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What About Accurately Preserved *Oral* Traditions?

Yesterday I talked about arguments Muslims and Christians sometimes make about their written texts – that the only way to explain the preservation of the “originals” is that it was a divine miracle, with the corollary argument that for that reason, these writings really do contain the truth.  It is a very, very bad argument, for reasons I explained.

A number of religious traditions also boast of the unbelievable accuracy of the oral traditions of their religion.  In this case, the claim is usually not made in order to prove that the tradition must have a divine origin, but to show that what is said in sacred texts found in writing today is exactly what was said back *before* there were any written texts, that the religion hasn’t changed an iota over all these centuries.   I am always entirely skeptical of these claims.  Then again, historians are always skeptical of claims and ask for evidence.  If there’s good evidence, then there’s no reason to be skeptical on principle.  But if historians simply accepted what “everyone says,” then you wouldn’t need historians.  You could just listen to what people say!

This issue came up a few weeks ago when a scholar wrote me about the amazing Vedic traditions of India.  Let me say at the outset, I am NOT a scholar of Hinduism, and have not studied the Vedic texts.   But I am a historian who believes in evidence rather than accepting what everyone says just because everyone has been saying it forever.  And so I have my doubts.  I will stop doubting as soon as I have evidence.  Good evidence, not evidence convincing only to insiders.

Here is what this person said to me in an email:

Hey, you interested in this?  Why wouldn’t you be?  Wanna read more?  Why shouldn’t you?  Know how?  Join the blog!  It’s cheap and pays incredible returns.  And all the small fee goes to big-time charities!  I don’t make a nickel off this and none of the money goes to operating expenses.

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Jesus Kissing Mary Magdalene: A Bizarre Scene in the Gospel of Philip
Why Do Smart People Make Stupid Arguments?



  1. Avatar
    Brand3000  February 10, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Is 1 Cor. 15:3-7 the earliest oral tradition in the New Testament? As far as the resurrection appearances/visions you allow as historical; Peter, Paul, Mary, James, is this because Paul knew Peter and James first hand, and Mary is multiply attested to in the Gospels?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 11, 2020

      There’s no way to know. I assume you mean from outside of the NT? Lots of oral traditions are also contenders. I talk about it all in my book How Jesus Became God. have you read that yet?

  2. Avatar
    Steve Clark  February 10, 2020

    Very interesting. I know this is a very minority position among secular Scholars but I believe a few sayings of Jesus were probably written down within a decade of his death and some would have included a few members who were eyewitness/earwitness (is that even a word ?) to the man himself

    Verses like:

    Why call me good? No one is good but God alone

    These Proto Christian documents would have been very basic and nothing like the complex Gospels that came later. Just a collection of a few sayings and memories on whatever writing materials and with whatever level of writing talent the few members of the movement could scrounge.

    So…for a tiny fraction of the Synoptics…(less than 10%) we may have a verse here and there that do go back to eyewitnesses.

    I know this is speculation on my part. But I do think the early movement would have wanted to – and would have found a way to write a few thoughts down when that opportunity presented itself. I think that opportunity probably presented itself far sooner rather than later.

    How far off base am I here ? Again, I know this is kinda out there…


    • Bart
      Bart  February 11, 2020

      I think a lot of scholars agree there are lots of traditions from teh first decade. But written down? How would we be able to establish that?

  3. Avatar
    AstaKask  February 10, 2020

    I recently came across a mention of a Gnostic sect called Carpocratians. Who were they? What do we know about them?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 11, 2020

      Ah, they were very bizarre to modern Christian ears. Maybe I’ll post on them

  4. Avatar
    Baligomingo  February 10, 2020

    I have spent the last decade working with Holocaust survivors and institutions dedicated to preserving the history of the Holocaust. It is often asserted that survivors memories are extremely reliable. Different reasons are given, including that the trauma involved has “seared” these memories clear as day into these individuals.

