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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:



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).



I would like to deal with just part of the question, and save further responses for a later time.  One of the most significant discoveries of modern psychology is that Yes, we do remember significant, life-changing, emotional events more than everyday mundane events (as most of us realize).  BUT (this a huge but): even though such memories are more frequent and more vivid, that does not mean they are necessarily more accurate than other memories.  In fact, quite the opposite.  This seems completely counter-intuitive to most of us.  But many of our most vivid (emotional) memories can be highly inaccurate.   We tend to think that we know precisely where we were when, say, we were informed about 9/11.  All of us doBut as it turns out, most of us are probably wrong.

Here is how I discuss the matter in my forthcoming book


Many people will agree that they misremember things on occasion, but as a rule we are reluctant to think it happens a lot, or at least (for most of us!) that it happens a lot to us in particular.  We especially tend to think that our most vivid memories – precisely because they are vivid – are the most reliable.   That turns out not to be true either.

About 40 years ago some psychologists did think it was true.

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  1. Avatar
    Omar6741  February 13, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman,
    Suppose some of the disciples of Jesus had made a determined commitment to remember as much of the master’s discourses as they could. They might then repeat specific sayings or parables a lot, check the with others, and the like, as a way of remembering them. Would this not increase the reliability of their memories?
    I ask because I think it is not at all implausible that something like this happened among his disciples, after his baptism by John and his emergence as a “doer of startling deeds and teacher of those who receive the truth gladly” (quoting from memories of Josephus description). This would make the transmission of his sayings and deeds very different from the cases of eyewitness testimony often studied by psychologists, which involve memories of random events without any such long-term commitment to remembering things.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 15, 2016

      I’m afraid there’s no evidence that they did it that way! You’ll see that I address such issues in my book.

      • Avatar
        Kazibwe Edris  February 17, 2016

        have you argued in your book that mark does not seem to portray jesus’ disciples with good memories?
        the gospels say that jesus did not teach like the pharisees?
        the whole repeating stuff makes no sense to me because peter completely forgot that it was he who asked jesus about defiled foods and then in acts he requires vision and in that vision he says he never eat non-kosher foods.

        • Bart
          Bart  February 17, 2016

          No, I don’t discuss what the Gospels actually say about how good the disciples memories were.

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  February 15, 2016

      Even if they had proceeded as you propose, the events were all over and done with by 33CE and the first Gospel was not composed until almost 40 years later and all the Gospels were composed anonymously. So, surmise as you might, there is an insurmountable gap and disconnect between their memories–however accurate they might have been–and the stories we have in the Gospels.

  2. Avatar
    flshrP  February 13, 2016

    Neuroscientists have been studying the phenomenon of Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory, or H-SAM, which is exhibited by a tiny fraction of the population. The most famous such person is actress Marilu Henner (“Taxi”). The youngest is a 12-year old boy who is currently part of a memory research program at Washington University in St. Louis. This research was the subject of a recent PBS NOVA episode entitled “Memory Hackers”.

    Persons with H-SAM can remember details of every day of their life starting at a very early age. To some of these persons, H-SAM can be a great burden because they are able to recall in detail all of the painful experiences in their lives. Time, apparently, does not heal all wounds for these individuals.

    This has led researchers to consider the idea that we have evolved in such a way that, rather than having H-SAM brains, ordinary humans brains are wired to forget most of our memories rather quickly. Our ancestors on the savannahs of Africa might have been fatally burdened if they had a H-SAM brain that flooded the consciousness with memories that might interfere with the concentration needed to avoid becoming lunch for a predator here and now.

  3. Avatar
    Jrgebert  February 14, 2016

    The show “Memory Hackers” on NOVA on PBS recently had an interesting show on memory that your readers might be interested in.

  4. talmoore
    talmoore  February 14, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, Jimmy Kimmel takes advantage of this human tendency to misremember important events in his regular Lie Witness News segments, in which he has a fake news reporter stop random people on the street and ask them loaded questions that anyone who diligently follows the news would know is false — for instance, “What do you think of Hillary Clinton’s idea to go to war with Mexico?” — and disturbingly often enough the Man on the Street will answer the question as if it’s legitimate! for example, “I very much disagree with Clinton’s idea”, after which the fake reporter will ask something like, “Did you see Clinton’s speech where she proposed the idea?”, and the interviewee will say yes, and finally the reporter will ask where, and the interviewee will say on the news somewhere; they don’t exactly remember. These segments are a goldmine for anyone who wants to see how little we can trust our own ability to recall and recount our memories. Moreover, they show how easy it is for someone, especially a presumed “expert” such a (fake) news reporter, is able to make someone literally recall a memory they can’t possibly have!

