Accurate Speech Vs Oral Transmission

Accurate Speech Vs Oral Transmission July 9, 2021

Yesterday, I posted a piece about the inaccuracy of any text of the era of the Bible containing as much speech as it does. I was challenged on this by a few comments, but I want to clarify some things because I think I am being misunderstood on my claims. I have never said that oral transmission cannot be an accurate way of transmitting content X 1000 years down the line. This may or may not be true. I am saying that content X is not accurate in the first place, and there is no way it will be. I am also saying that content X is usually a different genre and type of content than actual historical speech.

Let me remind you of the Thucydides quote from The History of the Peloponnesian War.

In this history I have made use of set speeches some of which were delivered just before and others during the war. I have found it difficult to remember the precise words used in the speeches which I listened to myself and my various informants have experienced the same difficulty; so my method has been, while keeping as closely as possible to the general sense of the words that were actually used, to make the speakers say what, in my opinion, was called for by each situation.

Translation: When recording speeches, Thucydides made things up that he felt fit the overall picture.

Here is a quote from eric:

Small quibble; I would expect the storytellers in an oral storytelling culture to be spectacular at remembering exact speech. The modern analog would be a professional actor remembering many entire plays of lines (…or us normal people remembering hundreds if not thousands of lines of song and commercial lyrics). The oral storytellers of the day probably had The Odyssey and other epic poems down nearly verbatim, and likely would’ve been good at listening to a local speech and remembering it. I would also have expected that non-literate people in general would be better at memorizing speech than us literate folks. That’s no different than saying people who do a lot of math in their head (vs. excel, calculators) are going to be better at retaining numbers and equations in their head.

However AFAIK Thucydides was not an oral storyteller, and neither were any of the 13 disciples of Jesus who, presumably, passed on their conversations with Jesus to others. And I’m not claiming perfection here; just better than us. So as I said, quibble.

To which Luke Breuer added [my bold emphasis]:

It would be helpful if people were to consult actual scholarship on ‮laro‬ traditions—which seems to match what you’re saying here, eric. From N.T. Wright:

Bailey has argued effectively for a position midway between the extremes represented by Bultmann and Gerhardsson. Bultmann proposed that the ‮laro‬ traditions about Jesus were informal and uncontrolled.[23] The community was not interested in preserving or controlling the tradition; it was free to change this way and that, to develop and grow. Gerhardsson and Riesenfeld, by contrast, suggested that Jesus taught his disciples fixed forms of teachings which functioned as formal and controlled.[24] From his wide and prolonged firsthand study of middle-eastern peasant culture, undertaken while working as a theological teacher in various countries in that part of the world, Bailey allows that there are such things as informal and uncontrolled traditions: they occur when rumours, for instance of atrocities, spread like wildfire and become grossly enlarged and reshaped in the process. There is also, to this day, a middle-eastern tradition of formal and controlled tradition, as when Muslims learn the entire Koran by heart, or when Syriac-speaking monks can recite all the hymns of St Ephrem. In between the two, however, Bailey identifies informal and controlled ‮laro‬ traditions. They are informal in that they have no set teacher and students. Anyone can join in—provided they have been part of the community for long enough to qualify. They are controlled in that the whole community knows the traditions well enough to check whether serious innovation is being smuggled in, and to object if it is.[25]

Bailey divides the traditions that are preserved, in this informal yet controlled way, into five categories. There are proverbs, thousands of them (in comparison with the average modern westerner’s knowledge of maybe a few dozen). There are narrative riddles, in which a wise hero solves a problem. There is poetry, both classical and contemporary. There is the parable or story. Finally, there are accounts of important figures in the history of the village or community. The control in each case is exercised by the community. Again Bailey has categorized this into its different patterns. Poems and proverbs allow no flexibility. Some flexibility is allowed within parables, and recollections concerning historical people: ‘the central threads of the story cannot be changed, but flexibility in detail is allowed’.[26] More complete flexibility is allowed when ‘ the material is irrelevant to the identity of the community, and is not judged wise or valuable’.[27] (Jesus and the Victory of God, Chapter Four)

Jonathan’s disbelief that anything like the above could happen may be connected to his conceptual nominalism and “discontinuous ‘I'”, which he later blogged about: The “I”, personhood and abstract objects. It would, perhaps, be philosophically disastrous for the amount of continuity-of-identity you are suggesting, to be possible. And perhaps, it would be disastrous to consider that maybe a people’s identity could be built on facts, rather than fictions.

