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Can Myths Be True and Meaningful?

Yesterday I received this interesting comment on my most recent post.  It embodies a view that a lot of other members of the Blog have, and so I thought I should respond to it.  It is about whether there can be meaningful myths in the Bible.  Here is what the reader says. Imaginative stories by definition are false. To say something is myth and by extension imaginative, is asserting that it is false. For us to say something is a myth, we have to be sure that it is entirely false. Or is it not the case? I addressed a similar issue in the conclusion of my most recent book Jesus Before the Gospels.  There I take a different stance on whether non-historical accounts (which would include myths) can be meaningful to us or not, whether they can be “true” in any sense.  Here is what I say there (with respect more to the NT than the OT, but the same reasoning applies. ****************************************************************** Like most authors, I get a lot of email from people [...]

Appreciating the Myths of the Bible

When I came to see that there are mistakes in the Bible, I did not jettison it all as a waste of time.  Not at all.  On the contrary, I continued to value and cherish it, as a book that could reveal truths about God.  Yes it had discrepancies, contradictions, historical errors, glaring scientific mistakes, and so on.  Of course it did.  But that for me was not the ultimate point.  The Bible It was a product of its own time, a very human book.   Even so, it was a book through which God continued to speak. I came to think that the Bible was more important for the valuable lessons it conveyed than for the factual (or problematic) information it contained.  This view worked on two levels.  For one thing, I came to see it was important to realize that even for ancient readers what mattered about the Bible was not its factual accuracy in its details, but for the ideas that it was trying to present.  And for me personally, it was important [...]

Eyewitnesses and the Gospels: A Blast From the Past

Five years ago today I received and answered this question on the blog.  I thought it would make a nice break from my current discussion of my change of faith, a topic to which I'll return tomorrow.  For now, here's a blast from the past.   *********************************************************************** QUESTION One of the major points of your work (if I understand correctly) is that the contents of the New Testament are at a vast remove in time, place, and source from any eyewitness account of Jesus' life. But when I consider this point in my ignorance, and simply from the perspective of chronology (from the time of Jesus to the accounts in the earliest gospels), it seems to me that at least one very old eyewitness of Jesus' life might have been able to report a significant amount of information about Jesus and his teachings directly to, say, Mark. In view of this, I wonder how scholars know that no New Testament account of Jesus could have been received directly from any eyewitness. RESPONSE It’s a very [...]

Drew Marshall Show – Jesus Before The Gospels

I was a guest on the The Drew Marshall Show on March 12, 2016 for an interview about my book Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Early Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior.  The broadcast was recorded from the studio of CJYE based in Oakville, Ontario Canada. Like the book, the interview discusses both what we know about the phenomenon of memory, based on research done in the fields of psychology, anthropology, and sociology, and how this research can be applied to the Gospel stories of Jesus.  Did the followers of Jesus -- both those who knew him and those who heard the stories told and retold about him in the decades before our accounts were actually written -- remember accurately what they heard?  Did the stories about Jesus change as memories failed and as story-tellers molded their tales for their audiences?   Obviously what is involved is the historical accuracy of the Gospels, the way we read and think about them, and how we view history. Please adjust gear icon for [...]

2017-09-22T13:32:25-04:00February 5th, 2017|Book Discussions, Historical Jesus, Video Media|

Memory, Eyewitnesses, and the Relevance of Jesus: Readers Mailbag

In this week’s Readers’ Mailbag I will deal with three questions, all of them having to do with the historical Jesus:  how has memory studies affected my understanding of Jesus; whether the claim that the Gospels are based eyewitnesses is a new or an ancient attempt to “guarantee” their accuracy; and whether Jesus can be relevant today if his basic apocalyptic view was proven to be wrong. Good questions, all of them!  If you have any questions about anything involving the New Testament or the history and literature of Christianity in the first four centuries, let me know! *********************************************************** QUESTION:  Has your view of the historical Jesus changed at all after your studies into memory?   RESPONSE: My basic view of Jesus has not changed at all.  I continue to think that he was an apocalyptic preacher who proclaimed that he and his listeners were living at the end of the age and that God was (very) soon to intervene and overthrow the evil powers who were in charge of this world in order to [...]

