26. Was oral tradition better than we give it credit for?

We constantly argue over the interpretations of written tradition, whether it’s laws or religious texts. Was oral tradition better at this?

Oral tradition is the process of communicating cultural knowledge from one generation to the next, via speech. This was probably mostly a master teaching a student, telling the stories over and over until the student could themself tell the stories. It was probably in small groups, people sitting around a fire, an elder telling the stories of the tribe to the young generation. This is how things worked before the technology of writing was developed. It was the only way you could pass on the accumulated learnings of how to make the society keep functioning. All the lessons and traditions and stories about things going well and things going poorly.

My imagination up til now has been that oral tradition is primitive and prone to error. Thanks to the invention of hieroglyphics, cuneiform, the written alphabet and eventually the printing press, society shifted from an oral tradition to a written one. This is good! We can look back at how people used to write about things, and we can see the exact words that were written down at the time, without any loss. You know, offshoots of the whole idea that our new society is good and great and that old stuff was dumb and bad.

Written communication is good because it can act as a freeze frame of the words people used to represent their ideas at a given point in time. Compare oral tradition, which has no freeze frame: it’s a lossy game of telephone. We’ve all played telephone, we know that a message hopping between friends in a room will get totally corrupted within 3 hops.

But, written tradition doesn’t include any component of interpretation, or making sure the reader/student is getting it. What if oral tradition isn’t (wasn’t) just a game of telephone. If it’s as I described above, oral tradition should involve making sure the student is getting it. Maybe this would convey meaning more effectively than trying to read between the lines of text written by people who’re long dead, who spoke different language. Even if it wasn’t a different language altogether at the very least the dead folks we’re using the language in a different way.


The Torah and other written Hebrew tradition was probably pieced together over the course of few centuries around 100BC, and the New Testament was similarly cobbled together over the course of several centuries after christ’s death. Before this, the tradition was oral! Judaeo-Christian tradition dates back to god-knows-when, and shares parts of its roots in proto-indo-european religion. I’m spitballing, but I place Proto-Judaism in the “ten thousand years old or more” category, at least in terms of the fuzzy combined origins of what over thousands of years became different religious traditions. Hinduism goes there too, and Sumerian mythology, and the rest of it. The old stuff. I can somewhat easily imagine that these traditions split apart as groups of people migrated away from each-other in pursuit of food or living space, and the traditions slowly morphed and evolved over time. The languages they were speaking literally changed and diverged, and with it the things being communicated. This has elements of telephone in it, but has a substantially slower, plodding feel to it. This stuff changed over thousands of years.

Even though Christianity has had a written Bible for ages, but this was used as a backbone around which wrapped the Catholic Church. The catholic church for 1500 years was the hybrid oral-and-written tradition of communicating the teachings of Christianity. Teachings, and structures of control, too. I’m not really trying to weigh in on whether the church was good or bad per-se, in this line of thinking. What it did do was keep a degree of consistency in the tradition of Catholicism.

After the bible was written down and left to be interpreted by each person on their own, we immediately got an infinite fractal fragmentation of interpretations of the bible. Each pastor is unto themself a new sect of protestantism. Whether you think structure is inherently bad or not, there isn’t any, anymore, in protestant christianity. We’re not talking about stuff changing over thousands of years, we’re talking about whole new religions (sects?) appearing over the course of a few decades

We can get into the valence of this phenomenon, or what the other knock-on effects have been. But we’ll avoid that for right now. I bring up all this Christianity Protestantism stuff just as a real example of the kind of fragmentation that written tradition leads to, specifically because as a medium it doesn’t necessitate a thread of getting it being passed through the decades. You can look at the text, and to some degree see what you want in it.

We’re missing something when we rely too heavily on the words as they’re written.

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