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HNN News Story on Jesus Before the Gospels

Below is an article that I published for the History News Network, based on my recent book Jesus Before the Gospels.  Enjoy!!


Historians/History article featured on HNN (History News Network) posted 3-18-16:

Are the Stories in the Bible About the Last Days
and Hours of Jesus True?

by Bart D. Ehrman

The season of Lent has come upon us, the time when Christians focus their devotional attention on the last days and hours of Jesus. Even though we devote more social (and media) space to Jesus’ birth, historically the Christian church has paid far more attention to his death. That is certainly the case with the New Testament itself. The Gospel of John, the perennial favorite of believers, after spending eleven chapters on the three years of Jesus’ public ministry, devotes fully ten chapters to his final week and its aftermath. It says not a word about his birth.

The stories of Jesus’ last days – his Triumphal entry into Jerusalem, his cleansing of the temple, his last supper, his betrayal by Judas Iscariot, his arrest and trial before Pontius Pilate, his crucifixion – lie at the center of the Christian Gospels and play a central role in Christian faith and worship. For centuries they have enlivened communities and inspired individuals. Believers have looked upon them as core narratives of their faith. For Christians they have always been theologically true.

Lent celebrants carrying out a street procession during Holy Week. Photo taken in Granada, Nicaragua by Chopanito.

Does it also matter if these memories of events from 2000 years ago are historically accurate? That we are remembering them as they actually happened? Is it possible that, on the contrary, our memories have been shaped, and even transformed, by our personal beliefs, concerns, and interests? And that it has always been that way—that the events of Jesus’ death are as much in our heads as in the past?

For over a century biblical scholars have been obsessed with this question. Widely challenged today is the age-old view that the Gospels are accurate reports written by disciples of Jesus (Matthew and John) or companions of the apostles (Mark, the secretary for Peter; Luke, the traveling companion of Paul). For one thing: whatever else one might say about the Gospels, they were written by unusually well-educated authors from outside of Palestine who composed their works in relatively high-level Greek. Jesus’ own followers were illiterate Aramaic-speaking peasants from rural Galilee.

How then did the later Gospel writers acquire their materials? How did they know about the Triumphal Entry, the cleansing of the Temple, the betrayal of Judas Iscariot, the trial before Pilate, and the rest? The scholarly answer: they knew these stories the way virtually all ancient Christians knew them. Someone told them.

Before our Gospel writers composed their accounts, the stories about Jesus were passed along by word of mouth not just for days and months, but for years and decades. What happens to stories that are told from one person to the next, and then to the next, for forty years? Does a person who hears a story remember it accurately, down to its minute details, and retell it exactly in the same way? Do stories ever remain intact? If not in our times, what about back then? Was it different in ancient oral cultures? Did people in those days have better memories? Would the existence of eyewitnesses (somewhere in the world) have guaranteed that the stories remained the same? Would the authors of the Gospels have done their homework to make sure that the stories they told were historically accurate? We now have better answers to these questions.

In recent years scholars of the New Testament have come to realize that there are other fields of study that can contribute to our understanding of the stories of Jesus’ death – as well as of his life – as they circulated by word of mouth in the decades prior to the writing of the Gospels. Psychologists have intensely studied human memory and have written a massive literature on how we remember, forget, and invent memories – all the time. Sociologists have explored how the social groups we belong to collectively shape, alter, and even create our memories. Anthropologists have examined predominantly oral cultures to see how they pass along their cherished traditions with limited (or no) access to written materials.

Among other things, these studies have shown that – contrary to what we may unreflectively think – eyewitnesses are notoriously unreliable, whether describing a crime scene, a spectacular event, or a casual encounter. Were the Gospel reports based on eyewitness reports? It’s an open question. If they were, would that in itself make them reliable?

Studies have also shown how frail individual memory is – both memories of our own personal experiences and recollections of experiences told to us by others. We often forget, reshape, and transform our memories. Even more striking, we regularly create memories of things that did not occur at all. It happens all the time.

Moreover, our social interactions – with our families, friends, or religious communities – not only affect what we remember as a group, sometimes they lead us to remember the past differently from how it happened, or even to recall things that did not happen at all. This is normal human behavior.

Finally, even though many of us have been told that oral cultures preserve their traditions accurately — since they obviously have no written records to appeal to – this, as it turns out, is simply not true. In oral cultures, traditions are supposed to change with each and every retelling, depending on the story-tellers’ audience, their context, and their reasons for telling the stories in the first place.

These findings have deep and profound implications for our understanding of the Gospel stories of Jesus’ life and, especially, his death. The accounts we read in the Gospels are based on oral traditions, some of them going back to the time of Jesus. But these traditions had been in circulation by word of mouth from one person to the next year after year after year – for decades. All of the persons telling, remembering, and retelling the stories had faulty memories (since we all do). And living in oral cultures, they felt at ease changing their stories at each retelling, as the situation required.

