      RGM-ills  April 20, 2015

      Was the myth of Atlas created as a mnemonic to instruct the existing world view of the time that there were pillars of heaven and pillars of earth? Was Samson being between the pillars also a mnemonic? Most myths, including biblical, are mnemonic instruments to remember something of value (usually in the sky), whether accurate or not. It’s usually us with our grandiose superiority that miss the mark of what is really being said. Is a Cyclops a false memory, or simply a mnemonic tool, misunderstood by later cultures laughing at such beliefs. I believe you are scratching close with your post, but maybe just without the esoteric, encrypted data intentions. Just a memory tool. Encrypted, hidden, mystical meanings only became useful after cultural gullibility was recognized. I can think of only rare examples of the need for such encrypted or hidden codes to protect certain technologies, such as when fire was discovered. Realizing it’s utility, as well as it’s danger, it may have been safer to invent an encrypted story to carry on the art of starting fires without the layman tribesman understanding it and burning down the village. Good thought track you’re on.

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    jbjbjbjbjb  April 18, 2015

    One of the most enlightening posts, and I didn’t even agree with it all! The line I think that seems so simple and yet speaks to me most profoundly is this: “you necessarily mould it to the audience you are addressing”.
    Man alive, I think that is so obvious now, and yes I did believe the oral tradition myth. I even feel a bit convicted by it, because I even hear MYSELF tweak stories as I tell them according to my own audience!

    With regard to the gospel narratives, I think it also goes without saying that a believer who cherishes their view of God’s sovereignty when it comes to communicating good news about his Messiah, could be fully in charge on the macro level of what essentially was to be retained. Right?

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    Scott  April 18, 2015

    While these instances of song length varying so dramatically are striking, are you going to address content variation in oral tradition? Earlier you delineated the difference between the gist and details of memories. This topic is what the reader is probably more interested when it comes to early Christian tradition.

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    fishician  April 18, 2015

    Some believers want to have it both ways: the Gospels are accurate because ancient story tellers were accurate, and the Holy Spirit inspired the writers in addition to increase accuracy. Yet it is obvious there are glaring differences between some of the Jesus stories, especially regarding his birth and his resurrection. Seems to me it would be more credible for believers to argue that oral traditions did take liberties which would explain differences while still pointing to a kernel of truth. But fundamentalists get caught in their own web of infallibility and inerrancy.

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    RonaldTaska  April 18, 2015

    The work of these anthropologists is very, very interesting and it certainly makes one wonder about oral transmission during the first century which I guess is the whole point. It sounds like in these oral cultures the “gist” memory is maintained while the incidental details are changed and elaborated and sometimes shortened.

    With regard to spilling the beans, I actually think your website review of “How Jesus Became God” worked very well achieving just what you describe, an introduction without “spilling all the beans.” So, there is no reason this review won’t do the same. Keep plugging away.

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    desire_Knowledge  April 19, 2015

    So glad to see you are writing a book about this! Several of the people you have debated used these “virbatum oral tradition practices” to defend the claim of consistency of the gospel narratives during the “40 year gap”. Whenever your opponents resorted to this it always seemed to be an assertion that lacked further evidence or explanation. Can’t wait to see your findings on this.

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    Elisabeth  April 22, 2015

    I’d venture the Islamic ahadith are an excellent example of this oral tradition, where the same story can have dozens of slight variations. Interesting too, that the Qur’an coming from the same oral tradition was memorized so methodically/verbatim.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 22, 2015

      But it was memorized this way only when there was a written text to compare it to.

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      Malik  January 6, 2018

      You might want to check out a video I put on my blog in the comment section:

      …Hadith science is an amazing accomplishment, that stands as one of the most impressive intellectual feats and edifices in human history…”- Prof. Jonathan Brown

      The following video is a talk delivered at MIT by University of Washington’s NELC Assistant Professor Jonathan Brown. He recently completed his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago where his studies focused on the history of Islam, Islamic law, Qur’an and hadith, Islamic historiography, and hermeneutic traditions in Islam. His dissertation is entitled “The Canonization of al-Bukhari and Muslim: The Formation and Function of the Sunni Hadith Canon.”

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