Book Review: Jesus Before the Gospels, Bart D. Ehrman (2016) (Part 1)
The first book I read in 2017 was Jesus Before the Gospels (2016), by New Testament scholar Bart D. Ehrman. For those of you who are unfamiliar, Bart Ehrman is often perceived as the ‘bad boy’ of biblical studies. Every few years he brings out a new bestseller, challenging common Christian assumptions about the Bible. Although once a Christian, Ehrman claims he found it difficult to reconcile his faith with the problem of evil and is now an agnostic. It does not strike me, at least in this book, that Ehrman is gratuitously antagonistic to faith. Indeed, he recently found a mutual adversary with Christians in his book Did Jesus Exist? (2013), which sets out to Jesus Mythicists why virtually all historians think Jesus existed. Although it is concerning that he felt he had to write such a book, I think many Christian apologists were grateful that he was the one to do it. Not only is Ehrman a lucid and persuasive communicator, he is a forceful and engaging personality. Whilst Christian readers will find much that is disagreeable within this work, it is a credit to Ehrman’s clarity that you know where you disagree. In the following review, I aim to give a brief introduction to his most recent argument.
In some sense, Ehrman’s latest book Jesus Before the Gospels does for memory what his earlier Misquoting Jesus (MJ; 2007) did for texts. Whereas in Misquoting Jesus, Ehrman claims that the only the bible manuscripts we have are copies of copies of copies of the originals — and therefore, we can’t know what the originals said — here Ehrman claims that the gospels are memories of memories of memories, and therefore we cannot be sure that what they remember really happened. In addressing the gospels as memories, Ehrman is latching on to a recent trend in scholarship, which applies cognitive and theoretical studies of memory to the gospel traditions. However, unlike Bauckham, who argued in his 2006 Jesus and the Eyewitnesses that the gospels are primarily based on the memory of eyewitnesses and invokes studies arguing that eyewitness memory is reliable, Ehrman takes the opposite view. For Ehrman, we cannot know who the author or the sources of the gospels originally were: they don’t themselves say, and the traditions which associate them with the apostles (Matthew & John) and their companions (Mark with Peter & Luke with Paul), are too late and theologically motivated to be of any real value. Direct eyewitness memory is out of the question.
What then were the sources for the gospels? Well, Ehrman repeats the refrain that the gospels are stitched together by different units of texts, which take common forms. For example, one form might be a miracle story; another might be a story where Jesus is challenged and then offers a stunning saying (what scholars call a ‘pronouncement’ story); another might be a parable, and so on. These short units of texts have been pieced together into a narrative. Often scholars call them pericopae (literally a “cutting around”) because they can be ‘cut out’ and placed at different points in the narrative. We know this because the different gospel writers will sometimes place the same saying or unit of text in a different place in their gospels. Importantly, Ehrman argues that these units first existed individually as sayings or stories told within the Church.
Herein lies the crux. If the gospels were written forty to sixty-five years after Jesus’ death (as is generally accepted by historians) — and the units that comprise the gospels were stories told and circulated by Christians before being written down and turned into gospels — then Ehrman wonders how can we be sure that what they remember about Jesus was true? After all, people remember things wrongly, slightly or massively, all the time. Stories get changed each time they are told. Ehrman’s book is full of anecdotes from major studies that show this to be the case. Sometimes stories might even be created — not out of any malicious intent — but because it was assumed that if Jesus was divine, then he could do, and even did do, the incredible things that one might ascribe to him. This may sound hypothetical. However, for Ehrman it is inevitable that Christians would have wanted to tell stories about Jesus, that they would tell others who would want to tell others, and so on. It is inevitable that these stories would have got changed.
In the book, Ehrman engages with some of the primary arguments against his view. For example, Bauckham argues that eyewitnesses would have acted as guarantors of the tradition; information about Jesus would not have been largely distorted or fabricated in the early Christian communities because eyewitnesses would stand to correct them. Against this, Ehrman questions whether there really were eyewitnesses in many Christian communities. Many churches were founded by Paul and others like him — those who were not eyewitnesses of Jesus’ ministry — in locations outside Israel. Indeed, the gospels themselves were written for Greek-speaking Christians outside Israel. So where, asks Ehrman, were these guarantors of the traditions?
Ehrman also challenges the view of Birger Gerhardsson, who famously argued that in an oral culture, the disciples would have committed their rabbi’s teaching to memory. The difficulty with such a view is that it relies on later rabbinic evidence, which may not reflect the time of Jesus (pre-70 AD). There is, critically speaking, no strong evidence that ‘rabbi’ was a formal role, implying that Jesus’ disciples committed their masters teaching to memory or took notes. He also takes on the anecdotal evidence of Kenneth Bailey, an American scholar who spent much of his life in the middle-east. Bailey observed how stories are recited in oral societies, and he found that when a story was recited, the audience would feel free to interrupt, correcting the story-teller if he got something wrong. And he supposed that this would have happened in the early Christian communities when stories of Jesus were told. There was then less opportunity to create or radically change the traditions, for this is not how oral cultures work. In response, Ehrman questions to what extent the anecdotal fact-checking in one modern community can be taken as evidence for the practice of first-century Christian communities. Where is the first-century evidence that this is actually what happened?
A section of the book I found particularly interesting was Ehrman’s introduction to ‘social memory theory’, which is a way of talking about how communities remember the past. One point to take from Ehrman’s survey of various social-memory theorists is that our remembrance of the past is always influenced by the present. We not only recall the past because of the concerns of the present, and the usefulness of remembering something in a certain way to address those concerns; we also remember the past with the categories of the present.
Here Ehrman cites a fascinating history of how the events of Masada have been remembered (i.e. what is called a ‘mnemo-history’), from Flavius Josephus’ first-century history of the Jewish war to Jews living in modern-day Israel. The study shows that for the past two thousand years the events of Masada have been ignored. Today, however, the story of Masada is strong in Israeli public consciousness. The mnemo-historian therefore has reason to ask: why is Masada being remembered again? Its remembrance clearly has a utility for the present. It is also clear, however, that in order for it to be useful, some details have been distorted, others elaborated, and others omitted altogether. This is what also happened with the gospels. Christian communities had needs, and the various different memories — he would say discrepant or contradictory memories of Jesus — we find in the texts of those communities can be accounted for in terms of social memory theory.
I have attempted to provide (from memory!) a summary of Jesus Before the Gospels, although I suppose that if Ehrman is right about memory, you will have to read the book for yourself. What I remembered of the book may not be together reliable; I may fill what I couldn’t recall with information I have heard from other similar contexts. I probably did not summarise the book in any sort of chronological order. I will almost certainly have recalled what I have recalled in the way I have because I am writing a blog. I am therefore influenced by my present context, thinking about my own needs and the needs of my readers- in some sense, my social group. To sum up, Ehrman reckons that all these factors had some bearing on the formation of the gospels. And this, to some extent, undermines their value as historical sources. There is also much, however, that you’ll have discovered about Ehrman’s book by reading this summary. You’ve probably got the “gist” of Ehrman’s book, just as Ehrman thinks we can find the “gist” of the historical Jesus from the gospels.