I’m going to keep this relatively short. I’ve got a lot of other “life stuff” going on right now (including getting prepared for the MidAmerica Conference/Regional Assembly this weekend).
I recently checked out and quickly read through Bart Ehrman’s latest book, Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior. Like his other recent books, Jesus Before the Gospels is aimed at a lay audience. Ehrman makes sure to hold our hands as he explains some pretty challenging concepts including personal memory, collective memory, anthropological studies of oral cultures, and the complex ins-and-outs of early Christian views of Jesus.
If you’ve read almost any of Ehrman’s popular books, you won’t be surprised by what he does here. He takes a complicated topic, boils it down for easier consumption, and provides some nice personal bookends to balance things out (at the end of this book, for example, Ehrman devotes a chapter to contemplating the value of memory outside of historical study and how it is necessary for us to have rich, meaningful lives).
The one thing I really didn’t like about the book was that I wished it had followed through more on the promise of the title. Maybe I was just expecting more. When he got down to what Jesus was actually like before the Gospels, the content was surprisingly thin. Pretty much every critical scholar could have provided the same basic summary (give or take a few points). It seems especially lackluster when one compares this book with Jesus, Interrupted and Misquoting Jesus. Both of those books engage us with Bart’s specialty of textual criticism (trying to discern and explain the textual variants in the New Testament documents) but both also cover much of the same ground that Jesus Before the Gospels treads on. Yes, Bart subscribes to the now-mainstream view that Jesus was most likely an apocalyptic prophet who preached a coming Kingdom of God which would appear either in his lifetime or at least in the lifetime of his disciples. But I don’t feel that this book, despite its interesting premise, actually took the risk that it could have. Ehrman goes through great pains to describe how oral transmission actually works, and what the flaws of it are. Unfortunately the analysis in the end leaves us no further in our picture of the historical Jesus. Bart’s other books feature rich discussion and analysis of the actual texts (the canonical Gospels and Paul’s letters mainly) and this book seemed to be piggy-backing off of their success without offering much new insight to the question of who Jesus really was. So, in the end maybe I’m disappointed because it felt a bit like a bait and switch. I don’t know that this actually had to be an entire book. It could have been just fine as a long form article talking about oral transmission.
Still, despite my griping that the book couldn’t offer me more, part of me is still glad it is out there and that it is published in a format that will bring these ideas to a much larger audience than Bart’s blogs and formal debates.
Challenge to Conservative Apologetics and the “No Time for Legends” Argument
While this book doesn’t directly engage with popular lay apologetic books like Truth that Demands a Verdict or Mere Christianity, it is bound to disturb many fundamentalist Christians who have built their intellectual foundation on the ideas in such books. One of the key defenses of modern Christian apologetics is the idea that “there just wasn’t enough time for legends to develop” between the time that Jesus died and the time that the Gospels were published (at least a 30 year gap, but probably a bit longer according to mainstream, non-Evangelical, non-Fundamentalist views). Bart’s detailed description of how memory (including eyewitness recollection) can be distorted during very short time periods effectively undercuts this argument. One of the most fascinating parts of the book was the research showing how fickle our memories can be…even about things that we are sure happened and even about significant events (such as remembering where you were and what you were doing when the Twin Towers fell). The research shows that people are prone to making up details and visual images wholesale when a traumatic or newsworthy event occurs. Rather than being more reliable than our usual everyday memories, such “flashbulb” moments can actually cause people to simply be more insistent that it must have happened how they remembered it. This type of research can help us to explain how Donald Trump greatly exaggerated a news story with rumored reports of American Muslims cheering 9/11, and turned it into a memory of actually seeing thousands of American Muslims cheering on TV (that footage was never found). But, worryingly for Christian apologists, it can also explain how the beleaguered and disappointed disciples–who had just lost their teacher and friend–could actually become convinced that he did miraculous things or that they really did see a vision of him as a resurrected being after his death on a cross.
Jesus Before the Gospels does explicitly debunk the related idea that ancient oral cultures would accurately preserve a famous teacher’s words and deeds. I haven’t seen this tactic used as much, but it’s common enough that it is worth bringing up (and part of that may be my own ex-Evangelical bias…certainly Catholic and Orthodox tradition stress the importance of oral transmission much more). Some people have the idea that early Christians sharing the Gospel and sharing stories about Jesus (from friends of friends of friends of friends…etc) would not be problematic if it occurred during the time when living eyewitnesses were around to consult with. Surely, anyone in the community would chastise and correct those who corrupted the truth, even if it was only accidental. Thus the “chain” of transmission was safe until the Gospel writers could actually record these transmissions. Maybe the traditions weren’t word-for-word, but they were close enough…right? Ehrman uses a variety of tools to debunk this rosy-eyed view of the past and demonstrates that this is actually a completely wrong view of how oral cultures function when we take the time to examine them carefully.
Your Mileage May Vary
Many liberal Christians and skeptics are bound to enjoy this latest entry by Dr. Ehrman. It’s not dull. There is plenty of wit and the content is presented in a way that makes it easy to digest. Still, for those who have already read several of his other popular books, they may find this one a bit repetitive. Maybe if I feel that way, it means it’s time to “graduate” to something harder and more complex. I can hardly fault a teacher for doing too good of a job in making his previous lessons stick.
For conservative Christians seeking an intellectual challenge from the opposing side, I promise you will not be let down. Ehrman will give you plenty of challenges, plenty of moments where you feel that he hasn’t sufficiently considered all of the possible ways for traditional religious ideas about Jesus to still somehow be true, despite the appearance of irreconcilable accounts. I’m sure you will enjoy thinking of counters to his viewpoint and writing blog posts pointing out all of the stuff he “left out” or down-played in his analysis of the Gospels. And given Bart’s current profile, you will have no shortage of professional and lay apologists eager to bolster your skepticism of the skeptic.
I do have a word of caution for the truly curious and devout. Dwelling on some of these topics, which touch on some of the central ideas of your faith, may prove unnerving and difficult. Not just on an intellectual level (getting used to a new idea) but also on a personal level as you grapple with what the Bible should mean to you personally. Trying to square the traditional Protestant ideas of Biblical inspiration and infallibility with modern ideas on memory, could put you into a difficult position.