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What Can We Know about the Life of Jesus?

QUESTION:   You have stated in your various works that there are some things that we can accept as likely historically true concerning Jesus’ life; his origin in Galilee, his association with John the Baptizer, his crucifixion, etc.  For the rest of the episodes in Jesus’ life do we have to content ourselves with contemplation of what this or that gospel tells us about its author and community? Should we just “get over” this desire to know what really happened two thousand years ago?

 

RESPONSE:   Yes, this is a very important question.  Of paramount importance!  Here is a sample of how I deal with it in my just-finished-and-ready-to-send-to-my-readers book.  This is from Chapter 5, “False Memories and the Life of Jesus.”  This is the chapter where I discuss what anthropologists have told us about oral cultures and the way they preserve their traditions; it’s a crucial chapter since so many people seem to think that in oral cultures people have better memories that we do, and that they make sure not to change traditions that are passed along.  After discussing what we know about oral cultures, I say the following:

**************************************************************************************

In summing up this assessment of what we now know from such anthropological studies, I think it is fair to say that people in oral cultures do not preserve their traditions intact with verbatim accuracy from one telling to the next.   They not only do not do so, they do not care to do so.   Story-tellers in oral cultures tell their tales in order to communicate with their audiences in very specific contexts.  Both the audience and the context will affect how the story is told or the teaching is recounted – whether it is told expansively or briefly;  which entire episodes will be added or deleted; which details will be changed, expanded, or passed over completely.  Someone who then hears that version of the story or teaching will later tell her own version.   Whoever hears that version will tell his own version.  And on it goes, until someone writes it down.   The gist of these stories is more likely to survive relatively intact over the course of time, but not always.   Elements are constantly added to the stories and other elements are deleted or altered.  For that reason it is extremely difficult to separate out the elements that have been added or altered to an “original testimony” (to use Vansina’s term) from the gist that represents a “true memory” of the past.

Still, as we saw in the last chapter, there are ways to do so.  If …

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Year Three on the Blog
Truth and History

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    avonthalonus  May 9, 2015

    To what extent do you think the authors of the NT are oversimplifying by lumping together all the Pharisaic schools into one seemingly homogeneous group to the exclusion of Jesus, like the author of John later does with “Jews”? We know there were different schools that often vehemently disagreed with one another. Jesus’ exegetical debates with “Pharisees” and his own homiletical teachings seem to place him decidedly within the Pharisaic sphere of activity. Also he’s called “Rabbi” which is an exclusively Pharisaic title obtained through ordination by the laying on of hands (semichah) from the head of a school. It wasn’t just an honorific you could slap onto anybody’s name for the purpose of exalting them, like “Sir” or “Mr.” or even “Master”. It’s more like the Catholic use of “Father” to address a priest. Even though somewhat colloquial, you can only call an officially ordained priest “Father”.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 9, 2015

      It’s hard to know how diverse the Pharisees were in Jesus’ day. But the NT authors certainly do not differentiate among different Pahrisaid schools….

      • Avatar
        avonthalonus  May 9, 2015

        Yes, and I think that’s also a kind of false memory. At least supposedly from the 1st century BCE Hillel and Shammai were at opposite poles. It’s been said before but Jesus sounds like a Hillel-ite to me, when debates were still ongoing and before the Hillel school became normative. Point is, the irony may be Jesus was himself a Pharisee and that fact got lost in the NT telescoping of “ultra-strict Pharisee” > “Pharisee” > “Jew”.

      • Avatar
        godspell  May 11, 2015

        Was there ever really much attempt in the ancient world to try and understand the fine differences within a particular school of thought or belief? It doesn’t seem like the Romans ever made much attempt to understand the difference between Jews and Christians for quite a long time.

        • Bart
          Bart  May 11, 2015

          Oh yes, that was an active enterprise in antiquity. But it wasn’t always applied, any more than it is today outside of some circles.

        • Avatar
          MatthewAMcIntosh  May 12, 2015

          In fairness, it took a bit of time for even Christians and Jews to understand the difference between Christians and Jews in some ways. It would also be difficult to at least initially not view Christianity as a mystery cult and in my opinion really should be counted as one in its earliest days. Otherwise we really need to revamp what a mystery religion looked like.

          • Avatar
            godspell  May 14, 2015

            I don’t think it was ever a mystery cult. The whole point of those was that you had to join the cult to know the mystery, but Christians would openly preach the gospel, revealing said mystery, to anyone who’d listen–assuming there wasn’t some crackdown from the Roman authorities going on. The secrecy in Christianity stemmed solely from state repression. Whereas Mystery Cults were secretive because they LIKED it that way. Like Scientology now.