Eventually, after 40-60 years, the stories were written down. That’s what we read to day. These stories may indeed serve as foundational memories for faithful Christians committed to understanding the importance of Jesus. But they were also subject to the same processes of memory that have affected every other oral tradition that has circulated, from time immemorial, among interested listeners and speakers. The fascinating and disturbing thing about memories–all of our memories–is that is that they are malleable, as much then as now.

I am not saying that history is merely the great spoiler of all religious celebrations. These celebrations are based on stories that Christians have always found powerful and inspiring. But we need to remember that in one respect ancient people were very much like people today. It was not the historical accuracy of these stories that made them meaningful; it was the living memories of them that mattered, memories that powered the imagination and inspired action – even if the memories were uncertain. Just as was true of early Christian story-tellers, hearers of the stories today shape and transform them. What matters is not simply whether the memories are true historically, but also whether they bring meaning to life.

Original article: HERE

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  1. Avatar
    Wilusa  April 3, 2016

    Great article! Except that I can never accept your ideas about things being “theologically true” (or “literarily true,” or any of your other kinds of non-factual “truth”). And I wish you’d acknowledged that while belief in these tales that aren’t historically true may have enriched many lives, it’s blighted many others.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 4, 2016

      I would never claim that the Bible hasn’t been used for malicious purposes!

  2. talmoore
    talmoore  April 3, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, I’m currently up to Vol. III of John Meier’s A Marginal Jew, where Meier’s tackles the issue of Jesus’ disciples. Meier brings up what I would think is a rather salient point in relation to the hypothetical oral tradition. Namely, Meier points out that for such seemingly important fellows, it’s almost scandalous how little information there is concerning Jesus’ disciples within the NT (save for maybe Peter).

    Tying this in with your study on memory we must, therefore, consider the fact that we are relying on the received memories of one individual (Jesus) from a group of men (the twelve disciples) of which we have a scandalous paucity of information concerning their very existence. For example, Bartholomew was supposedly one of the twelve closest disciples to Jesus, yet we know almost nothing about him. Apparently, Bartholomew’s biography wasn’t important enough to pass down in the oral tradition. But Bartholomew’s memories of Jesus (hypothetically) were?

    This kind of reminds me of the story-within-a-story-within-a-story structure of the Mahabharata, which, ostensibly, is attempting to recount the epic within the guise of recounting the passing down of the very same story. It’s like as if Timothy were to start off a biography of Jesus by recounting how Paul told him the story of when Peter once told the story of Jesus. The Mahabharata is, for the sake of credibility, at least trying to justify some kind of legitimate provenance for itself. By talking of the Twelve, it’s almost as if the Gospels are trying to justify a similar provenance while at the same time sidelining those very same men that are meant to give the accounts a semblence of credibility.

  3. Avatar
    Omar6741  April 3, 2016

    Professor Ehrman,
    I have just noticed that the “Didache” contains a significant passage about how to deal with visiting prophets, people who speak “in the Spirit” and the like.
    This leaves me with the impression that the phenomenon of wandering prophets and people claiming revelation through the “Spirit” was an ongoing and widespread part of the church culture of early Christianity. If i am right about this, this would account for much of the seeming diversity of earliest Christianity; think of the revelations of Paul (which made him Christian), the revelation of Elchasai, and the revelations to Mani, among others.Do you share this impression?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 4, 2016

      It’s not clear how “widespread” the phenomenon was, though it was an issue in the churces of the Didache. I’m not sure that this relates to Mani or Elchesai though…

      • Avatar
        Omar6741  April 4, 2016

        Do you think some stories of Jesus in the Gospels might have originally been received by revelation?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 5, 2016

          No, since I’m an agnostic, I don’t believe in revelation.

          • Avatar
            Omar6741  April 5, 2016

            Fair enough! But do you think some stories of Jesus in the Gospels might have originally been received by what people at the time thought was revelation?

          • Bart
            Bart  April 6, 2016


    • talmoore
      talmoore  April 4, 2016

      Just thought I’d point out that there was an entire movement within earlier Christianity centered around such “wandering prophets” called Montanism — a movement that had many parallels with, for example, modern Pentecostalism. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Montanism

  4. Avatar
    Fiorile  April 3, 2016

    Fantastic article. I wonder what your views are if one considers the possibility of “divine intervention” in the memory process. This may be a ridiculous thought when trying to examine the issue from a hard historical perspective.

    Thank you for all of your work…

    Joseph E. Fiorile

    • Bart
      Bart  April 4, 2016

      I would say that’s a theological view that a historian like me could never prove or disprove.

