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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. The "gist" of his life comes through "pretty well," says Ehrman, but "the details get messed up."

Enmeshed in Ehrman's argument are a number of distinctions: First, a personal distinction between the evangelists traditionally identified as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and those whom Ehrman regards as the actual, unknown authors of the canonical Gospels. Second, a geographical distinction between Palestine, the location where Jesus' first disciples lived, and the rest of the Roman Empire, where the Gospels' true authors lived. Third, an educational distinction between Jesus and his first disciples as all uneducated, illiterate peasants and the true authors of the Gospels as highly educated literates. Fourth, a linguistic distinction between Jesus' first disciples as Aramaic-speakers who knew little or no Greek and the evangelists as Greek-speakers who knew little or no Aramaic. Fifth, a chronological distinction between Jesus' first disciples as having lived for the most part before the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70 and the actual evangelists as having written not until c. AD 70 and the decades following. Sixth, an informational distinction between true details known about Jesus at first and untrue details that came about through messy storytelling. Seventh, a historiographical distinction between writing what probably took place and writing what probably did not take place. Often these distinctions consist in unargued assertions; so I will take occasion below to point out Ehrman's repeated failures to mention for uninitiated readers even the existence of arguments countering the assertions.

For now I proceed to what Ehrman considers his special contribution: the application to Jesuanic oral traditions of modern secular studies of human memory from the standpoints of psychology (concerning individual memory), sociology (concerning collective memory), and anthropology (concerning memory in wholly or largely illiterate and therefore oral cultures). These studies have exposed the unreliability of memories. Not total unreliability, but astonishing unreliability. So we cannot trust the Gospels entirely, says Ehrman, and probably very little, because their written reports about Jesus rest on memories of memories of memories. Why, even the testimony of eyewitnesses has sometimes turned out to be unreliable, as shown for example by the well-known use of DNA evidence to overturn criminal convictions based on eyewitness testimony. So the Gospels would not be reliable even if they were written by eyewitnesses to Jesus' life. The same conclusion is to be drawn if as non-eyewitnesses the evangelists had drawn on the testimony of eyewitnesses. And to illustrate the way shifting cultural conditions affect collective memories, Ehrman cites the remembering of Columbus during the past colonial era as the celebrated discoverer of America, and the remembering of him during the present postcolonial era as a ruthless and therefore despicable latecomer. Shifting memories of Abraham Lincoln and Masada come in for similar treatment.

Returning to ancient times for further examples of shifting memories, Ehrman cites outlandish, post-canonical stories about Peter, Judas Iscariot, Pontius Pilate, the Virgin Mary, and Jesus as a baby, a boy, and an adult—stories that everybody, including evangelical Christians and hidebound fundamentalists, considers unhistorical. Why? Because they're … well, just plain silly. An excess of the miraculous for its own sake, for example. But Ehrman adds that modern people reject the historicity of those apocryphal stories because they don't want or expect to see historical reliability in them. Conversely, they accept the historicity of canonical stories about Jesus, including those about his miracles, exorcisms, and resurrection, because they do want and expect to see such reliability in them. Thus Ehrman sows a seed of doubt concerning readers' motives and expectations and then proceeds to cite a bevy of historical implausibilities, discrepancies, and outright contradictions in the canonical Gospels as evidence both that the details concerning Jesus' life got "messed up" through faulty and inventive memories and that theories of formally and informally controlled traditioning fail to satisfy. Here's a sampling:

In the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus doesn't attract his first disciples till after the imprisonment of John the Baptist. In John's Gospel he attracts his first disciples before the Baptist's imprisonment.

In the Synoptics, Jesus proclaims God's kingdom over and over again but keeps his messiahship under wraps until the night before Good Friday. John's Jesus says very little about the kingdom but proclaims in public his messiahship and much else about himself over and over again from the very start of his ministry.

In Matthew 12:38-42 Jesus refuses to give a "sign," except for that of Jonah, whereas Jesus gives multiple "signs" throughout John's Gospel.

The who, when, and where of a woman's anointing Jesus differ from one Gospel to another.

In the Synoptics, Pilate delivers Jesus to his (Pilate's) soldiers for crucifixion. In John, he delivers Jesus to the Jews for crucifixion.

