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Jesus Before the Gospels in Relation to My Other Books

Jesus Before the Gospels is now the seventh book I’ve published with HarperOne; two of the others have also involved issues related to historical problems posed by the New Testament Gospels.  And so I have been asked recently a very fair question: how does this book differ from the others I’ve written?

The short answer is that it is dealing with a completely different topic.   But to explain that at greater length, I should explain what the others focused on.  First, I should say that four of my Harper books were on other things.

  • Did Jesus Exist was an attempt to show why scholars in the fields of New Testament, early Christian studies, and antiquity in general are convinced, and do not even question, that Jesus actually lived as a real human being. There I try to mount the arguments that almost no one has ever bothered to mount because they are so obvious to most people working in the field
  • Forged was dealing not with the contents of the New Testament writings so much as with their authorship. It tried to show why scholars since (by and large) the nineteenth century have maintained that some of the books of the New Testament (e.g. the letters of “Peter”; six of the letters of Paul) were not actually written by the persons who claimed to be writing them.
  • God’s Problem was focused on the problem of suffering – how can there be so much pain and misery in this world if God is in control of it? – especially as it is dealt with in so many different ways by different authors of the Bible, both Old Testament and New Testament.
  • How Jesus Became God, my most recent book till now, is not interested in problems with the Gospels but with how the central affirmation of Christian faith – that Jesus is actually God on earth – came into existence, how the early Christians came to think that Jesus was not just an apocalyptic prophet or a messiah, but actually a divine being, eventually the second member of the Trinity.

So none of those books is…

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My First Interview on Jesus Before the Gospels
My New Book! (In Context of My Others)



  1. Avatar
    mary  March 2, 2016

    I have read several if not all of your HarperOne books. After retiring and finally (years later) got around to actually reading the Bible myself, not taking others word for what it said and meant, I watched your Great courses presentation. Thank goodness. Since then by reading your books and your blog as well as watching speaking engagements and interviews I understood what my comprehension problem in reading the bible was about. Illumination ?

    I too like the edit feature very much

  2. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  March 2, 2016

    The quantity and clarity of the above work is truly amazing and Dr.Ehrman’s textbook on the New Testament is not even on the above list. Thanks for your contributions.

    I still wish that church leaders would educate us about such matters and don’t really get why they don’t.

  3. talmoore
    talmoore  March 2, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, I have to commend you for going out of your comfort zone, something other scholars seem afraid to do. It makes me think of E.O. Wilson’s concept of Consilience, where separate branches or disciplines of the arts and sciences can come together to create a clearer, more concise picture of the world than they can by being cloistered within their own bailiwicks. Why do you think so many scholars fear dipping into unfamiliar waters? Is it because they’ve become complacent within their own fields, content to merely rest on their tenured laurels? Or possibly a fear of the unfamiliar? Or maybe they’re just lazy?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 3, 2016

      I think it’s a good thing for scholars to stick to what they know about. The problem is that many scholars could use a good bit of broadening! It’s hard to get out of one’s comfort zone.

  4. Avatar
    Hari Prasad  March 2, 2016

    Thanks, Bart. I’ve read your previous books and I’ve begun the latest. A couple of points which you may find of interest from other fields regarding oral transmission over long periods:

    (1) One of the well-investigated topics in ancient Greek (which I have studied at graduate level) is the oral transmission of Homer’s epics. The Iliad and Odyssey were recited and handed down by professional bards for centuries. At each step the original material was changed, embellished, and added to until about BCE 700. The bards used their stock scenes, phrases and lines, fixed character types, and meter as a basic kit with which they improvised. “The story was slightly different, slightly new at each telling…”. Each age threw in something, there was no attempt to unify the text. It was only when the epics were put in writing, along with “official” efforts to preserve a “standard” form as in 6th century BCE Athens or in editions of Alexandrian scholars in the 3rd century BCE that left us with the Homeric epics as we know them.

    (2) The Hindu sacred texts, the vedas, were frozen in a painstaking technique of oral transmission focusing on fidelity and care of the original sound (“klangpflege”). Not a single word or syllable has changed from late Vedic times, approx. 600 BCE. The vedas, as a body of sound, were preserved intact and remained binding through the centuries. But such fidelity was achieved at a cost: The original meaning and context were lost, so that subsequent interpretations anachronistically interpreted the texts in terms of the later sacrificial cult of Hinduism. Semantic meaning was maintained and updated separately, starting with the philosophical Upanishads.
    See the link attached:

    Perhaps the conclusion is that even if exceptionally oral transmission can encapsulate an original cultural memory intact in form, it can only do so with a loss of original meaning as societies try to provide relevance and meaning for their times in other ways.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 3, 2016

