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Memory, Eyewitnesses, and the Relevance of Jesus: Readers Mailbag

In this week’s Readers’ Mailbag I will deal with three questions, all of them having to do with the historical Jesus:  how has memory studies affected my understanding of Jesus; whether the claim that the Gospels are based eyewitnesses is a new or an ancient attempt to “guarantee” their accuracy; and whether Jesus can be relevant today if his basic apocalyptic view was proven to be wrong.

Good questions, all of them!  If you have any questions about anything involving the New Testament or the history and literature of Christianity in the first four centuries, let me know!



Has your view of the historical Jesus changed at all after your studies into memory?



My basic view of Jesus has not changed at all.  I continue to think that he was an apocalyptic preacher who proclaimed that he and his listeners were living at the end of the age and that God was (very) soon to intervene and overthrow the evil powers who were in charge of this world in order to bring in a good kingdom in which God himself would rule supreme.   What “memory studies” have done is deepen my understanding of who Jesus was and, more important, helped me understand much better the nature of the Gospels and the traditions they contain.  Among other things, the study of memory has helped me recognize what parts of the Gospel stories are more likely “distorted” memories rather than accurate ones.

Let me give just two quick examples.  The first is from Jesus’ life.  When thinking about memory I started reflecting on the traditions of Jesus’ sayings.   Take the Sermon on the Mount.   It is found only in Matthew 5-7 – three chapters filled with Jesus’ teachings, as if written down at the time, word for word allegedly what Jesus said.  But how could all this material be remembered, verbatim, for the 50 years or so between the time Jesus taught and the time Matthew wrote his account?

Think of it this way: suppose you had to reconstruct …

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The Literary Artistry of the Book of Acts
Does the New Testament Condemn Modern Practices of Homosexuality?



  1. Avatar
    willow  March 20, 2016

    “People need to commit themselves to the way of God by giving of themselves completely in service to others, to alleviate the pain and misery of this world and to live not just for themselves but for God and others.

    Those who do such things in a sense have followed the teachings of Jesus, not in the ancient idiom in which the teachings were originally couched, but in a new idiom of relevance for today. Anyone who does that, in my opinion, shows that Jesus is still relevant, highly relevant, even now.”

    And this, Professor Bart Ehrman, is why I find you to be a very fine “Christian”, indeed.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 21, 2016

      Well, if there is a God, I hope he agrees with you. 🙂

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  March 28, 2016

      Maybe it shows what a good Jew one is.

  2. cheito
    cheito  March 20, 2016

    Dr Ehrman:


    There are also episodes of Jesus’ activities that I have had to rethink in light of memory studies. For example, I came to think (or to realize?) that the entire episode in the trial narrative where Pilate allegedly released a murderer and insurrectionist Barabbas to the crowds because they asked for him is almost certainly non-historical. There is no record of it anywhere outside of the Gospels, and is completely implausible:


    As I have stated before, referencing “Matthew as a reliable historical source to ascertain what Happened during his appearance before Pilate, is like using Bill O’Reilly’s book, Killing Jesus to find out what happened when Jesus was arrested and crucified.

    Matthew is not a historically reliable source. Scholars as you well know will agree that we don’t know who the author of Matthew is. The story of Pilate releasing a murderer and insurrectionist is implausible because is not true.

    According to the gospel of John Barabbas was a thief and not an insurrectionist and murderer;
    I think you’ll agree that John’s account is more probable.

    John 18:38-40

    38…And when he had said this, he went out again to the Jews and said to them, “I find no guilt in Him.

    39-“But you have a custom that I release someone for you at the Passover; do you wish then that I release for you the King of the Jews?”

    40-So they cried out again, saying, “Not this Man, but Barabbas.” Now Barabbas was a robber.

    • Avatar
      tcasto  April 5, 2016

      cheito, I take your post to mean that you find Matthew implausible because the names Barabbas a murderer, but John, written decades later, is plausible because he names Barabbas a robber. Do I have that right? And you’re okay with the idea, found in both Gospels, that Pilate, one of the cruelest and insensitive prelates of Jerusalem, would honor some never-heard-of-anywhere-else Jewish custom of releasing a prisoner on a feast day?

