Book Write-Up: Jesus Before the Gospels, by Bart D. Ehrman

Bart D. Ehrman. Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior. HarperOne, 2016. See here to purchase the book.

Bart Ehrman teaches religious studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. A religious agnostic, he is renowned for his controversial books about the New Testament and theology. Jesus Before the Gospels essentially critiques the idea that the biblical Gospels are historically accurate because they reflect eyewitness testimony.

In this review, I will be laying out key aspects of Ehrman’s argument. Then, I will evaluate it.

Ehrman’s argument:

A. Ehrman refers to memory studies and argues that people often misremember what they hear and see. He cites examples of this, such as John Dean’s inaccurate testimony during the Watergate scandal. Dean was not entirely lying, for Dean said things that made himself look bad. Yet, when the audio recording came out of Dean’s conversations about which he testified, they were revealed to be quite different from how Dean remembered them. Ehrman cites studies about memory that indicate that people fill in the gaps of their memory with similar experiences they have had, that their present influences their memory of the past, and that the power of suggestion and imagination can even influence them to “remember” things that did not actually occur. Being in a group among people who shared an experience does not necessarily guarantee an accurate memory, either, for people can easily subordinate their distinct memories to the memory of the group, or the most assertive person in the group.

B. The transmission of memories, too, leads to inaccuracies. This is like the “telephone game,” in which one person tells something to someone, who then tells someone else, who then tells someone else, etc. Once the story gets to the end of the line, it is vastly different from how it initially was. But do not pre-literate societies accurately pass down oral traditions, since they cannot rely on books to preserve the past? Ehrman argues in the negative. Against a scholar who cited a tribe’s transmission of a tradition as an example of rigorous memorization, Ehrman refers to a study that demonstrates that this tribe’s transmission of the tradition was inaccurate, based on comparison with other primary sources. Ehrman doubts the accuracy of much of the Gospels, too, for at least forty years separate the life of the historical Jesus and the writing of the Gospels. During that time, traditions got altered and embellished, and stories were invented. Against those who argue that students of rabbis could remember vast amounts of their teacher’s teachings, Ehrman notes that the Gospels contain discrepancies about what Jesus said and did, undermining the possibility that disciples were remembering and transmitting Jesus’s teachings verbatum. Ehrman does not believe that the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses, for the disciples spoke Aramaic rather than Greek, the language of the Gospels; moreover, the disciples were illiterate and uneducated (Acts 4:13), not the sorts of people who could write Gospels.

C. Scholars and apologists who believe that the Gospels reflect eyewitness testimony like to cite Papias, an early second century Christian, who states that Matthew wrote a Gospel and that Peter relayed information for Mark, who wrote a Gospel. Ehrman does not find Papias to be overly reliable, however: “Writing many years later (as much as a century after Jesus’s death), he indicates that he knew people who knew people who knew people who were with Jesus during his life. So it’s not like having firsthand information, or anything close to it” (page 112). Ehrman also compares the Gospels of Matthew and Mark with what Papias says about them and concludes that Papias does not necessarily have in mind the Gospels in our New Testament. If Papias was aware of the Gospel of Matthew’s statement that Judas hanged himself (Matthew 27:5), for example, why did Papias narrate that Judas died by swelling and collapsing on the street? Ehrman is open to the possibility, however, that church fathers based their ascription of the biblical Gospels to Matthew and Mark on what Papias says about the writings that he is discussing. Papias says Matthew wrote teachings of Jesus in Hebrew, and the Gospel of Matthew is a Jewish Gospel with a lot of teachings from Jesus. Consequently, church fathers concluded that the Gospel of Matthew is the the writing that Papias means.

