Bart Ehrman is a scholar who knows how to write so the layperson can understand what scholars are talking about. In his newest book, Jesus Before the Gospels (HarperOne), Ehrman sets out to show what recent studies on memory demonstrate about the accounts of the life of Jesus. He says, “I’m interested in knowing which memories of Jesus are historically probable.” (p. 47) Take for example the commonly held view that many of the traditions in the Gospels were memorized. Ehrman cites the popular study by the Scandinavian specialist in New Testament and early Judaism Birger Gerhardsson, Memory and Manuscript (Eerdmans). This is a book is often cited in books that I’ve read. Ehrman quickly disarms this by saying “[u]nfortunately, very few scholars find Gerhardsson’s views convincing. In part that is because there is almost no evidence for them.” (p. 68)
Another scholar that is commonly cited by conservatives is Kenneth Bailey. Again, Ehrman is not impressed. “For one thing, on the very basic level, one might wonder what evidence Bailey cites to show that early Christians came together to recount their community tradition in the manner of the haflat samar. In fact, he doesn’t cite any at all. So far as I know there is no evidence.” (pp. 72-73) But what about eyewitness testimony? In particular what about the research done by British scholar Richard Bauckham in his book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (Eerdmans)? Ehrman says that ‘[o]utside the ranks of conservative evangelical Christians, very few if any biblical scholars have found Bauckham’s case persuasive. It founders on numerous grounds, not the least of which is its steadfast refusal to take seriously scholarship on eyewitness testimony undertaken for more than a century by such experts as legal scholars who see the real-life importance of the question.” (p. 101)
Ehrman says many of the things we’ve been taught about memory such as people from oral cultures have better memories, the early church memorized events from the life of Jesus and carefully and accurately passed them on, people have better memories when it is a very significant event in their life personally, and so on are all no true. Our memories simply don’t work that way. And they are notoriously unreliable. Eyewitness testimony is also no guarantee of accuracy. But it would be wrong to conclude that Ehrman thinks everything in the New Testament regarding Jesus is the result of a false or distorted memory. He clearly says, “I am decidedly not saying that all of our memories are faulty or wrong. Most of the time we remember pretty well, at least in broad outline. Presumably, so too did eyewitnesses to the life of Jesus.” (p. 143) The Gospels are probably fairly accurate when it comes to “gist memories of Jesus”. (p. 144) The challenge is how does one determine “if a memory of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels is accurate, by which I mean that it is something that in fact did not actually take place?” (p. 151) Ehrman offers two criteria: accounts that contradict each other can’t both be right so one of the accounts is a distorted memory and some things are just have “inherent plausibility.” (pp. 151-57)
The book is a tour de force and ought to be engaged in a serious fashion by those who will no doubt disagree with the implications of his thesis. Ehrman spent a couple of years studying the research surrounding the issues of memory. Any response to Ehrman will have to take that research into consideration.
Jesus Before the Gospels is a hardcover with 336 pages and sells for $27.99.
Bart D. Ehrman is one of the most renowned and controversial Bible scholars in the world today. He is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and is the author of more than twenty books, including the New York Times bestsellers How Jesus Became God; Misquoting Jesus; God’s Problem; Jesus, Interrupted; and Forged. He has appeared on Dateline NBC, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, CNN, History, and top NPR programs, as well as been featured in TIME, the New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Yorker, and other publications. He lives in Durham, North Carolina.