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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.




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 tomb.do 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 same thing is total guessing on your part.no bart better try again not all eye witness had hallicinations


Bart D. Ehrman Really? What do you make of the hundreds of people who say they have, at one and the same time, seen the Blessed Virgin Mary?


What they are stating is not in the bible I go by what the word of God said and what people died for.why are you limiting God Bart? If he wants to manifest the blessed virgin then isn’t he allowed as God that choice Bart?what your doing is limiting God and his great power to work.first you don’t believe in the resurrection of Jesus and now the appearances of the blessed Mary.


Bart D. Ehrman Oh, I thought you were saying that you could not have 500 people all witnessing a hallucination. Wait a second. That *is* what you were saying!!





Do you think the three variant accounts of Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus in Acts indicate that, even in the first century CE, it was known that eyewitness testimony and memory are not totally reliable?



My sense is that the general uninformed opinion about eyewitness testimony in antiquity was pretty much what it is today.  Lots of people – probably most? – thought that if someone said they saw something, they really did.   And if they told you about it, it was accurate.  Even if evidence (e.g., the three accounts of Paul’s conversion in Acts 9, 22, and 26) indicated otherwise.  Of course in antiquity there were not extensive studies by psychologists dealing with eyewitnesses since, well, there weren’t any psychologists.  But still, my hunch is that most people simply believed eyewitnesses even though the most highly educated scholars – for example, historians and biographers – had a healthy dose of skepticism.  But even they didn’t realize just *how* bad eyewitness testimony could be.

The following is a little anecdote I tell in my forthcoming book Jesus Before the Gospels involving, in a sense, eyewitnesses.  I have lots of stories like this, and of course you would not want to base too much on just one story.  Still, it’s pretty interesting:


On October 4, 1992, an El Al Boeing 707 that had just taken off from Schipfol Airport in Amsterdam lost power in two engines.  The pilot tried to return to the airport but couldn’t make it.  The plane crashed into an eleven-story apartment building in the Amsterdam suburb of Bijlmermeer.   The four crew members and thirty-nine people in the building were killed.   The crash was, understandably, the leading news story in the Netherlands for days.

Ten months later, in August 1993, Dutch psychology professor Hans Crombag and two colleagues gave a survey to 193 university professors, staff, and students in the country.  Among the questions was the following:  “Did you see the television film of the moment the plane hit the apartment building?”    In their responses 107 of those surveyed (55%) said Yes, they had seen the film.   Sometime later the researchers gave a similar survey with the same question to 93 law school students.  In this instance, 62 (66%) of the respondents indicated that they had seen the film.   There was just one problem.  There was no film.

These striking results obviously puzzled the researchers, in part because basic common sense should have told anyone that there could not have been a film.   Remember, this is 1992, before cell phone cameras.   The only way to have a film of the event would have been for a television camera crew to have trained a camera on this particular apartment building in a suburb of Amsterdam at this exact time, in expectation of an imminent crash.   And yet, between half and two-thirds of the people surveyed – most of them graduate students and professors – indicated they had seen the non-existent film.    Why would they think they had seen something that didn’t exist?

Even more puzzling were the detailed answers that some of those interviewed said about what they actually saw on the film, for example, whether the plane crashed into the building horizontally or at vertical and whether the fire caused by the plane started at impact or only later.   None of that information could have been known from a film, because there was no film.  So why did these people remember, not only seeing the crash but also details about how it happened and what happened immediately afterward?

Obviously they were imagining it, based on logical inferences (the fire must have started right away) and on what they had been told by others (the plane crashed into the building as it was heading straight down).  The psychologists argued that these people’s imaginations became so vivid, and were repeated so many times, that they eventually did not realize they were imagining something.  They thought they were remembering it.  They really thought that.   In fact they did remember it.  But it was a false memory.   Not just a false memory one of them had.   A false memory most of them had.

