The Oral Tradition

Where did stories about Jesus originate?

Memory and the Oral Tradition, part 2

The passing on of stories from memory is the ‘oral tradition’ that some argue preserved the words of Jesus more or less accurately for forty years. We’re expected to believe that eye-witnesses recalled in precise detail what Jesus said and did; that they all largely agreed on what this was; that none of them embellished or altered their recollections in any way in the telling and that they were passed on to convert after convert after convert in precise and unaltered form. And then, that no-one in forty years amended or refined the stories in any substantial way, because if they did the originators of the tales would be quick to point out any inaccuracies.

We know this isn’t what happened. The stories evolved and were refined and embellished as they were passed along for forty years between numerous converts. The defence that ancient largely illiterate cultures were better at faithfully preserving stories orally than we are today is a myth. (See EhrmanHow Jesus Became God: The Exaltation Of A Jewish Preacher from Galilee)

Even when some of the oral stories about Jesus were eventually written down, as in the gospels, they continued to evolve; Matthew and Luke both altered stories they took from Mark while John’s Jesus, in the latest of the canonical gospels, is a different creation altogether; either the source stories John knew had evolved quite differently from those Mark, Matthew and Luke had access to, or John created his Jesus out of whole cloth himself.

These stories once written down were changed again, both deliberately and accidentally, whenever the gospels were copied. We know this from the myriad of differences in the extant manuscripts. As Bart Ehrman puts it in Misquoting Jesus, there are more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament’. The evolution continued. This is why the Jesus seminar concluded, controversially, that only 20% of the words attributed to Jesus in the gospels can be regarded as originating with him. I consider this to be over-generous. 

Even if the writers of Jesus stories took some of their material from the so-called oral tradition (aka, ‘stories that were being passed around’), we have no way of knowing which of it, if any, is an accurate representation of the things Jesus did and said. It’s unlikely much of it is, given how stories are misremembered, reshaped and altered over time. Their evolution makes them less reliable, not more.

By the way, you’ve not read the post I wrote on Cape Cod. Most of it was completed in Boston and I’ve edited and posted it from my home in the UK. In other words, it evolved in various locations. Kind of like the gospels.



15 thoughts on “The Oral Tradition

  1. I think maybe this needs a different spin. Oral tradition, was typically through song with a very specific cadence and quite reliable. It is the writing it down that ruins it and makes it litigious.
    In the longhouses during the ceremonies it was nearly impossible to wander because of the song. Generations would pass and it would still be the same. I would slightly suggest that during that 40 or so years there was no Christian music, and hence the story was embellished to recoup what was lost. And what was lost is a completely embellished version of an apocalyptic preacher who is an icon of a prevalent end time idea.


    • I doubt anything was lost as the entire story is a fabrication.
      No eyewitnesses, no Nazareth, and certainly no miracles.
      GMat and gLuke are simply embellishments of gMark and a number of scholars consider Mark is a piecemeal collection of themes from the Old Testament.
      Acts is nothing but historical fiction.

      Infect it is difficult to find even a grain of Historical truth regarding these takes anywhere in the gospels.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I agree. Maybe to addend that, from this point of view I would say if it any part of it we’re true there be oral tradition that would be a more accurate account than the written.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I agree with all that you wrote, Neil. But humans do love their stories! Consider Aesop’s Fables, Snow White, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, etc. Imagination is a wonderful thing!


  3. I wonder what ancient document it is in which you found your premises in the first paragraph. I do not know any scholar critical or conservative who would sign on to all of that. You, I think, know enough about how language works and particularly how translation works to know that there is no one to one equivalent translation. And everything we read in the Greek NT that Jesus said is a translation from the Aramaic or Hebrew.

    You should know as well – it is basically a linguistic truism – that the map is not the territory. In other words, the words are not the ideas; they are symbolic representations of the ideas. The ideas are what are important.

    You might know also that ancient standards of quotation did not expect perfect verbatim quotation.

    Given all that, it matters very little if a quote from Jesus in one Gospel is slightly different in another Gospel. IT IS THE IDEA THAT IS IMPORTANT. And I do not find any of the variations in quotations to change the idea. If you do, show me.

    Which brings me to Ehrman.( I do wish people who quote Ehrman’s figures would do a little checking for themselves.)

    Ehrman: ‘there are more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament’.

    True. But take any United Bibler Society Greek text of the NT that has an apparatus with the variations and look to see what the vast majority of variations are. They are minor variants in spelling. They are variations in number or case. They are missing words or sometimes an added word. Almost always words that do not make any difference in the meaning. And so on. There are only about three variations that are significant and most modern Bibles note those. One being the ending of Mark. Another being the first part of John 8.

    Ehrman is telling the truth and leaving you to believe a lie.

    For 99% of the NT no variation changes the meaning.

    Mark Twain once said “It ain’t the parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it’s the parts that I do understand.” I think that is more true than we admit.


    • Who is this comment addressed to? Whose first paragraph are you disputing? ‘It’s the idea that’s important’ you say. Which ‘idea’ are we taking about? There are many in the gospels and the Bible as a whole, many of which conflict with others. You work very hard to enforce consistency on these ancient ideas when there is actually very little. You ask for an example, despite the fact we’ve been over this ground repeatedly; I refer you to this post from over two years ago in which I engaged with you on this very point:


  4. Neil: The defence that ancient largely illiterate cultures were better at faithfully preserving stories orally than we are today is a myth.

    Don: The research and the experiences of people who come from oral cultures argue otherwise.

    I wonder, have you ever considered the history of Homer’s Odessey and Iliad? They were orally past on for what appears to be centuries before someone wrote them down.

    Evidence shows that most of the ancient cultures have used oral form of the now literary art. Instead of written forms of literature, they composed songs, poems, ballads etc in the form of verses presenting them in front of the public. The Odyssey by Homer is an epic poetry work, in which oral narration verse was used as a way of developing the themes, as well as the issues raised by the author (Hawley 14). Such pattern of development of the plot engaged reciting in ancient cultures and did not necessarily involve an alphabet or writing systems. In that case, such literature is seen as an oral verse. (

    There were a number of devices oral story tellers use to ensure the story is remembered faithfully. One is poetry. Another is story and plot. Another is chiasmic organization, which we see in Mark. Another is chanting or song. And, of course, there is regular repetition. We can see remnants and clues in the Gospels that some of these were used. These and other memory aids in an oral culture enable the stories are remembered very accurately.

    These may be less accurate than the printed word, but with the advent of computers and the ease of altering the text, that may no longer be true.


      • Moreover, the oral transmission you used as an example, Don, is simply a STORY. It and many others like it are not blueprints on how to live — which is what most people consider the bible to be.

        Further, as Neil points out, STORIES get changed and modified from person-to-person. There are no guarantees that what exists today is an exact replica of the original. And this INCLUDES the bible.

        Liked by 1 person

      • No. There are no guarantees, but the more examples we have the more confident we can be.

        Yes, stories do get changed and modified, but not so much in stories that are significant to the tellers. Casual information does, but we are not talking about casual information. We are also not talking about a long period of time. The first written Gospel appeared within 40 years of the life of Jesus. It was a story told largely an eyewitness and one close to Jesus.

        That would be Peter as his oral telling of the story is transcribed in Mark. But it was also Mark, though his experience with Jesus was as a young man and probably only in the last few weeks of Jesus life. Nevertheless, an examination of the several significant voices detectable in Mark, he comes across as one who was there at the last supper and the crucifixion and the resurrection. So, though he records few of Jesus’ words, he knew how things went at the end.


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