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I recently wrote a piece on oral transmission and memory excerpting Bart Ehrman’s excellent book, Jesus Before the Gospels. Cynthia added this in the comments section:

Interesting that Ehrman mentions the Baal Shem Tov stories. I’ve heard a ton of them.

There are a few points that those who point to cultures with oral traditions leave out:

1. Oral traditions tend to preserve stories in certain stylized ways. For example, we see common patterns and themes, or certain numbers that are frequently used. These can serve as memory aids. Think about how often numbers like 3, 10 or 40 appear in the Bible. By contrast, ancient written records were often related to things like accounting, when exact numbers would have been more important.

2. We tend to remember remarkable parts of a story, or those parts that meet our desire to believe that something amazing and possibly miraculous happened. We also tell stories in a way that reinforces our existing expectations, biases and myths.

A descendant of a Hasidic leader who was taught by a disciple of the Baal Shem Tov was the 7th Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Scheerson. He was a real person, and we have a ton of details about his life and stories from real people who met him. We also have a ton of stories that have been told by his followers, who believe that he was far more than merely a wise man or great leader, and who are fully prepared to believe that he could bring about miracles and might even be the Messiah (and some even believe that he never actually died, New York state death certificate and burial place in Queens, NY notwithstanding). Several months ago, I heard one of these stories about a miraculous healing from cancer. It was an impressive tale – a dire diagnosis, an emergency visit to the Rebbe, some fervent prayers and following some religious instructions, and then a swift determination that the cancer was gone. Following the story, someone who heard it realized that they knew the boy (now a man) who had been healed, and he joined the Zoom call two weeks later for a follow up. This man also believed that he had been miraculously cured, but when he told the story, there were a few more details. My husband and I were on the Zoom meeting (I had told him the medical miracle story, to get a doctor’s perspective), and he noted that the initial dire diagnosis of cancer wasn’t actually confirmed by a biopsy, but was really just a possibility mentioned by a specialist during an initial appointment. The biopsy didn’t happen until after the meeting with the Rebbe. So, there was no miraculous cure – just the fortunate fact that he never had cancer despite the fact that a doctor thought he might have it. Now, nobody was lying or fabricating anything. The rabbi who first told the story was saying what he remembered hearing at school about a classmate. The boy existed, and a lot of the details in the story were true and confirmed by the man himself after several decades where they hadn’t spoken to each other. It’s just that a key detail, which they themselves didn’t see as significant but that a doctor recognized as an important part of the explanation, was left out of the original story.

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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...