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Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest…

Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed,… (2016)

by Bart D. Ehrman

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Ehrman concludes this book with a chapter called "A Paean to Memory". I believe, in a way, this entire book is a paean to memory. There are many gems about memory in this book outside of his main thesis.

Overall, this is a very good historical Jesus book. I have read Ehrman before, and he can be hit or miss. I think this is one of his better works. Ehrman uses studies of memory to analyze how early Christians remembered Jesus and what those memories tell us about the community that remembered Him. For some historians, the Gospels were all written late, in fact, written 40 - 70 yrs after Jesus' death. So, orally shared memories would stand to play a very important role in shaping the Gospels and Christianity itself.

Recommended for both believers and non-believers. ( )
  Mitchell_Bergeson_Jr | Aug 6, 2017 |
Ehrman is, as always, quite readable as he approaches the Gospels through the mirror of memory. How are oral memories transmitted, and is the oral tradition more accurate than our memories today? He delves into the scientific literature on memory, and discovers that there is no reason to assume that the memories of the less literate societies of the Roman Empire would be better at transmitting intact stories over two or three generations removed from the incident. He differentiates between gist memory and more detailed memory, suggesting that at least the gist of the story would be correct. The main problem I have is that he makes statements that are unfounded, such as "Jesus certainly did..." or "Jesus certainly was...", which are just as based on memory that could have been transmitted incorrectly. He assumes the date of Jesus's death as a given, when that is based on the exact same type of memory that he is discussing as unreliable, and doesn't even seem to recognize that the primary sources do not establish even one of his claims. For that reason, we cannot say Jesus even lived (we can't say with certainty that he didn't, either, for the same reason). Apart from those rather grating inconsistencies (and his willingness to dismiss the existence of Barrabas because there is no primary source that attests to him), the book is a fascinating read. ( )
  Devil_llama | Feb 23, 2017 |
Bart D. Ehrman, the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is an excellent writer who has popularized some of the historical research about early Christianity. His books, while tending to make similar points as more academic treatises, are a joy to read.

His latest book, Jesus before the Gospels,, is an investigation of yet another way of questioning the historical accuracy of the gospels.

Ehrman points out that the earliest of the canonical gospels, the one known as Mark, was written at least 40 years after the crucifixion. Other scholars date Mark as having been written between 60 and 70 C.E. Moreover, it, like the other three canonical gospels, was written in Greek. But Jesus and all the other major characters in the gospels spoke Aramaic. So it is very likely that the authors of the gospels [all of whom are actually anonymous] were writing based on hearsay from people who were not eyewitnesses to the events described. Nevertheless they purported to be “according to” eyewitnesses, a naming convention intended to add to the trustworthiness of the accounts.

[It must be added, in spite of the fact that Ehrman does not address this issue in this book, that the gospels were never intended to be “empirical” histories - in fact, the idea of a “neutral” history only developed in relatively recent times; most previous “histories” were homiletical - i.e., serving the functions of sermons or catechetical instruction. According to scholar Robert Bonfil, there was no substantial difference in how Jews and Christians construed the purpose of “history” until the sixteenth century. (Robert Bonfil, “Jewish Attitudes toward History and Historical Writing in Pre-Modern Times,” Jewish History, Vol. 11, No. 1, Spring, 1997, pp. 7-40.)]

In Jesus before the Gospels, Ehrman tackles the question of the veracity of the gospels from the point of view of psychology. In the past 30 years a great of research has been done on the [in]accuracy of individual memory, but until this book, virtually none of its findings have been applied to writings in the Bible. [The subject of collective memory is another matter. This is the practice of constructing histories so that they contribute to the present and future social and political consciousness and cultural identity of a people. The determination of what is declared significant is made to sustain a set of myths and ideologies. In that respect, much analysis has been applied to biblical stories in both the Old and New Testaments.]

Ehrman’s concern is with so-called biological memory - a study of the way in which the individual mind sorts, stores, and retrieves information. Though not a psychologist, Ehrman has read extensively in the field. He distinguishes between episodic memory, relating to things we actually experience, and semantic memory, relating to things we learn through hearing, reading, or some other indirect method. The authors of the New Testament were recording the semantic memories of people who were retelling oral histories of Jesus in circulation at the time. Although all memory gets distorted with the passage of time and because of the different perceptual lenses of observers, even semantic memory can seem credible where the events related are inherently plausible, they can be confirmed by other sources, and perhaps most importantly in this case, when there simply are no other sources of information.

Ehrman states that modern psychology debunks the notion that ancient illiterate people had better memories than modern man, and so were able to keep the stories of Jesus accurate in many retellings over at least 40 years. But as Ehrman observes, that may be a moot issue:

"…the historical Jesus did not make history. The remembered Jesus did . . . . Does it matter if Jesus considered himself to be God on earth? As a historian, it matters to me a great deal. But if he did not — and I think he did not — the fact that he was remembered that way by later followers is terrifically important. Without that memory of Jesus, the faith founded on him would never have taken off, the Roman Empire would not have abandoned paganism, and the history of our world would have transpire in ways that are unimaginably different. History was changed, not because of brute facts, but because of memory."

