In my previous post I began to explain the problems with the idea that Jesus’ followers, like all good students of Rabbis in the Jewish tradition, were trained to memorize what he said and did, so that the Gospels provide us with reliable accounts of his life. This idea was most forcefully promoted by Swedish scholar Birger Gerhardsson and was popular for a while in scholarly circles. But it is widely seen today as problematic. Here is how I continue to explain some of the issues in my book Jesus Before the Gospels (HarperOne, 2016).
An even bigger problem is that we have clear and certain evidence that Jesus’ followers were not passing along his teachings, or accounts of his deeds, as they were memorized verbatim. This is one of the complaints that other scholars generally lodge against Gerhardsson – he does not engage in a detailed examination of traditions that are preserved in the Gospels in order to see if his theory works. What is the evidence that Jesus’ teachings were preserved word-for-word the same? On the contrary, the striking differences in the words and deeds of Jesus as reported in the Gospels is compelling evidence precisely that they were not memorized and passed along without significant change.
I first realized this myself many years ago when I was a graduate student at Princeton Theological Seminary. One semester, Gerhardsson’s teacher, Harald Riesenfeld, was in town giving a lecture. In his talk he argued a position that was in line with the views of his more famous student (he actually had originally given the idea to Gerhardsson): Jesus’ words and deeds were passed along as they had been committed to memory. The morning after his lecture I had breakfast with Riesenfeld, and I told him that I was puzzled by something. The accounts of the words and deeds of Jesus in the New Testament are at odds with each other in numerous places. How could they have been memorized?
I gave him an example. In Mark’s Gospel, a man named Jairus comes up to Jesus and tells him that his daughter is very sick. He would like Jesus to come and heal her. They head to Jairus’s house, but they are unexpectedly delayed. Before they arrive, she dies. Members of Jairus’s household come and inform him that there is now no longer any reason for Jesus to come. Jesus tells Jairus not to fear. They continue on to the house, and Jesus proceeds to raise the girl from the dead (Mark 5:21-43). It is a terrific story, very moving and powerful.
The same story is found in the Gospel of Matthew, but with a striking difference. In Matthew’s version Jairus comes up to Jesus and informs him that his daughter has already died. He would like Jesus to come raise her from the dead (Matthew 9:18-26).
And so I asked Riesenfeld: how can Matthew’s version be right if Mark’s is right? Either the girl was already dead when her father came to Jesus, or not. Riesenfeld’s response was stunning and has stayed with me till today. Since he was convinced that the stories about Jesus were memorized by his followers, he believed Matthew and Mark were describing two different occasions on which Jesus talked with Jairus and brought his daughter back to life. The first time Jairus came to Jesus before the girl had died. The next time it happened, she had died already. Jesus raised her from the dead twice.
I realized then and there that this theory of disciples remembering precisely the words and deeds of Jesus simply didn’t make sense to me.
The final problem with Gerhardsson’s view is that it does not take seriously the realities of how traditions of Jesus were being circulated in the early church. The authors of the Gospels were not writing what they had memorized sitting at Jesus’ feet. As we will see in chapter 3, the disciples of Jesus did not actually write the Gospels. The disciples were lower class, illiterate peasants who spoke Aramaic, Jesus’ own language. The Gospels, on the other hand, were written by highly educated Greek speaking Christians 40-65 years later. The stories had been in circulation for decades, not simply among disciples who allegedly memorized Jesus’ words and deeds, but among all sorts of people, most of whom had never laid eyes on an eyewitness or even on anyone else who had. And so, just as there is no evidence that Jesus’ followers memorized his teachings, the idea that everyone throughout Christendom telling stories about Jesus had memorized them is beyond belief. This model for understanding where the Gospel traditions came from simply doesn’t appear to work.