A Cursory Review of Bart Ehrman’s “Jesus Before The Gospels”

The book in question is the latest of Ehrman’s works. In a nutshell, the book is not without merit, but it’s not exactly a must-read either.

The main focus of the book is to discuss human memory, and how it relates to oral traditions that are passed on for any length of time without the benefit of being written down. Much of what he discusses is not exactly new; perhaps a half-decade ago the New Yorker had an article discussing the latest findings on eyewitness testimony. But having it put into this context is definitely a good thing. To make a long story short, eyewitness testimony is extremely unreliable. Just because someone was on the scene and saw what happened does not make them a reliable witness. Obviously, this has enormous implications for the criminal justice system because eyewitness testimony is often the evidence that clinches a conviction. Unfortunately, any number of people who have been convicted on such evidence were, in fact, innocent. The overturning of convictions based on DNA evidence has shown how unreliable eyewitness testimony is. People don’t always see what they think they did, of course, but the real problem is that human memory is very often fallacious.

That is the crux of the book: that we cannot trust memories. Study after study, dating back a century or even more, has shown that memory just does not work very well most of the time. More, it can be influenced significantly by outside suggestion, like the questions of a prosecuting attorney. A great test of this is to talk to siblings about something that happened as children, and different members of the family will remember very different events. And it’s not just the interpretation of events, but the basic facts. We were in the blue Chevy. No, it was the red Ford. I was wearing my cowboy boots. No, this was the year before you got them. Et cetera. But that’s not all: one member of the discussion can introduce something absolutely wrong, something completely fabricated, and other members of the discussion will often come to accept this as fact. Then, when these other members recount the story, they incorporate these fabrications into the story and will swear up and down that the fabrication happened, and that s/he can remember it as plain as day.

Of course these new revelations about the evidence of memory carries a tremendous impact for the likely historicity of the events of Jesus’ life. Since there was no written record, and since the stories of Jesus were passed down orally for forty years, these “memories” are very likely to have been corrupted, distorted, or flat-out fabricated somewhere along the way. In fact, taking Ehrman’s arguments to their logical conclusion, there is approximately zero probability that any of the stories of Jesus happened in any way even vaguely resembling the way they’re described. If they happened at all.

Before anyone brings up the whole “oral tradition” thing, Ehrman deals with that as well. It turns out that oral traditions–think The Iliad–are not all that reliable in the way that we usually think of the term. We’ve mentioned family events, and how differently they are remembered. Long stories passed down orally have an enormous amount of variation in each telling. Different anthropologists have sat with different groups of oral story tellers on numerous occasions and have come to an interesting conclusion. When a long story is related orally, the same storyteller can–and will, and does–tell the same story differently on different occasions. On every different occasion. The different variants have been recorded and compared and they are not only different, but the length of the story can vary with each telling. Sometimes the second telling is twice as long–or half as long–as the first. And yet, the storyteller will insist that the story is absolutely the same. The conclusion is that, in an oral tradition, “reciting” a story is synonymous with “composing” the story as the teller goes along. This strikes us as incredible. Impossible, even, but there it is. Anyone familiar with Homer knows that Achilles is fleet of foot, or that Odysseos is a wily sacker of cities, or that the child of morning is rosy-fingered Dawn*. More, these epithets are repeated dozens of times throughout the work. What these rote phrases do is give the poet a moment to reflect and decide what comes next. The implication of all this is that the idea of a single, unvarying story is a creation of the written word. It does not exist in oral traditions. Anyone who’s actually read primary sources of Greek myth realizes that there is no one “gospel truth” text for a lot of myths. They can and do vary from telling to telling. The playwrights, perhaps Euripides in particular, did not feel compelled to tell the story the way that Hesiod had told it.

[ * As an aside, each figure usually has two or three such epithets. The poet uses different ones to fit different aspects of the metre. So sometimes Achilles is fleet of foot; at others, he is the son of Peleus. ]

So we have a toxic combination of bad memories combined with unstable  oral traditions. This is why we might question whether we can trust anything. This is a very useful thing to keep in mind when reading the NT, the basis of which is stories told (presumably) by eyewitnesses and passed down for a few decades before being written down. Based on Ehrman’s argument, or his evidence, we cannot be sure any of it happened.

This is a tad disconcerting, to say the least.