  3. Avatar
    Applesauce  March 24, 2016

    Hello Dr. Erhman,

    “My sense is that followers of Jesus today need to translate his preaching from his own idiom into a modern one. He (and everyone else at the time) was wrong about the coming Kingdom of God. But the premises behind that view might nonetheless be completely relevant today. Behind that view was the sense that God was ultimately sovereign over this fallen and sinful world; that suffering is not the last word – that God has the last word; that death is not the end of the story but, in some sense, the beginning. People need to commit themselves to the way of God by giving of themselves completely in service to others, to alleviate the pain and misery of this world and to live not just for themselves but for God and others.
    Those who do such things in a sense have followed the teachings of Jesus, not in the ancient idiom in which the teachings were originally couched, but in a new idiom of relevance for today. Anyone who does that, in my opinion, shows that Jesus is still relevant, highly relevant, even now.”

    I very much appreciate your thoughts on being a “follower” of Jesus and living a Christian life, in the best sense, apart from religious orthodoxy. The symbolism and teachings of Christianity have meaning, and the stories of the Bible, have meaning and importance to our culture, or what’s left of it, whether one believes in the existence of God or that the Bible is “literally true,” or not.

    Right now I am reading a book by Mario Vargas LLosa: Notes on the Death of Culture: Essays on Spectacle and Society . (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2012.) In it, in his essay “The Opium of the People,” LLosa expresses similar sentiments to your own, very eloquently expressed ideas. To quote him:
    “Western culture is imbued with religious ideas, beliefs, images, festivities and customs. To cut out this rich inheritance from the education of the new generations would be to deliver them, bound hand and foot, to the civilization of the spectacle, to frivolity, superficiality, ignorance, gossip, and bad taste.”(p.182)

  4. Rick
    Rick  March 25, 2016

    Doc, apologies for the double dip but, on reflection I now have a question. If we take what Jesus probably did say about how people would treat each other in “The Kingdom of God”, I think we see profound changes in human nature that would be consistent only with a world where all needs and perhaps even wants are met, or a world where human nature is divinely changed. No doubt Jesus Kingdom had no Romans in it, or others who made life difficult for the children of Israel but, do you think Jesus saw the Kingdom also as the land of milk and honey?

  5. Avatar
    SteveWalach  March 27, 2016

    To what extent did Thucydides’ approach to history influence the gospel writers?

    Thucydides put words into people’s mouths because he reasoned that’s what they would have said had they said anything. Pericles speeches are, I believe, the most well-known examples of Thucydides’ so-called “channeling” of ancient minds and voices.

    Is there any evidence — or can it be inferred — that the gospels’ renditions of long speeches like the Sermon on the Mount receive their credibility — or permissions — from Thucydides’ version of historical writing?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 29, 2016

      I doubt (very much!) if they had read Thucydides, or had even heard of him. But out of necessity everyone pretty much followed the practice that he explicitly admits, of putting words on the lips of their speakers.

  6. Avatar
    billw977  March 29, 2016

    I don’t know, I’m thinking that if I lived back 2000 years ago without the modern recording equipment we have today, that folks would pay more attention to what was said, especially from someone who was suspected of being the Messiah. Devout God fearing folks who the last thing they would ever do would be to make up stories about their sacred faith. Yes, there were the crackpots who did make up stories, but not all of them are made up…..they still would have to be filtered through the “true” believers. You yourself, in search for the truth have investigated this as thoroughly as one could, 2000 years later…..but people just like you only several years from the actual event also have searched it out, and I would think that they would have much better resources back then, that is, closer to the events and closer to the actual people involved. I suppose the question now is did those people (like you) report on their findings? Or do we just have the report of the crackpots?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 30, 2016

      I just don’t think it works that way. Wanting to remember something does not enable you to remember it. Next time you hear Obama speak for an hour, try to remember what he said, word for word, the next day. Then wait thirty years….

      • Avatar
        billw977  March 30, 2016

        With all due respect but, you’re saying you don’t believe that some of these folks who were able to write weren’t writing these things down, bits and pieces, here and there, as Jesus was passing through? Then someone, such as the writer of Mark decided to collect these and put them together in one writing? You don’t need one person remembering the whole gospel, you can gather several people with the memory of just their own story. I don’t think someone would ever forget being raised from the dead, etc. Acts even states that they were all together, like in a commune. Is it so hard to believe that these folks couldn’t put together an accurate report of what went on, verifying their stories with each other? I mean, they were supposedly commanded to spread the word. I can understand why they wouldn’t put their names to it, with all the persecution of the Christians by the Jewish leaders, not to mention the Romans. I’m not saying I personally believe the stories in the Bible, I’m just saying that I think your argument has holes in it……my question is, if Jesus really did do all these things and the whole thing is real, how do you think it would come down to us any different than what we already have?

