Baker Academic

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 4)

After a two-week hiatus, I'm finally able to continue my serial review of Bart Ehrman's recent book, Jesus before the Gospels (HarperOne, 2016). Chapter 3, entitled "Eyewitness Testimonies and Our Surviving Gospels" (pp. 87–130), addresses two questions:
[First,] Are the Gospels based on stories about Jesus that had been passed around, changed, and possibly invented by Christian storytellers for decades before being written down, or were they written by eyewitnesses? [And second,] If they were written by eyewitnesses, would that guarantee their essential accuracy? (p. 88)
Ehrman addresses these questions in reverse order.

The latter question, of course, is answered negatively, and with convincing references to research into memory and eyewitness testimony (pp. 88–100). Ehrman briefly narrates results from studies that indicate not only that people err in recalling details of events they actually did witness, but also that people can even erroneously believe they are remembering events that, in fact, they only imagined (p. 94). In addition to contemporary (20th and 21st century) studies of eyewitness testimony, Ehrman discusses "memories of the Baal Shem Tov," the 18th-century founder of Hasidic Judaism, the accounts of whose life claim access to eyewitness testimony (pp. 95–100). From both of these discussions, both of which emphasize memory's malleability, Ehrman draws a helpfully nuanced conclusion: "[Eyewitness memories] are not necessarily reliable. And, of course, they are not necessarily unreliable either! All of them have to be examined historically to see whether and how far they preserve accurate memories of Jesus and distorted memories" (100).

The rest of the chapter addresses the former question: Are the Gospels based on eyewitness testimony and/or written by eyewitnesses themselves? (pp. 100–130). Ehrman begins, rightly, with a mention of Richard Bauckham's famous book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (Eerdmans, 2006). I reviewed Bauckham's book for Biblical Theology Bulletin; as readers can see, I was (and am) critical of Bauckham's work. However, Ehrman is unnecessarily dismissive of Bauckham ("Outside the ranks of conservative evangelical Christians, very few if any biblical scholars have found Bauckham's case persuasive"; p. 101); the main reason Ehrman gives for rejecting Bauckham's work is rooted in Jesus' and his followers' confinement to poor, uneducated, rural Palestine: "those who were involved with Jesus in his ministry were lower-class Aramaic-speaking Jews in rural Palestine. . . . The same can almost certainly be said about virtually all of his followers" (pp. 101–2). The only person with certain access to eyewitnesses was Paul, and Ehrman emphasizes that, "even though Paul is our one direct link to an eyewitness report, he doesn't give us much information about Jesus" (102–6 [106]). The bulk of the chapter surveys the original anonymity of the canonical Gospels and how they got their current appellations in the mid- to late-second century.

Ehrman's use of memory studies in this chapter is much more responsible than in previous chapters. He accurately relates the generally problematic nature of eyewitness memory and testimony, which nature Bauckham largely ignored or marginalized. However, here memory research itself is open, I think, to some criticism. Barry Schwartz (whom Ehrman cited approvingly in his Introduction; see pp. 5–8) often complains that experimental research on eyewitness memory is artificially contrived precisely in order to maximize and highlight the very thing it finds: memory's errors. This complaint does not negate such findings; we simply must account for the ways that experience as well as imagination contribute to our memories of things past, so that the distinction between remembering actual experiences and imagined ones is often (if not always) difficult to draw. Even so, Schwartz points out that none of us—apart perhaps from some manifestation of mental illness—lives our life as if our memories were tenuous and prone as often as not to be wrong. Sometimes I forget where I parked my car, but not usually. I never—almost never, at worst—forget where my office is. I may forget my anniversary, but that simply means I have forgotten that this day is my anniversary, not that I have forgotten when I duped my wife into marrying me. Memory is fallible, yes. And sometimes the things we think we remember never actually happened. More common, however, is that our memories of events that actually did happen differ than our experiences of those events at the time.

