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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 the following chapter 5 that it is simply not the case – despite what you sometimes hear or read – that people in oral cultures (as opposed to writing cultures such as ours) had better memories than the rest of us and worked diligently to preserve their traditions intact, since there were no real means of preserving them otherwise.  That view is wrong, wrong, wrong, as I’ll try to show.  But in this chapter I’m dealing with personal memories.

The eyewitnesses had faulty memories.  As did the people to whom they told their stories (as they tried to remember what they had been told); and the people to whom those people told the stories; and the people to whom they told the stories; and so on.

As a result …

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Differences Between Oral and Written Cultures
What Is A Memory?



  1. Avatar
    Wilusa  April 15, 2015

    Just want to make sure I understand something correctly… A while back, you said you were coming to think Jesus might *not* have been “nonviolent.” Then you once again became convinced that he *had* been “nonviolent.” Was that all about the episode with Peter’s allegedly having a sword – nothing else involved? (As I recall, you decided the Gospel writer had just wanted to include the line about those who live by the sword being destined to die by the sword.) Also…do you believe Jesus actually had uttered those words, in some context or other?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 16, 2015

      YEs, I was pondering that issue deep and hard, and have concluded that I simply am not convinced that Jesus was in support of a military intervention. I still think he was a pacifist.

  2. Avatar
    Triassicman  April 15, 2015

    Hey Bart, I like the way this is developing. You have picked out 4 of the most contentious points with which I have held great doubts. The over arching portrayal of Jesus as a pacifist and gentleman throught out the gospels does not align with the story of the ‘cleansing of the temple’ account. If a group of thugs were to overturn the tables at a casino today then without doubt there would be chaos, resulting in a massive brawl with angry customers, croupiers and security ganging up on the thugs. I am sure the same could be expected in those times. I can imagine that with Jesus and his disciples being out numbered they would have been very lucky to get out alive. The Roman soldiers, normally stationed in the temple, would surely have been involved, resulting in their arrest and incarceration. Something is very fishy about that story apart from the involvement of fishermen.

  3. Goat
    Goat  April 16, 2015

    Is it also possible that the accounts of Jesus’ trial become more favorable to Pilot because the early Christians felt inceasing compulsion to ingratiate themselves with Roman society and/or authorities?

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    living42day  April 16, 2015

    Despite the clarifications that you have provided in the past two posts (i.e., 4/13 and 4/15), I can understand why people would be bothered about the use of the term “memory” for certain stories about Jesus.

    The so-called “triumphal entry” in Mark 11:1-10 provides a useful example for discussion. It is possible that this story is based on someone’s “episodic memory,” the recollection (embellished over time by post-Easter reflection?) of an eyewitness who saw firsthand what actually happened on that first Palm Sunday. However, it seems that few critical scholars today think that this is the case.

    Indeed, E. P. Sanders acknowledges that the entire scene may be fictional: “It is possible to think that the prophecy created the event or that the prophecy created the story and that the event never occurred. This is one of a sizeable number of cases in which we cannot be sure whether Jesus himself acted out a prophecy, or the Christian tradition depicted him doing so” (E. P. Sanders, Historical Figure of Jesus, 254). In other words, as Strauss suggested almost two hundred years ago, it is likely that “the whole entrance was freely composed after the two prophecies [i.e., Zech 9:9 and Psa 118:25-26]” (Strauss, Life of Jesus, 559).

    If the broad consensus about the origin of this episode is correct, this is an example of an event in the church’s “collective memory” that is false in the sense that what Mark describes never really happened. Of course, once Mark published his gospel (or if he did not compose the scene himself, once some now forgotten Christian first told the story that Mark later used), this episode would become part of the church’s “semantic memory.” I get that.

    Nonetheless, it seems to me that when a story such as this one owes its existence to the creative reworking of identifiable written material (earlier, originally unrelated “collective memories”?) it would be helpful to categorize it accordingly. Maybe it could be called a “literary memory” or a “scripturalized memory.”

    • Bart
      Bart  April 16, 2015

      I’m not saying that the story teller himself was necessarily “falsely remembering” the event. I’m saying once the event was written down — or told and retold — people “remembered” that it happened, even if it didn’t. It became a false memory.

    • Avatar
      RGM-ills  April 16, 2015

      Ditto. and don’t forget on your first bullet point. Dr. E, the riding in on a single donkey as compared to the very firm effort to describe one sitting on two donkies in matthew 21:5-7. I seem to be the only one thinking there is significance in this related to sources of false memory.