  5. Avatar
    Wilusa  February 14, 2016

    This is fascinating – a trifle scary! But how does it explain people “remembering” things that are *impossible*, like having seen someone walk on water?

    I can’t help thinking the first teller of a tale like that invented the story, because holy men were *supposed to* have miraculous “powers”, and he wanted to claim the preacher he was promoting was in that category. He might have known the people he was talking to were unlikely ever to see the his idol in person; he was recruiting for a “movement.”

    • Bart
      Bart  February 15, 2016

      Yes, people remember seeing all sorts of amazing htings that didn’t really happen!

  6. Avatar
    Jimmy  February 14, 2016

    Hi Bart, For the sake of argument lets say the gospels were written by eyewitnesses. They wrote them within a week of Jesus’s resurrection. Would you then believe the stories ?

  7. Avatar
    Applesauce  February 15, 2016

    It’s not that much of a surprise that human memories are not entirely accurate.
    What I find more fascinating: why do humans construct (or, honestly think they remember) certain versions of the past?
    Don’t you think the struggle to control or “remember” a version of the past as “literally true” is one reason fundamentalists find your work so ‘threatening?’

    “Spectator I (Listening to Sermon on the Mount):
    I think it was “Blessed are the cheesemakers”.
    Mrs. Gregory: Aha, what’s so special about the cheesemakers?
    Gregory: Well, obviously it’s not meant to be taken literally; it refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.”
    (Life of Brian, 1979, Direct by Terry Jones)

    • Bart
      Bart  February 15, 2016

      Yes, I think this book will be particularly threatening to many people with such a view.

  8. Avatar
    nichael  February 15, 2016

    For possibly interested readers:
    While we’re waiting for the publication of _Jesus Before the Gospels_, I’d like to suggest a very nice, very readable book concerning “memory failures” and their mechanisms _The Seven Sins of Memory_ by the memory researcher Daniel L. Schacter.

    (Specifically, the book has sections on “Transience”, “Absent-mindedness”, “Blocking”, “Misattribution”, “Suggestibility”, “Bias”, and “Persistence”.)

    • Bart
      Bart  February 15, 2016

      Yes, Schacter read my book manuscript for me — he’s one of the world’s leading memory experts.

  9. Avatar
    Jrgebert  February 17, 2016

    What Religious, Bible, early Christianity blogs, if any, do you read and why do you read them?

  10. Avatar
    silvertime  February 17, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman: I have read many of your books, and I always read this blog. Therefore, I may have missed a discussion of this question. Recently you stated on the blog, and I have seen a discussion in some of you books about your “spirtual history” in which you say that after going to Princeton you bacame aware of the contradictions, discrepancies, and errors in the biblical canon. This make you change your religious convictions and outlook. My question is(possible for the mailbag) Previously when you were a fundamentalist and at Whenton College,you obviously had spent a lot of time in serious study of the bible. Did you ignore these issues or refuse to address them? I’m asking this because I experienced a similar “spirtual” journey. In my youth, I spent many many hours in church, at study groups, sunday school, and I was a state bible champion. Later i was a deacon in the Baptist church. Only in the last 10-15 years, have I become aware of these issues. My first “revelation” was reading the book ” What you minister is afraid to tell you” by Terry Cain. Later on, I found one of your books, and I discovered that I had been looking at religion with blinders

  11. Avatar
    Hari Prasad  February 18, 2016

    You’ve often made the point that the epistles of Paul are the earliest Christian documents, and since his conversion was probably within a few years of the crucifixion, as far back as we can go.

    How would you explain Paul, from a Jewish background, or Jesus, if Paul’s and gospel accounts are accurate, speaking of drinking blood as part of communal remembering and sharing in the spirit? Surely, drinking blood was strictly prohibited – Exodus only refers to sprinkling to seal the covenant. And where is there any textual (OT) basis for Jesus’ (the Messiah’s) body as manna?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 18, 2016

      I don’t think Paul ever explicitly says that Christians drink blood does he? And Jesus’ body is not manna but the unleavened bread of the Passover.