    The experience of historians of the Holocaust tends to be that this is not the case. Of course, many memories are true to what happened. However, over time, very wonderful, kind, and traumatized people have changed their stories. Sometimes on by accident – absorbing the stories of friends. Sometimes on purpose, as these stories are also a means of retaining the attention of the world around them – something that many of us crave. When historians fact check survivors – and this is a very sensitive thing to do – they discover the discrepencies. Camps they claimed to have been at that – in the face of the remainder of their story and what we know about the camps, could not really have been.

    Age and time take their toll on everyone – even in a literate society with written records. If Peter really is the source for Mark, am I suppose to assume that he knows exactly where he had been, in the exact order, and the exact things people said thirty years before? Unless he was writing it down – no. He remembers certain things – and they may themselves be conflated, or changed in the remembering/retelling. And that is excluding evolving ideological needs to alter the story.

    • Avatar
      Matt2239  February 12, 2020

      And still, as a result of committed people who are genuinely seeking the truth, we have an accurate mosaic of the Holocaust. Were not the followers of Jesus of Nazareth in the earliest years also committed people who were genuinely seeking the truth?

  5. Rick
    Rick  February 10, 2020

    Professor, having read Jesus before the Gospels, and perhaps as having been an auditor by profession, I find it hard to place any credence in anything Jesus said in the Gospels. To perhaps put you on the spot though, occasionally you will use a passage as evidence to make a point. I believe last week you used a passage about 5 or 7 husbands to show Jesus as an apocalyptic would not have had a spouse or relations with Mary of Magdalena. So, I assume that passage met criteria for historicity; but, how can us lesser enlightened lay students know?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 11, 2020

      You have to look at the evidence and decide! On a case by case basis. Just like the scholars!

  6. Avatar
    RICHWEN90  February 10, 2020

    And of course stories are just that. Stories. And if the stories assert that X and Y took place, is there any way of knowing that those assertions are true? Especially when the stories tell us that those events took place decades ago, or much longer ago than that. For instance the stories that tell us Jesus worked certain miracles and tell us that there were eye witnesses– how can we know that these stories are anything other than stories based on hearsay and gossip? Stories of miracles but no miracles? Stories of the dead being raised but no dead were actually raised. Stories of healing but no actual healing? Stories based on someone perhaps seeing something, but getting it all wrong, and exaggerating wildly, turning the mundane into the fantastic? Inquiring minds would like to know.

  7. Avatar
    Owen  February 10, 2020

    “Here is what this person said to me in an email:

    Hey, you interested in this? Why wouldn’t you be? Wanna read more? Why shouldn’t you? Know how? Join the blog! It’s cheap and pays incredible returns. And all the small fee goes to big-time charities! I don’t make a nickel off this and none of the money goes to operating expenses. ”

    I read the first couple of lines thinking, “Now that’s a really odd email,” before realising it was the Blog ad break…

    • Bart
      Bart  February 11, 2020


    • Avatar
      LindaS  February 12, 2020

      I thought that also.
      I was thinking it was some sort of scam e-mail; fully expecting the next line to ask for help in getting a newly discovered treasure of inherited money out of Nigeria.

  8. epicurus
    epicurus  February 10, 2020

    It’s frustrating because you know that these “scholars”could easily see the problem if it occurred in another religion they didn’t like or agree with.

  9. Avatar
    Leovigild  February 10, 2020

    A good example of the limitations of memory and orality come from Bill James’ tracers (checking the details of stories told by old ballplayers). A latter-day example can be found here:


