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Help! My Views of Memory

I am thinking about ending my book with a kind of Paean to Memory.   I expect that some people will find it a bit  controversial or even off-putting.  Or maybe not!   Here is what a draft of the kind of thing I’m thinking about saying.  Let me know what you think.  (It’s longer than my typical post.)


Like most authors, I get a lot of email from people who have read my books.   I find one of the comments I repeatedly receive somewhat puzzling and even disheartening.   To explain it, I need to provide a bit of background.

When I discuss historical understandings of the New Testament and of the historical Jesus, I frequently refer to the problems of our sources.  The Gospels were written decades after Jesus’ death by people who were not eyewitnesses and had probably never laid eyes on an eyewitness.  They are filled with discrepancies and contradictions.  They represent different perspectives on what Jesus said and did.  For that reason, to know what actually happened in the life of Jesus we have to apply rigorous historical criteria to these sources to establish what he really said and did.

I present these views because at heart I am a historian, interested in seeing what we can know about the past.    I have presented some such views here, in this book.   But my focus in the book has been on memory, including, of course, “distorted” memories of Jesus’ life, but also memories that I think are closely related to history, for example, some of the “gist” memories found throughout the Gospels.   Memory is not only faulty: at times, probably most of the time, it’s pretty good.   So too with the memories of Jesus.  We can know a good deal about Jesus’ historical life based on what our sources say.

Moreover, I have tried to emphasize that the study of memory is not at all limited to what comes to be distorted over time.  It is possible to engage in memory-history (what Jan Assmann calls mnemohistory) to see how recollections of Jesus can help us understand the people who were remembering him in one way or the other, why Mark, or John, or Thomas recalled Jesus the way he did.

The comment that I sometimes get from readers that I find puzzling or disheartening is…

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  1. Avatar
    Adam0685  April 28, 2015

    Two comments

    1) Keep this kind of reflection up! A book or collection of personal reflections/essays like this one, would be of interest to many, I’m sure. It shows a important alternative way of reading and reflecting on the Bible, and allowing it to affect us in a different, yet powerful, way.

    2) I would someone mention in this book your blog. Even if it is indirectly on the back cover or inside cover, such as “If you are interested in discussing the book in an online forum and connecting with the author, please visit ehrmanblog.org.”

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    Pattycake1974  April 28, 2015

    That actually almost made me cry.

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    Judith  April 28, 2015

    Dr. Ehrman,

    This is the very best of the best things you’ve ever written that I’ve read and that’s saying something!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    While reading it, I could not help thinking about the robot in Blade Runner as he shuts down: ..all his amazing memories would be like tears in rain.


  4. Avatar
    gabilaranjeira  April 29, 2015

    Beautiful and serene. Logical and tangible. Wouldn’t change a word.

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    JohnHanley  April 29, 2015

    Excellent analysis, although listing your critics or naysayers in this regard as readers of your books may be better stipulated as “some with fundamentalist beliefs” or “those who insist on reading the New Testament through a fundamentalist lense.” After all, the problem, and I think it is a problem, extends beyond your readers, and the problem does indeed have a source. Framing the issue as that you are frustrated by a few emails seems to miss the bigger point.

  6. Avatar
    Judith  April 29, 2015

    P. S.

    Does it matter if Jesus was simply a man gifted spiritually at the level of such geniuses as Einstein, Plato and Darwin in understanding how our flawed humanity could be ennobled by His teachings as to how to evolve into fuller human beings? And have there not been many who’ve tried – and many still trying – to live that way?

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    tawfiq  April 29, 2015

    The French Dominican biblical scholar and archaeologist Roland de Vaux noted that “if the historical faith of Israel is not founded in history, such faith is erroneous, and therefore, our faith is also.”

    • Avatar
      Steefen  May 7, 2015

      The historical faith of Israel is not founded in accurate history.
      The 23rd Psalm with rod and staff comfort me is Egyptian.
      In the valley of the shadow of death, one finds Egyptian royals with what over a sarcophagus?
      Answer: a rod and staff (flail and crook, an Osirian icon; hence, David’s famous psalm is about Osiris.
      In fact, as I imply in my book, The Greatest Bible Study in Historical Accuracy: Insights on the Exodus, King David, The 23rd Psalm, Jesus and Paul, First Edition, the 23rd Psalm suggests an amduat.

