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08/14/07 | by [mail] | Categories: faith/skepticism

Until recently it has bee commonly thought (again, even among scholars) that oral cultures could be counted on to preserve their traditions reliably, that people in such societies were diligent in remembering what they heard and could reproduce it accurately when asked about it. This, however, is another myth that has been exploded by recent studies of literacy. We have now come to see that people in oral cultures typically do not share the modern concern for preserving traditions intact, and do not repeat them exactly the same way every time. On the contrary, the concern for verbal accuracy has been instilled in us by the phenomenon of mass literacy itself; since anyone now can check to see if a fact has been remembered correctly (by looking it up), we have developed a sense that traditions ought to remain invariable and unchanged. In most oral societies, however, traditions are understood to be malleable; that is, they are supposed to be changed and made relevant to the new situations in which they are cited.

(The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, 45)



I like Ehrman and I fondly remember his interview on the Colbert Report some months ago. I also remember watching a video of him at the UU Church I attended in CC, TX.

Bear in mind he is an agnostic. He has a lot to offer in regards to textual criticism and I respect him a great deal.

My questions then are what exactly do you consider good and accurate history then? Anything that is of relative certainty? I have a habit of leaning on some basic apologetics but do realize it’s a bit more (far more) complicated than just that. Historical documents as well as archaeological finds so on and so forth seem to give us a certain amount of relative certainty… as with anything else.

“Orality” (sometimes to be understood as a status quo) exists in far more than just xianity, religion but politics and even science imho. I think all of these can learn a great deal from each other.

[Member]08/15/07 @ 01:26

I’m not completely sure I disagree with Ehrman in his assessment of orality, but I would also question whether he has the experience/scholarship to make any definitive claims about the subject. Orality is its own field in literary/folklore studies, and I’m not sure he’s in any way considered an oral tradition scholar.

Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy is the foundational text on the subject. He wouldn’t claim oral tradition ensures verbal accuracy (in the verbatim sense), I don’t think. He does make the interesting point, however, that once a culture understands literacy, it actually thinks about things differently (even if individual members of the culture are not literate). What this means, I think, is that since 1st century Jews were far more literate than many in Palestine (a carpenter in Israel, might, for example, have attained the ability to read from the scroll of Isaiah kept in the temple), a literate (rather than oral) consciousness probably pervaded the culture where Jesus lived. Literate notions about textual preservation may have pervaded their thinking (these notions are certainly reflected in the warning in Revelation that changing one word in the book is cause for damnation and in Jesus’s claim that “not a iota will be canceled from the law").

The early Christian tradition is probably founded on both writings and orality. Eusebius notes that Mark wanted to preserve Peter’s oral teaching, so there is certainly a sense in which the story is being passed on orally (although maybe with the values of a literate culture–Mark doesn’t “learn” the story after all, but writes it down).

Also, although the claim that some make that oral tradition ensures a verbatim delivery of a story are erroneous, oral tradition should not be completely discounted as a means of record keeping. Embellishment is certainly a feature of oral tradition just as improvisation is a part of jazz. Both, though, do retain at least some of essential nodes of the narrative line or else the story becomes unrecognizable. Now, this does not imply anything about the initial accuracy/factuality of the story, but it does mean the telling of a story in 65 AD might not be (in essence) that different from its telling 30+ years before. Word for word faithfulness to the original cannot be expected (and indeed, we don’t often get that between the texts of the Gospels). But the essential nodes may well have been accurately preserved.

Doug [Visitor]  08/15/07 @ 06:52
[Member]  http://www.brendoman.com/08/15/07 @ 07:27

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