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.