Again, this is not a critique of Ehrman as much as it is of (eyewitness) memory studies. Ehrman rightly notes that eyewitness memory both is and is not accurate, so that access to eyewitness testimony is not, tout court, a guarantee of that testimony's historical accuracy or its truth (these are two different things). And Ehrman's conclusion on p. 100 (cited above) is appropriate. If eyewitness memory can be either accurate or inaccurate, and if eyewitness claims "have to be examined historically" (p. 100), one wonders what memory studies has offered Ehrman that he did not have before. What gain has memory studies offered Ehrman's understanding either of the historical Jesus or the early Christian traditions about him? I was unable to identify much in this regard, especially since Ehrman rejects that eyewitness testimony played any role whatsoever in the formation of our Gospels.

We might make other observations about Ehrman's approach to "examin[ing] historically" the claims made either by the Gospel-writers themselves or by early Christians (to the turn of the third century CE). After examining the claims made by the second-century bishop of Hierapolis, Papias (which claims Bauckham features prominently throughout his book), Ehrman rejects Papias as a reliable witness even if he were claiming what Bauckham and others say he is claiming.
So can we rest assured about the truth of what Papias says, since he can provide guarantees based on his careful memory? It doesn't look like it. The only traditions about Jesus we have from his pen are clearly not accurate. Why should we think that what he says about Matthew and Mark are accurate? My hunch is that the only reason readers have done so is because they would like him to be accurate when he says things they agree with, even when they know he is not accurate when he says things they disagree with. (p. 118)
This strikes me as an unfair swipe at historians, especially but not only Richard Bauckham. Ehrman has every right to challenge and critique both the interpretation and the reliability of Papias. But when he implies that "the only reason" historians might believe some of Papias's claims but not others is prejudice and bias, he betrays and indicts his own historical craft. After all, Ehrman himself accepts Mark's claim that Jesus "spent almost his entire life in Galilee before making a trip to Jerusalem in the last week of his life" (p. 101), and he similarly accepts (and actually goes further than) Acts' claim that the disciple John was illiterate (Acts 4.13; see Ehrman, pp. 109, 126). But it would be unfair of us to critique Ehrman for wanting Mark or Luke to be accurate when they say things he agrees with, even when he knows they are not accurate when they say things he disagrees with. Rather, Ehrman has made historical judgments, in just the same that Bauckham and others have. We may disagree with any of these judgments; this is the business of history and historiography. But we needn't impugn the integrity of our fellow historians (a lesson I myself continue to learn; see the update at the bottom of the second installment of this series).

One more critique. Ehrman offers a positive proposal for how the originally anonymous Gospels came to be known as "According to Matthew," "According to Mark," and so on (pp. 124–25). He proposes that "some kind of authoritative and influential edition of the four Gospels was published and circulated in Rome," which edition named our texts with the names we know and influenced the rest of the church—all of it!—to accept these names for the four texts that would eventually become canonical. Important parts of this hypothesis are (i) the observation that both Irenaeus and the Muratorian Fragment knew our four Gospels by name in Rome, and (ii) the assumption that Rome exerted sufficient authority in the second century CE to effect this kind of change across the whole of Christianity. This latter assumption deserves quoting at length:
Since Rome was the theological and practical center of Christendom at the time, and since it had so many people—Christians included—coming to and from the city, this edition of the Gospels spears quickly throughout the worldwide church.” (pp. 124–25; my emphasis)
This, however is a thoroughly anachronistic portrayal both of Rome's influence and of the state of Christianity in the late-second and early-third centuries. The historical reality is that, in fact, Rome did not exert this level of influence so early in the history of Christian origins and that Christianity in the late-second and early-third centuries was sufficiently diffused that the Roman church could not command the allegiance Ehrman's proposal requires.

The overwhelming likelihood is that, in fact, the Gospels were originally anonymous (as Ehrman claims). Moreover, claims regarding their authorship are neither verifiable nor falsifiable (despite Ehrman's confidence to the contrary). We simply do not have the extant evidence we would like to know such things. And so the story of how our Gospels came to be known as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John must remain untold.

