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Q & A about Jesus Before the Gospels, Part 3

Here is the third and last installment of the Q&A that I did with my publisher, HarperOne, about my new book Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Early Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior. (The final sentence of the final answer is, I think, the longest I’ve written in my life!!)

I’m getting excited about the book and its release on March 1. If you have any questions you would like to ask me about the book or its topic – how knowing about the workings of human memory can help us understand what was happening to the oral traditions about Jesus in the years before they were written down – please comment and ask! I’m happy to talk about the book now in the weeks before it is released!


1. In the book you share fascinating examples of how ‘false’ memories are formed (in particular, research psychologists collected following September 11, and following the 1992 plane crash in Bijlmermeer, Amsterdam). What can these studies tell us about the historical Jesus?

One of the most striking findings of modern psychological studies of memory is that particularly powerful, moving, and gripping memories that we have – even when these memories are vivid and crystal clear – are often “false” memories. Every one of us remembers exactly where we were when we heard about the attacks of 9/11: whom we were with, what time of day it was, what we were doing at the time, how we first heard the stories, and so on. Every one of us. And virtually irrefutable evidence has been mounted to show that even though our memories of such things are crystal clear, they are often wrong. Spectacular events are often misremembered. How does this research affect our understanding of how ancient spectacular events would have been remembered? And what can be more spectacular than seeing someone walk on water or raise the dead? Would such memories have necessarily been preserved accurately ?


2. You also look at how the values of a collective group can affect the way events or individuals are remembered by history. Can you expand on one or two of the examples you include in the book (ie, the way we ‘remember’ Abraham Lincoln and Christopher Columbus)?

The study of social memory is one of the most vibrant but overlooked areas of modern scholarship for New Testament scholars. Since the 1920s sociologists have realized that our memory of the past is influenced (some would say “completely shaped by”) the social communities to which we belong. It is no accident that over time our “knowledge” of who Christopher Columbus was and what he did has changed so radically (from, say, when I myself was in fifth grade); so too has our understanding of, say, Lincoln. And so on. This applies to Jesus as well, and not just to the modern context. The Gospel writers all lived in Christian communities, and the ways they remembered the past were affected by the beliefs, perspectives, ideologies, experiences, traumas, aspirations, and hopes of those communities. In the book I argue that understanding the social side of memory can help us see better just why Jesus was remembered how he was in the various early Christian churches scattered throughout the Mediterranean. This is an important point for me. The issue is not merely whether Jesus was remembered accurately or not. Also – arguably equally – important is the question of what in the lives of the communities that preserved and cherished the memories of Jesus compelled them to remember him the ways that they did.


3. Really, is there no difference between the way we remember things now, in a written culture, compared to oral tradition?

I think it is absolutely crucial to understand the differences between written cultures and oral cultures. As it turns out, these differences are not what people typically, and unreflectively, claim. It is not that people in oral cultures have better memories than we (that has been shown not to be true) or that they make sure they never change their stories significantly when they recount them (also not true). But it is true that oral traditions are far more important to people in oral cultures – since they simply don’t have written records to pass on and preserve. At the same time, the very idea that records should be passed along accurately – in our sense of making sure nothing changes – is an idea that first appeared with the advent of mass literacy, when records could be checked to see if they were the same. In oral cultures, as anthropologists have shown, there are really no ways to check to be sure that one spoken story is “the same” as some other spoken story. There is nothing to check! And so, no one thought to check. To impose our own sense of accuracy on the biblical accounts – as is done both by very conservative biblical scholars and by general readers – is a complete misapprehension of how memories are passed along in oral cultures.


4. What is the message you ultimately want people to take away from reading Jesus Before the Gospels?

The Gospels we have are not stenographic accounts of the things Jesus said and did. They contain stories that had been passed along by word of mouth year after year and decade after decade before anyone wrote them down. If we understand what psychologists have told us about memory and false memory, about how we remember and misremember the past, and about how we sometimes actually invent stories in our heads about the past, stories that are not historically true; if we understand what sociologists have told us about collective memory and the ways our social groups affect, impact, and mold the ways we preserve our recollections of past events; and if we understand what anthropologists have learned about how oral cultures not just cherish and preserve but also alter, transform, and even invent their traditions – if we explore all these ways that modern scholars have helped us understand how memory works, we will have a much clearer sense of what the Gospels are and of how we should understand the stories they tell about the historical Jesus.

Technical Problems on the Blog
Q & A about Jesus Before the Gospels: Part 2



  1. Avatar
    mcritzman  February 4, 2016

    I wonder if in oral cultures that it doesn’t matter if the details in the middle of a story didn’t matter as long as the beginning and the end are basically the same from one telling to another.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 5, 2016

      Yeah, that would seem like a sensible view, but as it turns out, it doesn’t seem to work that way!

