Baker Academic

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 3)

The first chapter of Bart D. Ehrman's book, Jesus before the Gospels, led the reader to expect a discussion of "Oral Traditions and Oral Inventions," though that chapter proved utterly disappointing as such. In actual fact, that chapter provided examples of "false" or "distorted" memories ("a memory that is wrong"; p. 19) from texts beyond the boundary of the NT canon, memories that focus on the whole range of Jesus' life, from his birth and childhood through his life and death and onto his resurrection and emergence from the tomb.

The second chapter, entitled "The History of Invention," extends the discussion from Chapter 1 into the canonical Gospels, especially the Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke). The question driving this discussion is: Do the canonical Gospels contain "distorted" memories, "memories of things that did not really happen"? (49). That is, were there processes or social structures in place to prevent processes of distortion—which were so visibly displayed from later (second century CE and beyond) texts in Chapter 1—from affecting the memory of Jesus in the canonical Gospels?

Ehrman argues that, in fact, the same distortive processes at work in extra-canonical texts' portrayals of Jesus were also at work in the New Testament Gospels. Before making the argument, Ehrman asks why NT readers have been so slow to recognize these processes in the NT when they have so readily noticed them in non-biblical texts: "It is interesting that so many people can instantly recognize distorted memories about Jesus from outside the New Testament but cannot see them inside it. I suppose it is for the same reason that readers of the Bible typically do not see discrepancies int he New Testament Gospels until someone points them out to them" (50). He explains this failure of perception by citing Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris's famous study on "selective attention" (see the video, below); people don't see distorted memories in the New Testament because they weren't looking for them and so ignored (in the sense of "failed to perceive") those distortions. "Critical scholars of the New Testament," however, have long recognized these distortions, despite the failure of many to even notice them.

Ehrman begins by providing a lengthy (pp. 52–58) survey of Hermann Samuel Reimarus's view of Jesus, focusing especially on the fragment, "The Intention of Jesus and His Teaching." Writing for a popular audience, Ehrman describes Reimarus as "the very first biblical scholar to write an account of Jesus's life not from a religious or theological point of view . . . but from a critical point of view . . . with a keen eye for discrepancies and inventions" (52). Ehrman concedes that, today, "virtually no one accepts [Reimarus's] specific reconstruction of the life of Jesus," but Reimarus opens the way for scholars to recognize and chronicle how even "the early years after Jesus's death" were characterized by altering (distorting) and even inventing traditions about Jesus' life and teaching (57).

If Reimarus got the question of Jesus wrong but, nevertheless, made it possible for us to ask that question, where do we go from there? Ehrman offers a brief survey of nineteenth-century Gospels scholarship and the emerging consensus that Mark is the earliest of the canonical Gospels. If Mark is earliest Gospel, it must also be the most historical accurate and least theologically distorted, or so it was thought until William Wrede demonstrated that even this, the earliest of our extant texts, is thoroughly theological (= distorted). This leads directly to the work of the form critics: "If the earliest of our Gospels is not just historical but also theological, what about the traditions about Jesus before the Gospels were written? That became the concern of the form critics, . . . who wanted to shift the focus of attention away from the written Gospels to the traditions lying behind them" (61; italics in the original). Ehrman gives a brief précis of twentieth-century form critics (pp. 62–66). He is largely sympathetic to the contribution of the form critics to our knowledge of the pre-Gospel Jesus tradition: "Today, nearly a century after Schmidt, Dibelius, and Bultmann did their work, we are still more or less in their same boat, even if it is now motored with newer equipment" (65).  Their primary contribution, we might infer, is simply this: "the surviving accounts of Jesus's life embody recollections of Jesus as these were passed down by word of mouth over all these years" (66).

