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Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior

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The bestselling author of Misquoting Jesus, one of the most renowned and controversial Bible scholars in the world today examines oral tradition and its role in shaping the stories about Jesus we encounter in the New Testament—and ultimately in our understanding of Christianity. Throughout much of human history, our most important stories were passed down orally—including t The bestselling author of Misquoting Jesus, one of the most renowned and controversial Bible scholars in the world today examines oral tradition and its role in shaping the stories about Jesus we encounter in the New Testament—and ultimately in our understanding of Christianity. Throughout much of human history, our most important stories were passed down orally—including the stories about Jesus before they became written down in the Gospels. In this fascinating and deeply researched work, leading Bible scholar Bart D. Ehrman investigates the role oral history has played in the New Testament—how the telling of these stories not only spread Jesus’ message but helped shape it. A master explainer of Christian history, texts, and traditions, Ehrman draws on a range of disciplines, including psychology and anthropology, to examine the role of memory in the creation of the Gospels. Explaining how oral tradition evolves based on the latest scientific research, he demonstrates how the act of telling and retelling impacts the story, the storyteller, and the listener—crucial insights that challenge our typical historical understanding of the silent period between when Jesus lived and died and when his stories began to be written down. As he did in his previous books on religious scholarship, debates on New Testament authorship, and the existence of Jesus of Nazareth, Ehrman combines his deep knowledge and meticulous scholarship in a compelling and eye-opening narrative that will change the way we read and think about these sacred texts.


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The bestselling author of Misquoting Jesus, one of the most renowned and controversial Bible scholars in the world today examines oral tradition and its role in shaping the stories about Jesus we encounter in the New Testament—and ultimately in our understanding of Christianity. Throughout much of human history, our most important stories were passed down orally—including t The bestselling author of Misquoting Jesus, one of the most renowned and controversial Bible scholars in the world today examines oral tradition and its role in shaping the stories about Jesus we encounter in the New Testament—and ultimately in our understanding of Christianity. Throughout much of human history, our most important stories were passed down orally—including the stories about Jesus before they became written down in the Gospels. In this fascinating and deeply researched work, leading Bible scholar Bart D. Ehrman investigates the role oral history has played in the New Testament—how the telling of these stories not only spread Jesus’ message but helped shape it. A master explainer of Christian history, texts, and traditions, Ehrman draws on a range of disciplines, including psychology and anthropology, to examine the role of memory in the creation of the Gospels. Explaining how oral tradition evolves based on the latest scientific research, he demonstrates how the act of telling and retelling impacts the story, the storyteller, and the listener—crucial insights that challenge our typical historical understanding of the silent period between when Jesus lived and died and when his stories began to be written down. As he did in his previous books on religious scholarship, debates on New Testament authorship, and the existence of Jesus of Nazareth, Ehrman combines his deep knowledge and meticulous scholarship in a compelling and eye-opening narrative that will change the way we read and think about these sacred texts.

