Telling stories is an important part of how the Bible was written. But how reliable were those stories before they were written down? Recent research on the accuracy of Indigenous Australian story-telling shows how reliable it can be!
I’ve blogged before about the importance of the stories that we tell each other and how they shape our lives. Now, research into Indigenous Australian stories of sea level rise by the geographer Patrick Nunn and the linguist Nicholas Reid has looked at 21 stories across Australia to examine their accuracy. Writing in Australian Geographer (free access journal article) and reported in the Guardian, Nunn and Reid argue that these stories accurately reflect events that happened between 18,000 and 7,000 years ago.
These stories all reported sea level rises at particular, identifiable, places around the Australian coast. These were significant events, requiring whole groups to migrate, and productive ancestral land to be lost. A variety of explanations for the sea level rises were given and the rising water spoken about in different ways, but there was enough detailed information to allow Nunn and Reid to carefully plot the location and extent of the sea level rises spoken about in the stories. They then compared this with the data of actual sea level rises, and were able to show that the stories retained the memory of real sea level rises between 18,000 and 7,000 years ago.
Nunn and Reid report that one significant different between the story-telling tradition of indigenous Australians and other cultures is the rigorous cross-checking measures that they have developed, where three generations are simultaneously tasked with telling, hearing and checking that the stories remain consistent. This, they argue, is one significant factor in why the stories have retained their integrity across such long time-scales.
However, even without the seemingly unique and uniquely long-lived traditions, ways of keeping and checking the consistency of the events that people told are probably present in a variety of cultures. Indeed, Nunn and Reid note that most scholars argue that stories can retain their integrity for 400 years or so.
All of this is significant for examining how the Bible developed, particularly as there was obviously a period of oral transmission before they were written down. The gospels report events probably 40 years or so after they occurred. Luke, in particular, says a bit about how he went about writing his account. At the start of his gospel he writes (Luke 1:1-4; NIV):
Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eye witnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.
It’s notable that ‘Luke’ (he doesn’t actually give his own name, in contrast to what was expected) is careful to state “just as they were handed down to us … [from] eye witnesses”. To further emphasise his scholarly credentials, this is written in “perfectly constructed Greek … which is generally judged to be the best stylized sentence in the whole NT” (Nolland, Luke Word Commentary 1989:4). Its style also mirrors other Greco-Roman historical works, while many of the words used aren’t found elsewhere in the New Testament, but are found in those historical books.
Later on, Luke’s phrase about “But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19) could very well be him citing one of his sources. The gospel of John probably does something similar with repeated references (eg John 13:23) to “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (Beasley-Murray, John Word Commentary rev. ed. 1999:lxx)
Or, in the Old Testament, the words of the prophets such as Amos were written down arguably shortly after they were spoken. The refer back to events perhaps 400 years further back, particularly that of the Exodus, but also to similar events that were taking place at the same time. Archaeologically, we know that this (the end of the Late Bronze Age) was a period of social unrest, with many groups moving around, empires collapsing and new societies being formed. See Eric Cline’s new book 1177: The year civilization collapsed.
None of this proves that the biblical stories have to be true, but it does show that scepticism that this is inherently impossible isn’t warranted either. It’s an encouragement to think more clearly about how and when stories can be passed down, told and retold, for generations. Particularly, as with the Indigenous Australians, Israelites, and the first Christians, when those stories are such a significant part of the group’s identity.