      Second, the Star of David / City of David actually refers to Tanis, Egypt if one wants to speak of a great kingdom during the time of the biblical King David. Look at the cartouche of the pharaoh (Psusennes) of Tanis and you will find a star. The star of David is the star of the pharaoh, or, it honors (or dishonors) that pharaoh.

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    prairieian  April 29, 2015

    You have written a rather wonderful conclusion to your book and I appreciate the passion of your thoughts on the matter of memory and its importance to, well, everything.

    While you have explored the subject of memories of Jesus in the pre-gospel world (30’s – 60 CE), your themes are, in my view, universal. I have often pondered the thought of taking up the challenge to write my own book, provisionally titled, “The Past in the Present”. I shan’t dwell on it save to note that current public discourse on any issue you care to name that has a link to some past event, which is most, almost always misinterprets or misunderstands that past event. Sometimes that misinterpretation is made deliberately with the cynic’s eye, but often it is a simple national myth, or accepted understanding, that bears little relation to what happened from the historian’s perspective.

    Hence ‘revisionism’, I suppose.

    I’m not optimistic that I will have the time to get into this potential project, having to toil for my daily bread in other fields, but it niggles away at the back of my mind. Your recent string of posts have brought the thought of the project to the front of my mind. It is a fascinating, to me, issue and a book’s worth of reflection would be of some value surely.

  9. Avatar
    jgranade  April 29, 2015

    This may seem not very relevant at first, but reading this post I was reminded of a review of the Wes Anderson film, The Grand Budapest Hotel. The film critic Matt Zoller Seitz suggests that the main theme of the the film is, “Life destroys. Art preserves.” In his review, he writes, “The Grand Budapest Hotel treats storytelling itself as an inheritance bequeathed to anyone who’s willing to listen, feel, and remember, then repeat the story, with whatever embellishments are necessary to personalize it and make it mean something to the teller.” So in this sense, art (literature), even if it is not historically accurate, can preserve truths about life and what makes it meaningful. I think this line of thinking can also be applied to memories and stories about Jesus.

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    RonaldTaska  April 29, 2015

    Wow! This is so passionate, so clear, so powerful, and so well written. Thanks for sharing it. This summary is an amazing argument for reading the Bible as “literature” and not just as “history.” I think this argument makes a great deal of sense. You essentially make the same argument, as you state above, in a very powerful way, in “How Jesus Became God.”

    On the other hand, I understand why people throw out the baby (the literature) with the bath water (history). It is very disappointing to discover that all one has been taught about Jesus is not really historically accurate. So, whether Jesus was God or was a man in a story about someone being made into a god, whether heaven really exists or is just a story, and whether a Resurrection occurred or is just a story is, I am sure you would agree, quite important. In essence, without a historical base, the ethics lose much of their energy. Also without a historical foundation to quote, much of Christianity can be used to promote slavery, oppose gay rights, subordinate women, etc. So advocating the theology, despite it being based on a weak history is, in some ways, more aggravating than advocating much of the same theology because the Bible is inerrant.

    I do think your point that very few humans actually know much about the historical issues concerning Jesus is thought provoking. I also find that many, many Christians have almost no interest in studying the historical Jesus yet something about Jesus continues to have an enormous effect on their lives. I once had a discussion with a good man about the historical Jesus only to have him say “I no longer drink and that Is because of Jesus and that is all I need to know about Him.”

    For a variety of historical reasons, I have thought many times that Jesus did not actually preach a Sermon on the Mount, but then wondered who then were these incredible people who made up this sermon? Where did they come form? Where did they get their ideas?

    Anyway, thanks for your amazing contributions to my education. Keep thinking and writing.

  11. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  April 29, 2015

    A very minor point: If this is the working draft, then in the fifth paragraph after the red ink: “trustworthy” should be one word, not two words.

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    mary  April 29, 2015

    I think your words in this post are beautiful.
    What I was looking for from the bible was explained and clarified by you through your teaching. Therefore I no longer needed dozen’s of books about a huge variety of different perspectives. Thank goodness (and you). But I still own a bible.

