A few years ago I ran across an amazing story (“Ancient Sea Rise Tale Told Accurately For 10,000 Years“) from Scientific American, detailing how aboriginal Australians have preserved, via oral tradition, accurate information about geographical features that have been underwater since the end of the last Ice Age, circa 10,000 years ago. The article is fascinating for its own sake, but it also shows some of the limitations of the modern skeptical, ostensibly scientific (but more accurately “scientistic”) worldview. Not only that, it has some relevance to our Faith, and particularly to the question of the veracity of Scripture. In the post below I discuss how the amazing memories of Australia’s oldest inhabitants inform our defense of the authenticity of the Gospels.
Let’s start with the scriptural question. A common line of attack by well-trained atheist enthusiasts is that the books of the New Testament weren’t even written down until 30-60 years after the death of Jesus: how can we expect them to be reliable? There are a number of good answers to this. I used to point out to my skeptical students, for instance, that I had been married for about 30 years, and I still remembered the events of my wedding day quite well, and also events of my childhood and adolescence even further back. My parents still remembered things that had happened 70 years prior, or more. While the average life span was far lower two thousand years ago than it is today (as best we can determine), there were still plenty of people who lived into their 70’s and 80’s – so the events recounted in the Gospels were still within living memory when they were written down.
It’s also a fact that people in ancient societies had much better powers of memory (as people in less literate societies do today), because they needed to rely on memory much more than we do. It should be no surprise, then, that in the 19th century Heinrich Schliemann disproved the rationalist scholars who insisted that the Iliad and Odyssey could not possibly have any real historical background when he excavated the sites of Troy and Mycenae, right where Homer’s epics said they would be (both poems existed for centuries before they were written down).
Likewise, in the early 20th century Milman Parry refuted the scholarly assertion that it was impossible for ancient rhapsodes to memorize with accuracy long epic poems such as Homer’s works when he located and recorded Croatian bards who accomplished similar feats of memory. And now we see Aborigines who have transmitted information accurately over not merely decades, but millennia:
Without using written languages, Australian tribes passed memories of life before, and during, post-glacial shoreline inundations through hundreds of generations as high-fidelity oral history. Some tribes can still point to islands that no longer exist—and provide their original names.
That’s the conclusion of linguists and a geographer, who have together identified 18 Aboriginal stories—many of which were transcribed by early settlers before the tribes that told them succumbed to murderous and disease-spreading immigrants from afar—that they say accurately described geographical features that predated the last post-ice age rising of the seas.
There’s more to these examples, however, than simple powers of memorization. I found this passage from the Scientific American article about the Aborigines very intriguing:
“There are aspects of storytelling in Australia that involved kin-based responsibilities to tell the stories accurately,” Reid said. That rigor provided “cross-generational scaffolding” that “can keep a story true.”
How much more important to “tell the stories accurately” if they are about God-become-Man, and to forget means eternal oblivion?
“The Four Evangelists”, Frans Floris I, mid-1500s
In other words, older people who know the story will correct the story-teller who messes it up, and it’s a “kin-based responsibility” because these stories are a crucial part of the group identity: they tell people who they are. To forget is to become nobody. How much more important to “tell the stories accurately” if they are about God-become-Man, and to forget means eternal oblivion? And when the elders checking the story-tellers’ accuracy were eye witnesses . . . or when the story-tellers themselves were witnesses or participants in what they are describing?
Believing Catholics, of course, trust in the guidance of the Holy Spirit in preserving the truth, but that won’t help to convince those who don’t share our Faith. Natural reason, however, and the available evidence, show that the earliest Christians were not only quite capable of preserving the story of Jesus accurately, but also were extremely unlikely to do otherwise. That, at least, is the rational conclusion: what evidence can the doubters offer to the contrary?
Feature image above: photo by Lefteris Pitarakis, from website https://www.ancient-code.com/