  10. Avatar
    Hon Wai  February 10, 2020

    I am ignorant of Hinduism and its texts, except that the vedas are a vast collections of writings, about 1800 pages long in English (en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Hinduism/The_Vedas). I am sceptical that anyone today can memorise the entire corpus accurately, never mind verbatim, despite having the written text to practice repeatedly. That is before discussion of historical evidence, or its absence, of actual accurate transmission through millennia. In ancient time, The feat of memorizing an oral tradition of the corpus prior to its written down, must be an order of magnitude more difficult. As to transmission of Quran, it is feasible to memorize the entire text, which is about size of the NT:
    Some Muslim children today from devout homes spend years learning little except memorization and recitation of Quran:
    You can find teenagers today who can recite Quran almost verbatim, like Tariq Khan (12years) mentioned in the article. There are many notable people in modern and premodern times who are said to have memorized the Quran:
    I was told that the Quran has a poetic quality, written in way amenable to mass memorization.
    I am open to the possibility that the Quran was transmitted unchanged after codification by the third caliph Uthman who burnt all other variants except his version decades after death of prophet Muhammad. But the real issue is how much Uthman’s version differed from other extant versions of his time, and which of them is closer to the original (if there was ever an original). Next time your Muslim readers with an apologetics agenda, write to you about the textual criticism of the Quran, you may wish to refer them to a work by Keith E Small:
    Scholar of Islam, Fred Donner, summarized the state of Quranic research:
    “Qur’anic studies, as a field of academic research, appears today to be in a state of disarray. Those of us who study Islam’s origins have to admit collectively that we simply do not know some very basic things about the Qur’an – things so basic that the knowledge of them is usually taken for granted by scholars dealing with other texts:How did the Qur’an originate? Where did it come from, and when did it first appear? How was it first written? In what kind of language was it written?…To put it another way, on these basic issues there is little consensus even among the well-trained scholars who work on them.”
    (Gabriel Said Reynolds (ed. 2008). The Qur’an in Recent Scholarship. The Quran in its historical context. Routledge. p.29.)

  11. Avatar
    fishician  February 10, 2020

    Let’s put aside these trivial questions of Gods and Scriptures to get to a truly important one: were you at THE GAME Saturday night? Suffer any heart damage?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 11, 2020

      I was out of town. Thank God. Gave my son the tickets. I’ve seen complete heartbreaks in teh Dean Dome before, and am so glad I wasn’t there. I couldn’t even bring myself to read the news articles on it the next day.

  12. Avatar
    Pegill7  February 10, 2020

    You’ve probably heard this story before about two men, one Jewish, and the other a Christian, who had been lifelong friends. One day, clearly out of the blue, the Christian punched out his Jewish friend. Lying on the ground the Jewish man asked, “Why did you do that”? The Christian responded, “Because you guys killed Christ!” “But that was over 2000 years ago!” “I know” said the Christian, “but I just found out about it yesterday.”

  13. Avatar
    Matt2239  February 10, 2020

    Bart’s understanding of how human memory functions is superficial, but when speaking to a general audience, superficiality is often the best route. One thing’s for sure: the fact we know anything at all about an apocalyptic Jew who was killed 2000 years ago is itself nothing short of a miracle. And in fact we know a lot more than just a few facts.
    There are billions of New Testaments in print today and tens of billions of Christians who have lived and died and who all believed roughly the same things about Jesus and his followers.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 11, 2020

      That’s interesting that you think it’s superficial. I spent two years reading nothing but scholarship on memory — psychologists, sociologists (on social memory), and neuroscientists (when they were writting for mere humans, instead of fellow neuroscientists) — in prepartion for my book on memory and the oral traditions about Jesus (didn’t read any scholarship on the NT! Seriously. For two years). When I completely my book I gave it to the head of the Department of Psychology at Harvard, who is the world’s expert on false memories, and he told me that I had reported it all correctly. So, uh, what do you think is superficial? (Serious question!)

      • Avatar
        Matt2239  February 11, 2020

        The two most striking examples of how human memory fails are the telephone game and the eyewitness reliability studies. Each of these is a popular understanding of human memory. But there are examples of how astonishingly adept people can be in memorizing and recalling important facts. One that comes to, um, mind is Douglas Hegdahl, a Vietnam POW who memorized the names and details of 256 fellow inmates in the Hanoi Hilton prison. Hegdahl was not a genius and possessed no formalized mnemonic system, and the conditions under which he labored were beyond inhumane. It remains an impressive feat of heroism. I certainly agree it’s unlikely that the New Testament is flawless in every respect. However, the ability of humans to accurately memorize and accurately recall information is much stronger than suggested by the telephone game and the eyewitness studies.

