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Sketch of My Memory Book

Please read to the end of this post if you want to learn about a highly unusual opportunity.

I started writing my book on memory and the oral traditions about Jesus this week.   My plan was to have an intense week at it.    I’m teaching my regular two classes this term: a three-hour PhD seminar on the use of literary forgery in the early Christian tradition, and an undergraduate lecture course, Introduction to the New Testament.  So I had to do those this week as well, in addition to departmental meetings and meetings with grad students, and so on.   But even so, I planned to write the book every free minute I had, and I did.   I started Tuesday morning and by yesterday afternoon I had three of the six major chapters written.   I celebrated with a very big cigar, and am taking today more or less off!

Here I would like to say a few words about what the book is and what it will cover.   The tentative title I have for it is this:  Jesus Before the Gospels:  How the Early Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Stories about the Savior.    I won’t be at all surprised if the title and subtitle get changed by the time the book gets published.   That happens most of the time.   I’ve found that the titles of mine that do the best in terms of sales are the ones someone else has picked.  Usually they are ones I don’t like (I didn’t like Misquoting Jesus as a title…); and that just shows that I don’t have a good sense for titles that will “work.”

Anyway, that’s the title, and as I’ve said, it is about how Christians “remembered” Jesus in the years before the Gospels were written.   To “remember” something does not necessarily mean to recall something that happened to you personally.   The injunction to “Remember the Alamo” was meant precisely for those who were not there at the time.   We remember all sorts of things – both individually and as a society – that were not part of our own experience.  We remember the Civil War, Christopher Columbus, and the Reformation.  To remember something simply means to call it back to mind.

Some early Christians, of course, remembered Jesus from their personal experiences with him.  Most, though, remembered him because of stories they had heard about him, whether those stories were told by eyewitnesses or by someone who knew eyewitnesses or by someone whose cousin was married to someone whose  mother lived next door to someone who once had met a missionary whose brother was someone who knew an eyewitness.   And so on.

I have two ultimate goals in the book.  One is to talk about the frailties of memory and the problems with recollections of the past being passed along by word of mouth in an oral tradition, leading to the creation of “false” memories.   A false memory is simply a memory of something that didn’t actually happen, or at least didn’t happen in the way that it is remembered.   There doesn’t have to be anything malicious or deceitful in someone passing along false information about the past.  We misremember stuff all the time.   If you haven’t noticed this yet, live longer and you will.

In the context of talking about memories that can be frail, faulty, and false, I will be discussing memories of Jesus’ life and death in particular.   Here I will try to show that some of  the memories of Jesus held and passed along by early Christian story tellers – as evidenced by stories still preserved in the written records of the Gospels, both canonical and non-canonical – were false.  It’s certainly true that some of these story tellers may have intentionally made up stuff that happened.  We really can’t tell any longer whether or not the false memories were intentional deceits (although this seems inherently unlikely to me; but it doesn’t really matter one way or the other); but once these stories were in circulation, they affected how other people did remember the life and death of Jesus.  And so I will be trying to isolate some of the most important false memories still preserved in the Gsopels.

My other goal is to talk about the memories of Jesus themselves – quite apart from whether they are historical or not – to see what they can tell us about how Jesus was being remembered by various Christian communities in antiquity.   I will not be providing an exhaustive sketch of the sundry communities we know about, but have decided to choose three different ones with three radically different recollections of who Jesus was, what he said, and why he mattered.   The three I have chosen are those that lie behind the Gospels of Mark, John, and Thomas.

In a future post, probably my next one, I will give a chapter by chapter summary of the book, so you can see more fully what it will cover.   It involves an interesting range of material, and has been a ton of fun to research.   I have had to get into, and will be talking about, cognitive psychological views of memory, psychological and legal studies of eyewitness testimony, anthropological studies of oral cultures, sociological studies of collective memory, and, oh yes, the historical Jesus and memories, both true and false, about him

And now for an unusual opportunity, or rather two.   Many / most of you will not be able to afford to do the first, let alone the second.  But hopefully a few of you will consider it.   I want to make the writing of this book another opportunity to raise money for the blog (i.e., for the Bart Ehrman Foundation).    So here is the deal.  If you are willing to donate $1000 to the blog, I will give you the opportunity to read the manuscript of my book in advance, before I send it in to the publisher, in order to make comments on it (i.e., suggestions for change, involving style, approach, or substance).   If you are interested in doing this, I will thank you by name in the Acknowledgements of the book.   I will obviously not keep a penny of the donation for myself.  All the money will go to support the charities that I’ve talked about before, which deal with issues of hunger and homelessness.   Is anyone interested?   The second opportunity:  for a donation (ha!  catch this!) of $10,000, I will dedicate the book to you.  Seriously.  🙂

How I’m Writing This Book
Remembering Lincoln



  1. Avatar
    stokerslodge  April 4, 2015

    Bart, this is not directly related to the above but, I’d be very grateful if you could shed some light on the matter. In Mark’s Gospel, chapter 15, verse 34: Jesus is quoted as saying “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” It goes on to say that “some of the bystanders hearing it said, “Behold, he is calling Elijah.” I’m wondering what caused them to think that Jesus was calling on Elijah? Thank you.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 6, 2015

