The Human Truth Foundation

Human Story Telling
The Poor Accuracy of Oral Transmission

By Vexen Crabtree 2016

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#beliefs #buddhism #causes_of_religion #myths #religion #stories #subjectivism #thinking_errors

We humans have a set of instinctive behaviours when it comes to telling stories; we naturally embellish, exaggerate, cover up doubts about the story and add dramatic and cliff-edge moments. We do this because we are genetically programmed to try to tell good stories. These subconscious side-effects of our social instincts have a downside: we are poor at accurately transmitting stories even when we want to.1. All the major world religions went through periods of oral transmission of their founding stories, and the longer this state persisted the more variant the stories became2. Hundreds of years of oral tradition in Buddhism led to communities in different regions thinking that the Buddha gained enlightenment in the 5th century BCE, the 8th, the 9th or even in the 11th century BCE and each community thinks it has received the correct information through its oral transmission3. A scientific study of Balkan bards who have memorized "traditional epics rivaling the Iliad in length show that they do not in fact retain and repeat the same material verbatim but rather create a new version each time they perform it" based around a limited number of memorized elements4. A sign of untrustworthiness is that as stories spread they often become marvellous, more sure of themselves, more fantastic and, more detailed rather than less5.

1. Our Instinct for the Telling of Marvellous Stories Leads to Loss of Fidelity

Book CoverIn "How We Know What Isn't So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life" by Thomas Gilovich (1991) chapter six is devoted to the problems with second-hand information and the way that story-telling is the cause of much error. Gilovich gives a brilliant examination of the subject. Much of the exaggeration and mistakes in transmission of stories is subconscious and comes from the way that we tell stories rather than from any intention to lie. Embellishments, exaggerations and the addition of facts (and of surety) are subconscious side-effects of our social instincts to tell good stories. It is very hard to prevent this in oral transmission - it can only be done for short texts and mostly only be remembered for short periods of time with any likelihood of it remaining accurate.

Albert Bates Lord's studies' of Balkan bards who "memorize" traditional epics rivaling the Iliad in length show that they do not in fact retain and repeat the same material verbatim but rather create a new version each time they perform it. They retain basic structures and "half-lines," which merely form the skeleton for improvisation. Again, this is nowhere near as strict as apologists would like gospel accuracy to be.

"Incredible Shrinking Son of Man: How Reliable Is the Gospel Tradition?" by Robert M. Price (2003)4

Lionel A. Weatherley in "The Supernatural?" (1891) explains how our "universal love of the marvellous" compels us to tell colourful and great stories; and if we receive questions and doubts about it, then, we naturally combat skeptics with additional minute details5 - completely invented. Our instincts towards this are strong, even in hardcore skeptics and amongst those who want simply to repeat a story they've heard faithfully.

2. Religion

#beliefs #god #stories #truth

All the major world religions went through periods of oral transmission. Their founding stories, moral stories and tales are told from one person to the next. The longer that the oral tradition continues, the more divergent the stories become.2. Religious scholar Moojan Momen looks at stories that are...:

... transmitted orally, often in forms of poetry, making them easier to memorize and recite. However, an orally transmitted 'text' is not fixed in the same way as a written text. There is no particular author. [...] The text is fluid and able to take on the changes in worldview that any society experiences. The basic core of ideas in the text remains unchanged, but the wording changes. These stories are expressed in ways that alter subtly from one generation to the next, reflecting the issues that are important to each generation. [...]

The greater the distance in time between the events of religious history and their being recorded in written form, the greater the discrepancy between the concerns and viewpoints of those who write down the texts as compared to the original actors of the episode. Thus what we have in the New Testament, for example, is not so much a description of what went on during the lifetime of Jesus and immediately afterwards as a description of these events filtered through the concerns and viewpoints of those who wrote down the accounts between 50 and 150 years later.

