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.