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My First Interview on Jesus Before the Gospels

Here is the first interview I have done for Jesus Before the Gospels, for the American Freethought Podcast, hosted by John C. Snider & David Driscoll (on March 1st, 2016).  American Freethought is meant to serve freethinkers of every stripe: atheists, agnostics, skeptics, secular humanists, brights, rationalists, or whatever.

In the interview we talk about what research on memory–how it’s formed, how it’s recalled, how it can change when transmitted from person to person, and how it can be remolded based on historical perspective and current events.  Studies of memory, of course, can help us understand the oral traditions of Jesus before the written accounts of the Gospels were produced.  Jesus Before the Gospels is available in hardcover, audiobook and for Kindle.

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Weekly Readers’ Mailbag: March 4, 2016
Jesus Before the Gospels in Relation to My Other Books



  1. Avatar
    Pegill7  March 3, 2016

    Just finished your new book, Bart, and listened to your interview. Congratulations.

  2. Avatar
    bbcamerican  March 3, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman,

    As I was listening to this interview, I was reminded of a recent interview with Steve Wozniak on a recent biopic of Steve Jobs. When asked if certain events/scenes from the movie actually happened, Woz responded [my paraphrasing] “No, it didn’t happen that way, but it’s still true.” When asked what he meant by that statement, Woz continued that even though the actual conversation in a specific scene never happened, the scene was important because it conveyed necessary information for the viewer to understand what Steve Jobs was thinking, contemplating, etc. So, in order to really understand what was going on, a scene had to be created out of whole clothe.

    I’m going to run out and get the “Jesus Before the Gospels” this afternoon, so I haven’t read it yet. But this interview and train of thought has allowed me to see the “truth” in something that you’ve reiterated many times on this blog and in your other published works that just because something didn’t actually happen historically does not necessarily mean that it isn’t “true”. As believers were spreading the “truth” of the Good News, they had to find ways of conveying things that they “knew” to be true about Jesus, even if they didn’t know all the details of Jesus’s actual life. Or, just as likely, stories were created intentionally to help other people understand the truths about Jesus that did not manifest in actual historical events.

    This doesn’t even touch on the fact that since the gospels were written in Greek for Greek-speaking folks that some details were likely changed/deleted/added simply because if they were not changed, they would have made no sense to people who were not rural, illiterate, Aramaic-speaking, 1st century Jews from Galilee.

    As a university instructor with a background in counseling, psychology, learning theory, etc., I am really looking forward to your latest scholarly offering for the masses. Thanks!

    On an unrelated note, Dr. Ehrman, you have, at times, mentioned collegiate basketball. As this is now March as in “March Madness”, are you aware of “Lent Madness”? You can fill out your own bracket of saints and then vote in each round to see who will ultimately win this year’s “Golden Halo” award. I do it every year, and it’s lots of fun. You can find out more at http://www.lentmadness.org/bracket/. The “Round of 32” is already passed; now we are down to the “Saintly 16”.


    • Bart
      Bart  March 4, 2016

      Ha! Never heard of that.

      • Avatar
        bbcamerican  March 4, 2016

        It’s a great way for a lay person, such as myself, to learn about not only officially sanctioned saints but also important people within the history of Christendom. Albert Schweitzer, whom you have mentioned several times in posts and publication, is in this year’s bracket and has moved up to the Saintly 16 round. He’ll be going head to head in voting with Methodius on Monday!

      • Avatar
        bbcamerican  March 4, 2016

        Also, I can confirm that your book HAS arrived in Lafayette, Louisiana, although I had to trouble the very nice clerk at Barnes and Noble to go in the back and open the shipment box for me to get a copy. But she assures me that it is slated for prominent display at a front-of-the-store table next week!

  3. Avatar
    Wilusa  March 3, 2016

    Excellent interview! Have we heard (and in my case, forgotten) your two previous interviews for this podcast? Whether or not that’s the case, I hope you will be going back for a “four-peat.”

    I’ve realized I won’t be receiving your book till at least the 14th – drat! It didn’t occur to me, when I preordered, that there’d be discussion on the blog from the first day it came out. And I didn’t see the problem early enough to change my Amazon preorder – I’m afraid that if I tried to change it at this late date, they’d screw up somehow.