  5. Avatar
    jbjbjbjbjb  April 16, 2015

    Just read this BBC article this morning – checked out this blog the next minute, what a striking match! It reports the suspicious death of Oleg Kalashnikov, a Ukraine ally of ex-President Yanukovych:
    “Accounts of his death differ, with some sources saying his body was found outside his flat in Kiev and others saying it was found within.” http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-32329512

    Will be interested to see why you, Bart, consider the temple cleansing invented.


    • Bart
      Bart  April 16, 2015

      I don’t! I think parts of the “memory” of the event are not “true” to what happened.

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  April 16, 2015

        Maybe some people take the term “cleansing” (of the Temple) to imply Jesus’s having succeeded in causing a major ruckus, really driving the moneychangers out?

  6. Avatar
    Xeronimo74  April 16, 2015

    Bart: I might have missed that but how do you differentiate between made-up (or symbolical) stories and false memories?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 16, 2015

      If somebody consciously makes up a story, they are not misremembering. But if someone reads their story (say, about Jesus) and thereafter “remembers” (Jesus) in that way, then it is a false memory.

  7. Avatar
    madmargie  April 16, 2015

    Makes sense to me! No one, in an ancient culture or even today remembers everything correctly. I know I don’t. I have a problem with all the miracles found in the scriptures. Where did they come from? Are they there because that culture believed in miracles? It seems to me we are all colored by our culture.

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    RonaldTaska  April 16, 2015

    This is a terrific blog, especially the part about how to tell the true events from the false events which reminds me of the criteria used by the Jesus Seminar.

    Obviously, “confirmation bias,” seeing what confirms our beliefs, is also a huge factor affecting “memories” as illustrated by watching different cable new channels.

    I still have some difficulty with calling these different views or beliefs or events “memories,” but the rest is gelling quite nicely for me. My guess is that as I read more that will be less of a problem.

  9. Avatar
    doug  April 16, 2015

    This definition of “false memory” is helpful. When I think of a true memory, I think of whether I have remembered something accurately (i.e., my father told me about George Washington cutting down the cherry tree, and I remember accurately what he told me). But I think in the sense that you are using the phrase “false memory”, it can refer to:

    – If I remember *accurately* what I was told (but the cherry tree story I was told is false).

    – If I remember *inaccurately* what I was told (i.e., my wife told me to get three milks and I misremembered and thought she said two milks).

    So a false memory can refer to the falseness of the story that is remembered, even if the person to whom the story was told remembers it exactly as it was told to them.

  10. Avatar
    Brian Wilson  April 17, 2015

    This is a long overlooked topic in Jesus studies (and history in general). Thanks for taking it on Dr. Ehrman. I’m sure you will do it justice.

  11. talitakum
    talitakum  April 17, 2015

    I might be wrong, but the fact that Jewish authorities were responsible for delivering Jesus to Pilate is widely attested by christian sources and non-christian sources (Josephus). So, the fact that Pilate become “increasingly” exonerated it’s true – however – this doesn’t imply that Pilate becomes “suddenly” exonerated: the basic fact that Jewish authorities were responsible for delivering Jesus to Pilate is apparently part of all memories about Jesus trial and death from all sources available.
    Regarding Barabbas, the gospels (incl. John) apparently agree on such figure as part of Jesus trial, and the fact that some texts remember him as “Jesus Barabbas” is in my opinion in favor of a genuine tradition. The release of a prisoner is of course another story, cause historical plausibility should be verified.

    So, do you think that both Barabbas and the delivery of Jesus to Pilate by Jewish authorities could possibly be good “gist” memories?

    Thank you!!

    • Bart
      Bart  April 17, 2015

      I’d say there’s a big difference between the Jewish authorities handing Jesus over to Pilate as a potential criminal (you’re seeing that as histoically likely) and a story in which Pilate is before the Jewish hoardes yelling for Jesus’ crucifixion and him reluctantly caving in after washing his hands and saying that he is innocent of this man’s blood. The former could be a true memory and the latter a false one.

      On Barabbas, I don’t see how that story can be historical if there was no (historical) “release of a prisoner.” so I think that is the same story, not a differen tone.

      • talitakum
        talitakum  April 17, 2015

        Thank you. I just wonder why a fabricated character was called “Jesus Barabbas”. Even if the original fictional account had “Barabbas” I don’t see how memory distortion or scribal transmission could possibly add “Jesus”..

