Baker Academic

Monday, June 27, 2016

Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 8)

In this final installment of my serial review of Bart Ehrman's Jesus before the Gospels, I want to briefly address his final chapter ("In Conclusion: A Paean to Memory"), which is less than seven pages long (pp. 289–295), and then assess the book as a whole.

Ehrman's concluding "paean to memory" is a beautiful reflection on the relative importance of historical-critical work. Knowing that this-or-that event happened in history is important, and Ehrman acknowledges that his work as a historian focuses narrowly on questions of what did or did not happen. Christianity, "widely seen as a 'historical' religion" (p. 291), sometimes (often?) places a high premium on historical actuality. What matters, often enough, to Christians is not simply what their sacred texts say but more so that the events those texts narrate actually happened. The truth of, say, the Acts of the Apostles resides not just in its worldview or narrative theology but rather in its portrayal of actual events in space and time. As a result, Christian readers who encounter Ehrman's writings may perceive him a threat to the integrity of their religious identity.

This is not Ehrman's intent. "But in my judgment there is more to Christianity than history. And there is more to life, and meaning, and truth than the question of whether this, that, or the other thing happened in the way some ancient text says it did" (p. 291). He goes on to describe the Gospels as "so much more than historical sources," which in my view is exactly right. Ehrman does not offer the example of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, but I think Luke 10.25–37 offers us instructive case. Never did a man going down from Jerusalem to Jericho fall into the hands of robbers, only to be neglected by a Jewish priest and Levite headed uphill and cared for by a Samaritan passerby. And nobody thinks either Jesus or Luke intends to speak of an actual event. When historians argue about the "authenticity" of this parable, they are arguing whether or not Jesus actually told this story. The story itself, everyone acknowledges, is fictional.

And yet the Parable of the Good Samaritan is true. It's truthicity ("truthiness" was inappropriate in this context) has nothing to do with its historical referentiality. This is a question of genre. If a history textbook claims that the Battle of Britain was provoked by the British invasion of Belgium, it is not just wrong but false. History books claim to narrate the past, and though they include matters that are not, strictly speaking, historical (e.g., interpretations of events, narrative plot structures, cause-and-effect relationships, etc.), their claims are evaluated on the basis of their historical referentiality. But other genres do not depend on this relationship. The obvious example is literature: The truth (perhaps value is a better term) of Charles Dicken's A Christmas Carol depends in no way whatsoever on the historical reality of Ebenezer Scrooge. For that matter, A. A. Milne's characters express simple-but-profound truths about friendship and life, even though no one wonders about a talking bear in a hundred-acre wood. And so, while I usually was more annoyed than anything when Ehrman's argument relied on unanswered rhetorical questions, I found this spot on:
At the end of the day, I find it troubling that so many people think that history is the only thing that matters. For them, if something didn't happen, it isn't true, in any sense. Really? Do we actually live our lives that way? How can we? Do we really spend our lives finding meaning only in the brute facts of what happened before, and in nothing else? (p. 292)
These are appropriate questions, and Ehrman does, eventually, hint at answers: "Our lives are not spent establishing the past as it really happened. They are spent calling it back to mind" (293). This, I think, is a lovely sentiment.

So what's the verdict on Jesus before the Gospels? I once accused Ehrman—in another venue and on another topic—of being "coy." In some ways, that charge does not apply here. Ehrman uses the intuitively pejorative term distorted memory to refer to "false memories" or "memories" of events that did not occur. At some point stories were told in such a way that people who heard them thought they narrated actual events or teachings from Jesus' life, but those stories did not. Ehrman does not hide behind the technical use of the term distortion in order to "sneak in" a negative connotation; when he is doing historical critical work, he is relying on that negative connotation.

