Baker Academic

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 2)

In the Introduction, Bart D. Ehrman mentioned three general approaches to memory and announced his intention to address all three of them in turn. Those three approaches include social anthropology (memory and oral tradition), sociology (social or collective memory), and cognitive psychology (individual and/or eyewitness memory; see pp. 2–3). Chapter 1 is entitled "Oral Traditions and Oral Inventions" (pp. 17–48), and presumably addresses the first of these three approaches.

Ehrman begins by admitting, rightly, that the word memory is used in multiple senses by scholars who talk about memory. He mentions Endel Tulving's (whom he erroneously calls Engel Tulving; pp. 18; 302n. 1) distinction between episodic and semantic memory (available here), though his discussion of the distinction is confused and somewhat contrived. The whole point of this section seems to be that "episodic memory" (recall of episodes from one's own biography) is often false ("flat-out wrong"; p. 18), and also that different groups of people often remember the same event or figure differently. He says, "Let me stress again: most of the time our memories are pretty good" (p. 20), but despite his claim to stress the normally-accurate-enough functioning of memory, the focus of his discussion is clearly and almost entirely on memory's mistakes. "But there are times when we simply don't remember the past accurately. It is worth exploring why we remember things poorly, or wrongly; it is also worth exploring whether such frail or false memories might be helpful for understanding the contexts within which we remember the things we do—and the reasons we remember them in the first place" (p. 21).

The rest of the chapter includes discussion under five subheadings. The first, "Remembering Jesus" (pp. 21–25), sets up the very diverse portrayals of Jesus in popular American culture and among scholars. Ehrman draws attention to Reza Aslan's book, Zealot, and Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard's very different volume, Killing Jesus. These are merely examples, among very many others, to demonstrate the point: "Not only does the past impose itself on us when we remember; but also our memories of the past are always affected by our views of the present" (p. 22). This is exactly right. This second subheading, "Memories of Jesus' Companions" (pp. 25–32) surveys fanciful stories told about Peter, Judas, and Pontius Pilate, almost exclusively in NT apocryphal texts (Acts of Peter, Gospel of Nicodemus, Papias, etc.). The third, "Memories of the Birth and Early Life of Jesus" (pp. 32–38) similarly provides a survey of fanciful stories of Jesus' birth and youth, again from NT apocryphal texts (Infancy Gospel of James, Pseudo-Matthew, and Infancy Gospel of Thomas).
The fourth, "Memories of Jesus' Life and Death" (pp. 38–45), surveys the Correspondence with Abgar, Gospel of Thomas, and Gospel of Peter. The last subheading, "The Very Real Memories of Jesus" (pp. 46–48), provides a lovely and sympathetic defense of the notion that "what really happened in the past" is only one among many kinds of truth. "If we want to read a book, do we really only want to read histories and historically accurate biographies? Are our only human interests tied to what has really happened in the past? Don't we also want to read novels? And short stories? And poetry? Don't imaginative storytellers who piece together complicated plots with intricate but invented characters have something to say to us? Can't 'truth' by bigger than the bare-bones question about what happened before now?" (p. 46). This is exactly right.