      I’d suggest you read the scholarship on these issues. For Homer, read Albert Lord, Singer of Tales. For claims about the vedas — you need *evidence*, not claims. See the writings of Ong on orality and literacy. (There is no way to KNOW that the text of the Vedas was the same in 200 BCE as it was in 600 BCE)

      • Avatar
        Hari Prasad  March 3, 2016

        Thanks. I’ve read the scholarly literature on transmission of Homer and don’t disagree with you. On the contrary. I also don’t disagree in general with Ong or others who write on orality and literacy. The comment on the form of the Vedas (i.e. sound) being preserved in the form of a tape recording through extraordinary societal mnemonic feats and incredible investment of human effort over generations, although meaning was lost while the culture changed, has been made by Michael Witzel, Wales Professor of Sanskrit at Harvard and other specialists in the Veda (as in the book by Wilke et al. in the link I provided).

        The Encyclopedia of Hinduism (ed. by Denise Cush, Katherine Robinson, and Michael York, Routledge, 2008; p.945-46)) notes that: “Unlike many oral traditions, however, the oral transmission of the Veda ensured that text remained unchanged through centuries, as is shown in the exact correspondence between different reciters, the manuscripts of the Veda and the Vedic quotations which occur in post-Vedic literature. … However, the existence of variant versions of the same mantras in different Vedic schools (Bloomfield and Edgerton, 1930-34) suggests that at a time when these texts were not yet decontextualized and fixed, they were transmitted orally from one performance to another, and changed in subsequent performances in a manner typical of oral literature.”

        • Bart
          Bart  March 4, 2016

          What evidence to they give that the Veda recited in 100 BCE is the same Veda that was recited in 400 BCE? There can’t be any evidence is there? The fact that it is recited the same way in *modern* times wouldn’t count as evidence…. (Nor would the later manuscripts)

      • Avatar
        Hari Prasad  March 3, 2016


        Sorry, I know you’re very, very busy and have a lot of other priorities. In any case, as I said I’m reading your latest book and don’t have any disagreement either in general or regarding the issues of memory and transmission in earliest Christianity. At most, according to the specialized literature, there may be one debated, and very atypical. example of quite unusual fidelity in oral transmission of form (sound) although not of meaning in another culture.

        I should have sent this link to the paper by Michael Witzel (Wales professor of Sanskrit and expert on the Vedas) earlier to show that I wasn’t just citing vague unsupported claims. This is the standard for Sanskrit/Vedic studies at Harvard and other top-notch schools. Witzel says of the Vedas:”They must be regarded as tape recordings, made during the Vedic period and transmitted orally, and usually without the change of a single word.”

        • Bart
          Bart  March 4, 2016

          On the surface of it, that sounds to me like an absurd claim. How does he know? The fact that anyone says this at Harvard doesn’t impress me!

          • Avatar
            Hari Prasad  March 4, 2016

            Good points! This wasn’t an appeal to authority (“Harvard!”). Witzel cites technical philological and linguistic evidence, e.g., persistence of cases and long-extinct musical accents with uniformity across widely separated regions in oral recitation, while manuscripts are inferior in consistency. He refers to scholars such as Thieme (1964:62-63); Goody (1968, 1987) and Staal (1983). How do we know if the same version was recited between say 400 BCE and 100 BCE? For instance, Witzel notes that pitch accent (preserved in the recitations)
            disappeared from Sanskrit and was replaced by stress accent in the last few centuries BCE, and cites evidence (Patanjali’s grammar aphorisms from around 300 BCE, example of ady-utta). Also, unlike the constantly reformulated Hindu epics and Puranas, the Vedas contain contemporary materials, which according to Witzel provide snapshots of the political and cultural situation of the particular period and area in which they were composed. Witzel is not alone – his views are shared by most scholars. G.S. Kirk (“Homer and the Oral Tradition, p. 118) comments on “grounds for ascribing a far higher degree of accuracy in oral transmission to the Rigveda than to any European poem whose history can be reconstructed. …The transmission …was exclusively oral and an ‘extraordinary fidelity’ …was guaranteed by special precautions on the part of the original diasceuasts as well
            as by the religious veneration in which the details of the text were held.”
            None of this may convince you, or some others in the field of oral tradition: In the absence of a written text for a very long period, it is impossible to verify the claims of “the absolute fidelity with which the (Vedic) text
            has been preserved, down to the smallest details” (Paul Kiparsky, 1976: 99). (Kiparsky, professor at Stanford, shows that several memorization techniques were developed to ensure verbatim recitation and preservation of
            the Vedic texts in what he calls an “astonishing feat.” Did they completely succeed? Impossible to establish, but perhaps to a very large extent …) Annette Teffeteller (“The Politics of Orality, ed. Craig Richard Cooper, Brill,
            2007, p. 74) comments after extensively quoting Kiparsky: “The Parry-Lord model of oral composition excludes
            by definition the corpus of Vedic hymns.”
            If nothing else, I would suggest that beyond the basic writing in oral tradition (Parry-Lord, Ong) there’s a lot of scholarship in the area, and the Vedic case may be highly unusual. (This is not a claim in any sense for there being any special wisdom of a religious or spiritual nature in the text preserved, pace the Hindu nationalists.)