30 review for Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior

  1. 4 out of 5

    Clif Hostetler

    I was expecting this book to be a portrayal of the "historical Jesus" using the findings of human memory research. It was that, however I believe that a more descriptive title for this book would be "What we can know about the nature of the various communities that produced the multiple Gospels using modern tools of historical scholarship and recent memory research." That title is probably too long, but it is a worthwhile endeavor because the remembered Jesus is what Christianity is based upon, I was expecting this book to be a portrayal of the "historical Jesus" using the findings of human memory research. It was that, however I believe that a more descriptive title for this book would be "What we can know about the nature of the various communities that produced the multiple Gospels using modern tools of historical scholarship and recent memory research." That title is probably too long, but it is a worthwhile endeavor because the remembered Jesus is what Christianity is based upon, not the historical Jesus. This book includes an extensive description of the nature of memory and how it can lead to inventions. Findings of research on oral traditions and their tendency toward invention are explained. These limitations apply to the Gospels because they were written between forty to eighty years after the crucifixion of Jesus by writers who were writing in Greek about what was remembered and repeatedly retold about Jesus who lived within an Aramaic speaking community. The limitations of eyewitness testimonies is explained by this book. It's a moot point to ponder the accuracy of eyewitness testimony in the case of the Gospels since they were not written by eyewitnesses to the events being described anyway. Nevertheless it's interesting to wonder why the Apostle Paul didn't say more about Jesus. His writing is the earliest surviving descriptions we have of Jesus. He himself was not an eyewitness, but he had met with two of the apostles (Gal. 1:18-20) and at a later date he also met with the disciple John (Gal. 2:9). It is incredible how little Paul said about Jesus in his writing. The following "view spoiler" contains a list of ALL that Paul says about Jesus in the thirteen books ascribed to him (six of which most scholars don’t think he wrote). (view spoiler)[The following list of things Paul says about Jesus is a quotation from the book:Jesus was born of a woman (Gal. 4:4 ... ) He was born of a Jew (Gal. 4:4). He was descended from the line of King David (Rom. 1:3). He had brothers (I Cor. 9:5), one of whom was named James (Gal. 1:19). He had twelve disciples (1 Cor. 15:5). He conducted his ministry among Jews (Rom. 15:8) He had a last meal with his disciples on the night he was turned over to the authorities (1 Cor. 11:23). Paul knows two things that Jesus said at this last supper (1 Cor. 11:23-25) Paul knows two other teachings of Jesus, that Christians should not get divorced (1 Cor. 7:10) and they should pay their preacher (1 Cor. 9:14). Jesus appeared before Pontius Pilot (1 Tim. 6:13). Jesus died of crucifixion (1 Cor. 2:2) Those responsible for his death were Judeans (1 Thes. 2:14-15) (hide spoiler)] There're chapters discussing the different accounts of the life and death of Jesus contained in both the four canonical and several non-canonical gospels. Then Ehrman provides reviews of the Gospels of Mark, John and Thomas that could pass for biblical meditations. From these he reaches conclusions about the nature of and problems faced by the communities from where these gospels originated. At this point Ehrman summaries the information contained in this book thus far with the text shown in the lengthy excerpt from the book that I've hidden in the following "view spoiler." It's not really a spoiler but it's the tool I have available for hiding some text. I've hidden the excerpt there because I assume many readers of this review may prefer to skip over it. (view spoiler)[The following is an extended excerpt from the book: To this point we have seen three sets of memories of Jesus from three different communities and three different situations. All these communities were remembering the past because of and in light of their present. There can be no doubt in many instances their memories were frail or faulty at least in the historical sense that what they remembered about Jesus was not true to the Jesus who really lived, taught and died in Roman Palestine. To be sure it can probably be assumed though it can never be proven that people in these communities thought their memories of Jesus were historically true. For them these really were the things that Jesus said and did. But obviously all three communities cannot all be right about that. Their memories are very different, even contradictory. The historical question of what could be shown to of actually happened in the life of Jesus was not the ultimate concern of people living in these churches. Their communities were not made up of historians interested in applying rigorous historical criteria to establish what Jesus really said and did. They were for the most part simple Christians who had heard stories about Jesus that had long been in circulation, stories about who he was, what he taught, what mission he came to fulfill. These stories about the past had always been told in light of how the storytellers perceived the relevance and significance of Jesus for the present. Those who held, preserved, and shared memories of Jesus did so because he meant something to them and their struggles. It was precisely those memories, stored, recalled, and shared by Christians encountering these struggles, that made it possible for them to make sense of the world and their lives. I do not want to leave the impression that there are basically three kinds of memories of Jesus that have come down to us from the early church as laid out in the preceding Chapter, those represented by the gospels of Mark, John, and Thomas. On the contrary each author we know about from the early centuries of Christianity has a different memory of Jesus, either a greatly or slightly different memory from everyone else. Our ancient Christian texts provide us with a whole kaleidoscope of images of Jesus. This obviously is not the place to provide a detailed sketch of all the ancient memories of Jesus. But I would like to say just a few words about several of them just to give a sense of this rich variety. (hide spoiler)] At this point Ehrman examines six important Christian texts and/or figures, three from within the New Testament and three from outside to explore the distinctive features of their memories. At the end of the book Ehrman makes a plea for seeing the truth in the New Testament writing even if the stories are not necessarily historically accurate.Literature speaks to us quite apart from the facts of history. So does music. So does sculpture. So do all the arts. The Gospels are not simply historical records about the past. They are also works of art. In addition, they are written forms of memory. Below is a link to an article on Ehrman's blog discussing this book: http://ehrmanblog.org/hnn-news-story-... Below are some links to multiple parts of a long academic review of this book: Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 1) Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 2) Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 3)