      It’s because “Eloi” sounds like “Elijah”

    • Avatar
      MikeyS  April 6, 2015

      I’m just guessing but is it credible that the Roman Soldiers would allow ANYONE near the spot of crucifixion? Its why I doubt anyone heard what Jesus may have said? How come Mary his Mother was present and how would she know where and what Jesus was up to when the trial and crucifixion was all done in less than a day or so? Mary lived in Nazereth and so why would she be in Jerusalem anyway even if it was the passover. It must have been a hard journey for an aged lady especially. But I really cannot see anyone being alliowed at the foot of any cross during that initial period in case they tampered with someone etc.

      • Bart
        Bart  April 7, 2015

        I’m afraid we have no idea what hte Romans would have allowed.

  2. gmatthews
    gmatthews  April 4, 2015

    I’ll do the $1000 donation. I’m thinking I won’t be able to do what I normally do for my local charity this year so I need something else.

  3. Avatar
    MikeyS  April 4, 2015

    How about Jesus: Misrembered? Or the Jesus we know, the Disciples didn’t?

    Bart, you say it doesn’t matter if the writers were deceitful or not or made stuff up etc. You are being too charitable my friend as many people died and are dying for possibly a myth because they think it was all true. John’s Gospel is an absolute example of doing that when no disciple thought Jesus was God, not even himself and yet that is a central doctrine of Christianity where ‘everything’ in the Gospels atttributed to Jesus is treated as the very word of God and thus unchallengeable. That was and is dangerous and its no different than Muhammad claiming all sorts of stuff. You thing one starving child is one too many and that is so true but so is one person dying for a worthless cause when scholars like yourself should come out and tell the truth about the bible to a wider audience and cease trying to be all things to all men and treating this stuff as some wider scientific research that will benefit humanity and literary par excellence. I will be leaving this blog soon and hope you will find what you are really looking for my friend…You do seem like a tortured soul sometimes….

    I have a future title of a future book for you..

    Christianity; A wasted life with no end product!

    Subtitle: Never in the field of theological research has so much been written about so little truth that men and women will say, “How come we were so duped”!

    Nah, that’s too long. Better to have,

    Religion poisons everything; The sequel!

    • Bart
      Bart  April 6, 2015

      No, you misunderstood me. I’m not saying that it doesn’t matter for *anything*!!! Of course it is hugely important for lots of things. I’m saying it doesn’t matter with respect to the question of whether these repreesnt false memories or not.

  4. Avatar
    walstrom  April 4, 2015

    The chief benefit of oral tradition in the spread of Christianity is the lack of verifiable proof-texting. How so? Each new instance of evangelical storytelling provided an objection to be overcome on-the-fly. A resourceful teacher could invent his way around unforeseen critical resistance with extempore. The persuasion factor ‘improved’ by one notch with each instance of telling. The written text is what it is, but the spoken word becomes what it becomes.
    Memories of events would become plastic through variations in retelling (in overcoming skeptical questions). A keen evangelist might mould and shape ‘remembered events’ a hundred times a week! With such constant transformation and incessant re-contexting, how soon would reality fade into exigency?
    The Gospel really is only Good Storytelling when the listener believes what he hears.

  5. Avatar
    kentvw  April 4, 2015

    Interesting proposition……
    What would we get for a hundred bucks?
    Maybe the first 10% of our names in lights?
    A random 10%?

  6. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  April 4, 2015

    It’s amazing that you can write so fast.

    I think the “memories” of the Mormons may give a recent example of how extensively and quickly these sorts of memories can spread. .My guess is that the spread of Mormonism and the spread of early Christianity were similar

  7. Avatar
    jgranade  April 4, 2015

    I’m interested in the $1000 offer. What’s the next step?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 6, 2015

      Fantastic! Could you send me a private email to confirm? We can then go from there.

  8. Avatar
    seeker_of_truth  April 5, 2015

    Will you be doing a scholarly treatment of your research on memory in addition to the trade book?

  9. Avatar
    Judith  April 5, 2015

    What fun! If only I were a scholar and rich…

  10. Avatar
    Helmut  April 5, 2015

    What position do dreams hold in this production of memories?
    I wasn’t intending to comment, but I fell asleep after reading the above entry and had a dream. It was about meeting contributors to the blog at a site of square ponds where we were all going to get prizes that were located at the edge of the ponds. The prizes were for commenting but I hadn’t commented in quite some time. Each prize winner approached the location of their prize only to have it explode.
    This was so vivid that when I awoke I wondered how I had missed the sunset since it is dark in my bedroom. My mind was busy trying to make sense of the memories of the dream and immediately supplied “information” to make that happen.
    Don’t worry, no one was hurt by the “explosions” but Prof. Ehrman owes several of us a promised prize.