        • Bart
          Bart  March 31, 2016

          I don’t think any of the followers of Jesus could write. They are never said to have been educated, and 97% of the people in their environment were illiterate. Only the upper-crust elite could read and write. and nothing suggests any of Jesus’ followers were among that select group. The way to see if these are accurate reports is to see if they are internally consistent, consistent as well with external sources that can be verified, and plausible. That’s where we get into problems with the Gospel accounts.

          • Avatar
            billw977  April 10, 2016

            I don’t know, to say that 97% of the people were illiterate would seem to be a wild guess to me probably based on very little evidence. How could one possibly prove a percentage like that? The Essenes didn’t seem to have a problem writing. The book of Luke talks about “many have undertaken to draw up an account”. The priest Zechariah asks for a writing tablet to write down John’s name, who was going to read it? Before all of that, who wrote the famous Shiloah inscription in Hezekiah’s tunnel? It looks like the Jews have been writing for hundreds of years. Apparently Jesus, who was considered uneducated, could read. He read the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue. I’d say a large percentage of the Jews back then were a tight knit group of people proud of their heritage, devout, and being oppressed by the Romans they would want to preserve their heritage and culture, not unlike many of the Christians today. Would not the children be taught to read and write in their synagogues? What about all the potsherds with the writings of everyday life archaeologists have found? I’m not convinced.

          • Bart
            Bart  April 11, 2016

            It’s not a wild guess but a reasoned calculation. Read the book by Catherine Hezser (who is not completely convinced that it is 97%, but thinks that it’s probably close to that), based on the analysis of Meir bar-Ilan.

  7. Avatar
    bobnaumann  March 30, 2016

    Bart, As you know, there are many claims in the Gospels that Jesus (or the Son of Man) would return within the generation of his disciples. If the Gospels were written as late as is generally accepted, why would the writers write things they must have known to not be true?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 31, 2016

      The same reason people repeat them today, I suppose. They interpret them in a different way from the way Jesus would have meant them.

  8. Avatar
    tcasto  April 5, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, I’m thinking of the oral tradition of the Koran, as well as the acceptance of Mohammed as the final prophet, when reviewing this discussion of the authenticity of the Gospels. Do you know of any scholar of your caliber that has made a forensic study of the Koran? I personally think the historical Jesus must have been powerfully charismatic, as was Mohammed.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 5, 2016

      I’m not sure what you mean by “forensic” study. There are certainly lots of scholars who study the Qur’an.

  9. Avatar
    cchen326  April 5, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman in your debates with Mcgraw and in your newest book you cited studies done by anthropologists that show oral traditions in most cultures do not accurately preserve the historical events that they refer to.
    What is your take on this idea when comparing Isaiah from the Dead Sea Scrolls to the Masoretic text which is almost a word for word duplicate even though a millennia separates them?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 6, 2016

      That would be an issue with *written* traditions as opposed to oral traditions. The Isaiah scroll is not *EXACTLY* like our late rmanuscript, but it is very similar indeed. Others of the Dead Sea Scrolls are very different: the Jeremiah scroll is 15% longer!

  10. Avatar
    billw977  April 12, 2016

    I realize that this article is talking about an earlier time but I find it interesting considering the topic of this discussion: https://www.yahoo.com/news/handwriting-study-finds-clues-biblical-texts-written-114553436.html

  11. Avatar
    pereraab  May 3, 2016

    I am part way thought the book ( great read BTW). my question is this: while i get that some people might believe their false memories to be true after a while etc..I still find if difficult to believe that the gospel writers would just fabricate stories. Given the nature of the material (being sacred) would they not want to be careful with the material, and make sure it is accurate as possible?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 4, 2016

      I don’t think we can *know* whether the Gospel writers themselves every actually fabricated the stories. But people do fabricate stories all the time (every day!) without realizing they did it….