  2. 5 out of 5

    Louise

    What we know of Jesus was written 40 years and more after his death by people who did not know him, meaning our knowledge of Jesus comes from second and third (and/or more) hand oral tellings. There is some chance that there is a lost written source often called “Q” but the consensus is that the New Testament information on Jesus is all or mostly from oral testimony. This book explores the validity memory, oral tradition and eye witness testimony and applies research on these to their use as his What we know of Jesus was written 40 years and more after his death by people who did not know him, meaning our knowledge of Jesus comes from second and third (and/or more) hand oral tellings. There is some chance that there is a lost written source often called “Q” but the consensus is that the New Testament information on Jesus is all or mostly from oral testimony. This book explores the validity memory, oral tradition and eye witness testimony and applies research on these to their use as historical methods for documenting the life and crucifixion of Christ. Ehrman shows how memories of Jesus in the gospels differ with and conflict with each other and different reports of the same events from the other writings of the time. The most fantastic of these is the Papias account of Judas swelling up; the most curious perhaps are the quotes of Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas, discovered in 1945. As in other Ehrman books, there is a lot on the authority of the sources. For instance there is discussion on who Matthew, Mark, Luke and John might be and how they got their knowledge. He shows through their nuanced language what the authors do and do not reveal about themselves. For instance, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” differs in meaning from “Blessed are the poor”; When read along with other passages, you see how this subtly speaks to the concerns of the writer. One example of the tweaking of events struck me for different reasons. Each gospel has a slightly different report of Pilate asking Jews if Jesus should be pardoned and of his subsequent release of Barabbas (convicted of crimes against the Roman government). While the particulars differ, the gist is the same. No other source records any of this. Why would an autocratic Roman ruler ask the Jews (either a crowd or an assembled body) such a question? There is no record of any previous pardons by the autocrat Pilate or that he ever consulted the Jews or ever released a prisoner to please them. There is no evidence that any of Rome’s strong fisted overlords ever did such a thing. Did the writers have a reason to shift the blame for Jesus’s death from the Romans to the Jews? (My question, not Ehrman’s: did centuries of discrimination, culminating with the ‘final solution” of the Third Reich, originate from these faulty recounts?) Whether you have interest in Bible studies or not, Ehrdman’s summary of research on memory, perception and eye witnessing are fascinating. Research shows how oral histories are changed due to the style of the reciter, the response of the crowd and/or the purpose of the recitation. In a study of perception, participants miss an obvious distraction because they are focusing on something else. The studies on eye witness accounts makes you wonder if court room testimony is a waste of time. An ending chapter on “Kaleidoscopic Memories of Jesus”, where Ehrman shows how Jesus has been viewed through different lenses, is the weakest, but in the final chapter he finishes strong. “Conclusion: A Paean to Memory” asks if appreciation for “King Lear” depends on its having been written by a man from Avon? Do the observations on humanity and moral conclusions differ when you consider it fiction as opposed to history? What I appreciate about Ehrman is that he brings the biblical scholarship to a level that a lay person can read and understand. In this book he delivers as usual.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Kaethe Douglas

    Ehrman is kind of amazing: his books are both excellent scholarship and intriguing nonfiction for casual readers. And he has a members-only blog to raise money for charities addressing poverty. I wonder how hard it is to get into one of his classes; those must be great. The beliefs of early Syrian Christians are the most fascinating history I have ever read, and I am really fond of weird history. No spoilers, but woah, dude. My father was a minister of a scholarly bent, so I may know a little mo Ehrman is kind of amazing: his books are both excellent scholarship and intriguing nonfiction for casual readers. And he has a members-only blog to raise money for charities addressing poverty. I wonder how hard it is to get into one of his classes; those must be great. The beliefs of early Syrian Christians are the most fascinating history I have ever read, and I am really fond of weird history. No spoilers, but woah, dude. My father was a minister of a scholarly bent, so I may know a little more of the history than average, but I never knew that. Library copy.