We could delve into the details of the content of Ehrman's discussion, highlighting this or that insight or questioning this or that oversight. But none of that is the most important thing to note about this chapter. The most important thing is this: The Introduction hinted at a discussion of "what anthropologists have written about oral cultures and the ways they preserve their unwritten traditions" (2). Ehrman gave this chapter the title, "Oral Traditions and Oral Inventions." So it is absolutely astounding that nowhere, not in one single section or page or paragraph or sentence or word does Ehrman say a single thing about either oral tradition or oral invention. The user's manual to my minivan has exactly as much information about "what anthropologists have written about oral cultures and the ways they preserve their unwritten traditions" as this chapter. The eighteen endnotes to this chapter refer to one work on memory (remember: Engel [sic; Endel] Tulving's essay), a handful of books on the historical Jesus, and a number of editions and discussions of extra-canonical Christian texts. One looks in vain for even a single reference to even one of the following:
  • Albert B. Lord's now-classic work, The Singer of Tales (Harvard University Press, 1960), which analyzes actually oral tradition and the dynamics of composing long, metrical poetry without the accoutrements of writing (south Slavic moslem epic songs), and then applied that analysis to the Homeric epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey.
  • Jack Goody and Ian Watt's influential essay, "The Consequences of Literacy" (in J. Goody, ed., Literacy in Traditional Societies; Cambridge University Press, 1968), which undergirds most theories of the eclipse of the past by the present in oral societies, which Goody and Watt call "homeostasis."
  • Walter J. Ong's massively influential book, Orality and Literacy (Routledge, 1982), which set out to describe the effects of communicative media on thought and meaning.
  • Werner H. Kelber's ground breaking volume, The Oral and the Written Gospel (Fortress Press, 1983), which applied Ong's insights to questions of early Christian traditions, especially Q, the Gospel of Mark, and Paul's letters. This book has sparked nearly innumerable works; two books are explicitly identified as responses/reactions to it (Horsley, Draper, and Foley, eds., Performing the Gospel, and Thatcher, ed., Jesus, the Voice, and the Text), and we can probably rightly speak of a "Kelber revolution" in biblical studies.
  • Jan Vansina's seminal work, Oral Tradition as History (James Curry, 1985), which is the standard work on describing and assessing oral accounts of the past.
  • John Miles Foley's work, which transformed the legacy of Albert Lord (and his teacher, Milman Parry) and set it on a new path. Here two books are especially worthy of note: Immanent Art (Indiana University Press, 1991), and The Singer of Tales in Performance (Indiana University Press, 1995). Foley's work sets the agenda for all discussions of oral tradition and movement between media (esp. from oral performance to written text); moreover, Foley has engaged discussions of memory, media, and biblical scholarship on multiple occasions.
  • Elizabeth Tonkin's work on oral history and the transmission of historical accounts and memories apart from written texts; see Narrating Our Pasts: The Social Construction of Oral History (Cambridge University Press, 1992).
  • David C. Rubin's seminal work, Memory in Oral Traditions (Oxford University Press, 1995), which applies the work of cognitive psychologists to the question of memory and the performance and transmission of oral traditions.
  • Ruth Finnegan's extensive anthropological work among the oral traditions of Africa, including (for example) The Oral and Beyond (University of Chicago Press, 2007), or her Literacy and Orality (Callender Press, 2013), though Finnegan is in the later years of a long, productive, and influential career.
These are all seminal voices in the discussion of "Oral Traditions and Oral Inventions." Neglecting one or two would be acceptable, especially in a discussion that engaged not just the others but also a robust selection from the myriad other studies that analyze actual oral traditions, the dynamics of narrating the past in oral media, and the question of reading written texts with roots in oral events and experiences. For that matter, neither does Ehrman discuss even the now-outdated work of the form critics, those biblical scholars whom Ehrman mentioned in the Introduction (see pp. 12–13) and whose work Ehrman explicitly aims to introduce to a general-reading audience. Ehrman's discussion engages exactly no scholarship on oral tradition, whether authentic or invented (though this binary is hugely problematic), and so the title of his chapter is, at best, wrong.*

Let me say one last thing here. It gives me no joy to give such a negative critique of this chapter. And I hold out hope that his discussion of eyewitness memory, social/collective memory, and Jesus will be better and more responsive to the current state of scholarship on the issues Ehrman claims to want to talk about. But this chapter was literally nothing more than a rehashing of issues that Ehrman could have addressed (and did address) without recourse to the language or conceptual apparatus of memory and oral tradition. And that, I think, is too bad.

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)

* I had earlier used an unfortunately strong word in my criticism of Ehrman's chapter. I have chosen to delete that word, with apologies for those who saw it.