    When investigating a car accident, we look for what we can see, the physical. Skid marks, damage, weather conditions at the time, road conditions etc. etc. etc. But what evidence is not there is just as important. Where was there No damage to the vehicle? What other vehicles were not known and now gone that were in fact involved in the accident. Maybe they cut out in front of the car? This is very simplified but it is what I thought of while reading about the “brutal” facts you mentioned. The History of the accident was not the end of the accident. The injuries, impacts on everyone involved, repairs if possible, expense and probably a permanent trauma of someone and maybe there lifelong trauma implications which affects actions (life long) in the future.

    If I now understand where and how the bible came to be, does that mean I no longer believe in caring for others? Of course not. People who are looking at it that way do not seem to consider what is not available in the accident.

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    MarkF  April 29, 2015

    I don’t wish to sound disrespectful but I am frequently amazed at the fragility of Evangelical faith. Many of these folks will twist themselves into logical knots as though their entire faith depends upon harmonizing the most trivial of discrepancies. When I was a believing Christian, it didn’t bother me one bit that the Bible was not inerrant because I always viewed it as man’s attempt to capture the infinite in human terms. The fact that memories of Jesus differed from group to group doesn’t create the confusion that fundamentalist fear; it enhances the richness of the human attempt to comprehend the divine.

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    magpie  April 29, 2015

    Well reasoned and well said. Thank you!

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    magpie  April 29, 2015

    OT but is there a way to enlarge the star ratings icons or perhaps let one edit them? I frequently seem to hit either too many or too few because my finger obscures the view of which ones I am actually touching. For instance, I tried to give this post a five star rating (it would be ten star if I could) but apparently I hit the fourth star instead of the fifth. A minor housekeeping point.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 1, 2015

      We started out with 10 stars, but I thought 5 would be simpler.

  16. Avatar
    Wilusa  April 29, 2015

    I may have more thoughts later, but I’ll submit these now…

    I think you should probably try to be more concise. And acknowledge that not everyone will agree with you.

    I’m in partial agreement. I’ll never be able to appreciate any part of the Bible as “literature,” or find anything in it “inspiring.” All my reactions to it are negative. (And I wish Christianity had never come into existence. I think that if it hadn’t, all theistic religions would have died out by now.)

    Specific terms that have caused a problem, which you didn’t actually use in this post: Can something that isn’t “historically true” be “theologically true”? In my humble opinion, it can’t. But it can “contain valuable symbolism,” if you’re willing to accept that language. I only see use of symbolism as desirable, however, if all the believers in a religion understand that the doctrines or practices in question are symbolic rather than literal.

    Where I agree with you: I certainly think the Bible and other Christian texts are worthy of study, because Christianity has played such a large part in our history. And the more we can learn about what different people in the past really thought, the better!

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    ALIHAYMEG  April 29, 2015

    I suspect that the truth of the statement regarding Jesus not transforming the world directly, but his memory having done so will be rejected and attacked by fundamentalist Christians; which is only evidence of the power of that statement. It is yet another way of looking at things that I am personally greatful for having read. Thank you!

  18. Avatar
    Lee Palo  April 29, 2015

    As a Christian who has some training in psychology, philosophy, biblical criticism, and theology, I like this. It makes sense and has a message that I think many skeptics need to hear. Skepticism can be a very valuable thing (I certainly think so), but it is a tool, certainly not the only tool, used in the service of various tasks. [can you tell I’m a fan of Neo-Pragmatism and the latter Wittgenstein?] I don’t think we should fall in love with our favorite tool to the point that we forget what it was originally used for.
    On the other side, I think many Christians, particularly more conservative Christians with no training or minimal training in philosophy, would be put off by this. Our society as a whole values “facts” so much that anything else is often deemed to be of little importance by comparison. Nevertheless it is something they NEED to hear. Well done!

  19. tasteslikecorn
    tasteslikecorn  April 29, 2015

    Well said Dr. Ehrman…the Gospels aren’t an either/or proposition; either they are true and relevant, or untrue and irrelevant. To experience the bible require thoughtful interaction on the part of the reader, as does all great literature for that matter (huh, go figure). The new atheists and the Fundamentalist Christians see themselves at polar-opposites, but I find them equally off-putting, as they seem to hold the shared-perspective that the bible is an all or nothing proposition. They both also love to lob hand grenades at the liberal theologian and the biblical historian for many of the same reasons. If we treated the bible the exact same way we treat other important literature, we would all be the better for it.

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