  2. Avatar
    maryhelena  February 4, 2016

    Most of us living today will remember where we were when we heard the news about 9/11. Just as many still living remember when Kennedy was assassinated. Just as many remember the end of World War II – and it’s 70 year remembrance ceremonies last year. In the years 30/33 c.e., years of importance to the gospel writers, what would social memories comprise?

    Taking into account that 70 year time periods were deemed to be significant to Jewish interpretations of ‘salvation’ history – 70 years run back to 40/37 b.c.e. A very important time in Hasmonean/Jewish history. Was this the social memory that lies behind the gospel crucifixion story? A gospel story set around 70 years from the Roman execution of the last King and High Priest of the Jews. The Roman execution of a Jewish King, a King, re Josephus, that the people had a ‘great fondness’ for.

    ‘’…by no torments could they be forced to call him a king, so great a fondness they had for their former king so he thought that this dishonorable death would diminish the value they had for Antigonus’s memory, and at the same time would diminish the hatred they bare to Herod.” Thus far Strabo.’’ (Antiquities: book 15. Ch.1)

    What options were open, in 30/33 c.e. for any Jewish remembrance of their former King? Public remembrances for their former King would not sit well with the continuing Roman occupation. Perhaps, for those Hasmonean Jews, it was storytelling that enabled them to give voice – and safekeeping – to their social memories. Social memories secure for evermore within a political allegory – immune to the fading memories of old age.

    ‘’They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
    Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
    At the going down of the sun and in the morning
    We will remember them’’.

    (Robert Laurence Binyon (1869-1943)

    • Bart
      Bart  February 5, 2016

      I’m not sure that people in the ancient world typically thought in terms of 70 year increments, and so were reflecting on the significance of what specifically happened 70 years ago, 140 years, 210 years, and son on. But I’d be interested in knowing if there is any evidence! (I don’t mean evidence that some highly elite literary works use the number “70” to organize their thoughts, but rather whether people generally thought that way.)

      • Avatar
        maryhelena  February 5, 2016

        How did people, around the years 30/33 c.e. generally think about the use of numbers in relation to history? I doubt very much that one could give a definite answer…..All we have are the writings of the elite….
        As for the use of number symbolism in Jewish thought – is not the OT testimony to that? Philo was interested in the meaning of numbers. Josephus was keen on counting the number of years between various events.

        The writer of the gospel of Luke also demonstrated an interest: Luke 3:1 makes reference to Lysanias of Abilene – a ruler from 40 b.c.e. – indicating an interest in placing his story within a 70 year time frame.

        Anyway, the point remains – the gospel story is centered around the years 30/33 c.e. – which also happens to be about 70 years since the Roman execution of the last King and High Priest of the Jews, Antigonus. (37 b.c.e.)

        • Bart
          Bart  February 7, 2016

          Yes, the upper crust elite often loved playing with numbers.

      • talmoore
        talmoore  February 5, 2016

        Bar Kokhba and his fellow revolutionaries saw some significance in their rebellion being (roughly) 70 years after the destruction of the Temple (70 to 132CE). Indeed, reading the Mishnah one gets the sense that contemporary Rabbis such as Akiva saw a significance in there being 70 years from destruction to a (presumed) reconstruction of the Temple in 140CE (were it not that the rebellion failed, of course), not unlike the purported 70 year period of the Babylonian Exile.

  3. talmoore
    talmoore  February 4, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, any chance you’ll be going on Seth Andrews’ popular The Thinking Atheist podcast to promote your new book? Seth’s audience (including myself) constantly complain that he only has mythicists on his podcast (Carrier, Price, et al.) and when we suggest that he have you on to rebut the mythicists Seth says you turn him down. You should take this opportunity to promote your book while rebutting all the mythicist nonsense.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 5, 2016

      I consider each and every interview request! I simply can’t do them all, because I haven’t figured out how to put more hours into my day….

    • Avatar
      maryhelena  February 8, 2016

      Yep, that number 70 seems to have been a big deal within Jewish history – or more precisely, a big deal for those either recording that history or interpreting that history as ‘salvation’ history. Perhaps anticipation of the end of a 70 year period was the motivation of the Bar Kokhba revolutionaries. i.e. if God was not about to step up his game then maybe he might be swayed by the actions of loyal believer…

      Remembering the past, as we do today, with ceremonies of remembrance, don’t just take the 70 year period into consideration. The 888,246 ceramic red poppies that were ‘planted’ at the Tower of London in 2014 were in remembrance of those who died in the first world war that started in 1914. This year, 2016, is being remembered in Ireland as the 100th years since the Easter Rising of 1916. We remember the past and those who died attempting to achieve a better future.