So, literally none of this is what I am talking about, apart from the last bold category – accounts of important figures in history (itself a problematic claim, since this is what is contested). Also, though I previously mentioned Acts, I am really focusing on the Hebrew Bible. I am not disputing any of what both commenters said here necessarily, it’s just that we are talking past each other about different things.

My issue is about speech. Does it accurately reflect what was said – even if we concede that these figures actually existed anyway.

I have recently been writing on this very topic for my book project, and I could furnish you with stuff by Gunkel, Noth, and others, but I will try not to put in too many quotes. I’ll probably fail. Let’s start with a few, though.

This is how Baruch Schwartz sees it in The Oxford Handbook of the Pentateuch [Schwartz in Baden & Stackert (2021), 19.57 (Epub).]:

[I]t repeatedly becomes clear that independent narrative texts—not oral traditions, but complete written documents—have intenti|onally and ingeniously been woven together. This discovery is the key to understanding how the Torah was compiled, for pursuant to these findings it emerges that the same narrative threads are present over the course of the entire Torah; that is, the threads that may be detected within a given passage are in fact the continuations of threads that are already intertwined prior to it.

The most prominent source, admittedly, of transmission across time was oral tradition. At least, we have no autographs and no writing at all from any of the Pentateuchal period (the time of the content) – and our earliest extant fragments of the Torah come from 250 BCE.

There are arguments for and against oral transmission as a form of telephone game (Chinese whispers) over prolonged periods of time. But the accuracy of transmission from person to person says little about the truth of what a community started with.

Joel Baden and Jeffrey Stackert discuss this in their opening chapter to The Oxford Handbook to the Pentateuch:[1]

The Neo-Documentarian theory posits four independent sources that contain significant overlaps in content, on the level of the narrative macrostructure and that of the individual episode. Yet because of the general lack of precise linguistic correspondences among them, the theory also holds that the J, E, and P sources were essentially unaware of each other. The explanation for overlaps among the sources thus falls on the existence of a substantial oral tradition standing in the background of the literary texts. Parallel narratives, such as that of Moses getting water from a rock—from J in Exodus 17 and from P in Numbers 20—are attributed not to one source’s knowledge of the other, but to a common oral tradition (one that in this case appears also in poetic form in Deut 33:8). This extends at times even to traditional phrasing, such as…“land of milk and honey,” which appears in the wilderness portions of all four sources. This phrase is understood to have been a long-standing element of the wilderness tradition underlying all the sources equally. The recollections of the plagues in Egypt in Pss 78 and 105 similarly suggest the existence of traditions held in common with pentateuchal sources, without necessarily requiring direct literary relationships between texts.

And yet…[2]

Though the transmission-historical approach owes an enormous debt to Noth’s work, it has largely jettisoned any significant role for oral tradition in the development of the pentateuchal text. Where parallels exist, whether episodic or stylistic, they are assumed to be the product of strictly literary development: one author or redactor writing in awareness and response to another (Ska 2009). Part of the rationale for this view is that oral traditions are fundamentally unrecoverable; it is thus impossible to base a theory on evidence that cannot be confirmed or even accessed. Where parallels exist, it is more reasonable, according to the transmission-historical model, to assume that they are the result of conscious literary reuse. For example, while Noth identified separate Jacob–Esau and Jacob–Bethel traditions, he set them on the preliterary level, and understood them to have been combined before they were taken up and rendered in written form by the authors of the pentateuchal sources. Blum (1984), however, identified the same traditions within the precise wording of the biblical text itself, positing literary development and combination.

We really can’t even begin to tease out with any robust certainty what the original oral segments and trditions were, anyway.

Form criticism is the term dedicated to trying to identify, analyse and explain forms such as oral tradition. We should, however, be wary of claiming that a written output presupposed an oral tradition that always formed its foundation. This is not held as a view:[3]

The notion that genres are pure and the notion that written literature was preceded by an oral phase of tradition have both been roundly debunked, and the evolutionary trajectory imposes an order on history that it will never fit.

The Pentateuch, or Torah, comprises a wide range of different genres. A core literary type that features heavily is law and so one of its main objectives is to instruct.  Genesis is the only book in the Torah that is not built around a body of law. These law collections involve universal and absolute commands, prohibitions, and codes, as well as ritual instruction (that can also function as royal propaganda and organised collections of knowledge).[4] Is this accurate history? Recorded accounts of what was said? Blended in with these legal sections are narratives, though the distinction can be fuzzy, especially since any narratives concern ways in which characters receive legal instruction or break the laws themselves.

One of the main genres, though, is myth.