  4. Avatar
    mary  March 3, 2016

    So sad to hear about your friend and co-worker Darryl Gless. I recalled you telling us about the death on the blog, but it was even sadder after hearing more about him as a person and your relationship with him.

    good interview

  5. cheito
    cheito  March 3, 2016

    DR Ehrman:

    So what do you do with the John 21:24. According to this verse, The disciple whom Jesus loved wrote the narratives we read in the Gospel of John. This disciple was an eyewitness. What do you say about this verse in John?

    24-This is the disciple which testifieth of these things, and wrote these things: and we know that his testimony is true.

    • Avatar
      VirtualAlex  March 10, 2016

      Read the book, it’s in there!

  6. Avatar
    brandon284  March 3, 2016

    It’s always fun when you have new book come out Bart. Will you be appearing on the Unbelievable? show in the near future? Those discussions are always fantastic!

    • Bart
      Bart  March 4, 2016

      Yup, looks like I’ll be doing a debate for two hours with Richard Bauckham.

      • Avatar
        brandon284  March 4, 2016

        The match up I was hoping for. Can’t wait!

      • Avatar
        VirtualAlex  March 10, 2016

        “Why am I doing this to myself?”

  7. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  March 4, 2016

    I finished the first chapter this evening, and this book is turning out to be stressful. I keep thinking my memory is better than what you’re describing. As I’m reading my daughter comes in my room all in a tizzy (her shower is running) about having no shampoo. I told her to look for the clear bottle of shampoo in my bathroom. I’m trying to read, and she’s yelling across the house that there’s no clear bottle of shampoo and comes back with conditioner. Now, I’m losing my patience because I’ve lost my place in the book, the shower is running for no reason, and my daughter is standing in front of me with a bottle of conditioner in her hands instead of shampoo. I told her again–it’s a clear bottle of shampoo…CLEAR..get back in there and find it. She finally comes back and says, “You mean this WHITE bottle of shampoo?” Now I’m really aggravated because I was wrong. So now I’m thinking, what the hell is in a clear bottle in there? I realized the clear bottle was a different product by the same brand name as the shampoo. Argghh!!
    I managed to finish the chapter but needed ice cream by that point. This book better not make me gain weight.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 4, 2016

      Ha! Good luck with *that*.

      • Avatar
        Pattycake1974  March 8, 2016

        Not sure where to put this question!

        You wrote that certain kinds of stories have forms to them. Do you know if forms were used in non-canonical texts such as the Gnostic Gospels? What about other writings not related to the bible? Do you know of any that had this type of literary form?

        • Bart
          Bart  March 10, 2016

          It’s not that forms were “used.” It’s that stories that are told and retold tend to take on a certain form. And that’s true of all stories about Jesus, in theory.

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    shakespeare66  March 4, 2016

    Fun interview. The conversation set me to thinking about how different kids in our family have memories of the past. My sister claims that my mother never made a particular kind of cookie, yet the four brothers remember the cookies distinctly. She also has a memory of our parents that is completely different then how the rest of us remember them. So memories can be different even if the same people were living in the same house. It was said that my brother and I were named after two of our cousins, yet my sister claims there was no such relationship despite the fact that I remembered my mother telling me this. Memories are definitely different of events that happen in earlier times. My father had 9 brothers and sisters and they all told different stories to their children about their parents. After I researched the truth about my father’s father, and shared it with my cousins, many of them could not believe what I was sharing and telling them as they wanted to still believe what their father originally told them about their grandparents. What a weird deal. Isn’t this similar to how the life of Jesus transgressed?

  9. Avatar
    rivercrowman  March 4, 2016

    Bart, this podcast piqued my interest [minutes 18-19] when you described the scholarly exercise of translating Jesus’ supposed sayings from Greek to Aramaic and Aramaic back to Greek. If they made “even better sense” in Aramaic, I think you implied these sayings were more likely to have actually been said. … That makes me think of the Gospel of Mark 15:34, where the author gives us the Aramaic up front, along with his translation of it to readers. Does that put this verse relatively high on the accuracy list of Jesus’ final words on the cross? … I’m half way through your new book. Thanks for another great piece of work.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 5, 2016

      I would say that if it occurs in Aramaic it certainly doesn’t *guarantee* that it’s authentic, but it does show that it was circulating among Jesus’ followers early on, in Palestine.

