History, Reading, Theology

What Is “Oral Tradition”?

It is very common for people to throw around phrases like, “The Gospels were oral tradition” as an excuse to criticize the content of the books or to argue against their inspiration. I have heard and read this statement so much that one day, I decided to figure out exactly what oral tradition means. Not surprisingly, most of the people who use the term have no idea what it means.

Oral tradition has a very specific meaning. In sociology, it is material that is held in common by a group of people over several generations. In a narrower sense, oral tradition is defined by a system of thought called Oral-Formulaic Transmission. Here is how it works.

In cultures where there is little or no writing, a specific group of people are commissioned by the culture to transmit that culture’s history through song or poetry. To do this, they go through rather intensive training to learn how to weave the poem for public presentation. These poems are marked by certain motifs used to tie the whole thing together. For example, Homer’s Illiad often features phrases like “wine dark sea.” They construct the narrative around certain metered portions and the motifs.

(A modern writer who mastered these motifs was Rudyard Kipling in his Just So Stories. Kipling constantly repeated motifs and forms, just as the oral traditions he encountered in India. He gives us an amazing example of what oral tradition looks like.)

This person is apprenticed to a master storyteller for decades, learning his craft. Only when the old storyteller passes or is incapable of speech does the new one come on the scene. These people tell the story over and over again. They memorize literally thousands of lines of poetry. It is a very, very intensive way of transmitting truth. The reality is that the cultures that practice this are able to transmit stories and ideas over a dozen generations with almost no variation outside of perhaps a few grammatical changes and updating descriptors.

And here’s the thing. While parts of the Hebrew Scriptures definitely fit the bill of oral tradition, the Gospels really don’t. There are bits and pieces of oral tradition within them, but the Gospels are composed works. They were written down very, very early in their existence and do not bear the hallmarks of oral tradition. They did not have time to become oral tradition. They were on paper, in circulation in the most literary empire outside of China within a generation of their composition. They are not oral tradition.

So when someone dismisses the Gospels as oral tradition, just ask them what exactly they mean. Then ask them how familiar they are with Oral-Formulaic Transmission. That will usually get them to change the subject pretty quickly.


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