When two or more of the gospels tell pretty much the same story, Ehrman credits at least the gist of the story with plausibility (in spite of the fact that the authors of Mark, Matthew and Luke used each other for sources and so of course there would be overlap). Matthew borrows from as much as 80% of his gospel from Mark, and Luke borrows from as much as 65%. While that may seem to modern readers too much like a game of telephone (in which one person whispers a message to another, which is passed through a line of people until the last player announces the message to the entire group), for centuries this overlap was enough to add credence to the stories.

Thus Ehrman contends that if we look at the parts of the stories that are basically the same (ignoring that they used one another as sources), we could possibly agree that a Jewish man named Jesus lived in Galilee in the first century C.E., that he was baptized, that he attracted a band of enthusiastic followers, that he proclaimed an apocalyptic message of the coming Kingdom of God, and that he was crucified by the Roman overlords of Judea. He also asserts that we can be certain that his followers taught that he rose from the dead and appeared to them. Beyond that, things get pretty dicey.

Although the Gospels overlap quite a bit, they are also filled with discrepancies. These discrepancies encompass some very important aspects of Jesus’ life and teaching. Ehrman argues that it is not even clear what Jesus actually taught. For example, In the gospel of Mark, Jesus is careful not to make any claims of divinity, and his apostles never quite “get” who he is despite his astounding words and deeds. Ehrman writes:

"Jesus himself seems to want to keep [his true identity] a secret. Not only does he command demons not to reveal who he is (3:11; see also 1:34), when he heals someone he orders him not tell anyone (1:44); when he performs miracles he sometimes does not let the crowds observe (5:40); when his disciples see his revealed glory he orders them not to divulge it (9:9); [and] when any one starts to have a sense of his identity he commands their silence (8:30)."

Contrast the Jesus of the gospel of John, the last of the gospels to be composed (written around 90 A.D.):

"Jesus spends almost his entire preaching ministry in John talking about who he is, where he has come from, and what he can provide. There is nothing like this in the Synoptic Gospels. The very gist of Jesus’s teaching has come to be transformed."

The gospels are also totally inconsistent on a number of doctrines supposedly promulgated by Jesus, such as what Jesus taught about divorce. Ehrman points out five different versions of what Jesus said about breaking up a marriage, with striking differences among them.

Ehrman also notes that some of the gospel stories are simply inherently implausible, and that is not limited to the “miracle” anecdotes. [For a detailed elucidation of what portions are implausible, an excellent source is the also-very-readable book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan]

Finally, additional problems arise from the vagaries of translation. As one particularly interesting example, the Gospel of John has Jesus say we must be “born again” to enter the kingdom of heaven. What the text says in the original Greek is that a person must be born anothen. The Greek word has two different meanings, depending on context: it can mean “a second time” or it can mean “from above.” The reason this is important is that Jesus is speaking to Nicodemus, who thinks Jesus told him he must be born a second time, which seems a bit tough to accomplish. But Jesus tells him that he does not mean a second, physical birth — he is talking about a birth from heaven made possible by the spirit of God, who comes from above. Modern readers don’t “get” the story because they don’t read it in the original Greek. Moreover, it would have been impossible for Jesus to have said this in Aramaic, where the word for “from above” does not mean “a second time.” The story just makes no sense in Aramaic, and not much sense in English. Ehrman concludes that a Greek speaker, probably the author of John, just made up the story to make a point.

Evaluation: Ehrman as always makes a number of interesting and thought-provoking points about a subject that continues to fascinate both believers and doubters. However, religions clearly benefit from the fact that many believers do not undertake critical analyses of religious texts.

(JAB) ( )
  nbmars | Dec 5, 2016 |
A brilliant book, carefully argued. I found this very enlightening. I also heard Bart Erhman recently debate an evangelical historian on this book’s ideas and Ehrman, in my view, definitely came out ahead. Erhman writes with clarity and is very engaging to read. He makes sophisticated concepts easy to understand. Ironically, Erhman is more respectful of the text as a critical historian than some fundamentalist Christians are when they try to make the biblical books perfect communications from God. If you are looking for a provocative, fresh approach to understanding the way in which the stories about Jesus developed over the decades following his death, check out JESUS BEFORE THE GOSPELS. Highly recommended. ( )
  spbooks | Apr 21, 2016 |
As someone once said, history is the means by which we betray the past. I have long been fascinated with how interpretations and analysis of history are influenced by contextual cultural and political factors. Certainly to the extent that reshaping historical accounts when new facts are discovered, revisionism is proper and good. The advance of time does not inevitably warp historical perspective; history written too soon after the event may be biased to an even greater degree than that which comes decades or more after. There are myriad examples of historical interpretation cast in light of political/social agenda extant in the age. Two prominent examples are the racist views on Reconstruction that were in vogue as recently as my high school history classes, or the new emphasis on the genocidal impact of Columbus and the other early explorers on the native populations of the Americas.