In other ways, however, the charge of being coy is apropos here as well. Ehrman too often relies on insinuation and unanswered rapid-fire rhetorical questions that are framed so as to make disagreeing positions seem unreasonable, when often enough the questions themselves are problematic (e.g., pp. 24–25). This is an understandable rhetorical move; I myself often feel tempted to argue in this fashion. But doing so—whether I am doing it or Ehrman—is usually a sign that my argument is not as clear or as precise as I would like it to be. "You don't really think such-and-such, do you?" is not a helpful historical argument, even if it is often effective, and Ehrman retreats to this rhetorical device too often.

More problematic, in my view, is Ehrman's dependence on sources. He reveals to his readers that, "[f]or about two years now I have spent virtually all my free time doing nothing but reading about memory" (p. 2), but his citation of memory studies seems to me rather anemic. It is difficult to get a precise measurement because there is no bibliography included in the book, but scanning the endnotes suggests that Ehrman cites a total of thirty-four sources that I would categorize as "memory studies." The majority of these he cites only once, and on more than one occasion those citations are misleading (e.g., he cites Schwartz's approbation of Maurice Halbwachs's claim that memory adapts the past to "the beliefs and spiritual needs the present" [p. 7, citing Schwartz, Abraham Lincoln and the Forge of National Memory, 5] without mentioning that Schwartz also critiques Halbwachs on this very point: "Considering Lincoln's image as a mere projection of present problems is as wrong as taking it to be a literal account of his life and character"; Schwartz, p. 6; see also my critique of Ehrman's use of Ulrich Neisser's study of John Dean's testimony). Perhaps even more problematically still, Ehrman engages almost none of the New Testament scholarship concerned with memory. Unless one includes Birger Gerhardsson's Memory and Manuscript (which does not, strictly speaking, engage "memory studies"), he only mentions Richard Bauckham's book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. There's no mention of scholars such as Chris Keith, Alan Kirk, Anthony Le Donne, Tom Thatcher, Michael Thate, or myself. (Chris Keith is mentioned in the acknowledgements, but none of his works appear in the endnotes.) When he mentions Dale Allison, Richard Horsely, or Werner Kelber, he does not address their engagement with memory studies. This is especially worrisome when Ehrman complains that New Testament scholars, as a group, have largely ignored memory studies. When Ehrman does engage media studies among New Testament scholars, he draws attention to the form critics, whose work is largely seen as out-of-date.

In the end, I cannot endorse or recommend this work as an engagement of memory scholarship for New Testament research. As I said in Part 1 of this review,
I was excited when I first heard rumors, in the aftermath of a 2013 panel on memory and the historical Jesus, that Ehrman was going to engage memory studies. I was part of the early wave of Jesus historians and NT scholars who have turned to questions of memory—and especially social/collective memory—in order to recalibrate the study of Jesus and Christian origins. I care about this topic, and adding a name as big as Bart D. Ehrman to the list of historians recognizing the importance of memory in some way justified my own work.
Perhaps my initial excitement helps explain my disappointment with this book. I had hoped Ehrman would advance the discussion of memory and the New Testament, perhaps with reference to his own expertise in Christian texts outside the New Testament canon, the manuscript tradition of New Testament texts, and so on. Instead, I do not think he has accurately grasped even the current state of memory and the New Testament.

I have tried at every point to engage, summarize, and evaluate Jesus before the Gospels fairly and respectfully. I have literally read every word of this book, and where I have critiqued it I have tried to provide specific examples and quotations from the book itself. Moreover, I have not critiqued this book for its bearing on theological matters or questions of faith. If anything, his concluding "paean to memory" should be welcomed by people of faith even if they continue to disagree with his historical judgments. This book is flawed in its historical and exegetical judgments. This book must stand or fall on these bases and not on its theological merits, since Ehrman is not writing a theological book.

