Memphis Reads – Jesus Before the Gospels by Bart D. Ehrman

Staff Book Reviews

Philip reviews Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of The Savior by Bart D. Ehrman (Harper One, 2016).

Bart Ehrman, Chairman of the Department of Religion at the University of North Carolina and noted New Testament scholar, has written several fascinating books about Jesus and the history of the New Testament, including Misquoting Jesus, Jesus Interrupted, Forged, and How Jesus Became God. They are very interesting and engrossing books, but the arguments and contentions he makes about Jesus and the books of the New Testament and their authors are ones that many Christians, in particular Fundamentalist Christians, must find abhorrent.

In his past books, Ehrman has argued that many of the Books of the New Testament were not written by the authors they are ascribed to; that they were in fact “forged” by unknown authors, who were pretending to write in the name of other authors, including Paul and Peter.

Ehrman has also contended that the books of the New Testament contain many contradictions and inconsistencies. He has also said, contrary to what many may believe, there are no original copies of New Testament writings in existence. What we have are manuscripts which are copies of copies of copies of the original writings. And, none of the copies, he has contended, are accurate because they were “inadvertently and/or intentionally” changed by the scribes who copied them.

And, though, Jesus came to be recognized by the early Christian Church, three centuries after his death, as the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, and thus God Himself, Ehrman has made the argument that Jesus himself never made the claim that he was God on earth.

Readers who did not like his past books are not going to like Jesus Before the Gospels either. If they disagreed with his contentions and arguments in has past books, then they will disagree with his contentions and arguments in Jesus Before the Gospels.

In Jesus Before the Gospels, Ehrman explores how many parts of the Gospels are be based on what he believes are “distorted” and probably “invented” memories. According to Ehrman, it is widely believed by New Testament scholars that our four Gospels were not written until decades after Jesus’ death; the Gospel of Mark being the earliest Gospel written about 40 years later, Matthew and Luke being 50-55 years later, and John written about 65 years later.

All Gospels had to be dependent on the memories of Christians who had to pass down their stories of Jesus by word of mouth until they could be written down. What Ehrman does, in Jesus Before the Gospels, is to offer descriptions of the major studies that have been done on human memory in modern times. And, he says that studies show that even a memory passed on by one individual to another individual and to another individual, during a short period of time, cannot be relied on to be totally accurate.

And, he says, if you are talking about memories being passed from individuals to other individuals to other individuals, and that this pattern covered the decades before the Gospels were written, then there is even more reason to believe that the memories could have become distorted and that some individuals could have added new elements to the stories of Jesus.

Ehrman says that some people contend that the memories of Jesus could be the exact ones that came from the Apostles and other eyewitnesses who knew Jesus during his life because of the oral traditions that were a part of the culture Jesus belonged to. Hardly anyone could read and even fewer people could write.

The argument is that people living in cultures with oral traditions had to develop memories that would have to be far superior to the memories from individuals living in cultures with written traditions, where memories could be written down. And, so the memories of Jesus that came to be the basis of the Gospels can be counted to be reliable and accurate. They would be the basic eyewitness accounts passed down accurately from the time of Jesus.

Ehrman, though, says that there are areas where oral traditions still exist today in the world. One example he gives is of a community in Central Europe where the lines of an ancient and very long poem are passed on by individuals to other members of the community. This involves an individual memorizing over a thousand lines of the poem. Studies have been done of this community and its oral traditions, and, according to Ehrman, the studies do not show that all of the lines of poetry are passed down accurately from one person to another.

On the contrary, what is passed down is hardly ever the same. Recitations of the same poem by different individuals can be very much shorter or very much longer than previous recitations and can be a very different recitation. There is not the same devotion to accuracy in oral cultures as there is in written cultures, according to the studies Ehrman cites.

Ehrman devotes much of Jesus Before the Gospels to discussions of several other major studies of human memory done during modern times. Extensive research has been done on the human memory, and it is interesting to learn about these studies. But it is even more interesting when Ehrman uses the conclusions of the studies and applies them to the Gospels to explain why some of what is believed to be scripture by many devout Christians may not be an accurate description at all of something Jesus was supposed to have said or taught.

Though many Christians might disagree with his contentions and arguments, Ehrman makes what seem to be very compelling and convincing cases for what he believes to be the truth about Jesus and the Gospels. He is certainly a gifted writer, with a very lucid writing style.

Jesus Before the Gospels is certainly as engrossing as his past books. He shares much about the history of the New Testament that no one disputes, and readers of this book that disagreed with his main arguments and contentions could still find his accounts of this history very interesting.

It is up to the reader, of course, to decide if Ehrman is right or wrong in his belief that parts of the Gospels are based on distorted or invented memories.

Philip Williams, Cordova Library