The researchers concluded:  “It is difficult for us to distinguish between what we have actually witnessed, and what common sense inference tells us that must also have been the case.”   In fact, commonsense inference, along with information we get by hearsay from others, together “conspire in distorting an eyewitness’s memory.”   Indeed “this is particularly easy when, as in our studies, the event is of a highly dramatic nature, which almost by necessity evokes strong and detailed visual imagery.”



Any chance we’ll get to see you on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” or hear you on “Fresh Air with Terry Gross” after it’s published?



Every author is naturally desperate to get really good radio and television coverage for their work. That is really what matters when it comes to book sales.  Frankly, what matters is not necessarily the quality of the book (tons of *terrific* books never get any coverage; some lousy ones get lots!).  And not advertising (contrary to what I used to think).  What matters is media attention.

No radio coverage is better than Terry Gross and no TV better than Colbert!   And so, for every trade book that is published in the U.S., the publisher assigns a publicist to try to make it happen.   The problem – this is an enormous problem, obviously – is that there are something like 600 books that get published in English every day.   Only 20 books will be on the New York Times Bestseller list each week.  And if a radio or TV show has 4-5 episodes a week, and, say, 40,000 books to choose from, well, do the math.

I have been unbelievably fortunate to appear on Fresh Air six times.  Terry Gross is fantastic, preternaturally good!   It is a real pleasure, and a profound honor, to be interviewed by her.  I was on the Colbert Report twice, though I have to say that was not nearly so enjoyable.  Damn he’s quick.  And smart.  And you have no idea where he’s going or how he got there.  The Colbert Report was the toughest interview on the planet, even if it was the most huge honor.  Which it was.  He is an amazing man.   Now, of course, he’s moved on.

So, in any event, my publicist is working very hard to line up some media coverage.  One never knows how that will play out.  Often it is a matter of luck and chance and good breaks.  But one can always hope!


Bottom of Form



Upcoming Debate!
Q & A about Jesus Before the Gospels, Part 1



  1. Avatar
    Judith  February 7, 2016

    Suppose if we bloggers hounded Terry Gross and Stephen Colbert to have you on? Surely that would do it! We could simply contact them for the date you’ll be on as though, of course(!!!) you’ll be on.

  2. Avatar
    bruce  February 7, 2016

    I’m also reminded by this post of some candidates at this time who are blatantly lying or stretching the facts, are called out on it in the press, and yet their followers may still go around spreading it as gospel.

  3. Avatar
    Judith  February 7, 2016

    Fresh Air with Terry Gross – NPR
    1111 North Capitol Street, NE
    Washington, D.C. 20002

    (I’ll just write asking when Dr. Bart Ehrman’s Jesus before the Gospels is going to be scheduled so as not to miss it and provide an email address.)

    (Have already emailed asking for the date Dr. Ehrman is scheduled.)

  4. Avatar
    stokerslodge  February 7, 2016

    Bart, when you refer above to “ the hundreds of people who say they have, at one and the same time, seen the Blessed Virgin Mary” what apparition or apparitions are you referring to? Can you give some background details please? Thank you!

    • Bart
      Bart  February 8, 2016

      I’ll answer this on my blog itself, with a post probably tomorrow!

  5. Avatar
    raypianoplayer  February 7, 2016

    Right on, Bart…I appreciate your logic…

  6. Avatar
    David  February 7, 2016

    Regarding eyewitness accounts in the bible (or anywhere else)…………..I keep thinking about the X-Files……………’I want to believe’.

  7. Greg Matthews
    Greg Matthews  February 7, 2016

    Best to stay away from Facebook. Loonies live there. I had to leave the Seeking For Historical Truth with Bart Ehrman Facebook group because of the lunacy going on there. Even the people who supported my positions were lunatics.

  8. talmoore
    talmoore  February 7, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, one problem with our (often faulty) memory is that — contrary to what we think — it’s not a matter of recording an episode in our brain like onto a video tape or like saving data onto a harddrive. It’s more like a computer’s RAM, where important bits are used and discarded depending on their importance, and only after is it “saved” to the harddrive if it’s deemed important enough to keep. And, alas, this analogy isn’t quite accurate either, because our brain doesn’t so much retrieve a memory (like a computer retrieves bits from a storage device), but essentially reconstructs a memory from scratch everytime, filling in gaps where pieces of the puzzle may be missing or jumbled (In that sense we can sort of compare it to a computer’s attempt to fill in gaps in information by “extrapolating” it from peripheral data or, if there is one, a check bit).