      • Avatar
        Fiorile  April 4, 2016

        Agreed – but have you ever heard of this view being a predominant opinion? I am new to this field of study and unquestionably prefer to follow the historian’s point of view, but feel that, to properly frame these issues, I need a basic understanding of all the different views on a subject.

        • Bart
          Bart  April 5, 2016

          I suppose it would be predominant among Christians with a very literalistic understanding of the Bible.

  5. Avatar
    skeptic  April 3, 2016

    Hi Dr Ehrman : Your point about the educational status of the early disciples is well made and not nearly well enough publicised – and yes I own the book ! Imagine my surprise later in life upon finding out the disciples were not carrying around “notebooks” and “pencils” and “blogging” at days end – this is what Jesus said and did today !


  6. Avatar
    wje  April 3, 2016

    Good evening, Bart. Is there something wrong with the comment section? I have not seen any comments for the last few blogs. I think every one of your blogs has at least two or three comments.

  7. Josephsluna
    Josephsluna  April 4, 2016

    Quick question Bart. I know it’s not CIA, but the staff that the pope carries with Jesus on the cross if you look closely it looks like a pine cone on there? On the top of staff but bottom of cross. Looks similar to Thyrsus which Dionysus carried? John the Baptist carried it in leanardo painting and Bacchus painting by leanardo ? Just thinking out loud. But it looks like a pine cone on the bottom of cross at on the top of staff that the pope carries. If you google John gesture? I guess it’s not on subject but wanted to blog this is all. It does look like a pine cone on that staff on bottom of cross? Anyways just blogging is all
    That. Is where red dot on forehead comes from as well ?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 4, 2016

      Hmmm. I have no idea!

      • SBrudney091941
        SBrudney091941  April 8, 2016

        Perhaps symbolic of the fact that they pine for Jesus and the belief that they are the true Cohens.

      • Josephsluna
        Josephsluna  April 9, 2016

        Google ( Thyrsus pope staff ) click images and see what pops up? It shows a pine cone on the staff that the Pope carries. Why? Just puzzled by it is all.

    • Avatar
      Rogers  April 8, 2016

      The occult perspective (am not at all using the word ‘occult’ to imply anything negative whatsoever) is that since ancient times, the pine cone is a symbolic representation of the pineal gland located in the center area of the brain – given that that gland in mammals has a shape and contour reminecient of a pine cone.

      There is a belief that this gland has some role in various forms of mystic experiences. Modern era research has been in the direction of establishing if indeed the pineal gland secreets DMT – DMT occurs naturally in living creatures. Some propose that DMT has a role in dreaming. The Ayahuasca brew used by South American shaman concentrates DMT from plants and induces it into the body in a way that can bypass breakdown in the digestive system (one of the plant ingredients of the brew inhibits enzymes in the digestive system from breaking down DMT). When taken in this fashion DMT can invoke very prolonged experiences lasting hours instead of a mere 10 to 20 minutes.

      Another symbol that occult belief identifies with the pineal gland is the single horn of the mythic unicorn (per Manly P. Hall – The Secret Teachings of All Ages). In Sir Ridley Scott’s 1982 film, Blade Runner, an ogami unicorn is placed outside the main character Deckard’s flat just after he has had a fully transcendent gnostic experience at the feet of his arch advesary, Roy, a Replicant. Deckard has been having a reoccuring dream of a unicorn racing through a forest. A police colleague places the ogami unicorn to where he will see it as a way of letting Deckard know that he too is merely a Replicant. (The base novel that Blade Runner was based on was written by Philip K. Dick, an overt modern day self-professed Gnostic.) Sir Ridley Scott is immensely fascinated in this subject area, hence his special project of a mini series involving the Cathars of Southern France.

      Curiously the pineal gland is composed of tissue that is like the tissue of the retina. It is also referred to as the Third Eye in cccult circles. One aspect of the phenomena of Hypnagogia is the visualization of images that appear entirely real and actual even when one’s eyes are closed. I have expeiened this phenomena three times and it is indeed a startling experience. On the third occasion the imagery was not just a still image but was more like a video sequence. For me this has occurred during meditation sessions.

      • Josephsluna
        Josephsluna  April 10, 2016

        Yes Dionysus carried it. A thrysus. The son of Zeus. Thanks Rogers for taking the time to tell me this.
        Maybe I should wear a red dot on my forehead ! Lol

      • Avatar
        Caro  March 6, 2018

        Thank you very much for this information. It is a big help for me at this time.