D. Ehrman does not think that the biblical Gospels were written by the people to whom they are ascribed. When quoting sayings of Jesus that are found in the Gospels, church fathers prior to Irenaeus (second century) never cite the authors of the Gospels by name. Justin Martyr refers to the memoirs of the apostles, which is not very specific. Here, I will interject Larry Hurtado’s observation that Justin in Dialogue 103.8 says the memoirs were written by apostles and those who knew apostles. Hurtado thinks that is consistent with the traditional ascriptions of the biblical Gospel, for John and Matthew were apostles who knew Jesus, and Mark and Luke were not apostles themselves but knew apostles. Hurtado, in contrast with Ehrman, thinks that Justin was referring to the biblical Gospels and was assuming their traditional ascriptions.

E. Ehrman defines “memory,” not just in terms of recollections of what one personally experienced, but also as a community’s statement about what happened in the past, even if that community did not live during that past. Ehrman does not believe that the authors of the biblical Gospels, the Gospel of Thomas, and the Gospel of Judas personally knew the historical Jesus, but he still calls their writings “memories” because they are making a statement about the past. Their “memories,” Ehrman argues, is their response to what they themselves are experiencing, such as alienation and persecution.

F. Ehrman maintains that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet calling fellow Jews to repent in light of the impending Kingdom of God. Later, as this apocalyptic cataclysm failed to materialize, Christians talked about delay in the second coming of Christ and even came to de-emphasize eschatology. John’s Gospel lacks imminent eschatology, focusing instead on believers going to heaven after they die. In contrast with many scholars, Christian and non-Christian, Ehrman doubts that the historical Jesus even performed miracles, such as healing and exorcism. In part, this is because Ehrman is skeptical about miracles: he refers to an odd occurrence in the Gospel of Peter and simply dismisses it as unlikely. As a historian, Ehrman maintains that historians make judgments about what is likely in the past, and miracles are off the table because they contradict common experience and natural law. Ehrman also notes that miracle stories developed over time and became embellished within Christianity, as can be seen in Christian writings such as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, and he thinks that sort of thing could also have happened by the time that the biblical Gospels were written. In addition, Ehrman observes different views of miracles among the Gospels. The Gospel of John presents miracles as ways that Jesus proved to others his divine identity. The synoptic Gospels, by contrast, deny that Jesus would perform signs to prove his identity (except the sign of Jonah) and instead present his miracles as acts of compassion. Ehrman also refers to synoptic passages, however, in which miracles are indications that the Kingdom of God has come.

G. I am reading John MacArthur’s Twelve Ordinary Men, which is about the twelve apostles, and MacArthur tries to harmonize the different stories about Jesus’s calling of his disciples. For MacArthur, many disciples followed Jesus voluntary, but Jesus later called some of them to deeper levels of commitment (i.e., leaving their jobs) and even sent some out as apostles, proclaiming the coming Kingdom and doing miracles. Ehrman rejects this approach because he believes it compromises the distinct voices of the Gospels. Jesus in the Gospel of Mark tells people to leave all, and they follow, and this demonstrates Mark’s belief that Jesus has an authority that compels people; that cannot be reconciled with John’s belief that people followed Jesus voluntarily and initiated the discipleship.

My evaluation:

A. Conservative scholars have their counter-arguments to the sorts of arguments that Ehrman presents. Against the claim that the disciples could not have written Gospels because they were illiterate and did not know Greek, scholars such as Donald Guthrie have contended that Greek was known in first century Palestine and that some of the disciples, as businessmen, may have been more sophisticated and fluent in it than people realize. Regarding Acts 4:13’s claim that Peter and John were illiterate, Jennifer Dines, who (as far as I know) is not a conservative Christian scholar, points out in her book The Septuagint (pages 112-113) that the Greek word agrammatos refers to a lack of sophistication in writing, not necessarily a complete inability to read and write. Theophilus of Antioch in the second century C.E. says people were saying that the biblical prophets, who wrote books, were agrammatoi; they were obviously literate, since they wrote books, but their books were not deemed to be refined. Conservative scholars also say that the apostles, even if they themselves could not have produced beautiful works, could have had professional writers write down their testimony in a more refined manner, as occurred in antiquity. Ehrman seems to question that Palestinian Christians would be in other countries writing in Greek, but is that so implausible? Paul attests that Christians traveled.