Oh . . . one last thing. I have not enjoyed panning this book; as I said, I started reading Jesus before the Gospels with enthusiasm and high hopes. Whenever commenters here or on Facebook have characterized this serial review as combative (e.g., "Rodríguez vs. Ehrman," or something similar), I have winced a little. I've read and reviewed this book so carefully precisely because I have such respect for Ehrman as a writer, thinker, and scholar, and I hope that hasn't been lost among all the criticisms. I recently met someone who read both Ehrman's book and my reviews and who told me he thought I was being too kind in my review; that was both surprising and a bit encouraging. Whether kind or unkind, I hope I have been fair. And if/as you read this or any other book by Bart Ehrman (or anyone else, for that matter), I hope you, too, will evaluate it fairly.

Okay; you can stop watching this space.

Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 1)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 2)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 3)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 4)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 5)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 6)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 7)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 8)


  1. An exceptionally helpful and judicious review series, Rafael. Thank you.

    1. Thank you, Jack. I hope others agree with your adjectives.

  2. Hi Raphael, thanks again for this absorbing set of reviews. This layperson is very interested in learning more about the NT and memory studies (I'm hoping an affordable book might come from the recent conference advertised here).

    I wanted to ask you about the historical question which you raise here, summed up in the Ehrman quote which you apparently support: "At the end of the day, I find it troubling that so many people think that history is the only thing that matters. For them, if something didn't happen, it isn't true, in any sense."

    It seems to me that classical christian belief has depended as much (sometimes too much!) on what Jesus did (e.g. death and resurrection) as what he taught. It is surely true that the truth of Jesus' ethical teachings doesn't depend on the accuracy of the history recorded in the gospels - in fact, a lot of it echoes rabbinical teachings.

    But surely it remains important whether he really did in some sense establish the kingdom of God on earth, and whether he was really resurrected? I'm not suggesting that history can answer those questions, but surely any answer we give must be based on whether there is some historical support for them - i.e. he really did preach the kingdom of God, his followers did plausibly see some sorts of visions, etc?

    I'm feeling like Bart's, and your, conclusions assumes that those things aren't important (whether you or anyone else believes them or not). Or have I misunderstood you?

    1. I fully agree with your sentiments. The fact is Christianity is an historical religion, based on historical facts and people. It is not good enough to say it doesnt really matter if certain events actually happened in reality. I found the use of the Good Samaritan a rather strange example to use. The question is not whether the story itself is fictional or based on real events - that doesnt matter as Jesus is simply telling it to illustrate a point - but rather did Jesus tell it in the first place? In other words, are the Gospels a reliable source for the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. I think they are, as is Acts for a recounting of the early church etc. That is the problem with Ehrman, he doesnt believe the Gospels can be relied upon to give us an accurate picture of Jesus, by discounting historical events. Thus he gave up on his supposed faith he held as a student, and has become one of the main doubt-raising 'scholars' in recent times. Sad.

    2. Thank you, unkleE and PC1, for your comments. Two points:

      First, notice the qualification in the quote you reproduce: "that history is the only thing that matters." I think Ehrman is right that Christians do, sometimes, obsess more over the historical question and miss larger, sometimes more important questions. Speaking for myself, I would not then say that questions of history never matter or that Christianity's relationship to actual historical events is irrelevant. Of course not. History is not the only question that matters, but it is still one of the questions that matter.

      Second, this is why I use the example of the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Yes, of course people (including myself) will want to know whether or not we can think Jesus actually spoke this parable. But the truth that Christians have found and continue to find in this parable would not vanish if, somehow, we were able to prove that Luke actually created this parable. I'm simply making the point, again, that history is not the only criterion of truth. It is one criterion, but it is only one.

      Does that make sense?

  3. "Ehrman too often relies on insinuation and unanswered rapid-fire rhetorical questions that are framed so as to make disagreeing positions seem unreasonable"

    I recently read the transcript of a debate between Ehrman and Daniel B. Wallace on the question of textual accuracy. What I noted about Ehrman's approach was that it tended to be rooted in establishing skepticism. "Do we RREEEAAAALLLY know?"

