Eye Witness Testimony vs Hearsay

Apologists dismiss the charge of “hearsay” by pointing to the strength of the “oral tradition”. We dismiss the argument that “oral tradition” maintained the integrity of the original story.It should not be thought that because the ancient Roman world was an oral culture, great care was taken to preserve stories accurately.Cultural anthropologists have shown that this concern for exactitude is a feature of written cultures; it would be a mistake to impose it onto oral cultures. Storytellers in oral cultures recognize that stories need to be modified to fit the occasion for which they are told. The simple childhood game of “Telephone” is sufficient to illustrate the point that stories told mouth to mouth for 35 years or more can’t possibly retain their original content.What happens to stories that circulate orally for years? Obviously, they come to be changed in the retelling.

No Eye-Witness Testimony

At no point do we have in the gospels the account of an eyewitness or even the friend of an eyewitness.

Because the Gospels are not eyewitness accounts to the things Jesus said and did (they never claim to be that!), they appear to be based on oral traditions that had been in circulation about Jesus for the decades between his life and the time the Gospels were written.

  1. The one thing we know about Christianity during the 30−65 years between Jesus’ death and these first written accounts of his life is that it rapidly spread throughout the Mediterranean.
  2.  As believers in Christ converted others to the faith, they told them stories about what Jesus had said and done.
    (And who wouldn’t be anxious to believe a story in which the rich (1%) go to hell and the poor believer (99%) goes to heaven without even having to sacrifice a goat.)
  3.  These stories were, therefore, in circulation year after year, told in different languages and in different countries from that of Jesus.
  4.  What happens to stories that circulate orally for years? Obviously, they come to be changed in the retelling.
  • It should not be thought that because the ancient Roman world was an oral culture, great care was taken to preserve stories accurately.
  • Cultural anthropologists have shown that this concern for exactitude is a feature of written cultures; it would be a mistake to impose it onto oral cultures.
  • Storytellers in oral cultures recognize that stories need to be modified to fit the occasion for which they are told.

In any event,  recent research has found that eyewitness testimony is not reliable. Read an excerpt from an article entitled “34 Years Later, Supreme Court Will Revisit Eyewitness IDs” By Adam Liptak Published: August 22, 2011, NY Times.

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