The next two sections address two objections to this contribution: First, citing the work of Birger Gerhardsson, "Weren't the traditions memorized?" (pp. 66–71). Second, citing the work of Kenneth Bailey, "Were the traditions 'controlled'?" (pp. 71–78). Both objections are found wanting, especially as both are designed to protect the memories of Jesus preserved in the canonical records by positing social structures that guaranteed stricter memorial accuracy than that displayed in Chapter 1. Gerhardsson proposed that Jesus, as a first-century Jewish teacher ("rabbi"), required his disciples to memorize his teachings verbatim before attempting to expand, interpret, or apply them, but this model, explains Ehrman, is anachronistic, lacks explicit support in the Gospels, and does not fit the record of Jesus' teachings preserved in the Gospels. Bailey proposed that the early communities of Jesus' followers exerted social control over the degree of acceptable variation in recounting stories about Jesus, but Ehrman counters that groups of people actually remember less (and less accurately) than individuals remembering singly, as individuals (75–76), and he also refers to Theodore Weeden's rejoinder to Bailey's work.

The final section of Chapter 2 proposes a model of "how the traditions circulated" (pp. 78–86). This model stresses the oral aspect of the traditions' circulation; literacy rates were shockingly low (by modern standards; see Catherine Hezser's book, Jewish Literacy in Roman Palestine [cited on p. 80]), so the transmission of the Jesus tradition took on dynamics much like undergraduate students passing on stories of their or their friends' experiences in a morgue (see pp. 80–81). As more and more converts—flung across the Mediterranean basin and, for the most part, completely disconnected from any eyewitnesses to Jesus' life and teachings—told stories about Jesus, the tradition was subjected to more and more distorting pressures. Accurate stories were distorted in the telling, and new stories were invented and/or attributed to Jesus. "Anyone who thinks the stories don't get changed, and changed radically, and even invented in the process of telling and retelling, simply does not know, or has never thought about, what happens to stories in oral circulation, as they are handed down by word of mouth, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, and decade after decade" (86).

This chapter is a marked improvement over the previous one; at the very least, Chapter 2 actually addresses its announced theme ("the history of invention")! Ehrman frequently engages in over-simplification (e.g., his quasi-heroic portrayal of Reimarus as the first critical biblical scholar), but many readers will likely excuse this in light of his writing for a general readership. In my opinion, the greatest weakness of Chapter 2 is its basic approbation of the work of the form critics. Despite some impressive voices who have recently sought to salvage what was useful from the form-critical legacy (including Samuel Byrskog's reformulation of the Sitz im Leben), I am doubtful that Ehrman's "same boat . . . now motored with newer equipment" (65) sufficiently expresses just how far contemporary NT scholarship has moved beyond the conceptual and procedural assumptions that Bultmann, Dibelius, and the other form critics brought to the texts.

Anthropologists (e.g., Ruth Finnegan) and Folklorists (e.g., Albert Lord) do not conceive of tradition in terms of "layers" that can be peeled back to expose earlier forms, and John Miles Foley's work, which focuses explicitly on, among other things, the transfer from one medium (e.g., oral performance) to another (e.g., oral-derived text) certainly does not conceive of pre-written oral traditions in terms of individual stories ("pericopes") stripped from their narrative contexts. The work of the form critics—at least insofar as it was grasping at the pre-Gospel oral tradition—was already outdated when Lord published his landmark Singer of Tales in 1960, the same year that Gerhardsson proposed his important but problematic rejoinder, Memory and Manuscript. Moreover, E. P. Sanders demonstrated in 1969 that form-critical notions of the development of the Jesus tradition along orderly, measurable trajectories was fundamentally wrong-headed (see Sanders, The Tendencies of the Synoptic Tradition; Cambridge University Press). Gerhardsson and Bailey might not offer the most helpful way beyond the form-critical impasse, but neither do they exhaust the breadth of NT scholarship's engagement with questions of oral tradition and transmission in the last three or four decades. My hope is that Ehrman will engage this breadth more comprehensively in future chapters.