    Compare that to how Wallace argued. He went point by point and explained not just that we have reason to trust the Scriptures, but _why_ we have reason to trust the Scriptures. It could be because I agreed with Wallace at the start, but in my attempt to read the transcript neutrally it seemed like Wallace won the debate hands down. In fact reading Ehrman's arguments actually strengthened my trust in the Scriptures because I thought "if this is the best the skeptics can do...."

    But I do have to say that where I have read Ehrman he has held to a level of respect for both the Scriptures and his opponents. If only there were more adversaries like him.

  4. After reading Ehrman's book and Raphael's critique I am still confused about how certain considerations are treated by memory theory.

    For example, a given pericope could be fairly purely a memory of the community to which, say, Mark belongs. Maybe its been around ten years maybe 50 years. Or that same pericope could be mostly Mark's individual interpretation of the subject matter. Or that same pericope could largely be the community's or Mark's cultural memory, perhaps of Jewish or Greek literature, which enhances the subject matter. Maybe the pericope is an action oriented adaptation of an idea or teaching. Are there certain forms, parables, e.g., that are likely to bear memories more accurately? The list could probably go on for awhile.

    Would appreciate any guidance on this matter!

    I've recently read: Zimmerman's Puzzling the Parables, Ehrman's Jesus Before the Gospels, Le Donne's Historical Jesus, and Kirk and Thatcher's Memory, Tradition, and Text.

    1. Gene,

      Thank you for your question, though I'm not sure exactly what you're asking. I would respond that my interest in social memory would challenge the category "Mark's individual interpretation" if by that we mean "an individual's interpretation apart from social influences." Individuals are socially constituted entities; we are socialized to see the world in specific ways, and those ways are inextricably linked to the groups to which we belong. This is not to deny the ability of the individual to embody social influences in unique, even innovative, ways. But an individual-apart-from-social-influences is as rare as the chupacabra (I think there are less than five).

      Could you clarify what you're asking?

    2. Hi Rafael, thanks for the clarifying comments about individual interpretation and social influences.

      Perhaps I'm trying to figure out if all memories are created equal, and maybe it depends on the form in which they are found. For example, memories preserved in parable form sometimes have more than one interpretive comment attached (e.g., the dishonest manager of Luke 16:1-13). When a social memory theorist is working with the materials are all the interpretations treated as though they are of equal value? Zimmerman seems to take that approach in his Puzzling the Parables (2015). He writes, "Due to the memory approach being employed in this book, no attempt is made to reconstruct some postulated original version of a parable. Each individual source is a memory text that has remembered and preserved a version of Jesus' parables" (189).

      On the other hand, in my post under Anthony's comments about the "Jesus' wife" debacle, I show how the later gospels suppress the emotion of Jesus in Mark. Are those refracted memories considered of equal value to the original Markan accounts.

      Further, in my post about John the Baptist memories under part 7 of your Ehrman analysis, is a refracted memory that John was "unworthy to tie/carry/etc. Jesus sandals" of equal value to a scripturally supported "preparing the way" memory of setting the example of establishing a direct route to God, bypassing the temple (see also, Crossan, Who Killed Jesus, 1995, 43)?

      I'm sure that the possibilities of trying to determine value are endless.

  5. Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

    Sorry for forgetting to attach my name to the 6/28/16 at 7:00 AM post.

  6. Thank you for the helpful review! Since you engage here with some NT scholarship on memory, what are your thoughts in regards to James D.G. Dunn's book called "the oral gospel tradition? Dunn is a respectable scholar and has done some voluminous work on the historical Jesus. He engages with the question of memory (I don't know to what extent) and I am excited to look upon his arguments. I haven't had time to read it (currently reading Jesus and the victory of God) and I was wondering if you have since you are a scholar (I shall buy your book later) and you seem to be very erudite about the subject. Do you think be a more helpful introduction than Erhman's book? and would it perhaps help me gain more insights into a more accurate depiction of what the story of the oral transmission was really like?

  7. Thanks for this series of blogs, it's really helpful! I am researching on some Coptic traditions, and I do find that your bibliographical information on the memory studies will shed light on it!