  12. Avatar
    momoneymohammed  July 2, 2016

    i was reading a chapter from your most recent book, and came across the section about Barabbas. You mention “bar-abbas” means ‘son of the father’ and that the story of barabbas is included in all four synoptic gospels and one of the reasons for its inclusion was to show the jewish audience had chosen the incorrect ‘son of the father’. if this distorted memory of Jesus is multiply attested throughout the gospels, then it must predate the authors themselves; what then does this tell us about the exaltation of christ among early christ followers, it seems as if in their early memories of christ, they are already exalting this position of christ to be much more than just the aforementioned messiah, and actually already in the adoptionist stage, as evidenced by the fact they are referring to him as ‘son of the father’. but instead of exalting him after his death and resurrection , it seems as if he is already the son of the father by the time of his ministry. so i wonder your thoughts on that. and also could it be that the oral traditions that were passed along to the authors of the gospels were varied in opinion and so when we go back and read the gospels with your new work in mind, we will find much like how our brain remembers memories ( in parts, scattered around in various areas of the brain; as opposed to being content merely stored away for our later recollection), we will find in these earlier gospels small snippets of exaltation theology that predates where scholars previously thought these pieces of theology fit in, even if it was not a part of the authors intention or worldview.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 2, 2016

      Yes, these are issues I address head-on in my book How Jesus Became God.

  13. Avatar
    jogon  April 3, 2018

    Hi Bart how would you respond to an apologist who asserts that if there were disciples still around when the gospels were written or people that knew disciples (I always hear Polycarp mentioned) that this would prevent invention in the gospel accounts?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 3, 2018

      I think it’s a deeply flawed idea (I was going to say “crazy” but then felt an urge to be temperate), and I can’t understand how people don’t see the problems. If someone in Minneapolis claims that I did something last year, how does the fact that there are people in Chapel Hill who know differently affect his ability to say whatever he wants? People spread false rumors about living people all the time, every day and everywhere. I deal with this issue at length in my book Jesus Before the Gospels

  14. Avatar
    jogon  April 3, 2018

    Thanks I keep meaning to pick up a copy. I think the general apologetic is if someone who knew a disciple like say Polycarp read a gospel he would realise if there were inventions in it. I’m guessing you don’t think this is a very compelling view? I guess also this presupposes that the disciples themselves wouldn’t make up stories!

    • Bart
      Bart  April 4, 2018

      Yes, I don’t think Polycarp would have any idea what actually happened in the life of Jesus (or any way of finding out)

      • Avatar
        jogon  April 5, 2018

        If Polycarp did know John though would this change things?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 6, 2018

          Among other things it would make it very strange that he quotes lots of other books of the new testament, but never John!!

  15. Avatar
    Brand3000  December 23, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Where do you think Paul ultimately got 1 Cor. 15:3-5 from, a disciple? In your book you don’t say Peter and James per se.
    You divide the traditions so then there is 1 Cor. 15:6-7, from a disciple as well?
    At the very least do you think Paul would have asked someone in authority and reliable, and not just anyone?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 24, 2018

      He appears to think that ultimately it went back to the apostles/earthly followers of Jesus. Where he actually heard it from is anyone’s guess.

  16. stevedemarco
    stevedemarco  March 4, 2020

    How did Joshua become Jesus and why do we use the name Jesus instead of Joshua today?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 6, 2020

      Joshua is a Hebrew name. The Aramaic equivalent is Yeshua. The Greek equivalent is Iesous. The English equivalent is Jesus. We use Jesus because we are using English.

  17. Avatar
    Sinseitional  May 24, 2020

    Why was oral transmission/tradition even a thing at the birth of Christianity? Jews already had the Torah, a written document. Surely they could see that a written document was superior in every way. And yet, these people all sat around and said, “Meh, writing is for losers. Let’s go with the most flawed method of transmission possible. Yeah, let’s do that…”

    If each and every eye witness or even a friend of a friend of a friend’s eye witness uncle was illiterate, surely someone “knew a guy” who could write enough to at least record things down. So what gives?

    It’s a wonder that this strain of thought ever won out over rival philosophies, given such an ill-suited method of transmission. If this (oral transmission) was just “how it was done” during this time, why/how did the Torah ever come to be written and handed down through the generations?

    These Jews had the Torah. The Greeks had their writings. But nope, they all decided to simply go the oral tradition route on this one. What am I missing? I’m sure there’s a lot.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 25, 2020

      Jews relied far more on oral tradition than on written texts. The entire world was organized more or less orally, since only 10% or so could read, and far fewr could write. Plus the early Christians thought the end was coming very soon: no need to start writing things down!

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