      • Avatar
        HawksJ  February 12, 2020

        It’s ‘superficial’ because it doesn’t match what Matt needs to believe.

        I’m not sure there is a more fascinating topic than cognitive biases, and there is no better laboratory in which to observe them than modern superstition.

        • Avatar
          Matt2239  February 12, 2020

          There’s plenty of cognitive bias to go around! And ample helpings of groupthink too.

    • Avatar
      RICHWEN90  February 11, 2020

      You seem to be very impressed by numbers but numbers have nothing to do with the truth value of some statement.
      Suppose I have billions of copies of a book that tells me that the value of pi is 3.0. Precisely that– not an irrational number, not a repeating decimal, not even a decimal with a small number of digits. Just precisely 3.0. Would all those copies of all those books make that assertion true? Suppose I had billions of perfect copies of a book that told us the earth is flat– would that make the earth flat? And so on. Your logic seems flawed to me.

      • Avatar
        Jim  February 12, 2020

        Agree, and to me it’s a bit like claiming that 4 quintillion flies hang around dung-piles and eat manure daily, therefore we can conclude that manure tastes delicious.

      • Avatar
        Matt2239  February 12, 2020

        If you had a billion books all saying that Jesus once made 22/7 equal 3, then you’ld an enormous amount of evidence. Would it be conclusive? No. Would it mean that 22/7 =3 today? Nope. Would an interstellar time traveler be interested to know it? Youbetcha. Of course, there aren’t a billion books all saying Jesus made 22/7 = 3. There are about 7 billion New Testaments in print that all say Jesus rose from the dead. And billions of Christians today and for the past 2000 years who have been saying Jesus rose from the dead. The New Testament is a must-read for any alien piloting a UFO through space time, and like 22/7, it’s worth knowing all about, regardless of your religion.

        • Avatar
          RICHWEN90  February 14, 2020

          Ummm, I really think the New Testament tells us more about how our brains work than anything about Jesus or the
          truth or accuracy of any of the stories told about him. Ideas replicate, like viruses. And some ideas are more viral or infectious than others. The many copies of the new testament, in various editions are no more miraculous than the many copies of coronavirus currently circulating. Or, if you like, just as miraculous. Or the many copies of influenza virus, or the many copies of the HIV retrovirus. Ideas are the viral agents of the noosphere– I remember reading that somewhere. It stuck with me, like an infection. But a viral idea is not necessarily valid. So, if validity and accuracy are the issues, some evidence other than many copies is required.

  14. Avatar
    tskorick  February 10, 2020

    I remember being told this sort of thing and repeating it quite often in my youth. My denomination did have a certain obsession with manuscript age, as though copies of NT works that were dated closer to the time of their authorship not only meant that they were more accurate, but that the events they describe must have been true. This fervent desire rooted in a mistaken understanding of textual transmission seems to have a hand in creating the worldwide demand for early Christian artifacts of dubious dating and provenance. The more I read about the antiquities trade from Grenfell and Hunt all the way to the Green family today the more omnipresent that market force seems.

  15. Avatar
    veritas  February 10, 2020

    Based on your assertions and arguments for evidence, clearly we will never know these answers. But what about the progression of the movement (Christianity) , having grown to the size of where it is today, surpassing all other religions, even older ones, does that not account for some validity (truth) of what these people saw/heard to continue these traditions as an historic event? Or is this, maybe, the greatest story ever told, involving life/death/resurrection? On a side note, maybe relevant; I seem to understand the criteria involved in historical evidence and some things we may never know for sure. On * Belief *, when historians use the same methods/criteria to re-construct an historical event, they may agree on the discoveries from the evidence available to them. When weighing these findings against personal belief/bias, why do some choose to still believe in a religion and others not? I reference , Paula Fredriksen, she is an accomplished historian, like yourself, yet she converted to Judaism although evidence is stacked against belief. Does it come down to personal choice/preference, for scholars as well, on whether to believe ?