One thing, however, seems increasingly likely as I progress through the chapters of Jesus before the Gospels: Ehrman continues to exhibit the obsession, traditional among historians of Jesus, with an Archimedean point from which to survey and assess the "accuracy" of the early Christians' texts (esp. the Gospels). Jesus, in this perspective, said or did x, and the texts either do or they don't accurately record x. We, however, no longer have access to this Archimedean point (as if we ever did), and so this kind of analysis which Ehrman offers is, in fact, impossible. This does not mean the Gospels are, thanks to memory, automatically authentic texts whose historical claims are unproblematic. Instead, it means that their images of Jesus saying x or doing y are vehicles of meaning that carry forward the legacy of the past in order to frame the present, giving meaning to the chaotic flux of human experience and orienting people toward possible and possibly appropriate courses of action in the present. We will have to see to what extent Ehrman engages this aspect of memory in the chapters still to come.

As before, 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. Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

    Raphael, you wrote: "The gospel images of Jesus saying x or doing y are vehicles of meaning that carry forward the legacy of the past in order to frame the present, giving meaning to the chaotic flux of human experience and orienting people toward possible and possibly appropriate courses of action in the present."

    As one who is struggling to understand the language of memory scholarship, I am wondering about the following:

    What would be an example of a "vehicle of meaning,"
    of "framing the present," of "a possible course of appropriate action in the present," and does "present" refer to the present of the gospel writer, the present of any reader, or both?

    And one does one do with a validity argument over NT material. For example, how should Paul's claim in 1:18-24 be handled, a two week visit with Peter and James in Jerusalem. Those verses are not attested to in the church fathers for Marcion's version (BeDuhn, The 1st NT, 262). Yet Ehrman chooses to treat the claim as accurate (p.74). This matter could actually have nothing to do with Paul's memory, and if not it is a manipulation of the memory of those who came after (by an interpolator?). Ehrman could have made the wrong diagnosis, and if he did, he's created a huge fiction that Paul knew enough to begin any story telling at all. How would the language of memory theory describe Gal 1:18-24 as a "vehicle of meaning" that "frames the present?"

  2. From Dr G:

    This summary looks really good. Though I'm still worried by your occasional tendency to suggest that changes to or within the growing Jesus traditions, tend to inevitably be mostly, functional and good; since they are said to rework old ideas to very effectively meet, answer, later social problems. As per the Fuctionalist school in Sociology.

    The functionalist approach has its usefulness. And I use it all the time myself. However, when I speak of some new cultural production as "solving" some culture's problems, or cognitive quandaries, I keep in mind that these "solutions" are mainly still vague talismans, rather than firm or infallible solutions for us all.

    So I'm greatful for your noting two potentially distict outcomes to our later mythmaking: 1) possible and 2) possibly appropriate outcomes.

    I agree especially that Ehrman seems naive in positing or always assuming a single historically-reliable origin or stimulus, as an Archimedian point. Though here I myself retain a scientist's sense that there is a fairly objective physical reality behind everything: a fairly solid natural world.

    So for example, the resurrection might not have come from an historical Jesus. But it did come from the primitive observation that plant life lives on underground in the winter, in seeds and roots. To reappear in the spring, reborn on the surface. In the new foliage.

    Borrowing from the Science of Anthropology among others, I personally am no longer a Poststructuralist, or a complete subjectivist. As a post-Poststructuralist,I reaffirm a solid reality out there. Not historical Jesus to be sure. But all of say, Nature.

    I'm currently supporting the old Poststructuralism in this forum. But only as a stage to a kind of post-postpostructuralist realism, or science.

  3. "Ehrman continues to exhibit the obsession, traditional among historians of Jesus, with an Archimedean point from which to survey and assess the "accuracy" of the early Christians' texts (esp. the Gospels)."

    You are not the first to point this out. He seems so burned by the literalism of his early years, that he measures everything by, and against, that approach and standard. Literalism seems to be his Moby Dick, but he wants to poison all (or most) other aspects of the Christian faith with it.

  4. Rafael
    There further you go, the more I am convinced that Francis Watson would be incredibly frustrated reading Ehrman...😁