        • Bart
          Bart  April 18, 2015

          It’s in order to make the contrast with Jesus Christ more clear and graphic. Which Jesus do “the Jews” prefer? The insurrectionist or the son of God?

      • Avatar
        JSTMaria  April 17, 2015

        Hi Dr. Ehrman. I recently learned that the name Jesus Barabbas has a potentially interesting twist to it. I guess Barabbas literally means “son of the father.” In this case it seems the author is not remembering anything at all as you state, but just trying to make a symbolic point about the desires of humanity. Did they think it better to release Jesus, the son of the father (the ‘earthly’ man full of uncontrollable passions) or Jesus, Son of the Father (the godly, higher, and more spiritual Man in complete control of his passions)? It seems like the historical validity of events over time or at times sort of takes a backseat to what the Gospel authors are simply trying to tell the world relative to how it fits or fulfills the Hebrew scriptures–coupled with some outright symbolic messaging that isn’t always evident to the casual reader unless you really dig. Is there much research being done on the flat-out symbolism in the Bible or is that just left to theologians? Does it ever intersect with your studies?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 18, 2015

          Yes, this has been thought before. I’ll be dealing with just this point in my chapter.

  12. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  April 17, 2015

    This survey of what we can and cannot know about the historical Jesus is one of the most important questions in Christianity. Rereading this really terrific blog this morning makes me wonder when and how Christians developed the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy, a doctrine which, as evidenced by our culture wars, has caused so much misunderstanding as well as harm to humans and Christianity itself? Likewise, the inerrancy view of the Koran.

    • talitakum
      talitakum  April 17, 2015

      Much depends on what you mean with “biblical inerrancy”, what Christianity and when…

  13. Avatar
    dragonfly  April 17, 2015

    It seems to me the feeding of the 5000 and the feeding of the 4000 are just 2 different memories of the same story. The gist is identical, the details are only slightly different. No doubt Mark would have just thought Jesus pulled off the same trick twice though.

  14. Avatar
    SteveWalach  April 17, 2015

    Do you think it is a coincidence that the four gospels were penned after the execution of James, Jesus’ brother?

    James would have been the perfect eyewitness to refute false accounts of Jesus’ life and words. James would also have been the guy to counter the theologizing that made the gospels — and then Christianity — into a religion about his brother.

    James is conspicuously un-remembered and/or minimized in the four gospels. He plays a major albeit brief role in Luke Acts but could his marginalization been in retaliation to his objections over what he might have seen as a mythologizing of a flesh and blood kin?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 17, 2015

      Are you thinking of the execution of James the brother of John in Acts 12? Different James.

      • Avatar
        SteveWalach  April 17, 2015

        No, the execution of James the Just, Jesus’ brother, in 62 CE, in Jerusalem, at the hand of Ananus, the high priest.

        At least that’s the way Josephus presents it. There are also multiple attestations by early church fathers.

        Neither Acts nor the gospels refer to his execution, which I find odd because Paul clearly names James as the “Lord’s brother” and a pillar of the church.

        Nevertheless, James, has been un-remembered in Christian tradition. When alive he surely wold have been the guy to correct or confirm stories about Jesus. By 70 CE, regrettably, James has no say in the matter.

        • Bart
          Bart  April 18, 2015

          Ah, right! I just think that earlier Christians hadn’t done much writing and simply didn’t compose a Gospel earlier; I don’t think there was a conspiracy about it.

          • Avatar
            SteveWalach  April 20, 2015

            I don’t mean to imply a conspiracy. However, if a writer is intent on producing a hagiography why consult a fact-checker — a role James could certainly have served while alive. Once dead, the race to full-scale legend-making was on — and with no concern about rebukes and rebuttals from James to rein them in.

            James was alive and in charge when the oral history of Jesus was already afoot. Matthew and Luke’s non-Q sources would have already been churning out stories. Yet outside of the hypothetical Q, nothing gets written — as far as we know — until well after James is out of the picture.

            None of the gospels elevate his importance but do much to minimize it. James, along with John the Baptist, pose many challenges for proto-Christianity. There’s no better way to avoid a challenge than to use everything in one’s power to minimize the reality and magnitude of the challenge.

            Paul and Luke-Acts, fortunately, have allowed James a toehold in the Christian story. I think he deserves more scholarly consideration.

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