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. Martin Hengel managed a very provocative challenge to the anonymity of the Gospels in The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ. I think it's worth careful consideration, at least to temper confidence about the commonplace assertion that the Gospels were anonymous.

    1. Yes, indeed. But the Gospels' original anonymity is still the majority position, and I don't fault Ehrman for adopting it. For my own part, I think the Gospels' ascriptions, though not original, are earlier than Ehrman argues.

  2. In their debate on the radio show "Unbelievable?", Bauckham pointed out the difference in the studies Erhman pointed to (mainly dealing with impartial observers), and the ones that Bauckham described as showing reliable memories (mainly involving personal investment in the situation). Ehrman did not seem to have a good response to that nuance.

    1. I need to listen to this debate. Thank you, Anonymous. (BTW, I'm honored to have hacktivists among my readers.)

      Whatever one thinks of either Bauckham's or Ehrman's work, the issue of what experimenters ask subjects to remember, who those subjects are, why subjects should try to remember (and, relatedly, how hard subjects should exert themselves to remember accurately), and how (i.e., the conditions in which) subjects experienced the event being remembered as well as were asked to recall that event are all factors that need to be addressed whenever anyone applies the results of memory experiments to the Gospels. This is especially the case if the primary question we're trying to answer is how accurate memory is (both Bauckham and Ehrman seem particularly focused on accuracy).

    2. Round 1 of the Ehrman/Bauckham debate, which is more about authorship:

      Round 2 of their debate, which is more about memory:

    3. Link to that part of Bauckham's speech:

      Starts about 10 minutes in.

  3. I have yet to read the book, which I am interested to do, but is there any distinction in Ehrman's discussion between autobiographical memory and rote memorization? It seems to me that this is significant for distinguishing between memories of events that can easily be colored by emotion, forgetfulness, wishful-thinking, faulty-thinking, or influenced by the memories of others, etc., and teachings and stories of a teacher whose memorization is (or might be) more dependent upon techniques of learning common at the time in Judaism, and in many other parts of the Mediterranean world.

    1. I am literally reviewing the book as I read it, so I can only speak of the book up through the third chapter. At this point he hasn't made any clear distinction between autobiographical memory and rote memorization. The distinction he has made is between "episodic memory" and "semantic memory" (see Chapter 1), which is nearer the distinction between recalling events that one has directly experienced (episodic memory) and recalling facts (semantic memory).

      I think, John, that I would be careful—and you may be; I'm speaking only of my reaction to your comment—to avoid the assumption of a clean distinction between "memories of events" and the emotions, gaps, desires, mistakes, and influences of others that themselves constitute how we remember those events. For example, we cannot speak of my memory of my wedding apart or distinct from the joy and anxiety that comprised my experiences of that event. The joy and anxiety are themselves aspects of my experience of my wedding and my memories of it; they are not distortions of my memory.

      PS Your comment reminds me of Birger Gerhardsson's thesis. Ehrman does deal—superficially, IMHO—with Memory and Manuscript in a subsection entitled "Weren't the Traditions Memorized?" (pp. 66–71), but nowhere in this section does he deal with research on either memory or memorization.

  4. Your summary looks quite useful. Though I think you might be neglecting the thesis that most biblical writings were not by eyewitnesses at all.

    Marcus Borg liked to note that when the Old Testament said "and Moses died," obviously Moses himself could not have written that. And if you look at the New Testament, you see dozens of similar things. That suggests strongly that no part of the gospels were written by eyewitnesses.

    Indeed, considers this: when we read the Bible, we ourselves are reading a much-edited book. We are not personally interviewing a live witness, who claims to have seen something.

    In fact, no book is ever an eyewitness.

    1. Not at all, Anonymous. I mention Ehrman's discussion of "[t]The only person with certain access to eyewitnesses" (viz., Paul), which implies that the Gospels were not written by eyewitnesses.