  10. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  March 4, 2016

    I am looking forward to the “4-Peat.”

    This interview is very, very good both with regards to the interviewer and Dr. Ehrman’s responses.

    The story behind the book dedication is particularly moving.

    The remembered Jesus is not the same as the historical Jesus. If you want to know why, buy the book and read it.

  11. Avatar
    john76  March 5, 2016

    I just purchased “Jesus Before The Gospels.” Here’s a fun thought experiment: Imagine we found a letter from the author of the Gospel of Mark saying he invented one of the pericopes in his Gospel about Jesus because, even though the tale never happened historically, he wanted to include it to show the audience how he thought Jesus would have behaved in that situation because inventing the pericope would convey an important ethical message. Now if the writer of the letter didn’t indicate which one of his pericopes in the Gospel of Mark was the invented one, how would we be able to tell which of the pericopes in the Gospel of Mark represent authentic memory? A question mark would fall over all of them.

    And in fact we know writers invented stories about Jesus in order to convey a message, such as the case of “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” in the Gospel of John. We only know that this pericope in John is invented because it doesn’t appear in the earliest manuscripts of this Gospel. The later author gives no indication that this story is invented. Doesn’t this lead to the problem that there is no reason to think any pericope is historical because there is no way to distinguish the authentic ones from the invented ones (if there are indeed invented ones)? People thought for thousands of years that the story of the adultress in John was authentic because it seemed just like any other pericope.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 5, 2016

      That’s why you need to use rigorous historical criteria. These get around just the problem you raise!

  12. Avatar
    john76  March 6, 2016

    You write in your new book that the memories of Jesus’ death “do not appear to be remembered in any prejudicial way … there is nothing inherently implausible about them (Jesus Before The Gospels, pg. 148).” But many events in the Apocryphal books contain mundane events, and no one thinks these events ever happened. My question is, why can “non prejudicial events” meet criteria of historicity in the New Testament, when “non-prejudicial events” can’t meet the criteria for historicity in the Apocryphal books?

    • Avatar
      john76  March 6, 2016

      You also write about Jesus’ death that memories of Jesus’ death “do not appear to be remembered in any prejudicial way – for example, because they represent episodes of Jesus’ life that Christians particularly would have wanted to say happened for their own, later benefit (Jesus Before The Gospels, pg. 148).” This seems to fly in the face of Paul’s claim that Jesus’ atoning death fulfilled scripture. Recall Paul said “Christ died for our sins ACCORDING TO THE SCRIPTURES (1 Corinthians 15:3).”

      • Bart
        Bart  March 7, 2016

        I”m not saying that *everything* about Jesus’ death in the NT is non-prejudicial — simply the items I list.

        • Avatar
          john76  March 8, 2016

          (1). Robert M. Price is interesting here. He writes:

          The Crucifixion (Mark 15:21-41):
          The substructure for the crucifixion in chapter 15 is, as all recognize, Psalm 22, from which derive all the major details, including the implicit piercing of hands and feet (Mark 24//Psalm 22:16b), the dividing of his garments and casting lots for them (Mark 15:24//Psalm 22:18), the “wagging heads” of the mockers (Mark 15:20//Psalm 22:7), and of course the cry of dereliction, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34//Psalm 22:1). Matthew adds another quote, “He trusts in God. Let God deliver him now if he desires him” (Matthew 27:43//Psalm 22:8), as well as a strong allusion (“for he said, ‘I am the son of God’” 27:43b) to Wisdom of Solomon 2:12-20, which underlies the whole story anyway (Miller), “Let us lie in wait for the righteous man because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions; he reproaches us for sins against the law and accuses us of sins against our training. He professes to have knowledge of God, and calls himself a child of the Lord. He became to us a reproof of our thoughts; the very sight of him is a burden to us because his manner of life is unlike that of others, and his ways are strange. We are considered by him as something base, and he avoids our ways as unclean; he calls the last end of the righteous happy, and boasts that God is his father. Let us see if his words are true, and let us test what will happen at the end of his life: for if the righteous man is God’s son he will help him and will deliver him from the hand of his adversaries. Let us test him with insult and torture that we may find out how gentle he is and make trial of his forbearance. Let us condemn him to a shameful death, for, according to what he says, he will be protected.” As for other details, Crossan points out that the darkness at noon comes from Amos 8:9, while the vinegar and gall come from Psalm 69:21. It is remarkable that Mark does anything but call attention to the scriptural basis for the crucifixion account. There is nothing said of scripture being fulfilled here. It is all simply presented as the events of Jesus’ execution. It is we who must ferret out the real sources of the story. This is quite different, e.g., in John, where explicit scripture citations are given, e.g., for Jesus’ legs not being broken to hasten his death (John 19:36), either Exodus 12:10, Numbers 9:12, or Psalm 34:19-20 (Crossan,).

