Improving oral traditionSeptember 11, 2008 — Deacon Duncan
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.