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The Jesus Legend 6: Ancient Literacy and Oral Tradition


The authors are responding to three basic points. That the time period where Christianity arose was illiterate, that oral traditions are disparate and cannot include lengthy stories, and that oral traditions can in fact include faithful and correct information.

I’m not sure how great their sources were. They referred to research from Africa on lengthy oral stories, but there is no evidence that the ancient Jewish people had similar oral traditions. They may have made a point that some cultures can be faithful and have lengthy oral transmission, but I’m not convinced that there is evidence that this is typical of oral tradition, or that the ancient Jewish people followed this tradition.

Kindle Notes:

Few dispute that prior to the writing of the Gospels, tradition about Jesus circulated primarily by means of oral transmission. Hence, to a significant extent, one’s estimation of the historical reliability of the Gospels will depend on one’s estimation of the reliability of the oral traditions that preceded them (4126).

we shall proceed to examine those three assumptions-that the period leading up to the written Gospels was a purely oral period; that oral traditions are not capable of passing on extended narratives; and that the early church had little true biographical interest in their founder (4174).

we must nevertheless agree with the scholarly consensus that the primary means of passing on the Jesus tradition in the early church would have been oral. Hence a great deal continues to hang on our estimation of the nature and general reliability of the early oral Jesus tradition (4395).

we begin to gain confidence that the oral traditions leading up to the Gospels were perhaps not as unreliable as many critical scholars of the past imagined. Related to this, we can safely reject the notion that the narrative framework of the Gospel was superimposed on previously disparate and unrelated Gospel material. This, in turn, renders less plausible the view that there was significant legendary accretion in the oral traditions leading up to the Gospels (4509).

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