In Luke the curtain of the temple is rent before Jesus dies, but after he dies in Mark and Matthew.

Along with other examples, the foregoing are cited by Ehrman in much more detail than present space allows. But nothing new is to be seen in them, for they and similar differences between the Gospels have long been noted. How then should evangelical and other conservatively minded Christians respond? Not, I think, by straining for pure historicity where historical implausibility, discrepancy, and contradiction seem reasonably obvious. Instead, note should be taken that differences between the Gospels, troublesome as they are to pure historicity, commonly fall into patterns distinctive to, or at least characteristic of, the evangelists' various emphases.

To take but one of many available examples, consider Ehrman's highlighting as "strikingly different" the Synoptics' placement of Jesus' cleansing the temple in the last week of his life, whereas the Gospel of John places it at the very beginning. Ehrman concludes that two cleansings seem implausible. Well and good, and let us agree with him that the Synoptics present a historically accurate chronology (though he reduces the event to "some kind of disruptive activity in the Temple"). But is John's unhistorical chronology necessarily the result of messy storytelling that took place over much time and in many different locations? Hardly, for a theological purpose underlies the chronological shift.

In John's Gospel alone, John the Baptist has proclaimed Jesus to be God's lamb who takes away the sin of the world (1:29, 36). Jesus has then gone up to Jerusalem for a Passover festival, when lambs were to be sacrificed (2:13). There he cleanses the temple, but only in John's account is Jesus said to drive out the animals being sold for Passover sacrifice. Why does he drive them out? Obviously, to make theological room for himself as God's recently proclaimed sacrificial lamb, who makes animal sacrifices obsolete. To continue the theme of Passover, John mentions this festival several more times and, not as in the Synoptics, has Jesus going to it at least once again before the end of his life (6:4; 11:55; 12:1; 13:1; 18:39; 19:14). Then in another chronological shift, John has Jesus dying as God's Passover lamb on the very afternoon when Passover lambs are to be slain—as against the Synoptics' historically accurate placement of Jesus' death during the following afternoon. Finally according to John but not the Synoptics, a soldier pierces Jesus' rib cage with a spear "in order that the Scripture might be fulfilled: 'Not a bone of him [the Passover lamb in the Old Testament context] shall be broken'" (19:19-37).

Do those differences from the Synoptics look like the result of messy storytelling? No. They look instead like deliberate editing on the part of an author. At the loss of some historicity? Yes, but to a great theological gain. What we have in the Gospels, then, isn't historically messed-up memories—rather, theologically dressed-up portraits. When it comes to further historical implausibilities, discrepancies, and contradictions among the Gospels, evangelicals and other conservatives would do well to engage in the foregoing hermeneutic rather than in text-contorting harmonizations for the sake of pure historicity. The same is to be said against pleas that we would see harmony if only we had more information than is presently at hand.

To his credit, Ehrman recognizes editorial patterns in the Gospels; but he's mesmerized by the notion of messy storytelling prior to the evangelists' writing. As a result, he fails to see that such storytelling is likely to have produced helter-skelter differences among the Gospels rather than differences that fall neatly into recognizably distinctive patterns. And if the evangelists imposed distinctive patterns on a hodge-podge of disparate oral traditions, how is it that the first three Gospels are so much alike that we call them "Synoptic"? (John's Gospel is a special case about whose relation to the Synoptics all sides dispute.) Nevertheless, Ehrman insists, "We need to know what was happening to the memories of Jesus precisely during that time gap ['forty to sixty-five years separating Jesus's death and our earliest accounts of his life']."

Therein lies a problem, though: we don't have any oral traditions concerning Jesus. We have only written records. So at this point the argument has to mutate into literary questions of date, authorship, early church tradition, and exegesis, as Ehrman also recognizes. But except in regard to the early church fathers Papias and Irenaeus, he defers without argument to the shared opinion of fellow higher critics outside evangelical and other conservative camps. Unfortunately, this deferral leaves the general readers for whom Ehrman writes ignorant of contrary higher critical opinions and the arguments supporting those opinions.

