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. 🙂