      I find it interesting that Josephus seems to have had a 100 year remembrance in mind when writing what has become known as the James passage in Antiquities. Lucceius Albinus is used to date this passage to around 62/63 c.e. – and that is, of course, 100 years since the Roman execution of the last King and High Priest of the Jews. (Antigonus in 37 b.c.e.) As in 37 b.c.e. a shuffle re the high priests was involved in 62/63 c.e. Josephus places a war between Aretas and Herod Antipas around 37 c.e. – 100 years after Pompey took Jerusalem in 63 b.c.e. (Incidentally, 37 c.e. is the last possible date for a crucifixion – where the Temple curtain is torn in two. Pompey, 100 years earlier, entered the Holy of Holies)

      The main point with all this remembering of past events is that however much the details might have become faded – history mattered. And that is why I made my earlier post – what would be the social memories of those living in 30/33 c.e.? Past history, history earlier than 30/33 c.e. would need to be considered. This earlier than 30/33 c.e. history should be taken into account when attempting a historical evaluation of the gospel story. Social memories matter – however clouded over the details with time became.

      Perhaps, at the end of the day, what we have with the gospel story is simply history remembered. History remembered in the form of a political allegory. Yes, lots of top dressing but the undercurrent is social memory of history that was relevant to the gospel writers. Not a historical gospel but a gospel of remembrance.

  4. Avatar
    prairieian  February 5, 2016

    Yes, a fairly lengthy final sentence in answer (4). 🙂

    With reference to the first question, where you refer to the fact that we all remember where we were, who we were with and our thoughts at the time of 9/11, and then note that these memories are often false. From there, you ask the rhetorical question regarding the disciples as they witnesses Jesus walking on water and drawn the same false memory conclusion.

    My question is, are the two examples different? One involves the distant observation of an atrocity in a faraway city (unless you lived in NYC). The other is something you saw directly… It seems to me the nature of the two episodes are a bit different and so memory might be a bit different. Or, are they indeed the same?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 5, 2016

      Yes, good question. I think I’ll address it on the blog.

  5. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  February 5, 2016

    In your research for Jesus Before the Gospels,did you find it nesessary to rethink any of your positions on the acts or sayings of Jesus, or anything about other New Testament figures or their writings? Also, do you think the three variant accounts of Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus in Acts indicate that, even in the first century CE, it was known that eywitness testimony and memory are not totally reliable?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 5, 2016

      Good questions! I’ll try to address them on the blog.

  6. Gary
    Gary  February 5, 2016

    Any chance we’ll get to see you on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” or hear you on “Fresh Air with Terry Gross” after it’s published?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 5, 2016

      One can always hope! I’ll address this on the blog.

  7. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  February 5, 2016

    As usual, you make your main points with evidence and more evidence and more evidence….

  8. Avatar
    dragonfly  February 6, 2016

    Well I hope this time there’s not going to be a counter book released at the same time, called something like “The Gospels before Jesus”.

  9. SBrudney091941
    SBrudney091941  February 10, 2016

    Bart, I’ve read again and again that the Gospel writers all lived in Christian communities but how did scholars reach that conclusion?

    Also, it is interesting to think about how there was no way for anyone to check one oral story against a previous one (before they were written down) and yet how many eyewitnesses and empirical evidence there were at the JFK assassination but how there’s been immense disagreement from the outset and has been for over 50 years.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 13, 2016

      If they didn’t have Christians connected with them they wouldn’t have heard stories of Jesus. We don’t know of any Christians in the first century that were not part of some kind of Christian community. (It’s not that a whole town was Christian; it’s that there were Christians in the town)

  10. Avatar
    Zboilen  December 21, 2016

    Hi Bart, I recently read your book, “Jesus Before the Gospels” and found it very interesting. The question I want to ask you might already be answered in the book but I’m not sure. Do you think it’s likely that a majority of the early Christians (1st century) would knowingly lie to convert people to Christianity? For example, I’m trying to think about how some of the miracle stories could have been invented, but it seems that this would require Christians telling someone something they know isn’t true. For example a Christian could be trying to convert his neighbor and really wants him to believe in Jesus so the Christian makes up a story about Jesus feeding 5000 people with five loaves and two fish to demonstrate how powerful Jesus is and that he should be believed in. Is this likely that this went on at all or is it far fetched to believe that the early Christians would be deliberately lying to convert people?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 22, 2016

      There’s no evidence one way or the other, but my personal sense is that most Christians were not inclined to lie directly if they could avoid it. (I talk about Christian lying a bit in my book Forged, and even more in my book Forgery and Counterforgery — but that is all about literary deceit.)

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