Irritating Amazon Reviews

OK, to start off with, I have to admit that my skin is not as thick as I would like it to be.  And because of that, I really should not read reviews of my books on Amazon.  It is, to say the least, highly aggravating.  As on the Internet generally, people can say what they want and there is no mechanism (well, no effective mechanism) for making sure they say things that are true, right, or responsible.   So why do I read these things?  I suppose in hope (idle hope, most of the time) that the person will have read the book, understood it, and “gotten” the point.  It doesn’t always happen.  It often doesn’t happen.  OK, actually, it usually doesn’t happen. Here is a sample of the kind of thing I mean.  The writer of this review is not simply wrong about things, he is downright scandalous, leveling a charge that he does not substantiate (for a good reason: he is unable to substantiate it, since it is flat-out false).  But why does [...]

2017-11-15T20:26:49-05:00March 8th, 2016|Book Discussions, Public Forum|

Weekly Readers Mailbag: February 13, 2016

  Time for the weekly mailbag.  This week I’m dealing with only one question; I want to give a more elaborate answer than usual since it relates so closely to my forthcoming book Jesus Before the Gospels.   Here’s the question:   QUESTION:  Dr. Ehrman, as you mention we tend to remember events that carry a large emotional impact (e.g. 9/11, Kennedy assassination, etc.) but, in turn, we tend to easily forget the more banal and mundane events in life (e.g. what we ate for breakfast three days ago, the name of our waiter from last night, etc.). In fact, when researchers give test subjects stress-reducing drugs, such as betablockers, they find that the subjects are much less likely to remember an event.  So I'm wondering whether you support or dismiss various gospel events based on this human inclination to remember. For example, the disciples would have been far more likely to remember how Jesus was arrested (highly emotional) versus how they met Jesus (rather less emotional).   RESPONSE: I would like to deal with just [...]

2020-04-03T03:52:03-04:00February 13th, 2016|Book Discussions, Memory Studies, Reader’s Questions|

Weekly Readers’ Mailbag: February 7, 2016

Time for my weekly mailbag.   Before dealing with two rather more direct questions that have come to me – one about eyewitness testimony and the other about whether I hope to get on Fresh Air and Colbert with the new book – I thought I would include an item that did not come to me from the blog, but on my Facebook page.  It’s a brief exchange I had with some anonymous figure.  I seem to have a lot of these.    Please excuse his/her (lack of) syntax; grammar is evidently not a strong suit.  But I think you get the idea of the question.  At least I thought I did.   FACEBOOK EXCHANGE:   bart you said on npr that you feel as that the eye witness all had visions or hallucinations.that jesus didn`t rise from the you really expect serious students of the word to accept that,do you know that the expert on the resurrection gary habermas of liberty university called your explanation total nonsense.the ration that over 500 people all experiencing the [...]

2017-11-16T21:26:23-05:00February 7th, 2016|Memory Studies, Paul and His Letters, Reader’s Questions|

Q & A about Jesus Before the Gospels, Part 1

Steven pointed out to me that the first part of the Q&A also got obliterated and sent into the stratosphere during our recent technological nightmare.   So I need to re-post it.  Here it is! I have received a number of interesting questions about the book, raised by these three segments of Q&A.  If you have any you would like me to address on the blog, let me know!   Here is the original post: ****************************************************************************** As I have already indicated, my book Jesus Before the Gospels will be published in a month, on March 1.   As part of the promotion and marketing of the book, I have written out a few answers to questions that my publicist presented to me, as a kind of Q&A that she can use for her work of getting the word out there.   I answered twelve questions related to the book, and will post my responses here on the blog in three bite-size chunks.  Here is chunk #1. *************************************************************************** What is it that drives your fascination with how Jesus [...]

2020-04-03T03:54:08-04:00February 5th, 2016|Book Discussions, Historical Jesus, Memory Studies, Public Forum|

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 [...]