"The Phenomenon Of Religion: A Thematic Approach" by Moojan Momen (1999) [Book Review]2

If God is good in nature and its message is true, and the message of god is important for us, then it holds to reason that a good god would want human beings to know that message. God in its omnipotence can immediately impart the correct knowledge directly into our consciousness. I am sure it also has the know-how to do it in a non-harmful way given that it designed our brains down to the functioning of millions of neuronal connections and neurotransmitters, etc. Put another way: It must be true that we all already know the most-important things that God wants us to know. Whatever various religions, prophets, seekers, mystics and holy spokespeople say is not exactly what God wants us to know. There is no reason for a good god, which wants the truth to be known, to convey important messages to individual human beings, in specific human languages, and allow us to spread the message using our own imperfect communication methods. As soon as people start translating it, explaining it to each other and writing it down then the message becomes reliant upon cultural understanding. It will dilute, get misunderstood, and it is sure that different communities will come to interpret the message differently, leading to schism and confusion, and as history has shown, to violence and bloodshed. Therefore, God's important messages are universal, imparted directly into all of our hearts and minds, and are therefore not made subject to human communications errors. If goodness comes from god, then given their historical mistakes, their culture-specific language, moral shortcomings and the social strife that results from their existence, holy books cannot possibly be from God. The whole idea of cultivating the True Religion via the orally-transmitted stories of itinerant and illiterate preachers such as Jesus and Mohammad, in (often obscure) human languages, is nonsensical.

"God's Methods of Communication: Universal Truth Versus Hebrew and Arabic: 2. Scripture, Religion and What God Wants Us to Know" by Vexen Crabtree (2012)

3. Case Study: Buddhism


Buddhist stories were transmitted orally for hundreds of years. "Lineages of teachers, which are often reputed to be unbroken right back to the Buddha, pass instructions on practices to their students"6 but the result was hugely divergent teachings in different areas. In 387BCE the second great Buddhist council was held in Vaisali, attended by 700 Theravada senior monks. Serious splits occurred due to irreconcilable differences in opinions as to what the true Buddhist stories said. But they still didn't write them down! Continued oral transmission meant that there were many different schools of the Buddhists at the of King Asoka ~269BCE)7. The Buddha attained enlightenment in the 5th century BCE, the 8th, the 9th or even the 11th century BCE; you would think such an important detail would be preserved. But oral tradition is inaccurate. Waterhouse (2001) states categorically that it is impossible to construct an original form of Buddhism from modern-day examples because the change that has occurred has been too great6. Writings began earnestly in the first few centuries CE8. Now the Buddhist Canon is full of "discrepancies and contradictions" and even the major Buddhist denominations are unsure if their texts are the original ones or if they are based on Human speculations about the original ideas7.

"Criticisms of Buddhism: Its History, Doctrine and Common Practices: 7. Conclusions" by Vexen Crabtree (2011)

Current edition: 2016 Dec 24
Parent page: The Human Truth Foundation

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References: (What's this?)

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Beckerlegge, Gwilym
(2001, Ed.) From Sacred Text to Internet. Paperback book. Published by Ashgate Publishing Ltd, Aldershot, UK, in association with The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK. This was a course book for the OU module "Religion Today: Traditional, Modernity and Change" which ran until 2011.

Conze, Edward
(1959) Buddhist Scriptures. Paperback book. Published by Penguin Books.

Gilovich, Thomas
(1991) How We Know What Isn't So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life. Paperback book. 1993 edition. Published by The Free Press, NY, USA.

Momen, Moojan
(1999) The Phenomenon Of Religion: A Thematic Approach. Paperback book. Published by Oneworld Publications, Oxford, UK. Book Review.

Nukariya, Kaiten. Professor of Kei-O-Gi-Jiku University and of So-To-Shu Buddhist College, Tokyo.
(1913) Zen - The Religion of the Samurai. E-book. Subtitled: "A study of Zen philosophy and discipline in China and Japan". Amazon Kindle digital edition produced by John B. Hare and proofread by Carrie R. Lorenz.

Price, Robert M.
(2003) Incredible Shrinking Son of Man: How Reliable Is the Gospel Tradition?. Published by Prometheus Books, NY, USA.

Waterhouse, Helen. Department of Religious Studies at the Open University.
(2001) Representing Western Buddhism: a United Kingdom Focus. This essay is chapter 3 of "From Sacred Text to Internet" by Gwilym Beckerlegge (2001).

Weatherley, Lionel A.
(1891) The Supernatural?. Hardback book. Published by J. W. Arrowsmith, Bristol, UK. This is a hard to find book. Bath Library has a copy, accessed 2012 Dec 14.


  1. Gilovich (1991) chapter 6.^
  2. Momen (1999) p332-335.^^
  3. "Criticisms of Buddhism: Its History, Doctrine and Common Practices" by Vexen Crabtree (2011)^
  4. Price (2003) digital location 333.^^
  5. Weatherley (1891) p99.^^
  6. Waterhouse (2001) p127-150.^
  7. Nukariya (1913) p39-40.^
  8. Conze (1959) p12.^

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