Baker Academic

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 1)

Earlier this week I announced that I would be reading and reviewing Bart Ehrman's latest book, Jesus before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented their Stories of the Savior (HarperOne, 2016). Ehrman is perhaps one of the most famous NT scholars in America, perhaps in the English-speaking world, in part because he is such an interesting writer and thinker, in part because his biography provokes admiration or excoriation, depending on one's perspective. No matter the reason for his stature, 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.

At this point, I've only read Ehrman's Introduction (pp. 1–16), so I'm not yet ready to praise or critique the volume. But we can note how Ehrman approaches his subject, recurrent patterns in his discussion, and the expectations he establishes for the rest of the book.

Ehrman says early on that he spent "about two years" spending his free time "doing nothing but reading about memory" (2). He specifically mentions three areas of memory studies: cognitive psychology (the study of individual memories), sociology (the study of social memory), and cultural anthropology (the study of oral cultures and unwritten traditions). These are all very good and vibrant areas of research; NT scholars are vigorously engaging each of these fields (individually and in various combinations), so Ehrman's voice joins a chorus-in-progress.

And so I was surprised by his presentation of NT scholarship as a whole, which (as I've said) has increasingly engaged questions of memory over the last decade-plus.
The more I read [about memory], the more surprised I became that so many scholars of the New Testament—the vast bulk of them, so far as I can tell—have never explored this research, even though it is so fascinating and most immediately relevant. Even those New Testament specialists who have delved into such fields have in many instances limited themselves to just one, or possibly two, of them. But they are all important. (3)
In the Introduction, Ehrman does not refer to any "New Testament specialists who have delved into such fields," so I cannot evaluate his claim. Moreover, throughout this introduction he cites only one work of one memory theorist (Abraham Lincoln and the Forge of National Memory [University of Chicago Press, 2000], the first volume of sociologist Barry Schwartz's two-volume work on American memory of Lincoln). The Introduction, in other words, does not offer very much to substantiate either Ehrman's claim to have read broadly ("for about two years now") in memory studies or his claim about NT specialists. This is, however, only the Introduction, and I hold out hope that more meaningful and substantive engagements will come in the remaining chapters.

When Ehrman does acknowledge that "this book will not be the first to address such issues" (12), he links his work with Rudolf Bultmann and the form critics and never mentions contemporary scholarship on questions of media, memory, and testimony. He laments that "there is not a single book available on the topic for a general-reading audience, a book that explains the form-critics' views or delves into the issues they [!!] raised in an non-technical (and interesting!) way" (13; my italics and exclamation marks). If Ehrman were providing a nontechnical, interesting survey of contemporary NT scholarship on memory and media, I would cheer. I am disappointed, however, to find that he seems to intend to present the nearly century-old work of the form critics, with the subtle (but false) implication that he's the first to do by appealing to memory studies.

We can make another substantive critique even at this very early stage. Some NT scholars engage memory studies in order to assess the question, How well did the evangelists remember Jesus? I think here especially of Richard Bauckham's book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (Eerdmans, 2006), which is keen to link the Gospels with eyewitness testimony and memory. Ehrman positions his work to follow in this vein, even if his conclusions are very different from Bauckham's. (He says the question of the evangelists as eyewitnesses "is certainly a question worth exploring" [12]; see Chapter 3, "Eyewitness Testimonies and Our Surviving Gospels.") Note the following:
At that time [in the 1970s], I heard views from some of my teachers that many people continue to hear today: the Gospels are based on eyewitness reports; they can therefore be accepted as historically reliable; people in oral cultures (such as in the ancient Roman world) had better memories than we do today; and such people always preserved their traditions about the past accurately, since they were not literate and so could not learn about the past from writing.