2020-04-03T03:54:24-04:00February 3rd, 2016|Book Discussions, Historical Jesus, Memory Studies, Public Forum|

Q & A about Jesus Before the Gospels: Part 2

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 [...]

2020-04-03T03:54:31-04:00February 2nd, 2016|Book Discussions, Historical Jesus, Memory Studies, Public Forum|

Help! My Views of Memory

I am thinking about ending my book with a kind of Paean to Memory.   I expect that some people will find it a bit  controversial or even off-putting.  Or maybe not!   Here is what a draft of the kind of thing I'm thinking about saying.  Let me know what you think.  (It's longer than my typical post.) ******************************************************************************* Like most authors, I get a lot of email from people who have read my books.   I find one of the comments I repeatedly receive somewhat puzzling and even disheartening.   To explain it, I need to provide a bit of background. When I discuss historical understandings of the New Testament and of the historical Jesus, I frequently refer to the problems of our sources.  The Gospels were written decades after Jesus’ death by people who were not eyewitnesses and had probably never laid eyes on an eyewitness.  They are filled with discrepancies and contradictions.  They represent different perspectives on what Jesus said and did.  For that reason, to know what actually happened in the life [...]

2020-04-29T16:42:09-04:00April 28th, 2015|Book Discussions, Memory Studies|

My Memory Book: False Memories and the Life of Jesus

As I indicated in my previous two posts, the fifth chapter of the book I’m now writing, Jesus Before The Gospels, deals with “False Memories and the Life of Jesus.”  The first part of the chapter shows what we know about how traditions are kept alive in oral cultures, as they are told and retold, either by professionals who are experts or by regular ole folk who are not.   And so this part of the chapter summarizes the research into oral cultures undertaken by anthropologists. Of course there are no anthropologists who can study ancient cultures, at least in the way they can study modern cultures, when they can go in to observe how the culture “works,” interview people, and get to know the cultural world first-hand.   But it is possible to apply the findings of modern anthropology to long-deceased cultures, such as the Christian communities of the first century.   And that’s what I try to do in this chapter. My specific interest is in how Jesus was remembered in these cultures that passed along [...]

My Memory Book, Chapter 4 Again: The Death of Jesus

I am in the midst of a thread summarizing my current book project, Jesus Before the Gospels, which I am writing now, even as we speak.   The book will have six major chapters and a short conclusion.   Yesterday I finished drafting chapter 5, and hope to polish off the final two chapters next week, before revising it and sending it out to readers for comments. In my previous posts I said some things about chapter 4, “False Memories and the Death of Jesus.”   This chapter begins with a short summary of what psychologists have discovered about personal memories, and how we remember, since the first experiments were published in 1885 down to the present day.    My interest is both in how we as humans tend to remember the “gist” of what happened in the past and how also we “misremember” things.   Our memories are faulty, frail, and sometimes even false. The eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life had faulty memories as well – they must have had, if they were human beings.   I will be arguing in [...]

2020-04-03T13:49:30-04:00April 15th, 2015|Book Discussions, Historical Jesus, Memory Studies|

What Is A Memory?

A number of readers on the blog have objected to my understanding of memory, specifically to what a memory is, that is, to what constitutes a memory.  As a rule, these readers have argued – some with considerable force and conviction! – that a “memory” is a mental recollection of something that one has personally experienced. Let me cite one of the more closely reasoned expressions of this alternative view by one of my respondents, before explaining my view and why I have it.   COMMENT: Bart, I think people might be confused by your definition of false memories. In the medical, psychological and legal literature, false memories are defined as BELIEVED-IN MEMORIES OF PERSONAL EXPERIENCES that are false or are falsely remembered by specific persons. Beliefs ,stories, narratives, myths, folklore and conspiracies that are false but are circulating in a community or culture are not considered false memories by memory experts since these are not claimed to be first-hand memories of personal experiences. For example, a false memory can be created in the mind [...]

