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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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  1. Avatar
    Brobama  February 11, 2020

    Armchair linguist here,

    I think we can know the Vedas were preserved pretty reliably because it retains the most archaic Indo-European features. Sanskrit has 8 noun cases which come in three grammatical numbers: singular, dual, and plural. They generally correspond to the case endings in the oldest attested European languages. Even the earliest European languages dropped a few of these cases. Latin dropped the instrumental case which merged with the ablative. The locative only remains on a few nouns. Verbs in Sanskrit also have a dual number ending. Greek, Slavic, and the Gothic language of the Germanic branch are the only European languages to have a dual verb ending.

    Sanskrit (and its sister language, Avestan) also have to most complex, irregular pronoun system. The first person plural takes the form vayam in the nominative (cognate with English we), asma- in the oblique cases (cognate with Greek amme/hemeis depending on the dialect), and -nas when used as an enclitic (Cognate with Latin nos). European languages really only preserve one, or sometimes two of these roots.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 11, 2020

      I”m not denying that the traditions are rooted in ancient language structures with the appropriate grammar. I’m denying that we have evidence that the traditions in those languages were never changed in teh retelling.

  2. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  February 11, 2020

    Maybe they think that your disbelief comes from textual issues in the Bible. If they can show you that their texts are preserved, you could see that there’s a God. I’ve been in a lot of online discussions where someone will say, “If there really is a god, then we would have the original mss, no variants, contradictions, etc.” But then, when someone counters their argument with a *reliable* text from a different faith, that same person will say that an original, preserved document does not indicate it’s divinely inspired. So how can the NT’s textual issues be a good argument for there being no divine inspiration when a perfectly preserved text is no indication of a god either?

    Something else I find frustrating is when someone will use critical scholarship or historical work for the New Testament to make a theological point (ex. Jesus was not divine) while at the same time refusing to accept a Christian’s argument when they use the same work to prove a theological point. They will say, “You can’t do that. That’s a matter of faith!”

    Bad arguments come in many different shapes and sizes.

  3. Avatar
    GeoffClifton  February 11, 2020

    I couldn’t agree more. We all know how two people (eg my wife and I) remembering an event from 2 years ago invariably give two quite different accounts of what happened. I feel Vedic studies clearly needs someone of Dr Ehrman’s calibre to give it some much needed objectivity.

  4. Avatar
    Duke12  February 11, 2020

    Somewhat loosely related to the topic oral tradition and preservation: was listening to a podcast on Paul’s letters and the host claimed 2nd Thessalonians was clearly written by Paul because the Christians in Thessalonica would have known what letters Paul had written to them and would have called 2nd Thessalonians out as a forgery if it weren’t for real.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 12, 2020

      Yeah, that sounds sensible — unless you know how forgery worked in antiquity! We have forged letters to the Loadiceans, the Corinthians (3 Corinthians!), the Alexandrians — all claiming to be written by Paul. These letters were never *SENT* to those places. They were put in circulation claiming to have gone long ago to them. So too with 2 Thess. It wasn’t sent to Thessalonica, so the argument doesn’t work (unless you want to claim that 3 Corinthians was really written by Paul! But read it, and I don’t think you’ll think so). In the modern world we would reply to this by saying “Well, wouldn’t the Thessalonians let everyone know that in fact this letter was NOT sent to them, if they never got it?” Yes, possibly in the modern world, where we have mass communication. But int he ancient world, where they didn’t, the Thessalonians may not have heard of the letter for decades, by which time the people living really wouldn’t know. And would have no way of informing the rest of Christianity. Or, in fact, maybe someone there *DID* protest. We have no way of knowing one way or the other!

  5. Avatar
    Kirktrumb59  February 11, 2020

    “He said that he had a 92 year old neighbor who could easily tell stories about what happened when she was a child.”
    As you have said, just ’cause someone says it, doesn’t mean it’s accurate.
    I hear multiple times per month from persons with early symptomatic Alzheimer’s disease something like, “I know what I ate on that ship off Korea in 1951, but I can’t recall what I ate for breakfast today.” Well, he says he recalls what was up on that boat. But was it so? How does one determine? Were YOU there? Can YOU corroborate? How ’bout YOUR memory? It’s been proven, repeatedly, that supposedly preserved consolidated (retrograde/”remote”) memories of Alzheimer patient’s….ain’t well-preserved. How does one find out? Lotsa hard work using a variety of sophisticated techniques. Same with the memory of so-called normals, as you emphasize repeatedly in ‘Jesus Before the Gospels.’ Do I know how often you (really) called your mother when you were at Moody? Duh, no, and neither do you unless you kept a reliable, written, personal record, or unless you have access to the phone company’s (hopefully un-doctored) records. Some of your readers appear to have missed your big point: one needs evidence, a warrant, a RELIABLE warrant, to back up one’s claims. No evidence? Didn’t happen. As Jack Palance says repeatedly in “Shane”: “prove it.”