Are these views correct? (1)
With that last question, Ehrman reveals that the book will be about how well—or how accurately—the Gospels remember Jesus. Unlike Bauckham, Ehrman does not have much confidence in quality of the Gospels' memory of Jesus. He says,
This [before the Gospels were written] was a mysterious period of oral transmission, when stories were circulating, both among eyewitnesses and, even more, among those who knew someone whose cousin had a neighbor who had once talked with a business associate whose mother had, just fifteen years earlier, spoken with an eyewitness who told her some things about Jesus. (2)
[The Gospels] are memories of later authors who had heard from Jesus from others, who were telling what they had heard from others, who were telling what they had heard from yet others. They are memories of memories of memories. (3)
And then,
But we forget a lot of things as well—not just our keys, and the names of people we are sure we ought to remember, but also factual information that we used to know and events, even highly important events, that have happened in our lives. Even more disturbing, we misremember things. The older we get the more we realize: we sometimes remember clearly what took place and how it took place. Then it turns out we are wrong.

It happens to all of us. And it has happened to everyone who has ever lived. Including the followers of Jesus. Including the ones who told the stories about him. Including the ones who heard those stories and then passed them along to others. Including the ones who heard these thirdhand stories and told them then to others, who told them to others, who told them to others, who then wrote the Gospels. Each person in that link of memory from Jesus to the writers of the Gospels was remembering what he or she had heard. Or trying to do so. (3–4; my emphasis)
A little later,
Who was telling the stories [about Jesus]? Was it only the twelve disciples and other eyewitnesses? Or would it have been other people as well? That is, did people who heard stories from eyewitnesses also tell the stories? Is it possible that stories were told by people who knew people who knew people who knew people who claimed that they heard stories from people who knew people who knew eyewitnesses? (11)
And then almost immediately,
We all know from personal experience how much news stories get changed in the retelling (not to mention stories about us personally) just in a matter of hours, let alone days, weeks, months, years, and decades. Were the stories about Jesus exempt from these processes of alteration and invention that we ourselves experience all the time? (11)
And finally,
All of the people who told stories about Jesus—eyewitnesses, people who heard from eyewitnesses, and people who heard from people who heard from people who heard from people who heard from eyewitnesses—remembered what they saw and heard. And their own stories were based on those memories. (14–15)
These repeated comments about memory and the Gospels, all of which emphasize the multiple layers separating the original eyewitnesses to Jesus' life and teachings from the authors of the Gospels, betray a simplistic conception of memory. I highlighted a phrase from pp. 3–4, above: Ehrman refers to "that link of memory from Jesus to the writers of the Gospels." Like a chain wherein one link is attached to another link, that second link is attached to a third link, and that third link is attached to a fourth link, and that fourth link is separated and distinct from the first link by two intervening links, Ehrman writes as if memory moves from individual to individual in a unidirectional manner.

Memory, however, is not like a chain. Memory is like culture. Individuals create culture as they live and move and have their being together in society, but (and this point arises especially in the work of Barry Schwartz, whom Ehrman cites) individuals are themselves created by the cultures they inhabit. Memory (like culture) is not a chain but a web. Moreover, memory (like culture) is not a web of facts (which are either true or untrue, accurate or inaccurate) but rather "webs of significance" (Clifford Geertz, Interpretation of Cultures, 5) in which individuals and groups find and make (these are not the same thing) meaning. This broader understanding of memory poses problems for Richard Bauckham, who seems to assume that eyewitnesses have direct access to the reality and then subsequently offer interpretations of that reality. I suspect, on the basis of Ehrman's repeated characterizations of memory and memory transmission as akin to the Telephone Game, that this broader understanding will likewise present problems for Ehrman's work. We shall see.

Continue to watch 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. Rafael, thanks for this. I'm reading Ehrman along with you, not as carefully as you. You've confirmed my two biggest take-aways from the Introduction: Ehrman does not seem to engage much of the interesting literature on Jesus-memory-history, and he seems to be interrogating what he HAS read with questions that aren't themselves all that interesting. Is this book going to focus mostly on debating fundamentalism? If so, I probably won't finish it.