The early church father Papias, whom Ehrman does discuss, recorded a tradition that in anecdotal form Mark wrote up the apostle Peter's reminiscences of Jesus' life and ministry. Because this tradition tends to support a high level of historicity in Mark's portrayal of Jesus, Ehrman tries to undermine the tradition. He dates Papias's writing not till AD 120 or 130. But recent scholarship has mounted impressive arguments for a date in the very first decade of the second century. Ehrman pays no attention to these arguments. Furthermore, Papias was recording a tradition passed on to him from an earlier, even apostolic time period; and the earlier the tradition, the greater a likelihood of its trustworthiness. Though disputed also among conservatives, there is even the possibility (a likelihood in my opinion) that the "elder/disciple John" to whom Papias ascribed the tradition of Mark's writing up Peter's reminiscences was none other than the apostle John.[1]

Against reliability in the tradition passed on by Papias, however, Ehrman cites the later church father Eusebius of Caesarea's scorn of Papias. But Papias wasn't recording only his own view of Mark's writing. He was recording an earlier and therefore pre-Papian tradition. And Ehrman doesn't mention Eusebius's opposition to chiliasm as a reason for the scorning of Papias, a chiliast who also stated his preference for oral reports over books. Ehrman then uses this preference to argue against Mark's Gospel as stemming from the Apostle Peter's reminiscences. But the fact that Papias preferred oral reports supports the reliability of the tradition he passed on concerning a book. For apart from the tradition's reliability, a preference for orality would likely have led him not to cite a tradition favoring the apostolicity of a book's contents.

Inveighing further against the pre-Papian tradition that Mark "gives an exhaustive account of everything Peter preached," Ehrman declares "there is no way" that "anyone could think that the Gospel of Mark in our Bibles today gives a full account of Peter's knowledge of Jesus." But according to the tradition, Mark wrote only "some things" (Greek: enia) that Peter remembered. Since "the vast majority" of stories in Mark "have nothing to do with Peter," declares Ehrman further, Mark's Gospel must not derive from Peter's reminiscences. But the Gospel is predominantly about Jesus! Even so, it quickly introduces Peter and his brother Andrew as Jesus' very first disciples and almost as quickly relates Jesus' entering their house and healing Peter's mother-in-law.

According to the theory of a messianic secret in Mark, the evangelist or someone before him invented Jesus' attempts to keep his messiahship secret, and did so to explain why Jesus was not widely acknowledged as the messiah during his lifetime. Ehrman uses this theory to undermine yet further the historicity of Mark's Gospel as a record of Peter's reminiscences of Jesus' ministry: "One of the overarching organizing principles in the Gospel was not at all historical." Sadly, general readers are left uninformed that recent scholarship of the critical kind with which Ehrman aligns himself has left the theory in tatters.

Ehrman also tries to dissociate what Papias passed on concerning Matthew, another disciple of Jesus besides Peter, from our canonical Gospel according to Matthew. He does so by translating the Greek ta logia with "the words," as though the pre-Papian tradition was referring to a collection of Jesus' sayings rather than to our narratival Gospel according to Matthew, and also by arguing that "in a Hebrew dialect" excludes a reference to our Greek Gospel according to Matthew. But the pre-Papian tradition uses ta logia also for Mark's Gospel; and nobody thinks that tradition was describing it, or another writing by Mark, as a collection of Jesus' sayings rather than a narratival Gospel. Besides, logia is better translated with "oracles" (relating in this case to an authoritative book as a whole) than with "words" (relating to a book's contents as consisting in sayings). As to Matthew's "Hebrew dialect," a strong argument has been mounted for "Hebrew style," which would fit our Matthew perfectly, rather than "Hebrew language [or 'tongue,' in Ehrman's translation]," which would not fit our Matthew even as a Greek translation of a Hebrew original. Again Ehrman omits to mention such considerations.

"If Papias did have our first two Gospels [Matthew and Mark] in mind," says Ehrman, his imaginatively grotesque account of Judas Iscariot's death—though it "overlaps with an account found in Matthew"—shows clearly that Papias "does not consider Matthew's version to represent the Gospel truth." But again, it was the earlier elder/disciple John who had in mind our first two Gospels. If Papias followed suit, as apparently he did, it may have been his preference for oral tradition that led him to accept the grotesque account over Matthew's. Be that as it may, Ehrman doesn't consider that imaginative expansions of early tradition imply a high view of that tradition, just as the many noncanonical, unhistorical expansions of the Old Testament in Second-Temple Jewish literature evince reverence for the Old Testament, not a discrediting of it.

