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If the Quest for the Historical Jesus Failed… What Then?

In response to a question about the Messianic Secret in Mark, I have now shown how scholars (most signficiantly William Wrede) came to realize that not even the Gospel of Mark was a straightforward historical account of what actually happened in the life of Jesus. Some five years ago on the blog I talked about what happened next, in the scholarship on the New Testament.  It's a crucial element of the history of biblical scholarship.  Here is what I said. ***************************************************************************************************** Once it came to be realized that Mark’s Gospel – the earliest of our surviving accounts of Jesus – was driven not purely by historical interests in order to record biographical information with historical accuracy, but was (like the other Gospels) written in order to convey theological ideas in literary guise, the movement to use Mark to write a “Life of Jesus” more or less collapsed on itself, for a time and among most New Testament scholars. What arose from the ashes of this “Quest of the Historical Jesus” could not have been foreseen [...]

The Value of Eyewitness Testimony

The first of today's two-short-posts from new "Boxes" in my New Testament textbook, on a matter of vital importance to anyone interested in knowing about the historical Jesus. ********************************************************************** What Do You Think? Box 13.3  The Value of Eyewitness Testimony   If you want to know about something that happened in the past – whether in a criminal trial or just among your family and friends – you almost always prefer to learn what an eyewitness saw or heard.   And so most of us unreflectively think an eyewitness report is highly reliable.  But is that the case? Eyewitness testimony has been studied by legal experts and psychologists since the early twentieth century.  The first important case study occurred in 1902.  In a law school in Berlin, a well-known criminologist named von Liszt was delivering a lecture when an argument broke out.   One student stood up and shouted that he wanted to show how the topic was related to Christian ethics.   Another got up and yelled that he would not put up with that.   The first [...]

2020-04-03T00:53:49-04:00October 31st, 2018|Historical Jesus, Memory Studies|

Eyewitnesses and the Gospels: A Blast From the Past

Five years ago today I received and answered this question on the blog.  I thought it would make a nice break from my current discussion of my change of faith, a topic to which I'll return tomorrow.  For now, here's a blast from the past.   *********************************************************************** QUESTION One of the major points of your work (if I understand correctly) is that the contents of the New Testament are at a vast remove in time, place, and source from any eyewitness account of Jesus' life. But when I consider this point in my ignorance, and simply from the perspective of chronology (from the time of Jesus to the accounts in the earliest gospels), it seems to me that at least one very old eyewitness of Jesus' life might have been able to report a significant amount of information about Jesus and his teachings directly to, say, Mark. In view of this, I wonder how scholars know that no New Testament account of Jesus could have been received directly from any eyewitness. RESPONSE It’s a very [...]

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! *********************************************************** QUESTION:  Has your view of the historical Jesus changed at all after your studies into memory?   RESPONSE: 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 [...]

The Triumphal Entry as a Distorted Memory

In my previous post I provided an excerpt from Jesus Before the Gospels where I summarized the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ “Triumphal Entry.”  Here is the second part of that two-part post, another excerpt, where I call this tradition into question, arguing that it cannot be right historically and that it must, therefore, represent a distorted memory. It is important to recall that “memory” is not simply a recollection of what we ourselves experienced (what you had for dinner last night; the name of your first-grade teacher; etc.).  Memory involves anything that you “call back to mind” (the literal meaning of “remembering”).  It can be factual information (what is the capital of France?), even of something you haven’t experienced (e.g., if you have never been to Paris); it can be a shared understanding of a person from the past (Einstein; Karl Marx), even if you never met them.  And it can be a recollection of a past event even if you were not involved.   Such as the Triumphal Entry, to pick one example out [...]

Weekly Readers Mailbag: February 13, 2016

  Time for the weekly mailbag.  This week I’m dealing with only one question; I want to give a more elaborate answer than usual since it relates so closely to my forthcoming book Jesus Before the Gospels.   Here’s the question:   QUESTION:  Dr. Ehrman, as you mention we tend to remember events that carry a large emotional impact (e.g. 9/11, Kennedy assassination, etc.) but, in turn, we tend to easily forget the more banal and mundane events in life (e.g. what we ate for breakfast three days ago, the name of our waiter from last night, etc.). In fact, when researchers give test subjects stress-reducing drugs, such as betablockers, they find that the subjects are much less likely to remember an event.  So I'm wondering whether you support or dismiss various gospel events based on this human inclination to remember. For example, the disciples would have been far more likely to remember how Jesus was arrested (highly emotional) versus how they met Jesus (rather less emotional).   RESPONSE: I would like to deal with just [...]