So, if one is committed to an honest use of history, one must be aware that many motivations and factors could bear on how history has been written; on how and why the interpretations presented to us might be distorted. Nowhere does this obligation seem greater than in considering Jesus, certainly one of the greatest figures in all human history and whose lasting influence on western culture is profound. Approaching the historical Jesus with a critical eye is not without controversy. Many millions believe that his story as conveyed in the gospels of the New Testament is literally and objectively true and to challenge it seems to subvert a deeply held belief system that is of vital importance to individuals and monumentally significant to entire cultures. In a sense holding to a view of atheism would be less threatening to believers than questioning the factual basis upon which the entire Christian religion is grounded. In fact can one really be a Christian if one questions or rejects the history of Jesus that has been passed down over time? (In other words, if one accepts that Jesus was an actual historical figure and that his moral and ethical teachings are worthy of following, but does not accept his divinity, the miracles, the resurrection, etc. does this disqualify one from being a Christian?)

Professor Ehrman takes on the issue of the historical accuracy of the life and work of Jesus. He does so using a number of logical and critical approaches. He reminds us that the written gospels were taken from oral traditions of the events in Jesus' life; that the four canonical gospels (there are many more that were not included in the canon) were accounts told and retold many times for decades before being written. Even granting that some of these stories may have originated from eyewitnesses he cites scholarly studies that establish without question that eyewitness accounts are often wrong. Ehrman reports on psychological research that irrefutably demonstrates that the most sincere and honest efforts of people to remember even the most important events in their lives often result in distorted or even false memories. This is not because people are dishonest, it's because memory is a complicated, inchoate, very often imprecise process. Using the work of scholars in the fields of anthropology and sociology he debunks the notion that the memories of pre-literate, oral cultures were highly accurate; that their cherished oral traditions were passed down nearly verbatim. Studies show that this isn't so. Ehrman goes on to remind us that the four gospels present many contradictions of facts, most of which are so discrepant that they are not resolvable. The strikingly different accounts in the gospels of the roles of Pilate v the Jewish leaders in condemning Jesus is one of several examples here. The meaning of a coming "Kingdom of God", when it was to come and what it was to be, is another illustration of inconsistency among the gospels. Moreover, shouldn’t the rejection by the church authorities of some of the outlandish tales in non-canonical gospels, e.g. the gospel of Peter, suggest that skepticism of the some or all of the accepted gospels might be warranted?

Perhaps most compelling is his argument that when examining the contemporaneous context in which the gospels were written there are clear indications that the political and social imperatives of those times greatly influenced the stories told about Jesus. The early Christians were struggling over their new faith's relationship with Judaism, experiencing no small degree of conflict and persecution with the Jewish communities in which they were living. There was focus on whether or how the Old Testament and the Judaic law fit within their belief in Jesus as the Messiah. Thus, Matthew seeks to show how Jesus is the fulfillment of prophecy of scripture, while Luke opens the door to Gentiles to acceptance of Jesus. John takes a radically different path from the synoptic gospels by claiming a divinity of Jesus not seen in the others nor even in Jesus' own words.

So, what is the upshot of critique of the historical accuracy of the life and events of Jesus? If we don't take these accounts to be literally true (as many do) are they without value? If the parables and even stories of miracles are metaphors for how to bring spirituality into our lives aren't they just as useful? Does holding a skeptical view on the truth of the gospels make us non-believers? For one, I think it is entirely acceptable to be historically cautious about the truth of these stories and still incorporate much of the value of Christianity into our lives. ( )
  stevesmits | Mar 14, 2016 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0062285203, Hardcover)

The bestselling author of Misquoting Jesus, one of the most renowned and controversial Bible scholars in the world today examines oral tradition and its role in shaping the stories about Jesus we encounter in the New Testament—and ultimately in our understanding of Christianity.

Throughout much of human history, our most important stories were passed down orally—including the stories about Jesus before they became written down in the Gospels. In this fascinating and deeply researched work, leading Bible scholar Bart D. Erhman investigates the role oral history has played in the New Testament—how the telling of these stories not only spread Jesus’ message but helped shape it.

A master explainer of Christian history, texts, and traditions, Ehrman draws on a range of disciplines, including psychology and anthropology, to examine the role of memory in the creation of the Gospels. Explaining how oral tradition evolves based on the latest scientific research, he demonstrates how the act of telling and retelling impacts the story, the storyteller, and the listener—crucial insights that challenge our typical historical understanding of the silent period between when Jesus lived and died and when his stories began to be written down.

As he did in his previous books on religious scholarship, debates on New Testament authorship, and the existence of Jesus of Nazareth, Ehrman combines his deep knowledge and meticulous scholarship in a compelling and eye-opening narrative that will change the way we read and think about these sacred texts.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 29 Feb 2016 17:49:05 -0500)

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