Improving oral tradition

Dr. Greg Boyd has a post up at Answering the Skeptic on the topic of how Christians should respond to Bart Ehrman’s book, Misquoting Jesus. Boyd’s 6 point rebuttal says that, in essence, (a) not all scholars agree with Ehrman, (b) Ehrman’s tone is “alarmist,” (c) 95-98% of the New Testament is not in any serious doubt, (d) we have more manuscripts for the NT than for any other ancient document, and (e) Ehrman exaggerates. Boyd’s last point, however, is the one I find the most interesting.

Bart may (or may not) have substantiated his claim that sometimes intentional alterations were made in the text to make a passage sound more “orthodox.” Even if we grant this (and many textual critics would not), it doesn’t affect much.

First, if we throw out all the texts about which there is some question — including those that may have been intentionally altered — it wouldn’t affect our general estimation of the reliability of the New Testament documents and wouldn’t affect anything important to the faith.

Second — and this is very important — in the ancient world written texts were regarded as expressions of an oral tradition, and it was understood that it’s okay to slightly modify oral traditions to address new issues that have arisen in the community. So even if certain texts were altered slightly (and all the alleged alterations are in fact slight), it doesn’t mean there was anything sinister going on. This is what people expected to be done. [Emphasis mine.]

Pretty wild, huh? As we saw with Geisler and Turek, Boyd’s approach emphasizes how confidently we can conclude that the current NT texts reflect what the original authors wrote, as though this proved that we could be confident that what the original authors wrote was factually accurate. But the written documents are merely an expression of an oral tradition. And, as Boyd explicitly points out, it was considered legitimate to “improve” an oral tradition in a way that made it more fit for the issues at hand.

That’s an extremely important point, because if the early Christians did indeed begin with the Resurrection as a “spiritual truth,” they would have regarded it as being even more true than a mere materialistic resurrection, since the material is ephemeral and tends to obscure the “eternal” truths of the spiritual realm. The disposition of the material body of Jesus would be an entirely superfluous detail, since he was known to be truly risen in a spiritual body.

The earliest written record we have of the oral tradition regarding the resurrection is 1 Cor. 15, which indicates that Paul was experiencing problems with Christians denying the resurrection. Given that the spiritual resurrection was already a “truth” more significant than any mere material resurrection would be, it would have been a relatively trivial alteration to “fix” the story so that the Resurrection absorbed the material body in some way, giving the evangelists a way to prove that the Resurrection was “real.” The transition from a spiritual resurrection to a physical one would thus be a slight modification in order to address a current issue.

It may be true to suggest that our modern New Testament is a fairly accurate copy of the original books that recorded the oral traditions which were circulating a few years to a few decades after Jesus’ death. The accuracy of the transmission of the text, however, is not really the issue. What’s at stake is the willingness of ancient Christians to “fix” their story to solve their apologetic and evangelical problems. Culturally, there was nothing stopping them, and given their non-literal interpretation of reality, their religious and moral standards would not have been a problem either. They already had the spiritual truth, as far as they were concerned. All they were really doing was changing the presentation so that it could win more souls.

And that’s how you can start a Gospel-based religion without any actual miracles.

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Posted in Unapologetics. 12 Comments »

12 Responses to “Improving oral tradition”

  1. Ric Says:

    “All they were really doing was changing the presentation so that it could win more souls.”

    So lying for Jesus is a time-honored tradition, eh? Good to see that it’s still alive and well.

  2. David D.G. Says:

    This is a perfect example of how religion constitutes what someone once called a “socially constructed reality.”

    ACTUAL reality is irrelevant; what’s important to the faithful is to represent what you want to have happened as if it were established fact. This reminds me of a flair button I used to see fairly often: “Having abandoned my search for truth, I am now looking for a good fantasy.”

    What Boyd candidly admits here is that whenever any actual facts come to light that contradict the “official” story, those inconvenient facts will just be either denied outright (and buried if possible) or “corrected” to whatever is necessary to make them conform to current need. We have seen this practice before, in George Orwell’s 1984 — performed by the official lie machine known as the Ministry of Truth.

    ~David D.G.

  3. Steven Carr Says:

    SO Boyd has no qualms about some scribe altering the Word of God….

    Here is what the Bible says about people changing things

    I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book. And if anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy, God will take away from him his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.

    But Boyd assures us nobody would have been bothered if people had modified the text of Revelation.

    That was accepted practice in those days, even if the author of Revelation says God will send plagues on anybody who changes the word.

    But what did he know? He hadn’t read any Boyd, had he?

  4. VorJack Says:

    “So even if certain texts were altered slightly (and all the alleged alterations are in fact slight), it doesn’t mean there was anything sinister going on.”

    I have a hard time seeing the long ending of Mark and the story of the adulteress in John as being “slight” alterations.

  5. Freidenker Says:

    Um, as an Israeli Jew (well, can I say atheist Jew? Judaism somehow ceased being just a religion in some point of our ancestry. Xenophobia does that to a people), I can say that in Jewish tradition, some words were altered in the Torah on purpose. The particular example I remember is in those parts in Job where it says “blesses God” instead of “curses God”. I remember the reason for this was that it’s sacrilegious to even write a phrase such as “curses God” a mortal sin, so they changed it. I remember immediately wondering what else was modified in the Torah to suit some Rabbi’s or other’s superstitions.

  6. Freidenker Says:

    Oh, BTW, I don’t know if it has those alterations in any English (or even Greek or Latin!) version of the OT, but I know for a fact they exist in all modern Hebrew copies of the Tanach (Torah Nevi’im Ktuvim, being the 3 book groups that compose the Jewish traditional OT)

  7. John Fernandez Says:

    I’m glad to see so much concern about the possibility that ancient scribes may have adding to or deleting from the Book of Revelation (Jesus’ special revelation to the apostle John). But have no fear, my friends, if any changes were made over the centuries, they are indeed minor and take nothing away from Jesus’ message to all of us through John. History will unfold – and indeed it is unfolding before our very eyes – just as Jesus said it would. Are you ready?

  8. John Fernandez Says:

    Please replace “adding” and “deleting” with the past tense “added” and “deleted,” and please also delete the words “indeed it” in the section about history unfolding. Sorry for giving you extra work. As usual, I was doing three things at the same time. Love your site, but you need to move my site (AnswerTheSkeptic) into the good column in your right margin… smile.

  9. VorJack Says:

    “Please replace “adding” and “deleting” with the past tense “added” and “deleted,” and please also delete the words “indeed it” in the section about history unfolding.”

    The irony here is oh, so delicious.

  10. Steven Carr Says:

    John Fernandez asks for some minor changes, because they really affect the meaning of what he said….

    How strange! I thought minor alterations altered nothing important,

    I guess Christians really don’t mind if sceptics change what Christians post, adding a few words here and there, taking away words from this or that sentence..

    So now we have carte blance to hack Christian sites and change things around.

    They simply won’t mind a few alterations to their articles….

  11. Steven Carr Says:

    What part of the warning in Revelation about adding words or taking away words, leads Boyd to think that people were quite happy for scribes to change the text?

  12. VorJack Says:

    Steven – The author of the Revelation of St. John was neurotic. It’s visible in his greek, his eschatology and his morality. I suspect he was obsessed with purity – his own purity and then the purity of his “revelation.” I don’t think you can judge scribal practice by his ravings.

    John Fernandez – “(Jesus’ special revelation to the apostle John)”

    I’m curious about what has convinced you that the author is the Apostle John. The author identifies himself simply as “John,” a common enough name then as now, and there are several good arguments against linking the author of the Gospel of John and Revelations.