    The analogy I usually give people when they ask how our brain works is that of a wave on a beach (I believe I got this analogy from Steven Pinker, but I’m not sure). Think of the water as like the sensory information, the beach as like our brain and the individual sand grains as like the neurons in our brain. Every time the wave hits the beach it’s like new sensory information entering our central nervous system. The water washing up the beach is like that sensory data washing over our brain. As the water moves up the beach it creates various grooves and channels in the sand. In a similar way as that sensory data “moves” trhough the neural network in our brain it leaves “grooves and channels” — i.e. neural pathways. And as the water recedes back into the ocean it can either follow those same grooves and channels or it can make new ones. In a similar way as water washing back into the ocean, when the neurons in our brains fire along those pathways created by the sensory input they can create new pathways. As neuroscientists often say: neurons that fire together wire together, meaning that these neural pathways have a tendency to endure unless a new stimulus, like a strong sensory event, makes them take a new pathway and, in essence, re-wire.

    I know, this sounds complicated, but it’s actually rather intuitive. When that wave hits the beach it makes sense to us that the water will more likely follow those grooves and channels that already exist on the beach, and that the water will only cease to flow through those grooves and channels — creating new grooves and channels — if forced to by some extraordinary wave action (i.e. a strong stimulus). In a similar way our brains tend to stick to preexisting pathways until a strong stimulus, like an intense/emotional event forces it to rewire, hence why strongly emotional events so strongly imprint themselves on our memory.

    Dr. Ehrman, you can add that analogy to your book if you want to

    • Bart
      Bart  February 8, 2016

      Well, my book is already printed and waiting in warehouses! But thanks. yes, Memory is not like a video camera!

  9. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  February 7, 2016

    Ugh! I only read part of the post because it looks like a spoiler to your new book, and I wanna be surprised! lol

    I really didn’t get the FB exchange. He said you were limiting God’s power but the poster didn’t believe in the visions himself? Huh? Also, I don’t understand these visions that people have. There are plenty of people that have visions of Jesus even today. I work with schizophrenic students who see and hear things sometimes, but that’s to be expected with a brain disorder. I just don’t get regular, everyday people having visions.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 8, 2016

      Happens all the time. One of eight of us will have a vision of a recently deceased loved one, and we will believe it’s “real”

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  February 10, 2016

      I worked at our county mental health department for 7-8 years. There’s no hard and fast line between healthy people who do not “see things” and people with psychiatric disabilities who do. It’s a human phenomenon: in some it manifests less frequently and non-pathologically; in others, it’s pathological enough to disrupt “normal” life.

    • Avatar
      Monarch  February 11, 2016

      I stopped reading the person’s Facebook post after the second grammatical/spelling mistake. Anyone who can’t write isn’t worth reading.

  10. Avatar
    Kazibwe Edris  February 7, 2016

    Doctor Ehrman

    the jewish come back/response to the christians is, “you have 500, we have millions who heard gods voice and saw no form at sinai”

    have you heard this before?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 8, 2016


      • SBrudney091941
        SBrudney091941  February 10, 2016

        I prefer the Jewish saying, “Why should we go through a middle man when we can go straight to the top?!”

  11. Avatar
    Colin P  February 7, 2016

    Hi Bart. I have some sympathy with your first questioner, though coming from a slightly different direction. Isn’t it more likely that the resurrection story was just made up, or at least wildly exaggerated by Jesus’ distraught, confused, frightened, humiliated followers? Why is it actually necessary to postulate mass hallucination? Isn’t this kind of story telling found in all religions? Presumably your new book deals with this, right? Looking forward to reading it by the way.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 8, 2016

      I don’t argue the case in my next book, but in my previous one, How Jesus Became God.

