Oral Tradition and Eyewitness Testimony

There is a very important post about Richard Bauckham’s recent book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimonyon the Vridar blog. There it is drawn to our attention that one particular instance of testimony about the Holocaust (an example Bauckham uses in his book), which is assumed to be reliable, turned out to in fact be fiction. A similar point was made about oral tradition by Ted Weeden at SBL not that long ago, pointing out that whereas Kenneth Bailey is correct that a story about missionary John Hogg was passed on faithfully for decades, it is also the case that the story they passed on so faithfully was not, according to Hogg’s biography written by his daughter, what actually happened.

I still recommend that anyone interested in oral tradition and testimony read the work of Jan Vansina, which deals with both, and confirms from much field work what we all ought to know instinctively, namely that neither testimony nor oral tradition is consistently reliable, but both can be at times. Both need to be tested using the methods of historical investigation. There is no way around it.

As I write this, I am listening once again to the music of Dan Locklair. I highly recommend it! It is wonderfully melodic music in a typically American form of late Romanticism. I listened once again last night (when I couldn’t sleep) to Kurt Atterberg’s Symphony No.6, Värmland Rhapsody and Ballad without Words. It never ceases to amaze me how skilled Atterberg was at weaving together simultaneous melodies. If you are new to his music, try the slow movement of the symphony on that CD, the Varmland Rhapsody and eventually the Ballad Without Words. Such beautiful music – and it is such beauty rather, than any theological argument, that keeps my belief in the reality of transcendence, depth, meaning and ultimate concern alive.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05115370166754797529 Mark Goodacre

    I agree it’s a good post, but it doesn’t claim, if I’ve read it correctly, that “one of the examples of testimony and its reliability that Bauckham uses is in fact fiction”. Rather, Neil is comparing the alleged authenticity of the testimony of Edith P with the alleged authenticity of faked holocaust survivor testimony.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Thanks, Mark, for clarifying that. You are of course correct!


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