Modern Religious Questions, Part II: Oral Transmission

Another point that some bring up is the case of oral transmission: can the Bible really be “reliable” (see definition of reliable from previous post) if it’s contents were originally passed orally before being written down?

First we’ll look at specific details of oral transmission and the Bible. Second, we’ll look at the level of reliability of oral transmission.

First, let’s look at how some of the books of the Bible came to be written down. What do we know about that? Where they all passed orally before being written down?

Many of the books of the Bible (and/or the details contained therein) were most likely passed from person to person and generation to generation via oral transmission. Scholars believe this to be especially true of most of the Old Testament. The basic contents of the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) were probably passed orally at first, but were written down in some form very early after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. The dates of when Mark (the earliest of the Gospels) was first written down are around AD 50-65. And, many scholars believe that Mark, Matthew and Luke are all based off an earlier written document that they call the Q document that is not available to us. That is to say, the contents of the Gospel accounts were written down very close in time to the actual events they record and in the midst of those who lived through those events.

Further, some of the Bible wasn’t originally passed orally at all. Paul’s letters (the earliest of the New Testament writings and the bulk of the New Testament) were first in written form (as letters). So, the existence of and the length of time of oral transmission is different depending on which part of the Bible you are talking about.

The Old Testament details are harder to crack, of course. It is interesting to note, however, that with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the late 1940’s scholars found a copy of the book of Isaiah that was 900 years older than the previous copies we had. And they compared the two copies and found few differences–over 900 years!

Second, it is a little simplistic to dismiss oral transmission out of hand as unreliable or less reliable than written transmission. Here’s why.

The common example used for “proof” that oral transmission is unreliable is the story circle game. The game goes like this: Many people sit in a circle. The first person whispers something into the second person’s ear. Then the second person transmits the information to the third person in the same way, and so on, until the information comes all the way back to the first person. And when it comes back it is almost always a grossly adulterated form of the original statement.

This example is, unfortunately, not good proof of the unreliability of an ancient culture’s transmitted oral traditions. People from oral cultures typically had what we would consider today to be amazing memory capacity for information received aurally. For this reason, Plato himself believed that writing and literacy would destroy memory. Stories were told in ways specifically designed to help you remember them. You would have a well trained memory if you were expected to remember things that you could not write down or read.

If you were a child raised in a culture that transmitted stories orally you would hear the same stories told hundreds or thousands of times, word for word in the exact same way before you were an adult and started telling the story yourself. How well do you know the words to your favorite song? Or the pledge of allegiance? You cannot use a literate, written culture’s ability to retell something after one telling (as in the story circle game) to judge the accuracy of oral stories coming from an oral culture. It’s a bad analogy.

So when speaking of the oral transmission and the Bible it is important to remember, firstly, that the Bible is made up of all kinds of different books that came into being in many different ways: some were most probably originally orally passed before being written down, some were not. Those that were spent different amounts of time being orally passed before being written down. And secondly, understanding how oral cultures operated and shaped the memory ability of their people keep us from drawing silly analogies from parlor games that are ignorant of those ancient cultures.

My third and final post on this topic will be a quick look at if we should even care if the Bible is, historically speaking, reliable or not. The answer might surprise you. Join me for Modern Religions Questions, Part III: For God So Loved the World that He Sent a Book?

Explore posts in the same categories: Christianity, Islam, Orthodox Christianity, Philosophy

2 Comments on “Modern Religious Questions, Part II: Oral Transmission”

  1. Mike Zysman Says:

    You’ve made a decent argument for the reliability of oral tradition. To me the question is not IF the oral transmission could be made reliably, but IF there was incentive to embellish and change the story.

    In the case of the pledge of allegiance we know there was sufficient motive/ incentive to change the story in 1954.

    • boehadden Says:

      Thanks for commenting. Good point!

      Though, just because there is motivation to change the story does not mean we know that the story was changed or that it was–we need evidence that supports that conclusion.

      For the pledge of allegiance we have documents that show how and why the change was made–we have evidence that it was changed and in fact the change was not hidden or done in secrecy (though it was a pretty silly change if you ask me). If someone argues that the stories in the Gospels were changed, for example, they have to provide evidence that points to such changes.


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