My Memory Book, Ch. 4a

Chapter four of my book, tentatively entitled “False Memories and the Death of Jesus,” is where I address head-on the psychology of memory.   My principal interest, at the end of the day, involves the problems of memory, of how memories for things we experience or hear about can be frail, faulty, and even false.   That’s not to deny that most of the time our memories are pretty decent.   If they weren’t we wouldn’t be able to function, either as individuals or a society.   And so of course most of what we remember is what really happened.   At the same time, we often (more than we usually admit -- even to ourselves) forget things and, more interesting and important, misremember things. That obviously creates a big problem for historians.  If our access to the past is mainly through sources that have themselves remembered what happened – either because they were there or because they heard it from others (who possibly heard it from others who heard it from others, and so on) – and memories can [...]

2020-04-03T13:51:22-04:00April 10th, 2015|Book Discussions, Memory Studies|

Remembering Lincoln

I thought I would take a post to give you a taste of one of my early chapters in my book on Memory.  It is in very rough draft, so don’t expect much.   But this passage deals with the topic of my last post, “collective” memory.   Here I use the example of how we remember, or misremember, the life and views of Abraham Lincoln. ************************************************************** In 2014 a poll was taken of 162 members of the American Political Science Association, asking them to rank all the past presidents of the United States, from best to worst.[1]   Probably to no one’s great surprise, the top-ranked president was Abraham Lincoln.    Most of us – though certainly not all of us! – remember Lincoln as a truly great and noble man who did remarkable things for his country.  But it was not always that way.  In his own day, Lincoln in fact was not seen as a great president – and not only in the southern states, whose inhabitants, as a rule, truly despised him and what he [...]

2020-04-03T13:53:00-04:00April 3rd, 2015|Book Discussions, Memory Studies|

My Original Interest in Memory

When I decided no longer to do a commentary on the Gospel of Peter and other early Greek Gospel fragments it was not only because I realized that I was not up for two or three years of that particular kind of laborious detailed work.  It was also because there was another area of research that I was really, really interested in but that I knew very little about.  That was the study of memory. I was interested in memory for both personal and professional reasons.  On the personal level, I have known people very close to me who have experienced serious memory problems, for example through strokes.  Depending on what part of the brain is affected, different memory functions are damaged.   For example, someone may remember perfectly well what happened in an event 20 years ago, but forget a conversation they just had.   I have often wondered why and how that is.. And then there was my own memory.  For some things I have a terrific memory.  And for lots of things I have [...]

2020-04-03T13:53:20-04:00March 31st, 2015|Book Discussions, Memory Studies|

Why I Shifted My Research Plans

In my last post I started explaining how I came to work on issues of memory.   My plan had been something else, to write a detailed commentary on the Gospel of Peter and other early Greek Gospel fragments.   I had  been committed to do this for years, with a book contract with Fortress Press for their commentary series that is called Hermeneia. Just by way of background:  when I was just out of graduate school, I vowed to myself that there were three kinds of books I would never, ever write.   I would never write a textbook.  I would never write a book on the historical Jesus.  And I would never write a commentary.   The reason for each was that there simply were too many of each kind of book out there already, and I simply didn’t want to tread where so many others had trod. So much for my vows.   I did end up writing a textbook on the NT.  That wasn’t my idea; my publisher twisted my arm and I agreed, and I [...]

2020-04-03T13:53:28-04:00March 30th, 2015|Bart’s Biography, Reflections and Ruminations|

Trade Books and Scholarly Books

I indicated in my previous post that I would say a few things about each of the books that I am planning – today at least – to try to write over the next ten years or so.   The very next book will be trade book on Jesus Before the Gospels, a study of what happened to the stories about Jesus as they were altered, and invented, by Christians circulating them word of mouth before the writing of the Gospels.   The next book after that will be a scholarly treatment of the same thing.  Or that’s the plan. The reason I’m hedging my bet is because I never know whether there will be a scholarly book in my current research until my current research is my past research and I see whether there really is something there that I have to say to scholars, or not.   At this point, even though I have a rough idea of how I want to organize a trade book, and know where I need to go in order to [...]

2020-04-03T16:38:36-04:00August 17th, 2014|Book Discussions, Memory Studies|
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