  12. Avatar
    godspell  February 7, 2016

    Colbert is by no means a conventional Catholic (whatever that is), but what separates him from most on-air personalities is that he actually knows a lot about religion. The good and the bad of it. He’s equally skeptical of all claims, theist or atheist. He’s interested in it.

    Bernard Shaw, who was not religious in any conventional sense of the word, wrote once that he didn’t like it when people said religion was a boring subject. To him, it was the most interesting subject imaginable–what can tell you more about people than what they choose to believe?

  13. Josephsluna
    Josephsluna  February 7, 2016

    If you have any live debates coming up please post!

    And I want would to mention. Bart in all your years…. When was the last time some one came to you the way I did. Spoke to you the way I do? Intrest in the bible that I have ( mysteries ) I’m one of the blogs biggest fans!

    Let’s see how powerful words are…

    I believe I AM more than a believer! More than a prophet!

    1 Thessalonians 5:2 / Rev 16:15 Rev 16:16

  14. Avatar
    Radar  February 8, 2016

    I’m curious if the aircraft question represents that many respondents mentally dropped the “moment of impact” detail and instead answered based on their watching of subsequent news coverage from the scene. I caught myself having to go back to review the question to find out why their answers were wrong — but that was because I had the results at hand to know their answers were wrong, thus allowing me the self-correcting opportunity to review the question that the respondents had no reason to make use of.

  15. Avatar
    doug  February 8, 2016

    The Facebook fellow sounds similar to the irrational person who said, “I believe Jonah was swallowed by a whale because the Bible says so. And if the Bible said the whale was swallowed by Jonah, I’d believe that, too!”.

    • Avatar
      Rthompsonmdog  February 8, 2016

      There was an HBO documentary, “Questioning Darwin.” I have only seen excerpts, but there is a clip (http://youtu.be/Ysecinv367w) where a pastor admits that if the bible said 2 + 2 = 5, “… I would believe it, accept it as true…”
      I find that level of commitment hard to understand.

  16. Avatar
    Lawyerskeptic  February 8, 2016

    Will you now try to get an article published about your success raising money with the blog?

  17. Rick
    Rick  February 8, 2016

    Reading the three versions of the Damascus incident in Acts in English I think they are more alike than they are variant, particularly if you don’t view more vs. less detail (in context with the story at hand) as variance. So, if there was only one author of Acts would not the differences simply mean he was a bit careless with his reiteration of the story in the different scenes? Since Acts itself was no doubt read to, rather than read by, its audience in the, maybe very late first, and second centuries who would have caught the differences anyway. By the time it was scholarly read (as opposed to worshipfully read) it was scripture immune to criticism.

  18. Avatar
    dragonfly  February 9, 2016

    I guess if you’re able to read koine, with no punctuation, capitals or even spaces between words, then reading facebookish must be a breeze!

  19. Avatar
    rivercrowman  February 9, 2016

    Question for mailbag: Bart, I’d like your thoughts on whether Mark 13:10, and the teachings of Matthew 24:14 and 28:19 actually go back to Jesus. These admonish followers to publish and preach the Gospel to all corners of the inhabited world. … These instructions certainly set in motion an impressive missionary effort that continues today, with some sometimes violent “push back” from cultures that may not be all that receptive. … My own neighbor has been trying to get me to “accept Jesus” for about three years now.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 10, 2016

      These are almost always seen by critical scholars to be after-the-fact exhortations that arose within the early church, which stressed the need to spread the news of Jesus’ death and resurrection before he returns. Christians — as you have personally noticed — are still doing so!

  20. Avatar
    JSTMaria  February 9, 2016

    Hi Dr. Ehrman. Random question here. Based on your studies, was the Eucharist a thing or not for the first Christians? Did they really get together and “break bread” and drink wine as something sacramental?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 10, 2016

      Yes, as early as we have a record of it, it appears to have been a ceremonial meal with sacramental significance of some kind (1 Cor. 11:22-24)

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