Wayne Pitard: Garbled Facts in Oral Tradition and the Book of Genesis

Wayne T. Pitard, “Before Israel: Syria-Palestine in the Bronze Age,” in The Oxford History of the Biblical World, Michael D. Coogan, editor (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 27.

There are many reasons to be skeptical of [the Patriarchal] narratives as historically accurate accounts of the lives of Israel’s progenitors. Indications within the narratives suggest that they had a substantial prehistory as oral literature. Modern studies of oral transmission demonstrate that stories preserved in this manner do not primarily serve a historical or antiquarian purpose; rather, they are meant to present cultural values that must be passed on to younger generations. In modern parlance, their function is sociological rather than historical. Usually, historical facts quickly become garbled in an oral tradition, which adapts such information to make whatever point the story is intended to convey. Events and characters are often manufactured for the narrative purposes, and variant versions of a single story develop alongside one another.

Several of these characteristics appear in the book of Genesis.

4 thoughts on “Wayne Pitard: Garbled Facts in Oral Tradition and the Book of Genesis

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  1. Is this unique to oral history? This sounds like describes historiography for quite some time. I’m not an expert on the subject, but it would be interesting to see when there was a widespread transition from “history done to make a point” to “history done to accurately record past events.”

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    1. I think it could also be applied to ancient historiography as well. There is some evidence from certain Hellenistic historians that an interest in getting history right developed closer to the dawn of the common era. You see this in certain techniques, especially the way certain historians would distance themselves from their sources, particularly on more fanciful subjects. Loveday Alexander talks about some of that in one of her articles on the genre of the book of Acts. I’ll have to track it down.

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      1. I would love to see that. Because even when I think of early Roman historians like Tacitus and Suetonius, there does still seem to be a lot of “make a point”edness to it, even though you can obviously tell there are different characteristics between their works and, say, the book of Genesis.

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