Of all the books I’ve written for a general audience, the one that I think got (by far) less attention than it deserved — well, OK, less attention that I wanted and hoped (!) — was Jesus Before the Gospels. I’ve long thought I gave it a very bad title. The book is really about memory — what we know about how memory works and doesn’t work, and how that affects our understanding of the Gospel stories about Jesus, which are based on memories of Jesus and usually among people who were remembering stories about him rather than things they observed themselves.
I did some posts on the book many years ago, and thought it would be worthwhile to revisit them, and the book, since it really is crucially important for understanding the Gospels themselves and the problems with knowing about the historical Jesus. The book discusses psychological understandings of memories and false memories, the value of eyewitness testimony, anthropological studies of oral cultures, and other things of relevance to New Testament scholars even though the vast majority of New Testament scholars (99% I’d say) (seriously!) have not read what experts in these fields actually say about them (including a number of scholars who *write* on the matter!)
Here’s the first post where I explain my then-burgeoning interest in the topic.
I became interested in the study of memory for both personal and professional reasons. Professionally, I had long been interested in the question of how eyewitnesses would have remembered the life of Jesus, and how the stories about Jesus may have been shifted and altered and invented in later times based on faulty or even false memories. That led me to be interested in memory more broadly.
Memory is an enormous field of research, just within cognitive psychology. I spent months doing nothing but reading important studies, dozens and dozens of books and articles. It is really interesting stuff. Memory is not at all what I started out thinking it was. Like most people I had this vague notion in my head that memory worked kind of like