          (2) Paul said “Christ died for our sins ACCORDING TO THE SCRIPTURES (1 Corinthians 15:3).” So the question is what scriptures are Paul Referring to? As I said above in section (1) above, many details of the crucifixion seem to be derived from Psalm 22. In fact, the crucifixion itself may be derived from the implicit piercing of hands and feet in Psalm 22:16b (Mark 24). Psalm 22:16 says “Dogs surround me, a pack of villains encircles me;they pierce my hands and my feet.”The Septuagint , a Jewish translation of the Hebrew Bible into Koine Greek made before the Common Era, and which the New Testament writers use, has ωρυξαν χειράς μου και πόδας (“they have dug my hands and feet”), which some commentators argue could be understood in the general sense as “pierced”. The proper way to render the phrase remains disputed, but given the extensive parallels between Psalm 22 and the crucifixion, which I outlined, I have no problem with rendering it as “pierced.”

          (3) So there really isn’t any reason to think Jesus was crucified. Maybe all the stuff about Pilate and the like was just good historical fiction, like the stuff about the Census of Quirinius relating to Jesus.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 7, 2016

      Yes, all accounts, canonical and non-canonical, need to be subject to the same historical criteria. Anyone who wants to argue that a non-canonical tradition of Jesus’ death is probably historical has to make the same kind of case, instance by instance.

  13. cheito
    cheito  March 6, 2016

    You stated in your interview that “Paul was the closest one to being an eyewitness”.

    According to Paul Himself, He was an eyewitness. Paul doesn’t say that he almost saw Jesus. He asserts seeing Jesus after the resurrection. He affirms Jesus appeared to Him in the same manner that He also appeared to all the apostles, to James, Jesus’ brother, and to five hundred witnesses at one time. As you know, Paul knew Peter, John and James. He met with them. So was Paul lying or making all this up?
    Did five hundred persons see Jesus after the resurrection at one time as Paul clearly states?


    1 Corinthians 15:5-8

    5-and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.
    6-After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep;
    7-then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles;
    8-and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also.


    I understand you don’t believe 1 Peter was written by the apostle Peter. You could be wrong. There is no consensus among scholars that 1 peter was absolutely not written by Peter.

    You also don’t believe that the gospel of John was written by the disciple whom Jesus loved, according to the testimony of the narrative itself in John 21:24.


    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.


    In John 21:1-12 this memory was recorded.

    I’ll note that this is a memory of Jesus preparing breakfast for his disciples after His resurrection.
    So how can one have a memory of someone who is already dead? And how can someone who is already dead prepare breakfast for you and also eat with you?

    A vision of a loved one who has died could not prepare breakfast for you.

    Obviously John 21:1-12 is not to be interpreted as a vision, but as a literal appearance by Jesus after He had died on the cross.

    I’ll also note that according to John 21:24 these accounts were written by the disciple who witnessed, and by the way, also had breakfast with the Jesus after his resurrection.

    How could anyone be wrong about a memory like this?

  14. Avatar
    toejam  March 7, 2016

    You should tell your publicist to get you onto The Thinking Atheist, hosted by Seth Andrews. Definitely the best, and probably the most popular, atheist podcast out there.