2020-04-03T03:52:03-04:00February 13th, 2016|Book Discussions, Memory Studies, Reader’s Questions|

Weekly Readers’ Mailbag: February 7, 2016

Time for my weekly mailbag.   Before dealing with two rather more direct questions that have come to me – one about eyewitness testimony and the other about whether I hope to get on Fresh Air and Colbert with the new book – I thought I would include an item that did not come to me from the blog, but on my Facebook page.  It’s a brief exchange I had with some anonymous figure.  I seem to have a lot of these.    Please excuse his/her (lack of) syntax; grammar is evidently not a strong suit.  But I think you get the idea of the question.  At least I thought I did.   FACEBOOK EXCHANGE:   bart you said on npr that you feel as that the eye witness all had visions or hallucinations.that jesus didn`t rise from the tomb.do you really expect serious students of the word to accept that,do you know that the expert on the resurrection gary habermas of liberty university called your explanation total nonsense.the ration that over 500 people all experiencing the [...]

2017-11-16T21:26:23-05:00February 7th, 2016|Memory Studies, Paul and His Letters, Reader’s Questions|

Q & A about Jesus Before the Gospels, Part 1

Steven pointed out to me that the first part of the Q&A also got obliterated and sent into the stratosphere during our recent technological nightmare.   So I need to re-post it.  Here it is! I have received a number of interesting questions about the book, raised by these three segments of Q&A.  If you have any you would like me to address on the blog, let me know!   Here is the original post: ****************************************************************************** As I have already indicated, my book Jesus Before the Gospels will be published in a month, on March 1.   As part of the promotion and marketing of the book, I have written out a few answers to questions that my publicist presented to me, as a kind of Q&A that she can use for her work of getting the word out there.   I answered twelve questions related to the book, and will post my responses here on the blog in three bite-size chunks.  Here is chunk #1. *************************************************************************** What is it that drives your fascination with how Jesus [...]

2020-04-03T03:54:08-04:00February 5th, 2016|Book Discussions, Historical Jesus, Memory Studies, Public Forum|

Q & A about Jesus Before the Gospels, Part 3

Here is the third and last installment of the Q&A that I did with my publisher, HarperOne, about my new book Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Early Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior. (The final sentence of the final answer is, I think, the longest I’ve written in my life!!) I’m getting excited about the book and its release on March 1. If you have any questions you would like to ask me about the book or its topic – how knowing about the workings of human memory can help us understand what was happening to the oral traditions about Jesus in the years before they were written down – please comment and ask! I’m happy to talk about the book now in the weeks before it is released! *********************************************************** 1. In the book you share fascinating examples of how ‘false’ memories are formed (in particular, research psychologists collected following September 11, and following the 1992 plane crash in Bijlmermeer, Amsterdam). What can these studies tell us about the historical [...]

2020-04-03T03:54:24-04:00February 3rd, 2016|Book Discussions, Historical Jesus, Memory Studies, Public Forum|

Q & A about Jesus Before the Gospels: Part 2

I have started to post the Q&A that I have done for my publisher (HarperOne) on my new book (due out one month from today! March 1, 2016), Jesus Before the Gospels. I’m really excited about its release. In many ways it is very different from anything I’ve published before, even though it is dealing with the reliability of the Gospels. Here is the second of three installments of the questions and answers. **************************************************************** 1. In the book, you look at anthropological studies undertaken in Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Ghana, and other places of oral culture. What do these studies reveal about the oral traditions of Jesus’ time? It is surprising to me that scholars of the New Testament – who frequently refer to the high accuracy of traditions passed along in oral cultures – have so rarely bothered to see what we actually know about oral cultures and their means of preserving their traditions. Since two Harvard scholars named Milman Parry and Albert Lord began to study the passing on of oral traditions in Yugoslavia in [...]