  1. Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

    Hi Raphael, thanks for your energetic commentary and analysis. I too came away from chapter one thinking that it must be mistakenly titled. For views on the "Form Critics" one must go to chapter 2, 58ff., and within those pages there is a section entitled "Were the traditions 'Controlled?'" That section comments on a few studies of oral tradition and its reliability.

    One reason that I found chapter 1 confusing was that it introduced episodic and semantic memory, but was unclear about which one the author was addressing in that chapter. It had to be semantic memory because there was no indication that eye-witness testimony was being considered. But even if we read the chapter as referencing semantic memory, there does not seem to be any explanation of how semantic memory relates to, e.g., mimesis, invention, story telling, subject choices, and so forth.

  2. From Dr. G

    I mostly agree. But keep in mind that Ehrman is a generalist writing for a huge popular audience. That genre has always been a bit loose. Though it serves the function of reaching the larger, popular audience.

    On another point? As a graduate-trained historian, I worry about asserting that in some sense we don't need objective history; we want and need emotionally compelling stories, novels. Does this mean that there is no point in trying to do objective historical study?

    I don't know if this is your intention. But this argument seems to reaffirm the Christ of faith, over historical study and science. And to, say, privilege emotionality and subjectivity, as some kind of onto-epistemological, ultimate certainty.

    1. I am quite certain that Ehrman did not intend to argue that "we don't need objective history," and if my review gave that impression, I have miscommunicated the point. Instead, as I understand him, Ehrman is simply saying—and this is right, I think—that historical accuracy isn't the only kind of knowledge people seek when they read about Jesus.

      For my own part (I am no longer speaking of Ehrman's argument), historians of Jesus have been too quick to conceive their task in terms of peeling back later, unauthentic traditions from earlier, potentially authentic ones. As I argue in "'According to the Scriptures': Suffering and the Psalms in the Speeches in Acts" (Memory and Identity in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity, ed. Tom Thatcher; SBL, 2015, pp. 241–62), "in addition to 'what actually happened,' the images and patterns that render the past culturally meaningful also require explanation" (244). This isn't an appeal to the Christ of faith over and against the Jesus of history. It's an objection to the bifurcation of history and memory.

      Interested readers can find the book here:

  3. Rafael, granted that Dr. Ehrman should have engaged with the material you mentioned, and more, if he intended to generally discuss social anthropology and oral tradition. Granted that he said he wanted to so engage. But I don't think he really wanted to do what he said he wanted to do. I think he merely meant to argue against a certain Christian fundamentalist apologetic, that the Gospels are based on memory sufficiently reliable to provide a more-or-less literal account of "what really happened." So he decided to take us through a panoply of different narratives of Jesus. They were very different narratives. They were all based on memory. Not all could be "what really happened." Ergo, memory is not reliable in the way some fundamentalists have argued.

    As you pointed out, the chapter was mostly a romp through different Jesus narratives. In that sense, it was kind of fun, though not very original. The good points were the ones you noted: memory of the past distorts to meet the needs of the present, and memory-narrative is important even if it does not describe "what really happened."

    I get that Dr. Ehrman is (so far) not writing the book you wish he'd written, or even the book he says he's written. I grant you, I'm not very interested (so far) in the book he actually wrote. But the book he actually wrote is the one I'm reading! Between you and me, I'd rather be reading Ong's book along with you. I bet I'd learn a lot! However, so long as we're reading THIS book together, I'm hoping you'll focus more on what he's doing than on what he should be doing or what he says he's doing. Because, frankly, I think there are problems with what he's doing.

    1. Thanks, Larry. You describe what Ehrman does fairly enough (I hope I did, too, in the paragraph that describes the five subheadings). And the chapter was "kind of fun," as you say.

