Chinese Whispers, Scientific American and the Reliability of the Gospels

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For in Calormen, story-telling (whether the stories are true or made up) is a thing you’re taught, just as English boys and girls are taught essay-writing. The difference is that people want to hear the stories, whereas I never heard of anyone who wanted to read the essays.

C. S. Lewis – The Horse and His Boy.

The gospels simply aren’t reliable. We don’t know who Matthew was; we don’t know when he wrote his account of the story of Jesus, we don’t know where he was from, and we have no idea who his sources were.

And we don’t know who Mark was; and we don’t know who his sources were either. And with 95% of Mark’s account included in Matthew and Luke, and in some cases with exactly the same wording, it isn’t possible to know if Matthew and Luke used Mark and expanded the material or if Mark abbreviated Matthew and Luke, or if each used the other… and we don’t know who the sources were anyway?
And if Matthew copied Mark and then ‘sexed up’ the text with spectacular events (which appear no where else), and wrote with a clear agenda intent on persuading his readers (who lived in superstitious and ignorant times), it isn’t possible to believe anything they have written, let alone a resurrection and a virgin birth?
Not only that, but something we do know is that people tell stories. People love telling stories, and when people tell stories all kinds of weird an wonderful extras are added in: embellishments appear, legends develop; and these, in the case of the Gospels, were neatly packaged up at some point and gos-spelled for maximum effect (and not a little magic).

No *actual* eyewitness accounts of pretty much anything of the life of Jesus have remained in any worthwhile way, and as a result we are not in any position to accept or communicate anything of his life with any degree of accuracy. The stories which were told were merely spun – and having been spun, they caught the imagination, and having caught the imagination, they took off.
In short – testimony is unreliable and the thought of basing one’s live upon it is laughable.

The above is a version of a popular argument we might come across from a popular atheist defending his atheism and the apparent unreliability of the Bible – oral tradition is not evidence of anything and cannot be (and should not be) trusted.All of which makes the following article reasonably interesting.An article in the Scientific American reports that, “Aboriginal stories of lost islands match up with underwater finds in Australia.” Indeed,

Without using written languages, Australian tribes passed memories of life before, and during, post-glacial shoreline inundations through hundreds of generations as high-fidelity oral history.”

And in trying to understand how this might be possible, especially as these incredibly accurate stories have been preserved for 10 000 (ten thousand) years, Nicholas Reid, a linguist at Australia’s University of New England specialising in Aboriginal Australian languages, said,  ‘There are aspects of storytelling in Australia that involved kin-based responsibilities to tell the stories accurately,’ (and) that rigour provided ‘cross-generational scaffolding’ that ‘can keep a story true.’ The last sentence is worth re-reading:

That rigour provided cross-generational scaffolding that ‘can keep a story true.’ ”

The article is clear: oral tradition can be trustworthy and reliable, and can be, and has been, preserved accurately through many generations and over many, many years. Not such “ignorant times” after all, we might conclude.

And with that in mind we turn to another study of the accuracy of oral traditions carried out by Kenneth Bailey, formerly Theologian in Residence in the Episcopal Church in Jerusalem and the Middle East (Cyprus) and Research Professor of Middle Eastern NT Studies (Jerusalem).

This study inquires into the oral traditions related to the Synoptic Gospels and “what is meant by oral sources”, or in the case of our atheist critic, ‘stories’, ‘embellishments’ and ‘legends’? And what Bailey’s article brings to our attention is “a specific discernible methodology functioning in traditional Middle Eastern village life” that gives us a basis for understanding how oral traditions not only preserved the truth of events, but, at the same time, allowed for flexibility in the retelling.

Among the various forms of the oral tradition analysed by Bailey he notes what he terms the, “informal controlled oral tradition,” through which a community preserves its store of tradition, and that by: proverbs; story riddles; poetry; parables; and accounts of important figures in the history of the community.

And this is something the whole community does, whether it is by designated and respected story-tellers, or the wider community providing necessary checks and balances.

In this way, writes Bailey, “The story (told) can endure a hundred transmissions through a chain of a hundred and one different people and the inner core of the story remains intact.”

Bailey’s detailed analysis of the form, use, purpose and reliability of oral traditions (story telling) in Middle Eastern communicates is well worth the read, and, when considered in parallel with the recent Scientific America article, points to the ancient and continuing existence of reliable oral traditions in various world cultures.

The significance of this for the reliably of the Gospels is clear and obvious enough.

Within the context of an informal controlled oral tradition which functioned in Middle Eastern societies, respected individuals who knew the events (those who had been there and who had witnessed the life of Jesus), were authorised by the community to tell the stories and the same communities preserved the stories.

There is absolutely no need, then, to rush to fear, or to be concerned by the imposition of modern Western categories of ‘evidence’ onto ancient Middle Eastern practices and traditions, from which we have much to learn. Nor is there any need to impose onto the Gospels a concept of ‘story’, which means little more than ’fiction’. As Kenneth Bailey concludes,

the types of material that appear in the Synoptic Gospels include primarily the same forms that we have found preserved by informal controlled oral tradition such as proverbs, parables, poems, dialogues, conflict stories and historical narratives.”


 “[the] assumption that the early Christians were not interested in history becomes untenable. To remember the words and deeds of Jesus of Nazareth was to affirm their own unique identity. The stories had to be told and controlled or everything that made them who they were was lost.”

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