  15. Avatar
    llamensdor  March 7, 2016

    I don’t pretend to be a scholar (I’m not proud that I’m not a scholar, either), and therefore it is difficult for me to adhere to the rigorous historical criteria that Dr. Ehrman refers to. Some folks, like Bill O’Reilly, claim they are writing “straight history” about Jesus and of course they are not. I consider my Murdered Messiah series to be historical fiction. Across over 25 years, I have read hundreds of books on Jesus and early Christianity, including most of Bart’s books, and I have made trips to Israel, Jordan and Egypt, walking in the “footsteps of Jesus,” listening to professional guides, etc. I hope that what I have accomplished is that form of truth beyond historical truth. I included many of the episodes from the Gospels, Acts, etc., although I have put my own interpretation on them. For example, I certainly agree that Pilate was an evil man, a vicious depraved person of a type not entirely unique in the Roman Empire, but I believe it is not impossible that he took the position that he was being forced to crucify this innocent fellow. His goal would have been obvious—to saddle the Jewish hierarchy with responsibility for his action because it would be extremely useful to him in controlling them and the rest of the Jews. I understand that Pilate became more “innocent” as time passed, as it was important for these Gospel writers and their followers not to offend the Romans, who had already destroyed the Temple and Jerusalem and slaughtered huge numbers of Jews. Pilate proved his addiction to murder many times and eventually lost his job for slaughtering the Samaritans at Mt. Gerizim.

  16. Avatar
    john76  March 11, 2016

    In your new book you say the crucifixion by the known historical figure Pilate is historical bedrock (Jesus Before The Gospels, 149). I don’t know why you thinks this, because the mention of the Census of the known historical figure Quirinius is also indicated in the gospels as connecting to Jesus, but there is no reason to think this event has any real connection to Jesus. There seems to be a bias among the academy that if a real historical personage is mentioned in the gospels in connection to Jesus (like Pilate or John The Baptist), the rule of thumb is to accept the relationship as historical unless there is direct evidence suggesting otherwise (the Census of Quirinius). This is a paralogism of course.

    The Census of Quirinius was supposedly a census of Judaea taken by Publius Sulpicius Quirinius, Roman governor of Syria, upon the imposition of direct Roman rule in 6 CE. According to the Gospel of Luke, Jesus was born at the time of the census and during the reign of Herod the Great, but Herod died in 4 BCE; no satisfactory explanation has been put forward which could resolve the contradiction.

    The point is, there is no more reason to suppose Pilate is connected to Jesus, than to suppose the Census by Quirinius was.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 12, 2016

      I don’t think the evidence for the census under Quirinius is in the same ballpark as the evidence for the crucifixion; completely incommensurate, I would say.

      • Avatar
        john76  March 18, 2016

        But the point is that the fact that a known historical person appears in the gospels doesn’t mean there is reason to think the historical Jesus ever had any relationship to them.

  17. Avatar
    john76  March 17, 2016

    The New Testament records that Jesus was accused of being a glutton, a drunk, and consorting with undesirables: “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Behold, a gluttonous man and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ (Matthew 11:19). It would seem curious that the author of the Gospel of Matthew would preserve these attacks on Jesus if there weren’t some truth to them. It seems to add to the probability of Jesus being a glutton and a drunk that other New Testament sources confirm Jesus was a friend of tax collectors and sinners.

    • Avatar
      john76  March 18, 2016

      A couple more thoughts:

      Matthew 11:19 says ″The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Behold, a gluttonous man and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’”

      The fact that Jesus’ critics said they saw Jesus going around getting drunk, being a glutton, and consorting with cheats and sinners, while it doesn’t prove Jesus was doing these things, it does imply Jesus’ opponents thought that Jesus was not a heavenly mythical deity, but rather a person walking around on earth and doing stuff.

  18. Avatar
    majimenez  March 18, 2016

    Can we consider Paul a good historical witness of Jesus? He assures he spoke with Jesus after his crucifixion, and on the other hand he does not know anything about Jesus life in spite of he says he met Jesus brother.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 19, 2016

      Yes, he would be a good witness to Jesus’ life — if he would only have told us anything! (He says a few things, but not much.)

      • Avatar
        majimenez  March 21, 2016

        Sorry it is not clear for me why can he be a good witness. I wonder if a man that says he has spoken with a ghost would be taken as a serious witness in a trial.

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