          • Avatar
            MatthewAMcIntosh  May 15, 2015

            If you’d like to exchange emails I’d be happy to, but I don’t know that we should continue to run a thread about it here (I’m not sure not of the rules). I don’t agree, but it’s an interesting discussion in any case.

      • Avatar
        llamensdor  May 17, 2015

        I’m surprised that you seem to accept the thesis that Jesus was actually arguing with (against?) the Pharisees, since you know very well that much of his thought coincides with their thought about resurrection, for example. If anything, Jesus would have been disputing with the Sadducees, who did not believe in resurrection. However, all of the gospels were written after the destruction of the Temple when the Sadducees would have been out of favor, and the polemics of the pre-christians, or proto-christians would have been against the rabbinic-style successors to the Pharisees. The gospel writers were arguing against the opposition of their time and they transposed them into Jesus’ time to support their “new” opponents. Isn’t that correct?

        • Bart
          Bart  May 18, 2015

          Pharisees constantly were arguing with each *other* as well.

  2. Avatar
    Stephen  May 9, 2015

    Prof Ehrman

    In your researches did you investigate the impetus to turn oral traditions into written form? Is there a moment common to all these oral traditions when it becomes time to “write it down”? If so can we learn something from this about the origins of Christianity? Are you going to discuss this in your new book?

    thanks

    • Bart
      Bart  May 9, 2015

      There’s not much to research, since no one in antiquity tells us his reasoning. But it’s been a long-term interest of mine. A really important book along these lines is Werner Kelber The Oral and Written Gospel.

      • Avatar
        avonthalonus  May 9, 2015

        Is there a possible parallel here with “Oral Torah”? The “Oral Torah”, that is the Mishnah, was committed to writing around the same time that complete Gospel manuscripts start appearing….

        • Bart
          Bart  May 11, 2015

          The Mishnah was not codified until about 200 CE, 170 years or so after Jesus. I deal with Jesus in relation later rabbinic modes of transmission of tradition in my new book.

  3. Avatar
    Jason  May 9, 2015

    This makes me wonder if those living in pre-literary societies have any concept of Alzheimers or other memory-disorders because they simply have nothing to cause doubt of their memories.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 9, 2015

      My sense is that not many people got Alzheimers, since few people lived long enough….

      • Avatar
        Jason  May 9, 2015

        That being the case, were the memories of those who reached advanced age assumed to be more or less historical in the pre-industrial, pre-Pasteur ages, and if so can we assume at least some of what we record as “history” is the creation of senility?

        • Bart
          Bart  May 11, 2015

          Probably the memories of the elderly then were about like they are now!

          • Avatar
            Wilusa  May 11, 2015

            I read something recently – not applying to actual, serious memory disorders, but just to older people’s occasionally having trouble remembering a name or something, when they might have come up with it quickly when they were younger. It was claimed that the problem wasn’t the person’s age per se, but *how much more had been crammed into* his or her memory in the course of a long life.

            *If* there’s anything to that, that type of memory *might* have been better in a society where “old age” was fiftysomething.

            On the other hand, “life expectancy” being short in earlier times had a lot to do with infant and child mortality. The possible human life *span* has been the same for a very long time. (I remember reading that one of Cicero’s wives died at age 110.) Are we sure fiftysomething ever *was* considered old age?

          • Bart
            Bart  May 12, 2015

            No, it’s not because of how much is crammed in the brain. It has to do with how the circuitry is working. And yes, the statistics are slanted because of early mortality; but even so, life span of those who live past young life is expannding significantly now because of advances in medicine and health care.

    • Avatar
      MatthewAMcIntosh  May 12, 2015

      Roman law addressed contracts involving those with “furor” (also dementia; insania – Greek paranoia). Such contracts were invalidated. The Twelve Tables provided familial guardianship for a “furiosus.” If you have access to a journal database, a good source is “Dementia int the Greco-Roman World” (Karenberg, Journal of Neurological Sciences, May 2006).