  6. Avatar
    toejam  February 12, 2020

    Toejam’s off-topic random question no. 298725:

    This evening I have been doing a bit of reading on what Justin Martyr potentially had in front of him when he referred to the “memoirs of the apostles”. While searching through the Dialogue with Trypho, I came across Justin’s description of the Gethsemane scene:

    “For on the day on which [Jesus] was to be crucified, having taken three of his disciples to the hill called Olivet, situated opposite to the temple in Jerusalem, he prayed in these words: ‘Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.’ And again he prayed: ‘Yet not what I want but what you want’, showing by this that he had become truly a suffering man. But lest any one should say that he did not know that he had to suffer, he added immediately in the Psalm: ‘And not for lack of my understanding’. Just as there was no ignorance on God’s part when he asked Adam where he was [Gen 3:9], or when he asked Cain where Abel was [Gen 4:9], it was done to convince each what kind of man he was, and in order that through the record [of Scripture] we might have a knowledge of all. So likewise Christ declared that ignorance was not on his side, but on theirs – those who thought he was not the Christ, and fancied they would put him to death, and that he, like some common mortal, would remain in Hades.” (Dial. 99)

    Justin seems to say that Jesus quoted a Psalm immediately after the infamous “Yet not what I want but what you want” line. This obviously does not occur in Matthew, Mark or Luke’s description of the scene. After scouring through P. W. Comfort’s “A Commentary on the Manuscripts and Text of the NT”, which purports to catalog the most prominent textual variants, I could not find any reference to this having survived in any manuscript tradition.

    Some questions: 1) What Psalm is the “And not for lack of my understanding” line from? and 2) Are you aware of any other text that describes Jesus quoting this (to me) mystery Psalm? (either in another account of the Gethsemane scene or elsewhere) (e.g. in a textual variant, or non-canonical gospel, or another Church Father?)

    • Bart
      Bart  February 12, 2020

      Justin isn’t referring to words of Jesus in teh Gospel (matthew) but to Psalm 22, which he takes to be spoken in reference to Jesus; he is indicating that the Psalm shows that even though he asks the question of why he has been foresaken (Psalm 22:1) the rest of the Psalm shows that it s not from a lack of understanding.

  7. Avatar
    Zak1010  February 12, 2020

    Dr Ehrman

    Some argue that oral traditions coupled with memory are more authentic and safer than written traditions. Written traditions can be altered or lost altogether, while oral traditions coupled with memorization can withstand human alterations and disappearance of text. ( you can strip one of all they have, but you cant take away their knowledge- [memory] )
    Oral traditions give understanding of certain events in history and can be proven true. It exists today in parts of Africa where it is integral to their societies. It is oral traditions and oral evidence that shaped it. Oral traditions transcend generally from generation to generation by older folks-scholars enriched with knowledge and wisdom. It was not accepted otherwise. Communal knowledge unlike individual knowledge is agreed upon and have consensus, then preserved before handed down to the next generation orally. Hence, oral evidence.
    Though it is common for one to hear or read about a certain event, the lay man may not know if it is a tale, a myth or if it is truth. Historians have knowledge and experience that can get to the root of oral traditions and eliminate tales and myths in order to get to the truth authenticating an event or discrediting it ( base on language, culture, tradition, common sense ect .. ). Today, We have the means. Right? ( technology, science, archaeology, language…)

    Dr Ehrman, with a sound and solid disciplinary, cross checking approach in safeguarding and preserving oral traditions, unwritten traditions and / or old written tradition ( rocks, leather, bone ect ..), can we accept that as reliable and true free of myths and tales?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 14, 2020

      It is humanly *possible* to preserve traditions intact orally. But it virtually never happens, EXCEPT in cultures that are themselves high literary, and with texts that are already written down. That’s because the very concept of “verbatim repetition” never occurs in oral cultures. It derived from written cultures, when people realized they could check to see if two statements were word for word the same. I’ts so hard to do in oral cultures that it never occurred to most people most of the time even to try. Oral traditions were known to be *best* if molded to the constantly new situations in whcih they were repeated. There’s a log of scholarship on this. I’d suggest the books by Albert Lord, Jan Vansina, Jack Goody, and Walter Ong.