  4. 4 out of 5

    11811 (Eleven)

    I enjoyed this one more than the author's previous book, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why. Instead of painting in broad strokes, he takes a look at the first centuries of Christianity through the prism of human memory and it's probable effects on the oral traditions leading to the modern day gospels. I read this purely from a historical perspective but there is plenty of psychology and theology here as well. Recommended to those with an interest in the topic. I enjoyed this one more than the author's previous book, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why. Instead of painting in broad strokes, he takes a look at the first centuries of Christianity through the prism of human memory and it's probable effects on the oral traditions leading to the modern day gospels. I read this purely from a historical perspective but there is plenty of psychology and theology here as well. Recommended to those with an interest in the topic.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Jill

    Bart D. Ehrman, the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is an excellent writer who has popularized some of the historical research about early Christianity. His books, while tending to make similar points as more academic treatises, are a joy to read. His latest book, Jesus before the Gospels,, is an investigation of yet another way of questioning the historical accuracy of the gospels. Ehrman points out that the earliest Bart D. Ehrman, the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is an excellent writer who has popularized some of the historical research about early Christianity. His books, while tending to make similar points as more academic treatises, are a joy to read. His latest book, Jesus before the Gospels,, is an investigation of yet another way of questioning the historical accuracy of the gospels. Ehrman points out that the earliest of the canonical gospels, the one known as Mark, was written at least 40 years after the crucifixion. Other scholars date Mark as having been written between 60 and 70 C.E. Moreover, it, like the other three canonical gospels, was written in Greek. But Jesus and all the other major characters in the gospels spoke Aramaic. So it is very likely that the authors of the gospels [all of whom are actually anonymous] were writing based on hearsay from people who were not eyewitnesses to the events described. Nevertheless they purported to be “according to” eyewitnesses, a naming convention intended to add to the trustworthiness of the accounts. [It must be added, in spite of the fact that Ehrman does not address this issue in this book, that the gospels were never intended to be “empirical” histories - in fact, the idea of a “neutral” history only developed in relatively recent times; most previous “histories” were homiletical - i.e., serving the functions of sermons or catechetical instruction. According to scholar Robert Bonfil, there was no substantial difference in how Jews and Christians construed the purpose of “history” until the sixteenth century. (Robert Bonfil, “Jewish Attitudes toward History and Historical Writing in Pre-Modern Times,” Jewish History, Vol. 11, No. 1, Spring, 1997, pp. 7-40.)] In Jesus before the Gospels, Ehrman tackles the question of the veracity of the gospels from the point of view of psychology. In the past 30 years a great of research has been done on the [in]accuracy of individual memory, but until this book, virtually none of its findings have been applied to writings in the Bible. [The subject of collective memory is another matter. This is the practice of constructing histories so that they contribute to the present and future social and political consciousness and cultural identity of a people. The determination of what is declared significant is made to sustain a set of myths and ideologies. In that respect, much analysis has been applied to biblical stories in both the Old and New Testaments.] Ehrman’s concern is with so-called biological memory - a study of the way in which the individual mind sorts, stores, and retrieves information. Though not a psychologist, Ehrman has read extensively in the field. He distinguishes between episodic memory, relating to things we actually experience, and semantic memory, relating to things we learn through hearing, reading, or some other indirect method. The authors of the New Testament were recording the semantic memories of people who were retelling oral histories of Jesus in circulation at the time. Although all memory gets distorted with the passage of time and because of the different perceptual lenses of observers, even semantic memory can seem credible where the events related are inherently plausible, they can be confirmed by other sources, and perhaps most importantly in this case, when there simply are no other sources of information. Ehrman states that modern psychology debunks the notion that ancient illiterate people had better memories than modern man, and so were able to keep the stories of Jesus accurate in many retellings over at least 40 years. But as Ehrman observes, that may be a moot issue: "…the historical Jesus did not make history. The remembered Jesus did . . . . Does it matter if Jesus considered himself to be God on earth? As a historian, it matters to me a great deal. But if he did not — and I think he did not — the fact that he was remembered that way by later followers is terrifically important. Without that memory of Jesus, the faith founded on him would never have taken off, the Roman Empire would not have abandoned paganism, and the history of our world would have transpire in ways that are unimaginably different. History was changed, not because of brute facts, but because of memory." When two or more of the gospels tell pretty much the same story, Ehrman credits at least the gist of the story with plausibility (in spite of the fact that the authors of Mark, Matthew and