    • Avatar
      veritas  February 11, 2020

      Hey Bart, I was expecting an answer from my genuine question(s). I hope you didn’t view it as nonsense, because I don’t have the literary skills to articulate as well as most of your bloggers. I mean no harm to you and your credible research as a professor of religious studies but sometimes I wonder if you purposely skip or miss or refuse to answer for reasons I do not know/understand why. I know your busy and sometimes time is of the essence, but I am learning how to minimize my questions more effectively. Thanks.

      • Bart
        Bart  February 12, 2020

        Ah, sorry! Sometimes I see questions and assume they are rhetorical — not being asked for an answer but in order to make a point. See what I mean? (That’s a rhetorical question! I don’t expect, actually, a “Yes”) (Or a “no”!) But the last question is certainly answerable, but maybe not in the way you would expect. I had dinner with Paula last week, as it turns out — invited her to give a couple of lectures here at UNC. I’ve never heard her talk about her “belief.” Yes, she absolutely converted to orthodox Judaism, and I suppose she does believe on some level — but I’m not absolutely sure about htat. Orthodox Judaism is far more about practice than what a person believes about God; and she does practice it (kosher home, and so on) But what she believes, I just don’t know. My sense is that different things make better sense to some people than others, and we don’t always know why….

    • Avatar
      joemccarron  February 14, 2020

      Hi Veritas

      I know these questions are for Bart but I think they are interesting, and I hope you don’t find it presumptuous for me to offer my views.

      I’m a Christian but I do not think that numbers of people who are Christian means that historical claims about Christianity is true. Lots of people can be wrong about all sorts of things. Likewise if in time there are very few Christians I would not think it therefore must be false.

      As far as reaching different conclusions:
      Most trials involve both sides putting on evidence. We don’t have a computer program or anything close to that which will tell us what conclusions we should draw from that evidence. People will have different experiences and draw different and possibly even contradictory conclusions from the same evidence. Lets say someone testifies and they are not nervous at all. One Juror might he must be telling the truth because if he was lying he would be nervous. Another Juror might say how can he possibly be on trial for this crime and not be nervous? Me must be some sort of psychopath!

      I find that evidence I used to view one way may not have the same strength as I originally thought. This can happen just as we go through life and have more life experiences. Lots of people argue the differences in the Gospel accounts hurt their credibility. John Chrysostom argued that the differences in the gospel accounts add to their credibility. Chrysostom’s is a view I tend hold and as I live and learn longer I find that view more and more compelling. Since it seems Luke and Matthew used Mark their agreement on issues often adds limited weight. John gets many things differently than the synoptic gospels so he seems not to just be repeating what they wrote. So when he lines up that becomes more compelling. And when you throw Paul in there too, well then it is pretty well attested.

      Whether someone believes in God involves more than just historical evidence. How the issue is framed and what we value can effect that belief and whether the historical evidence is deemed “sufficient” or not.

  16. Avatar
    jrussel18@aol.com  February 10, 2020

    And what about the argument that The Flood must have happened since cultures around the world had a similar myth?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 11, 2020

      My view is that an event with enormous geological implications needs to have geological evidence. As you know, there ain’t any. What there are are logs of ancient cultures that lived near floodable sources of water. No surprise they had flood stories.

    • Avatar
      JohnRedshirt  April 1, 2020

      Maybe I’m being simplistic but most, almost all, civilizations grew around rivers. Rivers all flood from time to time.

      • Bart
        Bart  April 3, 2020

        Not simplistic at all. Probably the right solution!

        • Avatar
          m.mk  April 11, 2020

          Jane Roberts’ “Seth”:

          ” [Ancient] Civilizations were often warned in advance of natural
          disasters that were apparent to the [ancient alien] visitors with their greater

          “Such warnings were either given in the dream state of
          the earth men, for the reasons given or often in some secluded
          place, for often the visitors would be attacked….
          Often warnings of disaster were not followed. Some warnings were
          misunderstood, then, as punishment by the gods [the ancient aliens] of ‘moral

          (9:36) “The whole moral code idea was originally tailored
          for the current scene as it was encountered, told in terms that
          the natives could understand.