    I probably won't say this as clearly as I'd like, but I often walk away from Jesus-memory-history with a sense of disappointment. Admittedly, I've only scratched the surface of these memory-histories, but they seem to me to have surprisingly little in common, and they don't engage each other in a way I've found satisfying. I think memory-theory potentially represents a paradigm shift in how we understand history and in what we think history can do for us. What can we know, and how can we come to know it? It's here where Ehrman (so far) is most disappointing: it seems that Ehrman sees memory-thoery as confirming everything and every way he thought before he began this study. Which suggests to me that he's missing something fundamental.

    But like you, I've only read the intro, and I'm hoping for better. Thanks again!

    1. Thank you, Larry. I think your suspicion is more right than I would've hoped. His target is more fundamentalist understandings of the Gospels' "memory" of Jesus than exploring/advancing the work of memory and the historical Jesus.

      Re: your second point (which is clear enough, and not unkind, though I can't say whether it was as clear as you would've liked): Memory studies in general are an amorphous lot, and their application to Jesus studies has inherited this trait. Your complaint, however, that "they don't engage each other in a way I've found satisfying" is spot on. Michael Thate's book was scandalously thin on engagement on this work other than Schröter, Bauckham, and Allison. Foster's article, too, dug a narrow trench in memory work on Jesus. Similar complaints could be leveled against others, but perhaps it suffices to say that Chris Keith's two-part essay on memory studies on Jesus in Early Christianity is the best attempt to account for and engage the entire field instead of narrow and selective parts of the field. Sadly, Ehrman is not the only one who uses the language of memory to reconfirm and resay what he already knew about Jesus. Allison, in his typically candid style, acknowledges this aspect of his work on Jesus.


  2. Gene Stecher

    Rafael, thanks so much for this opportunity and beginning interesting outline. I too have only read the Introduction, and a few more pages (allowed at the purchase site). The book won't arrive until next Tuesday.

    I'm wondering if comparing Ehrman's theories with the Telephone Game and links in a chain, rather than as a web, etc., are a bit unfair.

    You did not mention Ehrman's two practical examples: Lincoln and Columbus. He went into considerable detail to demonstrate how the memories of these men were influenced by the cultural situation of the ones remembering. Thus the vestiges of colonialism might go a long way to influencing positive images of Columbus, and the transformative impact of the civil rights movement might go along way to reinforcing positive memories of Lincoln. Actually, Columbus wasn't such a nice guy, and Lincoln spoke against racial equality.

    Please forgive any oversimplification of which I may be guilty.

    1. Good point about the Lincoln and Columbus examples, but I think Rafael is fair in his critique about the links-in-a-chain -- amply illustrated in the quotations above. The telephone game (BrE: "Chinese whispers") is used by Ehrman himself, and I suspect the analogy is doing too much work in his thinking. I must admit that I think it's a really terrible analogy. (I once podcasted about it after realizing how poor it was when teaching NT Intro.)

      Anyway, great first piece Rafael. I look forward to hearing more.

    2. Gene,

      Thank you for this. Yes, you're right that I didn't mention Ehrman's two practical examples. And I won't have time to do so here, but let me provide one quote from his discussion of Lincoln and then explain why, in fact, Ehrman's appeal to Schwartz's work was actually worse than his neglect of memory studies in general.

      Ehrman wrote: "The past is not a fixed entity back there in time. It is always being transformed in our minds, depending on what our minds are occupied with in the here and now. As Schwartz claims, the somewhat ironic portrayal of Abraham Lincoln as a civil rights prophet 'demonstrates the malleability of the past and justifies Maurice Halbwachs's claim that "collective memory, [sic] is essentially a reconstruction of the past that adapts the image of historical facts to the beliefs and spiritual needs of the present"'" (Ehrman, Jesus before the Gospels, 7; citing Schwartz, Abraham Lincoln and the Forge of National Memory, 4 [sic; the text Ehrman quotes is on p. 5]).