  4. Avatar
    prairieian  May 9, 2015

    I would add to this discussion the issue of language – we speak and write English. Jesus spoke Aramaic. The New Testament was originally written in Greek. It was then translated into Latin. All languages involve an interaction with the world unique to it – shades of meaning are without end. One language is perhaps better at articulating the transcendent in certain aspects than another. Likely none is utterly perfect. Meaning shifts across cultures, times and so on. All to say we struggle to understand. Indeed, we often fail to understand what is expressed in English a century or two ago. Sorting all this out into to some sort final answer to transcendental questions almost seems beyond the doable.

    To me, the key to it all is the first of Jesus’s admonitions to us all: Love thy neighbour as thyself. The rest is commentary.

    • Avatar
      avonthalonus  May 9, 2015

      Actually, “the rest is commentary” phrase is attributed to Hillel in the Talmud, not Jesus. Was Jesus an adherent of the Hillel school? Makes you wonder.

      • Bart
        Bart  May 11, 2015

        I doubt it. I’m not sure we can neatly divide most Jews into one camp or another.

    • Avatar
      llamensdor  May 17, 2015

      It was actually Hillel who said, in response to a soldier, or whoever was asking what the Jewish religion was about–but he wanted a short answer: “Love God and love thy neighbor as thyself. That is the law; all the rest is commentary.”

  5. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  May 9, 2015

    Wow! Awesome! This is really a terrific question and a terrific answer. It gets to the essence of what we all very much want to know. Thanks so much to both of you.

    You write that only Matthew gives an account of the “Sermon on the Mount.” Do you consider Luke’s version of the “Sermon on the Plain” to be a different sermon? Or am I confused again?

    With regard to the question of what is historical about Jesus, readers of this blog might have an interest in reading “The Bad Jesus” by Hector Avalos which deals with the question of whether or not Jesus, since He was human, sinned?

    If this is from your working original copy, then “We have seen all his” should be “We have seen all this” toward the end of the first paragraph after the red ink. It is too good an answer not to have it perfect.

    Thanks again.

  6. Avatar
    Wilusa  May 9, 2015

    I hope that in the book, if not here, you’ll go on to *answer* those questions!

    Say, I want to mention something I never managed to put into words before. About the “born again”/”born from above” issue…

    It seems to me that telling a person he had to be “born again” wouldn’t be taken, at least by any intelligent person, to mean that he had to crawl back into his mother’s womb and be physically reborn. It would be understood as meaning that he had to experience such a wondrous change, due to realizing some great truth, that he’d *feel as if he was beginning a whole new life*.

  7. cheito
    cheito  May 10, 2015

    DR Ehrman:

    What was the mother tongue of Pontius Pilate?
    In what language Did Pontius Pilate speak to Jesus?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 11, 2015

      Pilate would have spoken Latin. I would assume they used an interpreter.

      • Avatar
        godspell  May 12, 2015

        Didn’t many Romans of the time speak Greek? I ask because one critique (among many) made of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” was that the Roman soldiers were all speaking Latin, and some were saying they’d actually speak Greek, since that was the lingua franca in the Mediterranean world then. Of course, many Roman soldiers wouldn’t actually be from Italy, and Pilate was.

  8. cheito
    cheito  May 10, 2015

    DR Ehrman:

    YOUR QUESTIONS:

    Can we know if he did miracles – walk on the water, calm the storm, feed the multitudes, heal the sick, cast out the demons, and raise the dead? Such deeds are recorded in the Gospels. Are they true memories?

    MY COMMENTS AND QUESTIONS:

    According to the Gospel of John, which in my opinion is the true Gospel, which I believe was written by John the disciple whom Jesus loved, who was an eyewitness, unlike the authors of the synoptic Gospels who were not eyewitnesses, ,Jesus did walk on water, calm the storm, fed the multitudes, healed the sick and raised the dead… and I will add, He Himself rose from the dead.

    Furthermore, What about the memories of Paul, who was an eyewitness of the resurrected Christ?
    Paul claims he saw the lord. Is your word against his that he didn’t. I believe Paul’s testimony.

    According to tradition, Paul gave his life for his witness….And so did most of the other apostles who had fled for fear when they arrested Jesus.

    According to John who was an eyewitness, as stated by the record we have in John, the only disciple that was at the foot of the cross as Jesus was dying, was the disciple Jesus loved, the same disciple that testified of these things and wrote these things according to John 21:24, all the other disciples were hiding for fear of their lives. Does it make any sense that men like these would give their life for a lie?

    To speak of the memories of the synoptic gospels is futile. Let’s focus on the true memories. Can we extract the precious from the worthless?