          “The pyramids, the huge boulders etched out (I think Seth
          refers here to Baalbek; I didn’t interrupt to ask. –Jane’s husband Robert Butts) All of this
          was done in one way or another through the use of, a knowledge
          of, both coordination points in space (described by Seth in his
          own book, _Seth Speaks_) and the use of sound.

          “There were instruments that released sound, and directed it in
          the same way, say, that a laser beam does with light.

          “Drawings of some of these exist in primitive Sumerian
          cave renditions, but the drawings are misinterpreted, the
          instrument is taken for another. No one knows how to use the
          instruments. There are a few in existence, in your terms.


          “The Olympic gods were perhaps the most amusing of
          man’s attempt to deify space travelers. Mixed in here strongly
          were the ideas of gods mating with earth women. (Pause.)

          “In some respects the over enthusiastic use of the sound*
          was responsible for the flood mentioned in the Bible, and other
          literature. It was for this reason that many attempts were made
          to warn against the impending disaster. The use of sound was
          important at various times in irrigating dry areas, quite
          literally by pulling water from a distance.

          (11:22) “There were several characteristics that proved
          difficult, however. Literally, the sound traveled further often
          than was intended, causing consequences not planned upon. Great
          finesse was important. Sound was also used after irrigation to
          speed up the flowering of plants, and to facilitate
          transplantation to other areas. It was also utilized for
          medicinal purposes in operations, particularly in bone and brain


          Rob’s Notes:

          I read [this] 604th Session to ESP class on Tuesday, January 7,
          1975. After I’d read some pages, George Rhodes held up a drawing
          he’d made of the ankh and asked Seth — who had come through —
          if the sound instrument was the ankh, or at least shaped like it.
          Like a pistol if held sideways. The “barrel” would emit
          the sound ray and the mechanisms and controls would be in the
          short arms.

          Seth told George he was quite right.

          The complete session:


          • Bart
            Bart  April 12, 2020

            Are you saying you find this convincing?

          • Avatar
            m.mk  April 12, 2020

            Hopefully it is merely due to inadvertence, but it looks like I don’t have a right of reply as no link for same appeared under:

            Bart April 12, 2020
            Are you saying you find this convincing?

            So I attempt my reply here:

            Yes, *I* find Jane Roberts’ “Seth” quite convincing.

            I offered it as food for thought but had to trim off heading it as such because I ran into a word limit with that post.

            When one is a religious fundamentalist, it could be said such a person has faith without reason.

            There is an opposing fundamentalism which amounts to reason without faith, the hard science view of things.

            Seth speaks in another session about this sort of clash of fundamentalisms and its significance and negative effects on humankind in general.

            He recommends instead to try to combine intuition and the intellect. The trouble for science types is that that is an art form.

            Jane Roberts’ Seth material was, in my view, a very successful marriage of intuition and intellect.

            By the way, I am often left unimpressed by most other channeling, a less successful “marriage” it seems.

            Bart, I am hoping you and/or colleagues will have a look at this; I also sent it to the Jesus Seminar:


            Thank you.

  17. Avatar
    SeptimusHM  February 10, 2020

    On the Wikipedia page about the Vedas I found this: “Some scholars such as Jack Goody state that “the Vedas are not the product of an oral society”, basing this view by comparing inconsistencies in the transmitted versions of literature from various oral societies such as the Greek, Serbia and other cultures, then noting that the Vedic literature is too consistent and vast to have been composed and transmitted orally across generations, without being written down. However, adds Goody, the Vedic texts likely involved both a written and oral tradition, calling it a “parallel products of a literate society”.”
    I know this is Wikipedia but assuming it is accurately portraying Goody’s work what do you think of his view?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 11, 2020

      I haven’t read this bit of his work, but I’ve read a lot of it, and he’s the real deal and a real expert.