  5. Avatar
    Lee Palo  March 2, 2016

    I often wonder if conservative evangelical Christian opposition to your works is really a way of trying to prevent their laity from learning anything that might be challenging to faith. Can many of your evangelical critics honestly dispute your scholarship, or do they secretly acknowledge your scholarship but are afraid to admit it? Are they lying to themselves? I think at least some of them are. I suspect the answer is that they don’t know how to teach mainstream scholarship in a way that could build faith.

    I taught High-School youth in my church (my local Church of the Nazarene, the denomination in which I also received a good Seminary education) a lot of good scholarship in ways that I hoped would be honest and strengthen their faith. It worked quite well with them. I subsequently taught older adults using the same method and was quickly relieved of teaching Adult Sunday School. I learned that some Christians don’t want to learn anything that would upset their outlook on the faith. I have since left the Church of the Nazarene for the United Methodist Church, where my education and teaching abilities are much more appreciated.

    I tend to think that Marcus Borg was onto something that for many people the Christian faith isn’t intellectually credible. I don’t think his answer to that problem is necessarily the right way to go, but at least he saw the problem. I think conservative evangelical Christian leaders are, for the most part, in denial, and their refusal to incorporate mainstream Biblical scholarship is exacerbating the problem. I think your books are forcing the issue, that is to say, forcing them to confront the problem. I don’t think they like it, but I am very grateful for your work. It really upset me that the good Biblical scholarship I learned at Nazarene Theological Seminary was completely ignored by most all of the pastors who were educated there when it came to their preaching and teaching. With my own background and interest in psychology I will be getting your new book, to be sure.

    Do you have a theory as to why you get so much opposition from conservative evangelicals for writing often what is basically the majority view in Biblical scholarship?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 3, 2016

      Short answer: this scholarship is terrifically threatening to the bedrock of conservative evangelicalism.

      • Avatar
        llamensdor  March 6, 2016

        I was astonished that the learned gentleman who wrote you about the Vedic texts was so determined to convince you they were unchanged over hundreds of years because they were taught orally and that prevented error–and cited scholars to prove it! As a guy who’s been a licensed attorney (Illinois, California, U.S. Supreme Ct.) for over 60 years and has had to deal with “eyewitness” testimony, I would guess that the exact opposite was true.

        • Avatar
          Hari Prasad  March 7, 2016

          Sorry for any misunderstanding. I agree totally with you and Bart Ehrman on the unreliability of “eyewitness” testimony and how oral transmission changes memories handed down. And I never claimed that BECAUSE the Vedas were taught orally that prevented error. That would be silly! On the contrary, the epics in India and Puranas (collections of myths) transmitted orally were continuously reformulated over hundreds of years, like the Homeric epics. The point was simply that according to various scholars who cite linguistic and phonological evidence, the Vedas represented an exceptional case: Special and elaborate methods of fixing the text (through analytic recitation techniques and auxiliary treatises on phonology and philology also transmitted along with them) preserved their fidelity in form, not in meaning or relevance. That’s what these scholars claim – DESPITE the oral transmission. You’re welcome to look into the works of the scholars yourself (for example, Annette Teffeteller, “Orality and the Politics of Scholarship” in Craig Cooper, Politics of Orality, Brill, Leiden/Boston, 2007: Pages 73-74). I’m not making it up.

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  March 14, 2016

      I had a talk over 35 years ago with a Methodist minister who shocked me by his understanding of the current scholarship (not that I was familiar with much of it at the time). I asked him if he taught these things to his congregants. He said he did not because that is not what most of them were there for. They were there for their spiritual needs and he was assigned there as a pasture to help them in their lives, not to educate them–much less upset them!–with non-fundamentalist scholarship.

  6. Avatar
    Wilusa  March 2, 2016

    Very OT – I was shocked at something I just read on the NBC News website. A man in Russia is facing a year in prison for having said “There is no God” during an argument on social media. “Offending believers’ feelings” is now a crime there!

    Ironically, they said it was criminalized after a punk band gave a performance *in a cathedral* (unclear whether they’d barged in without permission), during which they sang a song critical not of “God,” but of Vladimir Putin.