B. Ehrman critiques the work of scholars who hold that the Gospels contain eyewitness testimony, such as Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Ehrman does not engage many of Bauckham’s arguments, such as the argument that the Gospel of Mark is similar to how other ancient sources present the testimony of eyewitnesses. This is not to suggest that Ehrman should have engaged that. Ehrman’s book is popular, and Ehrman manages to pack a punch with the arguments that he does make. Still, readers should know that there may be more to the story than what Ehrman presents.

C. A question that I had in reading this book is what Ehrman thinks got the ball rolling. If Jesus did no miracles, how did people come to see him as God? I have read his book, How Jesus Became God, and he attributes it to early Christians’ belief that Jesus rose from the dead, which was based on visions that they had. I just wonder if that, by itself, would be sufficient to give people such an exalted notion of Jesus. Why wouldn’t they just see him as some prophet who rose from the dead?

D. Christian apologists have argued that the apostles, who had been with Jesus, would have been able to have suppressed any inaccuracies. I decided to read Ehrman’s book to see an alternative scenario to this. The picture I get from Ehrman’s book is that, yes, the apostles were around, but stories got told and retold. Invention and embellishment occurred. The apostles may have heard the story about Jesus walking on water and thought, “You know, I think I do remember that happening,” even if it did not. Their exalted picture of Jesus after Jesus’s resurrection could have influenced them to “remember” such an event. Although the Romans, not the Jews, crucified Jesus, early Christian conflicts with mainstream Judaism could have influenced them to “remember” Jewish authorities playing a greater role in Jesus’s execution. Stories spread, grew, and came to be, and, by the time that people sat down to write the Gospels, the authors drew from those stories, true and false, to paint a picture of who Jesus was. There is a middle ground between saying that the Gospels reflect verbatum what Jesus said and did, and saying that Christians simply made things up, and knew they were making things up. Ehrman presented what that middle ground could have looked like.

E. Ehrman offers explanations as to how the biblical Gospels came to be ascribed to those who bear their names. Luke-Acts, for example, was ascribed to Luke due to parts of Acts that seemed to suggest that the author was a companion to Paul. The Gospel of John appears to refer to eyewitness testimony (John 19:35; 21:24). Ehrman did not adequately address why these factors do not indicate that Luke and John wrote those writings. He may do so in other books, though. A lot of ancient Christian writings purport to be by eyewitnesses to Jesus, even if they were not, as Ehrman talks about in Forged.

F. I am not sure what to do with Ehrman’s argument that eyewitness testimony is unreliable. Even Ehrman does not depict it as thoroughly unreliable: we do remember some things accurately, especially the gist. But there are limitations to our memories. The question is: are those limitations in memory enough to cast doubt on what the Gospels say about Jesus?

G. Do I find Ehrman to be persuasive? He does raise a lot of considerations that make his arguments persuasive. When I read the Gospels, I seriously doubt that they are direct transcripts of what Jesus said and did. There are discrepancies among them. The authors’ distinct theological perspectives influence what they include and how they organize the stories. There are aspects of the Gospels that appear to speak to events after the death of Jesus, such as the persecution of Christians. Apologists have their arguments, though, as to why the Gospels are historical, such as the McGrews’ argument of undesigned coincidences in the Gospels, and those deserve consideration.

H. Ehrman closes the book by saying that the Gospels are still valuable, even if they are historically inaccurate. I was not clear as to whether he thinks they can still be religiously valuable to Christians. Obviously, their interest to him is more historical, since he is an agnostic. Can the Gospels be religiously valuable, even if Ehrman’s portrayal of them were to be correct? Well, they teach good values, such as love for others, including enemies. But I am not sure if their religious worldview—-about God, God’s activity—-can be reliable and authoritative, if the historical foundation of that worldview is inaccurate, if it is solely the product of human beings. I am not saying that the Bible has to be inerrant for Christianity to be true, but certain details should probably be historically accurate, at least.

I checked this book out from the library. My review is honest.



About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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