    • Avatar
      godspell  May 12, 2015

      Can you accept the possibility that you’re wrong? That the John gospel is actually the furthest from the truth of Jesus’ life?

      You have to decide what’s most important to you–what really happened, or what you want to have happened.

    • Avatar
      llamensdor  May 17, 2015

      John’s gospel is considered useful in some respects because the author (who was very unlikely to have been the apostle), seems better informed about Jewish ritual. As for the perorations in this gospel which make Jesus sound like a Greek philosopher rather than an itinerant Jewish preacher, we can be very sure that Jesus never made any of these pompous, pious speeches. If he had he would have been laughed out of synagogue–or worse. Nor would Jesus have been a Jew-hater, like this person. “Ye are of the devil”? Ludicrous. Jesus certainly did not think of his fellow Jews as devils. Many, perhaps millions of Jews, have died at the hands of people claiming that the John gospel is the truth.

  9. Avatar
    Jana  May 10, 2015

    In a perfect world, I would love to read the “Life of Jesus” based upon your analysis and scholarship.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 11, 2015

      Ah, then it’s a perfect world! You can find that in my book Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium.

      • Avatar
        Jana  May 12, 2015

        lol !! Thanks now I’ll look for it!

  10. Avatar
    jebib  May 11, 2015

    Is the relative unreliability of Oral Tradition as proposed by Anthropologists a recent phenomena? I quite distinctly remember in the late 60’s (yes, that long ago) In an advanced class of Cultural Anthropology on West African Tribes being taught just the opposite, namely the reliability of same.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 11, 2015

      Yes, it’s been *mainly* since the 60s. Some of the key works are by scholars such as Albert Lord, Jan Vansina, and Jack Goody.

  11. talitakum
    talitakum  May 11, 2015

    What about the Last Supper and the Passion narratives? is there been any farewell meal? Was Jesus crucified, after a trial, under Pontius Pilate for “crimen maiestatis”? Or do you think that scholars may not agree on this? Thank you!

    • Bart
      Bart  May 11, 2015

      Well, there was definitely a last meal, whether it was the “Last Supper” or not is another question. I deal with gist memories of Jesus’ final days and hours in the preceding chapter!

      • talitakum
        talitakum  May 11, 2015

        Right, my fault: I missed the context of the post (which follows the content of the chapters in the book!). Thank you for the clarification!

  12. Avatar
    Mark  May 12, 2015

    In a 1986 article on the Jesus seminar the LA Times wrote “The view of Jesus as apocalyptic preacher, which has dominated biblical scholarship for nearly a century, appears to be facing its doom in mainstream studies.” Why did the members of the Jesus Seminar believe Jesus was not an apocalyptic preacher and why did their idea not prevail in academia?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 12, 2015

      Long stories! Most of them simply didn’t think the apocalyptic Jesus could be very relevant to today (they would not have given this as their “reason”) and their ideas did not prevail because their alternative constructions simply were not very convincing based on the evidence.

  13. Avatar
    Tom  May 15, 2015

    I’m told that you and Dr. Robert M Price have agreed to engage in debate on the historicity of Jesus being a real person sometime in the distant future.
    True / not true?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 15, 2015

      We’ve agreed in principle, but it’s not clear that it’s gonna happen.

  14. Avatar
    mrdavidkeller  May 17, 2015

    It’s been thirty years since college, still I find it difficult to accept current consensus now rejects oral traditions as unreliable, thats not to say it isnt so, its just that teachers of my day offered logical and reasoned arguements on why we could embrace the core elements of oral traditions and in some cases accept them as being more historically accurate then a written account. Off topic I know but its unsettling if your just reading it for the first time.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 18, 2015

      The best think I can suggest is that you read the books by experts in the field. They all pretty much tell the same story! You might want to start with the books by Jan Vansina and Jack Goody.

  15. Avatar
    Bennor  May 17, 2015

    There is this production, claiming that the NT and Jesus Christ is a ficton figure, a product out of literature, filling the needs of the Roman empire. You´ve probably already seen it. Do you see a major quality of truth in this story?
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=An8XoyeVYHo

    • Bart
      Bart  May 18, 2015

      Haven’t seen it! But Jesus was not a fictional character. He really lived. See my book Did Jesus Exist?