      I'd push back against your statement that "Dr. Ehrman is (so far) not writing the book [I] wish he'd written," though I think you get closer to it when you add, "or even the book he says he's written." I emphasize to my students that they have to assess a book on its own terms. What does an author say she'll do, and how well does she do it? You can critique an author's purpose, but that only gets you so far. At the end of the day, people write the books they write, not the books we wish them to write.

      My critique of Ehrman's first chapter tried to focus on what he announced, both in the Introduction and in naming the chapter, as his intentions for his own book. He spoke of having learned what anthropologists have learned about oral tradition and memory, and he explicitly claims that all three approaches to memory that he mentions—psychology, sociology, and anthropology—are important. He critiques biblical scholars who have engaged memory studies, saying that they focus on one or maybe two of these approaches to memory when all three are important. And he explicitly says he will discuss all three.

      So when he gives this chapter the title, "Oral Traditions and Oral Inventions," he tells the reader that this is the place where we will see what anthropologists have to teach us about memory and oral tradition. It's all the more amazing—and in fact it's the only thing worth noting—that the chapter never once engages questions of oral tradition or anthropological studies thereof. What he wrote may be interesting or fun (it was), but it was not what was promised.

      I think "what he says he's doing" is the important thing. It provides the standard by which I can evaluate what he actually does. Hopefully, these two things—the book he says he has written and the book he has actually written—align more closely in future chapters.

      Be well, sir.

    2. Rafael, sorry I missed this comment. I'm listening to a recent debate between Ehrman and Richard Bauckham. I suspect that this is the debate that Ehrman had in mind when he wrote his book. I'd rather that he be engaging with you, Chris, Anthony, James and others.

  4. If we stay and remain within the 'limiting' and 'restrictive' confines of the authoritative and authentic text of the New Testament, it will save us from years of wandering and confusion - and hours of heartbreak and even darkness.

  5. From Dr. G:

    I guess I'm interested in all three of the categories in Larry's amusing taxonomy: 1) what Ehrman should have written for academics or people with advanced degrees; 2) what Ehrman said he wrote; and 3) what Ehrman actually wrote.

    Since he's writing for a pop - and even at times fundamentalist - audience, I might excuse Ehrman for deciding to illustrate the unreliability of individual witnesses, and perhaps oral accounts, by using something like a familiar example: the conflicts between Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Granted, there would be problems with that model. But considering where his audience is at, it would be a useful place to start.

  6. Hi Rafael- have been looking at the endnotes of the chapters in Ehrman's book (haven't read it myself) and it looks like he reads a number of these works and quotes them in his work in Chapter 5. I don't know if you've got there yet- if not, then fine, but just be careful.

    As I see it, I've searched through Ehrman's book, and the craziest omission which I can see is Greg Boyd and Paul Eddy's work "The Jesus Legend", which I thought dealt with a number of these questions and yet does not appear in the endnotes. He does have a chapter in response to Bauckham, to be fair to him, but it seems mad to me that there's nothing on Eddy and Boyd. However, I did want to note a number of quotations of some of the works you mentioned e.g. Vansina, The Singer of Tales, and Rubin. Hope that helps :)

  7. What exactly have memory studies contributed to the question of the historical authenticity (or inauthenticity) of an particular story or passage in the Gospels? Can someone please point me to a particular example or two where memory theory has provided definitive evidence or definitely tipped the scales in favor of one story or passage being historically authentic or inauthentic?

    Also, it seems that conservatives cite the most extreme example of perfect memories carried over for more than a generation, while liberals cite the most extreme examples of invented tales not based on memory, and moderates alternate citing one or the other. Which leaves biblical studies exactly were they were, with conservative, moderate, and liberal views of the historical authenticity or inauthenticity of various stories and passages in the Gospels.