  7. Avatar
    jhanna2  March 2, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman. Thank you for your new book. I could not find where you might have interacted with James D.G. Dunn’s work called “The Oral Gospel Tradition.” If I did not miss it, I was wondering what you thought about his conclusions?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 3, 2016

      Yes, I do mention him and deal with him a bit. I think he seriously underreads the findings of Jan Vansina, whom he invokes.

      • Avatar
        spiker  March 3, 2016

        “I think he seriously underreads the findings of Jan Vansina, whom he invokes.”

        Very interesting! I’m hoping to get to your newest book soon, but am still working on HJBG.
        I did sneak peek and read the section about Lincoln. I liked that very much!

        Would love to see a debate between yourself and Dunn. BTW the debate with Mike Bird was great! I’m more impressed with Mike after seeing it.

        It’s interesting that people reject your telephone analogy. I recall reading one critic arguing that this analogy
        failed because in the game of telephone, you deliberately give the wrong message. I don’t know what kind of messed up birthday parties this guy attended as a kid. I suspect object to comparison with a childhood game
        (as if your point about being childish) rather than what the comparison clarifies.
        I decided to see if I could find the source I was thinking of. I did find one with a similar argument. No doubt you have heard them all:
        “…..liberal scholars like Ehrman perpetuate the misconception that the transmission of the biblical text is like a game of “broken telephone” or “Chinese whispers.” According to the rules of the game, a line of people take turns whispering a phrase into the ear of the next person in line. They must whisper it so softly that the person on the other side of their neighbor cannot hear it, and they are not allowed to repeat themselves. When the message gets to the end of the line, it is usually nonsensical and garbled beyond recognition, much to the delight of the participants.
        The “broken telephone” analogy is a popular one, but woefully incorrect. Distorting the message to the point of incomprehensibility is the point of the game. That was not the point of the biblical scribes who copied what they believed to be the very Word of God.


        You’d think someone with two masters degrees wouldn’t have such a hard time with reading comprehension!

  8. Avatar
    rivercrowman  March 2, 2016

    Bart, your wife Sarah may be right in judging your 2003 book Lost Christianities as your best so far. … It’s a good one for sure! (I’m now reading it again.) … It just doesn’t have the more widely-interesting title as your ‘best-selling’ 2005 book Misquoting Jesus. … And when you get a chance, give us a little hint about your next trade book.

  9. Avatar
    shakespeare66  March 4, 2016

    It is incredible how too many people believe things about early Christianity that are all hearsay. The “heard” that the gospels were written by the disciples and that is why we know the details of the life of Jesus. Isn’t this similar to how people came to “know” who and what Jesus was all about? Essentially hearsay and stories that were embellished and concocted over time?

  10. Avatar
    john76  March 5, 2016

    You write “It is relatively easy for most people with a modicum of education and good sense to realize that Jesus did not really tame dragons, wither his bothersome playmates, or bless lions that become human. It is easy to see that these memories were ‘invented’ (Jesus Before The Gospels, pg. 49)” Would you also claim it is relatively easy for most people with a modicum of education and good sense to realize that Jesus did not really walk on water, turn water into wine, or multiply loaves and fishes?

  11. Avatar
    amyschiwitz  March 7, 2016

    I bought your book Jesus Before the Gospels and have spent all my day off reading it (instead of working through my to-do list)!

    I have a question: in your discussion of the accuracy of oral transmission in illiterate cultures, you quote several anthropologists who report how much the details change from one telling to the next, even with the same storyteller, but that “the gist” is usually preserved. When reading their research, did you notice any specific examples from their fieldwork which illustrated what they meant by “enormous differences” and “the gist”?

    I think this would help me wrap my head around the kinds of changes that would have been happening to the stories of Jesus in the first few decades after his death. Thanks!!

    • Bart
      Bart  March 7, 2016

      Oh yes, they do give examples. But without going into all the details of a particular account, it’s hard to summarize. With respect to my past two posts: a gist would be that Jesus came to Jerusalem a week before the Passover feast. A detail would be that he rode a donkey to the acclamation of the crowds hailing him as the coming one.

  12. Avatar
    gavm  March 23, 2016

    Prof with books such as misquoting jesus and Jesus interrupted you really wouldn’t have had to do much prep as you have known most of the info in them since yr undergrad. This book would have taken nothing but preperation. You would have had to do research till the cows come home. Is it worth it just for a trade book? Would this book be read by any scholars and used to further the field? Will you write something heavier and acidemicaly hard hitting on e topic of memory and oral tradition in early christanity? Thank you

    • Bart
      Bart  March 23, 2016

      I’ve decided (for now at least) not to do a scholarly book. But Jesus Before the Gospels took a *lot* of work!!

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