      • Avatar
        SeptimusHM  February 11, 2020

        According to Wikipedia Jack Goody talks about this in his book The Interface between the Written and the Oral (Studies in Literacy, the Family, Culture and the State). Just FYI.

  18. Avatar
    Steefen  February 10, 2020

    There are elderly Holocaust survivors.
    At the State of the Union, a 100 year old Tuskegee airman was honored.

    What are you saying about the reliability of what they can tell us about history? Second, historians should not interview them for reliable content?

    Not one of your memories from 50 years ago is reliable?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 11, 2020

      I don’t think you read me correctly. I have never, ever said that 50-year old memory is necessarily unreliable.

  19. Avatar
    John Uzoigwe  February 11, 2020

    Dr Bart erhman , this an off post question. What do you make of this verse about what happen on dooms day.
    Matthew 24:29
    Verse Concepts
    “But immediately after the tribulation of those days THE SUN WILL BE DARKENED, AND THE MOON WILL NOT GIVE ITS LIGHT, AND THE STARS WILL FALL from the sky, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken.
    Isaiah 13:10
    Verse Concepts
    For the stars of heaven and their constellations Will not flash forth their light; The sun will be dark when it rises And the moon will not
    Joel 2:31
    Verse Concepts
    “The sun will be turned into darkness And the moon into blood Before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes.

    Acts 2:20
    Verse Concepts
    Could this be coincidence?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 11, 2020

      No, not a coincidence. Apocalyptic Jews got a good deal of their imagery from the Hebrew Bible.

  20. Avatar
    godspell  February 11, 2020

    All this is true, but historians of recent events do use oral recollections, all the time. I’m reading Robert Caro’s epic LBJ biography, and he was interviewing a host of people who knew the 36th President, about events that had occurred sixty or more years ago. His advantage was that since LBJ had died at 65, most people who had known him as a young man were still around, and many were willing to talk. He learned a lot of things nobody had ever known before, many of them disturbing, but the overall picture he paints–of a man driven by unrelenting ambition–is compelling.

    Obviously nobody writing the gospels would or could have been as thorough and systematic and relatively objective–and nobody thought LBJ was God (with the possible exception of LBJ). But the fact is, oral history is a valid and necessary tool for learning about the past, not that you’re saying it isn’t. Our problem is that the gospel authors were not writing as historians. But even historians shape the information they gather to a specific end–Caro wanted to learn about how certain people can gain and exert power, far greater than what they technically ought to have.

    If I can get that time machine finished by the time Caro finishes Volume 5, maybe I’ll send him back in time to interview people. “The Years of Jesus of Nazareth.” Only suppose he decides he’d rather do Paul? Or Octavian? Or whoever the Robert Moses of the First Century was? Have to get that spelled out in the contract.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 11, 2020

      Yes, of course historians deal with oral traditions!

      • Avatar
        duaneep  March 27, 2020

        The accuracy of oral transmission of scriptures could be a topic for a doctoral student.
        1. Find a few subjects who are Muslims, Jews and Christians that claim they have memorized their respective scriptures.
        2. Provide them a recording studio
        3. Have the subjects recite the scripture they have memorized into an electronic recording device
        4. Have each recording transcribed by two or more trained transcriptionists.
        5. The grad student would then be able to compare each transcript with the recording.
        6. If two or more transcripts match, the grad student would then compare word for word the transcripts with a printed text of the scripture the subjects claim they have memorized. (If the student gets this far, and is not residing in a padded cell, s/he should be awarded a double doctorate and given a permanent position at the university of her/his choice, with all student loans forgiven.)

        • Bart
          Bart  March 29, 2020

          Oh, yes, this kind of thing has been done in lots of significant work, mainly by cultural anthropologists (e.g. Jack Goody), but starting with the groundbreaking work of Milman Perry and Albert Lord. If you’re interested, Albert’s Lord book The Singer of Tales, now sixty years later, is a brilliant classic.

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