      Any reader unfamiliar with either Schwartz or social memory would be excused, having read Ehrman, for thinking that Schwartz is an advocate for a Halbwachsian approach to collective memory and/or the social frameworks of memory. This, however, is quite untrue. Schwartz is at least as critical of Halbwachs as he is supportive of him. In the very next paragraph, Schwartz says, "Social memories, as aspects of culture, do more than 'express' social reality; they shape reality by articulating ideals and generating the motivation to realize them" (p. 5). A little further on, "Lincoln's 1863 emancipation policy must be distinguished from 1963 efforts to integrate blacks into contemporary society, but if Schwengel's remaking of Abraham Lincoln required some invention and exaggeration, the historical record also justified it" (p. 6; my emphasis). These excerpts reveal the shortcoming in Ehrman's reading of Schwartz, specifically, and his approach to memory more generally. Ehrman writes as if distortion of the past in the present falsifies memory (he repeatedly speaks of "'false' or 'distorted' memory," which "involves a memory that is wrong" [p. 19; see also p. 302n. 3]) without inquiring how or why the present affects/distorts images of the past. This leads to an atemporal conception of both memory and society that sees images of the past as products in the present without mooring or constraint by the past or previous images of the past. Schwartz's work explicitly and programmatically takes aim at this atemporal conception, which he calls "presentism."

      Anyway, I'm getting long-winded. I do appreciate your comment, Gene. And to anyone else who has read this far, he's right: I did ignore Ehrman's two practical examples. These, however, are even more problematic than the issues I did discuss, and I anticipate that I will return to these examples in my review of later chapters (esp. chapters 6 and 7).

    3. Here's my podcast on the Telephone Game / Chinese Whispers should it be of interest to readers. It was inspired to record it because of Ehrman's use of the analogy in his NT Intro:

  3. Highly recommended: John Kloppenborg's chapter on "Memory, Performance, and the Sayings of Jesus" in

    1. Karl, you wouldn't have a personal investment in this volume, would you? :)

    2. Karl: Thank you for drawing attention to this. I would welcome receiving a copy of this volume. If you send me a private e-mail I'll be happy to give you my shipping address. ;-)

    3. No, no, no, Karl. You don't want to send it to Rafael. You want to send it to me.

  4. Great critique. I would like to know if you are aware of any author working with the relation between food/ meals and social memory in Jesus studies. I know some few authors are working on that to study OT sacrifice/ offering. But it could be an interesting application for the memory of Jesus, as a meal was the most important environment to keep his memory, right?

    1. From Dr. G

      Claude Levi Strauss wrote a book that suggested the distinction between the raw and the cooked amounted to the underlying structure of one culture he studied, as I recall.

      Food laws, purity laws, the culture's own definition of the clean and the unclean, are often central to many cultures. And in Catholicism, eating the bread and drinking the wine or blood, are often presented as perhaps the most important ritual in defining one as Catholic.

      The beliefs associated with eating memorialized many things.

    2. I'm not aware of anyone doing this, Caio. Some (e.g., social psychologists) address the issue of cultural distinctions between edible animals that are food and those that are not, but that's not what you're talking about, is it?

      There is currently a three-volume work on Memory and Reception of Jesus in Early Christianity, and part of that project includes ritual/liturgy as reception. (This project includes a two-day conference in London; see Again, not quite what you're asking about, but related as we get into the Lord's Supper as a commemorative ritual that preserved and enacted the memory of Jesus.

      Sorry I can't be of more help.

    3. Thanks for your answer. Yes, not quite what I was looking for, though ritual/ liturgy is the "halfway" for that. Ritual/ liturgy would be the religious context to study the role of food in the development/ keeping of social memory. Just to give an example, George MacDonald, Bread Alone, says that "Food is the vehicle through which Deuteronomy envisages Israel expressing her remembrance of YHWH." And Peter Altmann (Festive Meals in Ancient Israel) works within the same lines, using the anthropological work of David Sutton (Remembrance of Repasts: An Anthropology of Food and Memory), who says: "At least for us old folks we don't just long for them [the foods] for their delicious taste but because they awaken in us, unconsciously, a series of rare scenes which are being constantly lost and remain only memories.". So, I just think it would interest to see such results that are being used for understanding sacrifice/ offering in the Hebrew Bible to also understand how Jesus' memory was preserved in a context of shared meals.