      • Avatar
        Zak1010  March 31, 2020

        Dr Ehrman,

        I looked up Albert Lord’s book – Perspectives on Recent Work on the Oral Traditional Formula and Jack Goody’s book -The Interface Between the Written and the Oral. Then stumbled on his work on the stolen history or history stolen. Led me to a David Samuel Margoliouth, a critique, scholar, linguist, translator and editor. He made a statement in Feb 1929 at the University of Culcutta about Arabic Historians:

        “But though the theory of the Isnad ( the chain of authorities attesting to the historical authenticity of a narration ) has occasioned endless trouble, owing to the inquiries which have to be made into the trustworthiness of each transmitter, and the fabrication of the traditions was a familiar and at times easily tolerated practice,its value in making for accuracy cannot be questioned, and the Muslims are justified in taking pride in their science of tradition.”

        Among other languages, he mastered Arabic, its literature, poetry, culture … He goes on to write “The relation of this Qur’anic style to the verse and rhymed prose of classical Arabic is an enigma which cannot at present be solved.”

        I personally do not believe everything I hear nor read, but this is pretty strong from a critic.
        Dr Lord had doubts in denying that Islamic traditions were untrue. He seems to lean toward its more to the truth than not but could not come up with a verdict. At least it leaves one to ponder at the evidence. Words of wisdom, what are you thoughts?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 1, 2020

          You should read Lord’s book Singer of Tales. But if you want a simple view of how oral transmission works, see my book Jesus before the Gospels, and especially check out the massively important studies (on which I base my analysis) by Jan Vansina, Jack Goody, Walter Ong, and so on.

          • Avatar
            Zak1010  April 1, 2020

            Thanks. I will.

            I now appreciate and comprehend the value of classroom study and research. It took me 45 days ( alone ) to derive something that was baseless or convinced me of something that wasn’t there. Thankful though. It wasn’t centuries. ( try changing your mind then ) LOL.

  8. galah
    galah  February 15, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman, is there anything in the New Testament that would indicate to you that any authors were concerned about preserving the oral traditions or, at least, some historical facts?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 16, 2020

      Sure — the entire NT is meant to convey what its authors understood to be factually true.

      • Avatar
        HawksJ  February 16, 2020

        How can an author claiming to be somebody he’s not (forgery), be trusted to be telling the truth about anything else?

        That doesn’t prove that he’s lying about anything else, but it does prove that he’s not only interested in conveying factual truths.

        • Bart
          Bart  February 17, 2020

          I’d say few people are….

          • Avatar
            HawksJ  February 18, 2020

            I agree, which is why I am questioning your claim that the NT writers (‘entirely’) thought that what they writing was factually true.

          • Bart
            Bart  February 18, 2020

            My sense is that if you think someone is lying, you have to have some reason to think it — e.g. some evidence that they know what they are saying is false and are saying it anyway. The fact that there may have been a motive is not itself evidence, it would be an explanation for the result of the finding, which itself would be based on evidence.

  9. Avatar
    Niceguy  February 16, 2020

    “Fear and self interest-these are the levers that move men”.

    “The Gospels can’t be considered reliable; and men have every interest to lie about Jesus to other men”.


  10. galah
    galah  February 18, 2020

    “My sense is that if you think someone is lying, you have to have some reason to think it — e.g. some evidence that they know what they are saying is false and are saying it anyway.”

    So far we have about two occurrences in the NT that are widely accepted as fact. And, they have their reasons. But, only two? Errors, discrepancies, and the like, far outweigh the factual. How about more evidence to know if someone is telling the truth? Don’t you think we could be missing something here?

    • galah
      galah  February 18, 2020

      That wasn’t a clear question. What I meant was, more evidence that proves someone is telling the truth.

      • Bart
        Bart  February 19, 2020

        My sense is that if you think someone isn’t telling the truth, that the burden of proof would be on you to show it, since the default position is to say things are true rather than to lie. To prove someone isn’t lying would be attempting to prove a negative.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 19, 2020

      We’re missing lots! But we don’t know what, without evidence….

