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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 the 1920s, up through studies by such famous cultural anthropologists as Jack Goody and Jan Vansina, experts have shown time and again that in oral cultures there is simply no sense that traditions should be preserved intact, word-for-word. On the contrary, in oral cultures (unlike our written culture), it is widely assumed…

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On the contrary, in oral cultures (unlike our written culture), it is widely assumed and believed that every telling of a story should focus on different things, alter various things, expand certain things, contract certain things – all depending on the audience being addressed, the context in which the recitation is taking place, the amount of time there is to tell the story, and so on and on. What is striking is that story tellers in these environments will often insist that this particular telling of the story is “the same” as some other telling. But anthropologists with tape recorders can compare the two tellings, and when they do so, it is astonishing how different the tellings actually are. Oral cultures simply don’t have our sense of what it means for a story to be “the same.” That is relevant, of course, to early Christianity, another oral culture.

2. In your book how do you relate the study of memory to the Gospels themselves and the stories they preserve about the historical Jesus?

In my book I apply my findings about memory to different aspects of the stories of Jesus for two ultimate purposes. One is to see if there are any stories that represent what psychologists would call “false memories” (that is, accounts of the past that are misremembered – either distorted or simply made up). The other is equally important and cannot be overlooked or minimized: it is to see what the memories of Jesus – especially the false memories – can tell us about the communities that preserved and cherished them. If we misremember something, it is almost always for a good reason. What reasons can we give for the false memories of the earliest Christian communities (they would not have known, of course, that their memories were not accurate)? Why – whether in their own minds or simply in their retellings of the stories – did they say things about Jesus’ life and death that vary from what actually happened?

3. Another important distinction you make relates to WHO the eyewitnesses are in relation to when the Gospels were written. Can you tell us a bit about the research on eyewitness testimony you uncovered and how this impacts on how the Gospels were written?

It is often thought that we have early evidence from the writings of the church fathers that the Gospels ultimately go back to (trustworthy) eyewitness testimony. In my book I deal directly with this issue. First I show that the church fathers themselves never claim (contrary to what is sometimes argued) to have a close connection to eyewitnesses. But even more, the Gospel writers themselves do not either. And there are compelling reasons, that I cite and elaborate, for thinking that in fact the Gospel writers have inherited their stories from oral traditions that have long been in circulation among people who were not eyewitnesses and did not know eyewitnesses or even know anyone who knew someone whose cousin once talked to the wife of someone who was an eyewitness. And so on. But there is also the bigger issue of whether eyewitness testimony to the life of Jesus – even if we did have it – would be necessarily trustworthy. Here is where legal and psychological studies of eyewitness testimony is especially interesting, as we know beyond much doubt now about how reliable eyewitnesses tend to be. All of this research is unusually interesting and important for knowing about the kinds of stories we find in the Gospels about Jesus.

4. What are some examples of stories recorded in the Gospels that vary significantly and may represent “false memories”?

In my book I argue that there are some basic criteria that people use, even today, to know whether stories about the past are accurate or not. For example, if you have a bunch of people who tell the same story (say, about a car accident that happened last night, or a political debate from last week) without having all gotten their information either from one another or from the same other source, then that story is more reliable than a story for which you have only one independent source. And a story that is at odds with a view that a person, say an eyewitness, would want to say (as when a mother says things at trial that are incriminating against her beloved son), then that story is usually more trustworthy than one told in light of one’s own interests. When we apply these kinds of common criteria to the Gospels, with some rigor and attention to detail, we find numerous instances of stories that are difficult to establish as historical. In fact a number of stories are highly doubtful as “reliable memories.” I give examples, and argue the case, from whether Jesus actually delivered the Sermon on the Mount to whether he really healed the sick and raised the dead to whether “the Jews” killed Jesus to whether Pontius Pilate offered to release Jesus to the crowds but was persuaded to release Barabbas instead to … to lots of other stories in the Gospels.

Q & A about Jesus Before the Gospels, Part 3
Weekly Readers’ Mailbag: January 30, 2016



  1. Avatar
    plparker  February 4, 2016

    Can’t there be different types of oral tradition that might be more historically accurate than others? For example, my understanding of how the Koran was assembled was that Mohammed assigned each person in his group to listen carefully and memorize every word each time he returned with a new revelation from God. Each person had a specific section that they were responsible for preserving. Later the different sections were written down and combined into the Koran. Isn’t it more likely that this process would lead to a more accurate historical text?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 5, 2016

      Yes indeed. Some are *way* more accurate than others!

  2. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  February 4, 2016

    Do you offer an alternative explanation for the miracle stories in your book? As in what you believe was the core truth of the stories? Does that make sense?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 5, 2016

      I do deal with the question of Jesus’ miracles — but I don’t offer alternative, non-miraculous, explanations of what *really* happened.

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  February 10, 2016

      Even if one has no “alternative explanation,” it is helpful to keep in mind that miracles are performed by prophets in earlier Jewish Scriptures and in other Jewish stories without ever being taken taken as a sign that the person “performing” the miracle is divine in any way.

  3. Avatar
    John  February 5, 2016

    “It is often thought that we have early evidence from the writings of the church fathers that the Gospels ultimately go back to (trustworthy) eyewitness testimony. In my book I deal directly with this issue.”

    This would seem to overlap with Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Will you be addressing any of his arguments head on?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 5, 2016

      Yes indeed! By name!

      • Avatar
        dragonfly  February 8, 2016

        The first I heard of Bauckham was in the counter book to How Jesus Became God. I think claim was that he was something like the leading scholar and shame on you for not referring to his work. (Like there’s some world ranking among scholars.) Since then I haven’t actually looked him up and still don’t know anything about his work. What are his claims about eyewitnesses?

        • Bart
          Bart  February 8, 2016

          Long story. He thinks the Gospels are ultimately based on eyewitness testimony (the Gospel of John is allegedly actually *written* by an eyewitness) and are therefore essentially reliable.

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