2020-04-03T03:54:31-04:00February 2nd, 2016|Book Discussions, Historical Jesus, Memory Studies, Public Forum|

Do I Have the Expertise Needed for My Book?

  QUESTION:  You have criticized other scholars for writing on subjects outside their fields of expertise – Reza Aslan, for instance, for his book on the historical Jesus when he is a sociologist, not a historian of religion. Have you considered editing a work with experts in the various fields that speak to the eyewitness to tradition to textual pipeline? Would such a collaboration likely be any more informative to a general audience?   RESPONSE: Ah, great question!  I’m going to answer what I take to be the underlying issue: why am I not following my own advice, but am publishing a book (next month!) that involves expertise other than my own?  (In answer to the specific question: no, I haven’t really thought about editing a volume of other experts on memory!  I have so many projects of my own that I have to do that… I haven’t even considered it, I’m afraid.  There’s simply not enough time in life!) As to what I take to be the underlying issue:  My criticism of Aslan was [...]

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 [...]

2020-04-29T16:42:09-04:00April 28th, 2015|Book Discussions, Memory Studies|

More on Collective Memory

As I discussed in my previous post, the sixth chapter of my proposed book Jesus Before the Gospels will cover the area of “collective memory.”  This is a kind of memory that a lot of people don’t seem to be aware of, but it has long been discussed by sociologists.   Here is how I summarize the views of the famous scholar who first articulated an understanding of collective memory, Maurice Halbwachs. *************************************************************** The term “collective memory” was coined by French philosopher and sociologist Maurice Halbwachs (1877-1945).   His most important and influential book appeared (in French) in 1925 and was called, simply, On Collective Memory.   Halbwachs acknowledges the rather obvious point that it is individuals, not social groups, who remember the past (society does not have some kind of enormous hippocampus!).   But in his view, individual memories have all be reconstructed based on our relation to society around us, especially our various social groups – for example, our families, friends, towns or cities, nations.   It is impossible, in fact, for us to remember without having a [...]

2020-04-03T13:47:33-04:00April 24th, 2015|Book Discussions, Memory Studies|

My Memory Book, Chapter 6 on “Collective Memory”

The sixth chapter of my book Jesus Before the Gospels is tentatively entitled “Collective Memory and Early Recollections of Jesus.”  In it I deal with the phenomenon that sociologists call collective memory.   This phenomenon is different from the one we normally think of when we think of memory; most of the time we think of the psychological phenomenon of individual memories – either of things we’ve experienced (“episodic” memories, as they are called, as I have pointed out), or or things we have learned about the world (“semantic” memories), or of things we know how to do, such as hit a backhand in tennis or ride a bike (“procedural “ memories).   Sociologists for the past 90 years, though, have talked about how social groups reconstruct and imagine and preserve the past.   Here is how I introduce the matter in my chapter, before beginning to talk about the sociologists who pioneered the field (Maurice Halbwachs) and developed it (Jan Assmann and Barry Schwartz, for example) ******************************************************************* I first began to see that memory is radically affected by [...]

2020-04-03T13:47:46-04:00April 22nd, 2015|Book Discussions, Memory Studies|

My Memory Book: False Memories and the Life of Jesus

As I indicated in my previous two posts, the fifth chapter of the book I’m now writing, Jesus Before The Gospels, deals with “False Memories and the Life of Jesus.”  The first part of the chapter shows what we know about how traditions are kept alive in oral cultures, as they are told and retold, either by professionals who are experts or by regular ole folk who are not.   And so this part of the chapter summarizes the research into oral cultures undertaken by anthropologists. Of course there are no anthropologists who can study ancient cultures, at least in the way they can study modern cultures, when they can go in to observe how the culture “works,” interview people, and get to know the cultural world first-hand.   But it is possible to apply the findings of modern anthropology to long-deceased cultures, such as the Christian communities of the first century.   And that’s what I try to do in this chapter. My specific interest is in how Jesus was remembered in these cultures that passed along [...]