    4. Very interesting. Thank you for sharing.

  5. Definitely not a chain...that image has always bothered me.

    Because of my interest in gossip and rumor, I imagine memory as intricately linked with social speech processes. Probably because I'm a surfer, I've become accustomed to visualizing the re-membering of any particular incident as memory-carried/construed-by-speech that looks like the concentric swells emanating from a singular storm system, in all directions. Overlay that picture with a cultural matrix - the spider web in your post, Chris! - and you got the makings of a traditioning process. Memory constituted by the waves of re-membering speech and talk processed by/within a specific complex cultural web.

    1. From Dr. G

      Even if the stream of oral transmission does reassemble a chain, it's worth noting that each individual link would be a human person, with his own personal and cultural biases. So the "link" or telephone model is quite compatible with the idea of socio- cultural notions entering into the mix.

      In other words, the link and cultural models are not mutually exclusive hypotheses. And in my own work I use both of these, among others.

  6. From Richard Bauckham's Website!


    (1 April 2016)
    Yesterday I recorded two hours of debate with Bart Ehrman for Premier Christian Radio (London) about his book Jesus Before the Gospels (and related also to my Jesus and the Eyewitnesses). They will be broadcast in two installments next Saturday and the following Saturday, and will be available as podcasts.

    Why so much interest in memory studies when there is so much plain evidence of literary dependence? See for instance:

    A far more worthwhile question to ponder is the degree of confirmation bias of the Gospel writers who chose their oral and written sources to produce a life of Jesus. If the authors themselves were part of a sect who believed in the soon coming final judgment of the world (as it appears they were, based on Paul and the Gospels) that might be taken as a reason to try and make their Lord appear that much more significant--the actions and teachings of the world's final wonder-working prophet, final messiah or anointed one, to beat all other revelations and messiahs.

    Also, if eyewitness testimony was involved, why does Matthew copy the exact same number of miracles as Mark? Matthew doubles up a few, but they come out to the same numbers and cases of miracles at in Mark. Though Jesus was supposedly performing loads of miracles, curing everyone in some cases, Matthew simply repeats Mark's miracle tales, case by case (as I said, doubling up two of them but coming out to the same over all types and numbers of miracles).

    New miracles begin to be added by Luke and John. Luke adds the raising of the widow's son, which has so many parallels with the tale of Elijah doing the same thing, it appears more like a later story that arose or maybe even invented by Luke, rather than having anything to do with memory studies. While the fourth Gospel adds the tale of the raising of Lazarus that none of the previous Gospels nor Acts mention, but which seems based (along with the foot anointing episode) on earlier tales in Mark and Luke (where Lazarus was a mere figure in a parable whom the Rich man wants raised). This looks like a miracle tale added to the Jesus story later, rather than having anything to do with eyewitness testimony.

    For more on the miracle tales and why they do not appear to be based on eyewitness testimony:

    1. Ed: Bart Ehrman does work on the basis also of literary relations between the Synoptics. He thinks that Matthew and Luke used Mark and Q. So he is absolutely on board with literary connections. But he also thinks, I think reasonably, that these particular literary connections do not exhaust the evangelists' source material. Rafael also accepts that there is a literary interrelationship of some kind between the evangelists (I think he holds to a weak form of the 2ST, but I could be wrong about that). Having said that, I agree in part with the spirit of your comment here. There are too many scholars who regard the study of oral tradition and memory as alternatives to careful study of the Synoptic Problem, and this is really unfortunate.

    2. Thank you, Edward, for your comment.

      Just a very basic response: Some scholars may substitute memory for literary dependence when addressing source-critical questions. More common, I think, is scholars supplementing literary dependence with theories of memory (Eric Eve has a forthcoming book in this vein, entitled, Writing the Gospels).

      Those of us who are engaging social memory research (Keith, Le Donne, Kirk, Thatcher, and others), however, use the term memory to refer to something other than a vehicle or medium (esp. a mental faculty) for the production of other gospel texts. We are referring to images of the past in general, images that utilize various media (including written texts, so literary dependence is something we might discuss within a study of social memory, along with other communicative media: ritual, art, performance, statuary, news reporting, etc.).