  16. Avatar
    BillSC  May 19, 2015

    I’m new here and low on the learning curve. I still can’t get my head around how the legend of one of many apocalyptic itinerant preachers could take off exponentially within a few years after his execution. Was it that he was actually relatively well known in that neighborhood before his death (e.g., did you hear the one about him walking on water?), so that stories related to a resurrection had fertile ground to take hold among a critical mass of the population? Or, was the rush to bestow glory on him due mainly to the skill and persistence of the storytellers that followed him?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 20, 2015

      I think it wsa because his followers (unlike everyone else we know) came to say that he had been raised from the dead, and they started convincing people. I talk about this a bit in my book How Jesus Became God. I’ll be devoting an entire book, in a few years, to the question of why the Christian religion spread so rapidly through the Roman empire.

  17. Avatar
    novotnycurse  May 22, 2015

    As a new subscriber, this is my first chance to contribute. I just wanted to return briefly to an earlier comment made by Wilusa re. the alleged deterioration of memory as we get older: Wilusa read somewhere that “the problem wasn’t the person’s age per se, but ‘how much more had been crammed into’ his or her memory in the course of a long life. ”
    Your response: “It’s not because of how much is crammed in the brain. It has to do with how the circuitry is working.”

    Wilusa is probably referring to a recent article which challenges the assumption that our cognitive abilities deteriorate as we grow older:
    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/01/140120090415.htm

  18. Avatar
    shakespeare66  August 6, 2015

    The details of his life are as scare of those of William Shakespeare. It’s a mystery why such great people have so little information about them chronicled. I can understand why Jesus had little, but the sparse details of Shakespeare’s life bugs me. This is 1600 years later! Didn’t anyone want to write something down about the guy? Yikes!

  19. Avatar
    Jondee209  August 29, 2015

    Mr.Erhman, are there any snippets of truth in the letters of “Pilate to Herod ” or his letters to Tiberius ? I noticed some passages that dont seem to drive a point in those letters that i think would meet the “historians eye” such passages like when Pilate said . “They said he called himself a King ,so we crucified him. Plus numerous other passages . i heard they are Syriac manuscripts but i dont know much about them. Can you touch a little on these manuscripts and if there is any validity to them ..Thanks!

    • Bart
      Bart  August 29, 2015

      It depends on what you mean by “truth.” Do you mean points of historical accuracy? Sure! There was a Pilate and there was a Herod, e.g., and they knew each other.

      • Avatar
        Jondee209  August 30, 2015

        Truth as in historical accuracy. I think what im trying to see is if some of these materials can be used also to strengthen the argument for a historical Jesus. (Not that it needs any ) ?

        • Bart
          Bart  August 31, 2015

          No, they are widely recognized as derivative and highly legendary.

          • Avatar
            Betho  September 5, 2015

            Teacher, we received the traditions about Jesus and have also read about it on the internet and books. Our people have different views, may expose once again our belief. We believe that Jesus was born of a young woman and that Joseph was afraid to tamper with the angel who brought the message, that after the birth of Jesus, they were married. Joseph had a wife, and this stepmother accused Jesus of being crazy. That Jesus’ brothers constantly wanted to induce him to be killed in Judea. Jesus had a capacity, was very gifted, he does not use the imperative verb to Lazarus, he used two adverbs, he also sent away the stone that closed the tomb. Jesus did not levitated over the waters, he walked close (the surface layer). Jesus did not do wine, he turned water into wine. Jesus did not create bread and fish, it multiplied when the baskets were high, as were all lowered. Etc … Jesus preached the same truth of their time, “Master we know that teaches the truth …” That Judas bought a field (of blood) with the money you stole the group’s stock, which was with him. Judas did not betray Jesus for thirty pieces, Judas betrayed Jesus for ideology to be defeated on the issue of balm shed because it could steal more if the balm was sold. The thirties currencies bought another field of blood (symbolism). Jesus was born to be king, so that he came into the world not to be God (trine, etc.). Pilate had mercy of Jesus. Pilate knew that Jesus came to be king in the metaphysical realm. Pilate commanded to beat in Jesus and then showed slaughtered for the population (with personal coat it without the crown of thorns, no purple robes, everything was taken by the soldiers), that this Jewish population had mercy of Jesus. That Jesus carried a dash, and the three crucified in one tree. Jesus was just one of many crucified at the time. There is high possibility that Saul be the Roman citizen who thrust his spear into Jesus to see if he was alive or dead, leaving water and blood “truly this was the Son of God” and “it’s hard for you to fight the spearhead” . That the gospel teaches that Jesus was gifted to be a nice tabernacle for God.

  20. Avatar
    Betho  September 5, 2015

    angel=messenger=emissary

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