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Robert Gundry

Messed-Up Memories of Jesus?

The Gospels, memory, and oral tradition.

Bart Ehrman has written his book Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior for readers uninitiated into modern scholarly study of the New Testament and other early Christian literature. Such readers, he assumes, view the canonical Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as presenting fairly or wholly harmonious and reliable portrayals of the historical Jesus, i.e., Jesus as he would have been videotaped had the necessary technology been available in the 1st century. Ehrman is at pains to disabuse his readers of that view, so that his own portrayal of the historical Jesus makes only a minimal appearance in the book. Emphasis falls instead on what Ehrman takes to be the unhistoricity of stories that evolved in oral traditions prior to the writing of the canonical Gospels and that then made their way into them.

To flesh out that emphasis, Ehrman posits "a mysterious period of oral transmission, when stories [about Jesus] 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." (By itself, Ehrman's "Introduction" contains nine such rhetorical flourishes; and I count at least ten more in the rest of the book.) Then Ehrman asks how "those people at the tail end of the period of transmission" were "telling their stories about Jesus." "Did they remember very well what they had heard from others (who had heard from others who had heard from others)?" Think the game of Telephone, in which a message whispered from one person to another, then to another and another, and so on till the message ends up much distorted. That is to say, many distortions characterized the oral stories about Jesus that the evangelists eventually wrote down. Not that the stories contained no reliable information whatever. ...

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