      Does that make sense?

      Thank you both for your replies. Yes, I know Bart is pro literary dependence. And from what I have read elsewhere, Gospel writers might have been using a few scrolls as they were composing and rather than go back and check exact wording simply cited stories they read or heard as best they remembered them while composing their Gospels.

      The most obvious and undeniable feature of the Gospels for me is how such stories grew over time. The number of words allegedly spoken by the resurrected Jesus grew over time from Mk to Mt, Lk, Jn. The stories of the birth and post resurrection appearances grew over time, being added to Mt and Lk. Lk's genealogy goes back further than Mt's. Lk includes tale of second miraculous birth, outdoing Mt. Lk's nativity tales resemble a musical with sing-songy prayers added. It takes time and effort for such embellishments to occur over time from Mk to Mt to Lk.

      The Synoptics grow in length in that order as well, and Lk's parables are the longest most refined with added parables never before seen. Jn is a shorter Gospels only because he has no parables, instead Jesus speaks about himself, not in parables about the kingdom of God. And Jn has no exorcisms as well. Nothing apparently must detract from the focus on Jesus.

      But John is like Lk in at least one respect, the lengthy parables of Lk resemble the lengthy dialogue interactions and lengthy prayers in John. To create such lengthy texts takes time and literary artistry.

      No matter the fine points of synoptic Gospel theorists and questions concerning exactly if or how proto-Gospel material was added to, the obvious evidence is that the Gospels as we have them were most likely completed in a form we know them in the order Mk Mt Lk Jn.

      Also note how the presence of angels remains most elusive in the earliest Gospel, Mk, including the young man at the tomb who might simply be the same steadfast young man who fled last of all at Jesus' arrest. And in Mt Jesus' father Joseph merely encounters an angel in a dream, and of course another appears at the empty tomb, but Luke and Acts are rife with angels appearing not just in dreams but seen by individuals and a host of shepherds at Jesus' birth and two angels at the tomb, two angels at the Ascension (another new story that first appears in Lk), and angels appearing throughout Acts.

      Scholars need to start work on Gospel trajectory criticism, like those trajectories of Gospel growth mentioned above, not to mention the tale of the anointing of Jesus and raising of Lazarus in Jn that appears to have grown out of earlier tales in Mk and Lk.

      Also consider the way the resurrection appearances in Mk and Mt are said to take place in Galilee, "h has gone before you to Galilee, there you will see him," but by the time Lk and Jn are composed the apostles are commanded to remain in Jerusalem so Jesus is first seen in a major city instead of out in the country. The evidence of legendary embellishment over time as seen just by comparing Gospel tales is strong.

  8. Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

    Edward, that "literary dependence" also seems to involve a mimetic (mimesis, to imitate) relationship between the gospels (particularly Mark and Luke)and the Homerian epics Odyssey and Iliad, as well as Virgil's Aeneid, who himself used Homer.

    Dennis MacDonald suggests (Mythologizing Jesus, Rowman and Littlefield: 2016), for example, that the mimetic motives of the gospel writers was to show that Jesus was more powerful, more moral, and more compassionate than any of the Greco-Roman gods, semi-gods, and heroes. MacDonald puts 24 gospel episodes into that classification, including the two feedings of thousands, mastering the winds on the sea, healing a deranged tomb-dwelling demoniac, raising a child back to life, walking on water, curing a woman's blood flow, and so forth.

    In other words, MacDonald has provided an excellent reason for seeing worth in outlandish stories and actions normally rejected by the modern mind.

    Also see the review "Out-Homering Homer" at

    1. I am familiar with Dennis's work, and even worked with him when I included his testimony in a book I edited, Leaving the Fold: Testimonies of Former Fundamentalists.

  9. Here's a link to my review of "Jesus Before the Gospels."
    My comments are less verbose than these review parts. At the end of my review I've include links to these more academic reviews for those who want a longer version.