    1. Edward,

      Social memory theory does not address the question of in/authenticity, so I cannot point to "a particular example or two where memory theory has provided definitive evidence or definitively tipped the scales in amor of one story or passage being historically authentic or inauthentic." Memory theory reframes the program of historical Jesus research away from the authentication of individual units of tradition and then, ostensibly as a subsequent step, the reconstruction of the historical Jesus on the basis of surviving ("authentic") material. In fact, this was the source of frustration (at least for me) at the 2013 SBL meeting, in which Paul Foster seemed unable to understand that memory theory opens up broader questions of history rather than addressing narrower questions of authenticity. His insistence that Chris Keith and I were doing useful work but were not doing historical Jesus scholarship was part of an insistence that only authentication of individual traditions qualifies as historical Jesus research. But this is not how history is done in broader discussions, and my work (and that of others, like Chris Keith, Anthony Le Donne, Jens Schröter, and now many others) is trying to open up the question of what the gospels, as memorial artifacts, or commemorative texts, are.

      You are, sadly, right that many people cite one side of memory work or the other (Bauckham and Ehrman might be useful as examples here). But it's not the case that "moderates alternate" and so "leave biblical studies exactly where they were." Yes, this is the result if we appeal to memory studies to answer traditional questions of authenticity. But if we actually engage the heart of memory studies and learn from them (not just about the accuracy or inaccuracy of memory, but more so the uses and functions of memory, its stabilities and malleabilities, its semiotic/cultural functions, its power dynamics, etc.), this work puts biblical studies and historiography on a different path, a more useful and productive path.

    2. From Dr. G:

      When I got my doctorate years ago in Culture Studies, semiotics, though, I found that sometimes, particularly in religion, "social function" arguments were used to try to fully justify and validate religion completely.

      So for example, religious dogma it is said, increases in-group unity and unanimity. Which was seen as a wholly good thing. Often (if not always) in giving everyone a feelgood sensation of unanimity. But? Here the problem was that here the negative side of small-group or even national solidarity, was often ignored: that the group after all, defined itself in part in contrast and exaggerated opposition to Other - and thereby demonized - rivals. Resulting in increased conflicts, wars, with rival groups.

      So as religious study enters this to-it new field, I'd like to note a few common pitfalls there.

      Probably this specific kind of problem might be partly dealt with by a general awareness that the field of religion is full of extreme emotional commitments. And it might be dealt with by keeping in mind the perennial contest in religion between an 1) apologetic vs. 2) an objective critical perspective.

      Probably everyone here is more or less aware of this. But as deeply-indoctrinated as many are from infancy in belief and faith, it shouldn't be too surprising that it takes a continual and conscious effort to discover impartiality, in this field.

      In fact, I often feel that probably the only way to overcome a tyically partial view of religion, to open things up for an eventually balanced perspective, is to adopt a very, very negative view of relugion, for a decade or two.

  8. Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

    Raphael, since I have not yet read a book solely about social memory, I thank you for these clarifying remarks about the role of memory studies, paricularly, "Memory theory reframes the program of historical Jesus research away from the authentication of individual units of tradition and then, ostensibly as a subsequent step, the reconstruction of the historical Jesus on the basis of surviving ('authentic') material."

    First, have we in anyway gotten to the second step?

    Second, how does this process work? If we say that memory supports an individual or group's 'current reason for living,' so to speak, do we lay out that reason, look for material that supports it, and then call that material the best we can do for 'what actually happened'? For example:

    Mark: "Let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me...The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many." (8:34, 10:45)

    Paul: "Apart from the law the righteousness of God (the condemning of sin) has been disclosed...through faith in Christ Jesus (who crucified sin) for all who believe." (Rom 3:21-22, Gal 3:19)

    Would we look for materials (memories) that support those identities, and then say that's the closest we can get to what happened? So Mark suggests that we should be looking for 'cross' material and 'service' material to clue us in on memories, and Paul suggests that we look for 'law, faith, righteousness, and cross' material to clue us in on memories.

    Am I thinking in the ball park, at all?

  9. I too noticed (on a quick skimming) of the Notes that he does mention the work of several of those "seminal" scholars in the field of memory. It seems like a fair critique would have given a nod to the fact that he does mention them a in later chapters.