      I don't think anyone claims the written texts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John are eyewitnesses. They only claim that these texts bear some relationship to eyewitness testimony. I would not necessarily defend that thesis; I'm just pointing out that no one thinks we are "personally interviewing a live witness" when we read the Bible.

  5. Two things: my question is not posed regarding the Hebrew Bible and its oral traditions, only the far shorter time period between the ministry of Jesus and the writings of the NT; and it does not suggest that the Gospels are written by eyewitnesses, only that the authors are dependent upon oral traditions, many of which can be traced back to eyewitnesses. The questions of types of memory, then, would still be relevant for (some of) the traditions in the Gospels.

  6. Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

    Below are two personal examples of eyewitness memory that others might find useful and interesting.

    1. A distant memory. Recently a sales manager for a windows company came to my home. As my wife and I filled out the paper work for our order, I noted the multiple pages and multiple contexts that required our signatures. I said to him: "Years ago we contracted for a new laundry and bath from a small business contractor, and I recall that the entire transaction was done on a half sheet of paper which listed the work and the costs and which he and I signed."

    Having memory studies in mind, I went back through my records and found the original paperwork. What I found was an original 6/96 three page proposal, including drawings, and a subsequent 4/97 five page list of work and costs, one of which was a half-page listing the total costs each of the bathroom and laundry, the amount of the down payment, and final check of payment in full. The half page was letterhead but there were no signatures, only a note marked paid.

    So what I actually recalled about 20 years late was a 'generally accurate' memory of the final half page. What was my personal investment: probably an idealized image of the hard-working small business man who makes the paperwork easy.

    2. A short-term memory. My wife and I are involved in delivering meals every other week for a local Meals on Wheels program. We have a certain route that we follow to and from our deliveries.

    I said to her, "You know when we're going down McKinley street to pick up our meals, and then we cross over main street and go down the side street,
    the last time I saw..." She said, "We don't go that way to pick up the meals, we go by Washington street." I said, "What do you mean," and I began to argue, "You know I hate the traffic on Washington street." Well, we both dropped the subject. But the very next Meals on Wheels gig, she was right. I found myself driving down Washington street, and the route I had described was what we used to return the empty containers.

    So, did I just have an old man's (72) memory warp? Was I overly invested in hating Washington street traffic? Possibly both.

    In both of these cases there was some accuracy in my memory, but the full picture was left dissolved and distorted, and I had an emotional investment in each.

  7. Author's Corrections: consider

    1. Two of the biggest assumptions that many Christians make regarding the truth claims of Christianity is that, one, eyewitnesses wrote the four gospels. The problem is, however, that the majority of scholars today do not believe this is true. The second big assumption many Christians make is that it would have been impossible for whoever wrote these four books to have invented details in their books, especially in regards to the Empty Tomb and the Resurrection appearances, due to the fact that eyewitnesses to these events would have still been alive when the gospels were written and distributed.

      But consider this, dear Reader: Most scholars date the writing of the first gospel, Mark, as circa 70 AD. Who of the eyewitnesses to the death of Jesus and the alleged events after his death were still alive in 70 AD? That is four decades after Jesus' death. During that time period, tens of thousands of people living in Palestine were killed in the Jewish-Roman wars of the mid and late 60's, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem.

      How do we know that any eyewitness to the death of Jesus in circa 30 AD was still alive when the first gospel was written and distributed in circa 70 AD? How do we know that any eyewitness to the death of Jesus ever had the opportunity to read the Gospel of Mark and proof read it for accuracy?

      I challenge Christians to list the name of even ONE eyewitness to the death of Jesus who was still alive in 70 AD along with the evidence to support your claim.

      If you can't list any names, dear Christian, how can you be sure that details such as the Empty Tomb, the detailed resurrection appearances, and the Ascension ever really occurred? How can you be sure that these details were not simply theological hyperbole...or...the exaggerations and embellishments of superstitious, first century, mostly uneducated people, who had retold these stories thousands of times, between thousands of people, from one language to another, from one country to another, over a period of many decades?