  11. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  April 5, 2015

    What a neat idea! Please sign me up as a reviewer. Do you want me to pay through Pay Pal or mail a check? Although I am a retired psychiatrist, and not a Bible scholar, I have reviewed several books for colleagues and am a stickler for clear writing. But you don’t have much difficulty with writing clearly. Nevertheless, I think I could devote considerable effort to such a review as long as it does not interfere with my tee times or my wife’s “to-do” list.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 6, 2015

      Fantastic! Could you send me a private email to confirm? We’ll then work out the details.

  12. Avatar
    jhm  April 5, 2015

    Did you come up with “Peter, Paul and Mary Magdalene?” that one rocks!

  13. Avatar
    RGM-ills  April 5, 2015

    For today (April 5th, Easter), how about some of your thoughts on this strangely named holyday, as if a holyday on Sunday does you any good getting off of work, so they invented good Friday. Seriously, any thoughts on why Easter falling on Sunday won out or the challenges of bringing calendars into agreement, or even the challenges numbering the years for atheists?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 6, 2015

      Ah — I should have done some Easter posts this year! I was doing other things instead…..

  14. Avatar
    nichael  April 5, 2015

    Wow… Great offer(s).

    How does this sound?

    I’m pretty sure I won’t be able to swing the 10k for the whole dedication, but how about if I donate $25 to the fund you’ll agree to use my initial (i.e. the letter “N”) somewhere in the new book?

    Sound good?

    (Seriously though, this is great of you to think of doing this. Have a great Easter.)

  15. Avatar
    James  April 5, 2015

    Can’t resist playing a title game: I bet Jesus Remembered, or Remembering Jesus will at least get considered.

  16. Avatar
    Hank_Z  April 5, 2015

    The opportunities are terrific! They can raise more money for the charities.

    I don’t have the money to take you up on it, but the second opportunity is a terrific idea!!

  17. Avatar
    DonakdDHeacock  April 5, 2015

    It has been along time since I studied Polynesian Religion but I seem to remember their oral transmission was highly controlled. Since some of their myths were about astronomy an d the sea they may have needed transmitted tjhis way. I gather the church made no attempt to control these stories about Jesus this way?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 6, 2015

      Modern anthropologists ahve shown that it actually didn’t work that way (highly controlled traditions).

  18. Avatar
    Lawyerskeptic  April 6, 2015

    Do you distinguish between faulty memory and faulty perception? The Gospels recount Jesus appearing after his death. Compare that to early spiritualists who saw dead people on a regular basis. Consider H.H. Furness’ description of spirits appearing at séances.

    “Again and again, men have led round the circles the Materialized Spirits of their wives, and introduced them to each visitor in turn; fathers have taken round their daughters, and I have seen widows sob in the arms of their dead husbands. Testimony, such as this, staggers me. Have I been smitten with color-blindness? Before me, as far as I can detect, stands the very Medium herself, in shape, size, form, and feature true to a line, and yet, one after another, honest men and women at my side, within ten minutes of each other, assert that she is the absolute counterpart of their nearest and dearest friends, nay, that she is that friend. It is as incomprehensible to me as the assertion that the heavens are green, and the leaves of the trees deep blue. Can it be that the faculty of observation and comparison is rare, and that our features are really vague and misty to our best friends?” Preliminary Report of the Commission Appointed by the University of Pennsylvania to Investigate Modern Spiritualism in Accordance with the Request of the Late Henry Seybert with a Foreword by H.H. Furness, Junior (1887, 1920).

    I do not understand this behavior, but inaccurate memory cannot explain it. The widows sobbing in their dead husbands’ arms were not feeling memories. They perceived what they believed at the time to be their dead husbands. Could some of the gospel stories have originated with real events that were somehow misunderstood or misinterpreted at the time they happened? If so, how can you determine which parts of the story are due to faulty memory?

    On another subject, perhaps I have a faulty memory. I am quite certain I did not upload my photograph to your blog. The picture there now is from my law firm’s website, and I do not believe I even had it on my home computer when I joined the blog. I do not object to the picture being there, but I am powerfully curious where you got it.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 6, 2015

      yes, for me at least there is a clear distinction between perception and memory. Both can be highly faulty, and if how one perceives if faulty, then how one remembers will be as well. But one can perceive (relatively, if not exhaustively) correctly and still remember incorrectly or tell incorrectly. Some of the Gospel stories may indeed be based on faulty perception, but that would be very difficult to establish. As to your question: I have no idea!

    • Avatar
      Elisabeth  April 22, 2015

      I may be able to answer your question about the photo – because this blog is powered by WordPress, which uses Gravitar to host its profile pictures, if you have uploaded the image in the past to a WordPress account or site using Gravitar, this blog would automatically pull that image in.

  19. Avatar
    Servelan  April 6, 2015

    Two things: do you plan to address the theory that accessing memories changes them, and how do you think ‘memories’ of Jesus’ life and teachings can be explained in light of recent research on the persistence of memory (http://tinyurl.com/q9mp65h)?

  20. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  April 6, 2015

    I like your title. You might consider “Misremembering Jesus” as the first part of the title. It would be a similar to the “Misquoting Jesus” title which I know you disliked, but turned into a bestseller/

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