One thing that I found interesting is the way he describes that we see the past through the lens of the present. Thus, some of the stories told about Jesus are actually more about the group telling the story 10 or 20 or 30 years later than it is about the time of Jesus. Ehrman uses the example of John’s virulent antipathy towards “the Jews”. This was, he reasons, probably a story told by a group that had come into serious and protracted conflict with “the Jews”. That is, it dates from a time when Christians had Jews has become pretty much separated, which necessarily means the stories date from a time decades after Jesus. Just so, the stories of the Destruction–the so-called apocalyptic teachings of Jesus–actually date to a time after the destruction of Jerusalem in the Jewish war. Odd, but Ehrman doesn’t draw that conclusion about the apocalyptic stories. I wonder why.

There are two main flaws in the book. The first is that, while it clocks in at 295 pages, he could have gotten the same point across in perhaps half that time. He gives five examples when two would have sufficed, that sort of thing. This is annoying, but only minimally so. It means I skimmed over pages at a time. So this is minor.

The real problem is in the approach he takes. He tells us repeatedly that the memories, as recorded, are likely unreliable; but he never, ever, not once steps back to ask if the people telling the stories were at all concerned that the facts may not have been accurate. It never seems to occur to him that factual accuracy may not have been the point of the authors of the NT. The authors of the gospels were writing neither history or nor biography; it was hagiography. The failure to understand this, or at least acknowledge that the possibility that this possibility exists, is a major flaw in my opinion. He is examining the text on terms that may not have been important to the task the authors were setting out to accomplish.

In the end, it comes down to a difference in philosophy between Dr Ehrman and me. He is bringing in as much evidence as he can to perform valid source criticism. The gods know that people like Martin Luther and others have been psych0-analyzed a hundred times in order to get at their motivations so we can explain why they really did what they did. In a lot of cases, perhaps particularly in the case of Luther, the why didn’t matter so much, largely because he didn’t do or say anything all that different from what others had said before him. The difference was that the world was ready to listen to Luther when it hadn’t been willing to listen to Jan Huss, for example. And the difference in motivation between Peter Valdes (founder of the Waldensian heretics) was not very different from that of St Francis of Assisi, yet one became a heretic and the other a saint because the world perceived them differently (an oversimplification, of course, but general statements are always oversimplifications, and pretty much by definition). Source criticism is crucial to good historical method, to the point of being sine qua non. However, in this case, it seems that perhaps Dr. Ehrman should have paused a moment to ask if this method, as applied in this set of circumstances, is a useful tool.

Taking his implications to their logical conclusion, we must infer that nothing in the NT has any real basis in fact. Now, one could argue that this is not only a valid inference (it likely is), but that it’s also a true inference. Are we prepared to say that?

Then the point becomes that, prepared or not, we are compelled, by weight of evidence, to make that statement; however, I have to disagree. This may be true logically, but it’s not necessarily true in a real sense. In the course of reading Matthew, the question of whether something can trace back to Jesus has become increasingly prominent in our method of examining the text. Since the technique is mine, I obviously believe that it’s  not only a valid line of inquiry, but also a fruitful one. And the results have been that much–if not most–of what we have read in Matthew seemingly does not trace back to Jesus. Ehrman would agree with this, and in the book presents examples of situations that almost certainly originate in post-resurrection conditions. There are some sayings, however, where this is not necessarily true. The Parable of the Sower contains nothing that requires it to be post-Jesus. Did Jesus speak the words that we read? Perhaps not, perhaps most likely not. Did he use the analogy of the sower? Possibly. Did he speak about the kingdom? Probably. Or, it’s probable that he probably did.

In some ways this is being way too critical of Ehrman and his method. He provides an excellent caveat about the trustworthiness–or otherwise–of what we are told in the gospels. We do well to keep this in mind. As such, the book is very well written and very effective. The accounts are not trustworthy at face value. But the book is, perhaps, a starting place rather than a final destination. To get to the latter, we have to apply the principles of historical criticism. Fortunately, that is what we’ve been doing right along. It is gratifying to note that, in those examples he cites that we have covered, he has corroborated my analysis. So we’re definitely on the right track here.

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About James, brother of Jesus

I have a BA from the University of Toronto in Greek and Roman History. For this, I had to learn classical Greek and Latin. In seminar-style classes, we discussed both the meaning of the text and the language. U of T has a great Classics Dept. One of the professors I took a Senior Seminar with is now at Harvard. I started reading the New Testament as a way to brush up on my Greek, and the process grew into this. I plan to comment on as much of the NT as possible, starting with some of Paul's letters. After that, I'll start in on the Gospels, starting with Mark.

Posted on April 29, 2016, in General / Overview, gospel commentary, gospels, Historical Jesus, Special topic and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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