“The Same” Traditions in Oral Cultures

As I have been discussing my next book Jesus Before the Gospels, I have been trying to summarize the issues I’ll be addressing and the points I’ll be making, without spilling all the beans and stealing my own thunder.  My idea is to get people interested in the book without making them think they don’t now need to read it!  I’m not sure how successful I’m being at that, but it’s at least the goal. As I started indicating in the previous post, chapter 5 deals with issues involving oral tradition as preserved in oral culture.   It turns out that most of what many (most?) of us have heard about oral cultures, or what has to many (most?) of us seemed commonsensical about them, is wrong.  At least in so far as research has been able to show, by actually studying oral cultures. What many of us have heard or thought is that oral cultures were particularly keen to keep their oral traditions intact and preserved without significant (or any) variation.   We’ve heard stories about [...]

2020-04-03T13:48:57-04:00April 17th, 2015|Book Discussions, Memory Studies|

Differences Between Oral and Written Cultures

Chapter  5 of my book Jesus Before the Gospels (tentatively titled) is called “False Memories and the Life of Jesus” (tentatively titled).   The first part of the chapter deals with a very common misconception about oral traditions in oral cultures – a misconception I hear all the time from lots of people, including my students who get upset when I discuss how traditions about Jesus appear to have been altered in the process of retelling in the years before the Gospels were written.  The misconception is that in oral cultures, people had better memories than those of us who live in written cultures, and that they went out of the way to make sure that they preserved their cherished traditions – including their sacred traditions – with great accuracy, since there was no other way to preserve them in a world without writing. You may well have heard that yourself.  You may well have believed it.  It’s widely believed.  But it appears to be wrong. My hunch is that this is one of those modern [...]

2020-05-10T06:34:33-04:00April 16th, 2015|Book Discussions, Memory Studies|

My Memory Book, Chapter 4 Again: The Death of Jesus

I am in the midst of a thread summarizing my current book project, Jesus Before the Gospels, which I am writing now, even as we speak.   The book will have six major chapters and a short conclusion.   Yesterday I finished drafting chapter 5, and hope to polish off the final two chapters next week, before revising it and sending it out to readers for comments. In my previous posts I said some things about chapter 4, “False Memories and the Death of Jesus.”   This chapter begins with a short summary of what psychologists have discovered about personal memories, and how we remember, since the first experiments were published in 1885 down to the present day.    My interest is both in how we as humans tend to remember the “gist” of what happened in the past and how also we “misremember” things.   Our memories are faulty, frail, and sometimes even false. The eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life had faulty memories as well – they must have had, if they were human beings.   I will be arguing in [...]

2020-04-03T13:49:30-04:00April 15th, 2015|Book Discussions, Historical Jesus, Memory Studies|

What Is A Memory?

A number of readers on the blog have objected to my understanding of memory, specifically to what a memory is, that is, to what constitutes a memory.  As a rule, these readers have argued – some with considerable force and conviction! – that a “memory” is a mental recollection of something that one has personally experienced. Let me cite one of the more closely reasoned expressions of this alternative view by one of my respondents, before explaining my view and why I have it.   COMMENT: Bart, I think people might be confused by your definition of false memories. In the medical, psychological and legal literature, false memories are defined as BELIEVED-IN MEMORIES OF PERSONAL EXPERIENCES that are false or are falsely remembered by specific persons. Beliefs ,stories, narratives, myths, folklore and conspiracies that are false but are circulating in a community or culture are not considered false memories by memory experts since these are not claimed to be first-hand memories of personal experiences. For example, a false memory can be created in the mind [...]

Can A Made-Up Story Be A False Memory?

It has become clear to me, in seeing a number of responses to my posts on memory, that I’m not quite  explaining myself clearly enough to get my point across to everyone.  So, well, what else is new? When I have mentioned “false memories” in the Gospels – that is, recollections of Jesus that are not true to what really happened – some readers have pointed out that these may not be memories at all, but they may simply be what the Gospel writers made up for their own reasons.  In that case Jesus isn’t being “remembered” in these ways.  Someone’s just making up stuff. In response to that view, let me make two points, the second one of which is the the most relevant and important.   The first, though, is that in most cases I don’t think there is any way to know whether a non-historical tradition in the Gospels is something that the Gospel writer inherited from others before him or invented himself.   Take Luke’s story of how Jesus came to be born [...]

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