Wednesday, August 18, 2010

On the Origin of Jesus Part 2: Oral Tradition

Reading Alan Dundes' book has given me a whole new insight into this topic so I've decided to do a second part.
Between the death of Jesus and the time the gospels were written as I mentioned last time, Paul was the only person to write about Christianity. Paul's writings only contained a small number of the details that are known as the story of Jesus, and they are often slightly different to the what is contained within the gospels (which differ from one another), the point of this post is to highlight the origin of these variant texts.

Just to give you an idea of the kind of thing I'm talking about I'll give some examples.

How many women visited Jesus' tomb?
Mark     - 3: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome
Matthew- 2: Mary Magdalene and the other Mary
Luke     - more than 3: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James and the others with them
John     - 1: Mary Magdalene

When was the Stone Rolled away?
Mark, Luke and John- The stone had been rolled away when they arrived
Matthew- After they arrived, an angel appeared, rolled the stone away and sat on it.

I'm not going to spend any more time showing you more of these, but here's a short list of variant texts to do with the resurrection of Christ. You can take my word for it that the gospels are full of this kind of thing, or you can go look them up yourself, they aren't exactly hard to find.

Apologists have tried to reconcile these apparent contradictions by saying things like "they're divergent accounts, and prove that it's correct!" as a mantra. I believe Josh Mcdowell was a huge proponent of that idea. The problem with this idea is that it is just plain wrong. We've established that none of the new testament writers were eye-witnesses to anything that happened, so where did the textual variations come from? The details of the story were passed down 2-4 generations before they were written down, which is more than enough time for discrepancies and errors to creep in. How much of the story is genuine? We'll probably never know. As far as I'm concerned, there are only 4 details that are almost certainly true, that he lived, had a crowd of followers, was influential and that he died.


  1. Hmmmm... it seems Mary Magdalene was probably there....and that there was probably a stone....that got rolled away at some point....

  2. I would be inclined to say that any specific details would be at best extremely hazy. 40+ years of people telling a story by word of mouth would tend to do that to any story though really.

  3. I would be inclined to believe the common threads before the individual nuances of each gospel myself.

    In saying that though, it is highly speculated that the writers of later gospels sourced material from earlier gospels, such as Mark (and a proposed Q gospel).

    In which case it will probably always be an unknown as to what really happened, when, where, how and involving who.

    What's the most hard case are the fundamentalists on either side stating "I know that such and such did or didn't happen". Facepalm everytime.

  4. I'm more inclined to believe Dundes' hypothesis than the documentary/Q hypothesis. Dundes says that all of the gospels were written out of the same oral tradition, and the variation in the accounts is simply the result of this folklore origin. Like Chinese whispers (I cringe every time I hear that name).

  5. The Q source is indeed very mysterious and there are mixed scholarly opinions on it.

    At the end of the day I guess we can only follow the evidence wherever it leads.

    Whisper Down The Lane is the culturally sensitive title ;D

  6. The FBI used to do a training scenario (I'm not sure if they still do; I read about this one when I was at high school) where, at some stage during a class, a specific event would be staged (eg two men begin arguing, one takes a book from the shelf, a woman arrives etc etc etc). Ten minutes after the event, all the people in the room would be told to write a precise and accurate account about EVERY detail they could recall about what they witnessed - number of people involved, colour of clothing, title of book, number of knots in the first guy's shoelaces, etc. No single account was ever completely correct, and within a room of witnesses pretty much every piece of evidence witnessed by someone was contradicted by someone else, sometimes even down to the number of people involved and what colour they were.
    The point that the FBI instructors were trying to make, of course, is that memories can be decieving.
    Given this, no wonder there are divergent accounts of an event which was being recorded in these gospels many years later!

  7. I'm not sure it's all that plausible that there were several divergent accounts that survived 2-4 generations before being recorded. Isn't it a whole lot more reasonable to suggest that the accounts however many, or however divergent they may have been are not the accounts we have written down.