      • galah
        galah  February 19, 2020

        Dr. Ehrman,
        Last question on this. We don’t know what we’re missing without evidence? What kind of ancient evidence, realistically speaking, would it take to show that someone isn’t telling the truth? Could there be any such evidence in the NT? Could there be any such evidence period, ancient or otherwise?

        • Bart
          Bart  February 20, 2020

          There are indeed ancient writers that we know aren’t speaking the truth, knowingly. For example, whoever write 2 Peter claimed to be Peter. He certainly wasn’t. So he was lying. But in most instances, no, there is no way to know. So unless you have reason to think someone is lying, then, well, you have no reason to think so!

  11. stevedemarco
    stevedemarco  February 27, 2020

    What’s with the bias with the apostle Peter in the Gospels?

    In regards to the oral traditions I want to know why Peter was betrayed negatively in our Gospels. I think you even called him a complicated character in you book “Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene”. What was being said after Jesus death and up to the time the Gospels are being written. Peter as you know, Is the leader and Jesus successor. So what happened to Peter? Why is he treated so poorly the Gospels? Did other christian communities haver something against him or did he stray away from the christian movement overtime? Or did something completely different happen to him?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 28, 2020

      It’s really hard to know. He is treated as the most important character and as highly fallible. Maybe it’s too be a lesson for very fallible readers? Some conmunities were opposed to him, but not the ones behind the Gospels. You maybe be interested in teh six chapters I devote to him in my book Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene.

  12. Avatar
    m.mk  April 8, 2020

    Compared to Xnity, the gap between the events and the earliest written accounts for Buddhism is even worse:

    …The Tipitaka that was transmitted to Sri Lanka during the reign of King Asoka were initially preserved orally and were later written down during the Fourth Buddhist Council in 29 BCE, approximately 454 years after the death of Gautama Buddha….


    Pre-sectarian Buddhism,[1] also called early Buddhism,[2][3] the earliest Buddhism,[4][5] and original Buddhism,[6] is Buddhism as theorized to have existed before the various subsects of Buddhism came into being.[web 1]

    The contents and teachings of this pre-sectarian Buddhism must be deduced or re-constructed from the earliest Buddhist texts, which by themselves are already sectarian….


    Racine, WI, US(A)

  13. Avatar
    Xub03  June 1, 2020

    I was expecting you’d say a bit more about Quran as well. u mainly talked about veda and gospels but very little about quran(simply added it with them). When it comes to the accuracy of the oral tradition, do u know about the term “huffas”(quran memorizers)? There r millions of them out there who can recite the whole book word for word. As u see it’s important in the islamic tradition. Because this practice is still alive and going in full swing even today when there’s no need for memorizers in terms of preserving the textual authenticity of the scripture. Also it’s odd that a large number of these memorizers cant speak Arabic or know the meaning of the arabic texts. They can only read and write and still they successfully memrorize the whole book! I mean they have exams and what not to get their memorizer title. Also there are people who do it without pursuing it academically. I think it shouldn’t be overlooked when you’re comparing the oral tradition in Christianity, Hinduism and Islam. I mean think about how many people have accurately memorized gospels and vedas compared to the quran. Isn’t that a big difference?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 2, 2020

      I have talked about it a bit. Oral traditino is a very, very different phenomenon when it is *rooted* in a text. People memorize texts, adn their memories can be tested against the texts (to see if they are right or not) even if they pass along their memorized texts orally. That is very, very different from oral traditions that are and always have been oral, when there is no text to compare them to in order to see if they are accuraet. So the Qur’an is not like the oral traditions that I deal with in respect to, say, the historical Jesus.

  14. Avatar
    DoubtingTom  June 24, 2020

    I’m old enough to remember a few significant historical events happening. The JFK assassination, the first moon landing, the MLK assassination, Woodstock, and the 9/11 terrorist attacks to name some

    Did I witness any of them? No. I have memories based on the how the media chose to report it. It’s also clear people’s memories have changed ( not MINE of course!) as time passes to better correlate to people’s changing world view.

    To avoid the extremely inflammatory topic of politics, I’ll stick to Woodstock. Many have very romanticized utopian perceptions of it, while others describe it as a mud pit full of sewage. Which reality is right? We’re only talking 50ish years ago, and there’s already disagreement. People living 2000 years ago, relying mostly on oral history, would be no better at presenting historical events.

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