  12. Avatar
    Hari Prasad  February 19, 2016

    Thanks. Yes, of course. I asked the wrong questions and asked them wrong. Sorry. Is there an OT basis for Jesus’ body as the unleavened Passover bread? (I incorrectly used the word “manna”, only meaning to refer to some kind of divine presence.)

    I was looking into the origins of the Eucharist and was interested in your opinion, since like you I’ve considered Gaza Vermes a great scholar. Vermes comments on the Last Supper (p. 306 of “The Authentic Gospel of Jesus”):

    “…Jesus dramatically conveys to his table companions that eating the same bread, symbolically his body, and drinking wine, symbolically his blood, from the same cup, represented a spiritual and mystical union between teacher and disciples.” He considers this “an eschatological but definitely non-paschal, account” (as he accepts the pre-Passover setting for the Last Supper in the Gospel of John).

    Vermes goes on to say, “This religious drama of the last meal was set by Paul against the forthcoming death of Jesus and turned into a revised Passover liturgy. It became a supertemporal mystery play about the sacrificial redemption of mankind…Its paschal and eschatological aspects …were amalgamated when the reshaped story was incorporated into the three Synoptic Gospels.”

    If that is indeed what happened, I found it difficult to understand how:
    (1) Jesus, a Torah observant Jewish eschatological preacher/teacher considered he was present in the bread (body) and wine (blood)? Was there any precedent for a rabbi to believe such a thing about himself or for such a spiritual/mystical union between teacher and disciples?
    (2) Paul, proud of his Jewish background and tradition, adapted the tradition he received to establish such a liturgical practice? Surely if he made a key change so early, he would have been reproved/corrected by the surviving apostles (James and Peter)?

    How did Paul, so soon after the Crucifixion, and on his own, consider (I Corinthians 11.29-32) the Eucharist as divine presence, with immortality-conferring properties if the body of Christ was properly discerned in what was ingested?

    If Vermes is wrong and the “amalgamated” (Paschal/sacrificial + eschatological) tradition goes back to Jesus and/or the 12, how does this square with traditional Jewish belief and observance? A Davidic Messiah who brings about the Kingdom of Heaven would also be present in bread and wine until his return?

    I would very much appreciate reading your views.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 21, 2016

      No, nowhere in the OT is there talk about Jesus’ body being the passover. The reason the Xns did early on is because they knew he was killed on Passover and they thought that his death brought salvation, so they naturally made the connection. I don’t think Jesus himself was planning to be a sacrifice or that he tied his death into any sacrificial rites.

  13. Avatar
    Monty  February 20, 2016

    I’ve often wondered why, when Jesus offered the passover meal with the twelve, that they didn’t rise up in unison and challenge him when he suggested they would be drinking his blood.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 20, 2016

      Historically I don’t think Jesus suggested any such thing!

      • Avatar
        Monty  February 22, 2016

        Which was exactly my conclusion. I could have worded that better. “Questioned” would be more accurate than “wondered..” It is inconceivable to me that they would have abided such an outrageous suggestion without a vigorous protest, if not an outright refusal. The only reason I could think of that they didn’t was that, as you say, the words were never uttered by the historical Jesus in the first place. It is surprising to me that the writer of Matthew, with his knowledge of Judaism, would not have anticipated the disconnect here and added some comments by Jesus and/or his disciples that would reconcile what Jesus is alleged to have said with the Jewish background of his Christian community. Perhaps these Jewish Christians had been among gentiles for so long and had become so estranged from and desensitized to Judaic law that such an idea was no longer an affront to their sensibilities, and therefore, it never occurred to the writer that an explanation was necessary, or that his words would be read millennia later by someone who might question the casual way this proverbial hot potato was tossed between faithful Jews. It would be easier for me to understand had this dialogue been inserted by a later redactor who did not have much knowledge of the Jewish faith, but if there were evidence of such a redaction you would have mentioned it.

  14. Avatar
    Hari Prasad  February 21, 2016

    Didache 9-10 is very different from the tradition Paul gives in 1 Corinthians as having received from Jesus. Were there two or more Eucharistic traditions soon after the Crucifixion?
    Even though Paul doesn’t explicitly refer to drinking the blood, isn’t this the meaning of sharing the cup?
    The gospel of John explicitly speaks about eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Jesus. Does he reflect the Pauline tradition?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 23, 2016

      I think there were several eucharistic traditions. And the meaning of the cup would differ accordingly. No, I think John and Paul represent different traditions.

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