Another early church father, Irenaeus, titled the canonical Gospels as according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John and described himself as a personal disciple of the earlier church father Polycarp, who in turn was a disciple of the apostle John. This pedigree makes for a strong argument, seconded by the Muratorian Fragment, supporting reliability in the titles. Matthew and John were among Jesus' first disciples. Mark and Luke were associates of Jesus' first disciples. Naturally, then, Ehrman needs to undermine such a historicity-favoring tradition. So regarding Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, Ehrman says, "Those are the apostolic names that came to be associated with these books all over the Christian map," the implication being that such names were mistakenly attached to the Gospels to give them authority. But neither Mark nor Luke was an apostle, as Ehrman quickly admits. And given geographical spread on the Christian map, why the absence of diversity in authorial ascriptions if Irenaeus's are false?

Given the truth in those ascriptions, the weight of what Papias passed on concerning Mark and Matthew, and arguments undiscussed here but favoring a pre-AD 70 date of writing for the Synoptics (and certainly of the traditions they incorporated), the amount of historically worthwhile material that the evangelists worked with looks to have been very much larger than the minimal amount suggested by Ehrman's thesis of messed-up memories. And this is not even to enter current scholarly discussions of historicity in the Johannine tradition.

Back to Jesus and his disciples: Ehrman doesn't know that none of them were literate. There's plenty of evidence for a higher rate of literacy than he acknowledges. Besides, ancient authors often dictated to a scribe, as even an illiterate could do. As noted already in the pre-Papian tradition, Mark's Greek doesn't bespeak a high education such as Ehrman ascribes to all the evangelists; and John's Greek is so simple that beginning students regularly start there. Moreover, contemporary research is turning up more use of Greek among 1st-century Palestinian Jews than used to be thought.

Trying to undermine historicity yet again, Ehrman asks about the Sermon on the Mount, "How could a massive crowd possibly hear anything he [Jesus] had to say if he was in an outdoor setting on a mountain [or standing 'on a level place' (Luke 6:17)]?" Has Ehrman never read a skeptical Ben Franklin's on-the-spot calculation that George Whitefield could be heard by over 30,000? I myself heard Tommy Titcombe, a diminutive missionary to Nigeria, speak to several thousand in a voice so booming that the loudspeaker system had to be turned off.

Ehrman correctly notes that Luke 1:1-4 doesn't say the evangelist interviewed eyewitnesses or based his account "on what he directly learned from eyewitnesses." But Ehrman doesn't notice that Luke's wording leaves open these possibilities, which would fit Luke's purpose to convince readers of "the certainty" of the Gospel's following contents. Also, Ehrman gratuitously says that in the prologue of John's Gospel the "we" who saw the incarnate Word dwelling among them were "the community of Jesus's later followers" (emphasis added). But how does Ehrman know that they were only "later," that they didn't at least include Jesus' first followers, or even that they didn't consist solely of the first followers (compare 1 John 1:1-4)?

Ehrman casts doubt on the historicity of Jesus' triumphal procession by arguing that the Roman soldiers stationed in Jerusalem would have put an immediate stop to the procession. But the procession is said to have taken place on the road outside Jerusalem, not on the streets inside Jerusalem, where the soldiers would have been stationed.

"The Jews did not kill Jesus," asserts Ehrman. "The Romans killed Jesus." Consequently, Ehrman omits Jesus' hearing before the Sanhedrin from his list of historically accurate "Gist Memories of Jesus's Death." In line with Ehrman's own emphasis on ways the recent past corrupts memories of the distant past, you wonder whether a widespread feeling of guilt over the 20th-century Holocaust has led him to disremember Jesus' hearing before the Sanhedrin, their accusing him before Pilate, and the Jews' clamoring for his crucifixion.

