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.