  8. Avatar
    Wilusa  April 4, 2016

    “I am not saying that history is merely the great spoiler of all religious celebrations. These celebrations are based on stories that Christians have always found powerful and inspiring…It was not the historical accuracy of these stories that made them meaningful; it was the living memories of them that mattered, memories that powered the imagination and inspired action…What matters is not simply whether the memories are true historically, but also whether they bring meaning to life.”

    I sometimes wonder whether, because you know readers are aware you’re a non-believer, you may unconsciously “bend over backward” to say favorable things about Christianity.

    Or, on the other hand, you may say those favorable things because you yourself – when you were a believer – really did find Christianity “inspiring,” and you can’t relate to the experience of those of us who found it burdensome, stifling, and thoroughly *unpleasant*.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 4, 2016

      I think it’s important when talking about *any* religious tradition (Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, whatever) to be respectful and not simply bash what others believe. I would do the same thing with the Qur’an (I imagine! I don’t make statements about the Qur’an since it’s not an area of my expertise)

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  April 5, 2016

        I quite agree! Where we differ is that I don’t think it would be “bashing” Christianity to acknowledge – in a single sentence – that belief in events that never happened, and doctrines that assume the reality of those events, may not have been a positive, uplifting experience for *all* Christians.

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  April 9, 2016

        Still thinking about this. I wish you’d included something along these lines, perhaps in parentheses:

        It is, of course, impossible to make generalizations about *all* Christians. Some who were raised in the faith may have loathed it, for one reason or another, but practiced it all their lives because they thought the alternative was eternal torture. For them, belief in events that never happened, and doctrines that assumed their reality, would not have been a positive experience.

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  April 10, 2016

        Also…I don’t think a more balanced presentation of the good *and bad* long-term significance of those “memories of Jesus” would have constituted a “bashing” of Christianity. But I’d like to point out that you were writing the article for the History News Network, *not* for a specifically Christian readership.

  9. Avatar
    jhague  April 4, 2016

    I guess the gospel writers may have had access to some written material that did not survive. We believe that Q is one of those writings. What year is it thought that Q was written?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 4, 2016

      No one knows for sure. Obviously before Matthew and Luke. Before Mark? In the 50s? It’s a guess….

  10. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  April 4, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman at his best. Great writing. Clear and concise and convincing….

  11. cheito
    cheito  April 4, 2016

    DR Ehrman:

    The Gospel of John is not based on oral traditions. According to the report itself, It was the disciple whom Jesus loved who testified and wrote down the chronicle recorded in this account attributed to the disciple John.

    The disciple whom Jesus loved was not merely a passerby nor a bystander who happened to eyewitness Jesus perform one miracle but he spent three years with Jesus.

    I don’t think a man like the disciple whom Jesus loved should be compared to a witness who sees an event once and later gives an account of it.

    According to the disciple whom Jesus Loved, Jesus appeared to Him and six other disciples at the Sea of Tiberias and cooked breakfast for them after the resurrection. A memory like this is either true or a lie… It certainly was not a vision. A Vision of a man who died by crucifixion could not cook breakfast for you and break bread for you.


    John 21:12-14

    12-Jesus said to them, “Come [and] have breakfast.” None of the disciples ventured to question Him, “Who are You?” knowing that it was the Lord.

    13-Jesus came and took the bread and gave [it] to them, and the fish likewise.

    14-This is now the third time that Jesus was manifested to the disciples, after He was raised from the dead.

    John 21:24-This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and wrote these things, and we know that his testimony is true.

  12. Avatar
    Wilusa  April 9, 2016

    Also, I don’t accept the notion that something can be “theologically true.”

    Take the belief that Jesus rose from the dead.

    As I see it, what’s true is that *the Resurrection is a core doctrine* of Roman Catholicism and some other Christian denominations. No one would dispute that. There’s no need to distinguish it from other kinds of truth.

    It’s *not* true, in any sense, that he *really did* rise from the dead!

  13. Avatar
    Wilusa  April 9, 2016

    And it may also be true that some Christians see the Resurrection as a *symbol* of something else (perhaps associated with the renewal of life in the spring). Again, all that’s true is that some hold that belief.

  14. Avatar
    John  April 12, 2016

    Most people now accept that Mark was a highly educated Greek speaker but do we have any idea what his native language might have been?

    But the main question is, did Mark know Aramaic and, if so how might he have learned that language? This also leads on to the question of sources for his Gospel. Were there written Aramaic sources, Oral Aramaic sources/stories that he heard or Greek, written and/or oral only?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 12, 2016

      It appears to have been Greek.

      • Avatar
        John  April 12, 2016

        Thanks. So do you think Mark knew Aramaic as a second language?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 13, 2016

          I doubt it, but it’s possible. He does translate several ARamaic words/phrases, but it’s not clear that he knows the language (many people today can translate Gesundheit or c’est la vie!)

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