Inferring that Jesus never performed miracles, Ehrman writes that "with the passing of time Jesus's miracle-working abilities became increasingly pronounced in the tradition, to an exorbitant extent." In the apocryphal Gospels, to be sure. But increasingly in the canonical Gospels? The reverse, I think. The earliest of them, Mark, emphasizes Jesus' miracles as acts of brute power, as when the evangelist says that to stanch a woman's chronic flow of blood, "power had gone out of him [apparently without his having willed it to do so]" (Mark 5:30). Matthew scales down his accounts of Jesus' miracles to foreground the accompanying words of Jesus. At the expense of brute power Luke emphasizes the humanitarian element in Jesus' working of miracles. And John, writing last, avoids "miracles" (literally, "powerful acts") altogether and refers instead to Jesus' "signs" and "works" as symbols of the salvific changes that happen to believers in Jesus: from emptiness to fullness, darkness to light, and death to life (to mention several examples).

Ehrman declines to discuss in this book any evidence for the historicity of Jesus' miracles and resurrection. Why? Because historians discuss only "what probably happened in the past," and "by definition" miracles and resurrections are "utterly improbable." But historians also discuss what probably did not happen in the past; and to distinguish between the probable and the improbable they have to judge the quality of all testimonial evidence. Philosophical presuppositions affect that sort of judgment, of course. So by refusing to examine testimonial evidence in favor of Jesus' miracles and resurrection, Ehrman has followed philosophically in the train of David Hume even while denying an antisupernaturalistic presupposition. Unfortunately, Ehrman neglects to note for his readers both a considerable philosophical critique of Hume's reasoning and Craig Keener's recent investigations into reports of ongoing miracles.[2]

Moving away from the Gospels, Ehrman emphasizes a dearth of information about Jesus' life and teaching in the Apostle Paul's letters, as though to say that at the early date of those letters not very much truly historical information was available to Paul even though he spent time visiting with Peter and James the brother of Jesus (Gal. 1:19). But scholars disagree widely over how much those letters reflect Jesus' life and teaching. Aside from that disagreement and Ehrman's failure to mention it, by common consent Paul was a literate, highly educated Greek-speaker—in contrast with Jesus' first disciples according to Ehrman. And a self-confessed and zealous persecutor of the church was Paul: "I was persecuting God's church outrageously and wreaking havoc on it" (Gal. 1:13; see too Phil. 3:6). Yet very shortly he converted into an equally zealous Christian missionary at stupendously great personal cost to himself (see especially 2 Cor. 11:16-29). And he refers to similar activity by "the rest of the apostles and the Lord's brothers and [particularly] Cephas [Peter]" (1 Cor. 9:5). According to Mark, Matthew, and John, not even Jesus' brothers believed in him during his lifetime. So how plausible is it that they, the apostles, and Paul turned into empire-wide preachers of a shamefully crucified Jesus as the Messiah and world's Savior if in fact the historical Jesus was no more than a Jewish teacher who happened to get in trouble with the Romans? And how is it that Paul and the others converted so radically, quickly, and even immediately, not after decades of memory-corrupting storytelling? Yeah, let's talk about implausibility!

Finally for the present review, Ehrman illustrates different recent memories of Jesus with Reza Aslan's book Zealot (Jesus as a revolutionary against Rome) and Bill O'Reilly's book Killing Jesus (Jesus as a sort of politician who "wanted smaller government and lower taxes"). Here the meaning of "memories" strays into the meaning of "interpretations." You could say, of course, that all memory is interpretive. But surely the degree of interpretation varies from one memory to another. In my opinion, Ehrman does not take sufficient account of this variation and thereby betrays that he is judging the Gospels almost exclusively according to a modern criterion of strictly factual accuracy. His concluding "paean" even to historically inaccurate memories for their aesthetic beauty and moral uplift slights, tragically, the glory of the gospel.

Robert Gundry is scholar-in-residence and professor emeritus at Westmont College. He is the author most recently of Peter—False Disciple and Apostate according to Saint Matthew (Eerdmans).

1. See the essay, "The Apostolically Johannine Pre-Papian Tradition concerning the Gospels of Mark and Matthew" in my book The Old is Better (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2005/Wipf & Stock, 2010), pp. 49-73.

2. See Craig S. Keener, "Miracle Reports and the Argument from Analogy," Bulletin for Biblical Research, Vol 25, No. 4 (2015), pp. 475-95, with considerable bibli-ography.

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