Myth. Such an evocative word and that conservative, literalist scholars simply do not like. Angela Roskop Erisman, Hebrew Bible scholar, elucidates:[5]

Myth tends to be defined in terms of its main subject matter—deities and their exploits—or its function to explain and legitimize ideas about the human condition or social institutions. Biblical scholars long tended to downplay the role of myth in the Pentateuch because it was viewed as a primitive mode of thought characteristic only of polytheistic peoples (e.g., Childs 1960), but we now understand mythmaking to be a “learned and literary act” (Fishbane 2003, 20) and can see that narratives like creation (Genesis 1), the flood story (Genesis 6–9), and the sea crossing (Exodus 14) engage myth and other genres—including law—in profoundly creative and productive ways and constitute some of the most sophisticated and beautiful literature in the Hebrew Bible (Erisman 2014a, 2014b).

Don’t forget that the Bible contains what would otherwise be understood in other contexts as magic, and not least in the Exodus account, as we have earlier seen. There are a number of biblical stories that, if you read them in a different context, you would have absolutely no compunction in calling them myth. And nor would the conservative literalist. Such an approach has not a little hint of double standards, with a side-serving of special pleading.

Form critics like Noth noticed that the repetition of stories across the Torah spoke of multiple sources, and originally multiple oral traditions. So, again, we are not so interested in the accuracy of getting X from A to B in time, but the accuracy of X in the first place. And already we might have 3 varying accounts of the same thing.

What Is My Main Point, Though?

Okay, I’m getting sidetracked on a very interesting detour. Studies in oral transmission are fraught with problem, but there is an awful lot of reason to be dubious of oral transmission being the basis of much of the Torah anyway (I am focusing on the Hebrew Bible right now). But it is also impossible, even if you do think a story or set of verses had oral tradition underwriting them, to begin to measure their accuracy from A to B. You just can’t.

But this still has very little to do with my actual point.

My point is about the source content right at the beginning of the journey.


We have Moses going all over the place. Noah over there. We have Abraham here, there and everywhere. He is almost certainly not literate, given the time and place and context.

Who is writing these conversations down? These are often conversations, not great speeches. Think of every instance of speech in the Bible. For these to be accurate representations of what was said and not just made up by storytellers, authors and redactors, one of two things has to happen:

1) The speech has to be recorded at the time, right away. All of it. In literary form. (Who by? How?) This then gets committed either to oral memory (because there are famously literally no original autographs of any of the Hebrew Bible – none whatsoever) and passed down over hundreds or perhaps thousands of years, representing exactly what was originally said. Each and every conversation.

2) The speech has to be committed to memory then and there. And straight after this, it needs to be committed to oral tradition to retain its original accuracy. But this must be ongoing throughout the lives of all the people involved.

Or some kind of variation of these. Do you not see how absolutely ridiculous these scenarios are?

We are not talking about accurately orally transmitting some epic poem from point F to point G in time. Yes, people may be amazing at that. And the speech in those stories may be transmitted with 100% accuracy from F to G. But this is not what I am saying.

I am talking about the genre we are starting with, and whether the content in that particular genre is history – objective and accurate – and then whether the speech contained in that content is accurate, historical reflection of what was actually said.

Again, I am struggling to think what I said yesterday.

Look, as far as I am concerned, the Torah probably has elements of cultural memory that have distant kernel of historical truth. Could there have been a few Canaanites (since Israelites are arguably a subset of Canaanites – see Canaanites by Jonathan N. Tibb – my current read) coming out of slavery in Egypt? We have some evidence of this (on a small scale – letters detailing one or two Canaanites escaping from Egypt past border fortresses). Could this be the kernel of the Exodus story, built into an epic during the exile of the Judahites into the Babylonian Empire? Very plausibly. Did the Exodus in the Torah happen? Absolutely not.

Is the speech in the Bible historically accurate?

Absolutely not and, as I am attempting to argue, nor could it plausibly be in any case.

I could go on and have put in a lot more detail but I am in a major rush today – apologies.


[1] Their chapter “Introduction: Convergences and Divergences in Contemporary Pentateuchal Research” in Baden & Stackert (2021), quote from 8:36 (Epub).

[2] Ibid., 8:38 (Epub).

[3] Erisman in Baden & Stacjert (2021), 29.23 (Epub).

[4] See Angela Roskop Erisman’s chapter “The Genres of the Pentateuch and Their Social Settings” in Gertz et al (2016).

[5] Erisman in Baden & Stacjert (2021), 29.7 (Epub).

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