Luke used each other for sources and so of course there would be overlap). Matthew borrows from as much as 80% of his gospel from Mark, and Luke borrows from as much as 65%. While that may seem to modern readers too much like a game of telephone (in which one person whispers a message to another, which is passed through a line of people until the last player announces the message to the entire group), for centuries this overlap was enough to add credence to the stories. Thus Ehrman contends that if we look at the parts of the stories that are basically the same (ignoring that they used one another as sources), we could possibly agree that a Jewish man named Jesus lived in Galilee in the first century C.E., that he was baptized, that he attracted a band of enthusiastic followers, that he proclaimed an apocalyptic message of the coming Kingdom of God, and that he was crucified by the Roman overlords of Judea. He also asserts that we can be certain that his followers taught that he rose from the dead and appeared to them. Beyond that, things get pretty dicey. Although the Gospels overlap quite a bit, they are also filled with discrepancies. These discrepancies encompass some very important aspects of Jesus’ life and teaching. Ehrman argues that it is not even clear what Jesus actually taught. For example, In the gospel of Mark, Jesus is careful not to make any claims of divinity, and his apostles never quite “get” who he is despite his astounding words and deeds. Ehrman writes: "Jesus himself seems to want to keep [his true identity] a secret. Not only does he command demons not to reveal who he is (3:11; see also 1:34), when he heals someone he orders him not tell anyone (1:44); when he performs miracles he sometimes does not let the crowds observe (5:40); when his disciples see his revealed glory he orders them not to divulge it (9:9); [and] when any one starts to have a sense of his identity he commands their silence (8:30)." Contrast the Jesus of the gospel of John, the last of the gospels to be composed (written around 90 A.D.): "Jesus spends almost his entire preaching ministry in John talking about who he is, where he has come from, and what he can provide. There is nothing like this in the Synoptic Gospels. The very gist of Jesus’s teaching has come to be transformed." The gospels are also totally inconsistent on a number of doctrines supposedly promulgated by Jesus, such as what Jesus taught about divorce. Ehrman points out five different versions of what Jesus said about breaking up a marriage, with striking differences among them. Ehrman also notes that some of the gospel stories are simply inherently implausible, and that is not limited to the “miracle” anecdotes. [For a detailed elucidation of what portions are implausible, an excellent source is the also-very-readable book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan] Finally, additional problems arise from the vagaries of translation. As one particularly interesting example, the Gospel of John has Jesus say we must be “born again” to enter the kingdom of heaven. What the text says in the original Greek is that a person must be born anothen. The Greek word has two different meanings, depending on context: it can mean “a second time” or it can mean “from above.” The reason this is important is that Jesus is speaking to Nicodemus, who thinks Jesus told him he must be born a second time, which seems a bit tough to accomplish. But Jesus tells him that he does not mean a second, physical birth — he is talking about a birth from heaven made possible by the spirit of God, who comes from above. Modern readers don’t “get” the story because they don’t read it in the original Greek. Moreover, it would have been impossible for Jesus to have said this in Aramaic, where the word for “from above” does not mean “a second time.” The story just makes no sense in Aramaic, and not much sense in English. Ehrman concludes that a Greek speaker, probably the author of John, just made up the story to make a point. Evaluation: Ehrman as always makes a number of interesting and thought-provoking points about a subject that continues to fascinate both believers and doubters. However, religions clearly benefit from the fact that many believers do not undertake critical analyses of religious texts.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Daniel Chaikin

    61. Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior by Bart D. Ehrman reader: Joe Barrett published: 2016 format: 10:04 Audible audiobook (~279 pages equivalent, 336 pages in hardcover) acquired: November listened: Nov 9-14 rating: 4 Erhman tries to bring in the sciences of memory, cultural memory and evolution of oral story telling into an understanding of the Christian gospels, written down several decades after the death of Christ. 61. Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior by Bart D. Ehrman reader: Joe Barrett published: 2016 format: 10:04 Audible audiobook (~279 pages equivalent, 336 pages in hardcover) acquired: November listened: Nov 9-14 rating: 4 Erhman tries to bring in the sciences of memory, cultural memory and evolution of oral story telling into an understanding of the Christian gospels, written down several decades after the death of Christ. It makes for an interesting book, an author having fun mixing several different fields, but writing with his casual formal tone. The first half of this book is basically a popular science book on memory, cultural memory and another take on Milman Parry's work on oral story telling. It's a little disheartening to learn just how our memory works, our brain scattering memory into different places, and then processing these bits and pieces together, filling it whatever is necessary. Not only is our memory pretty awful, and easily manipulated, but even those really vivid memories, the especially real ones we are most emotionally attached to (for better or for worse) are mostly mental constructs and mostly wrong. In one fascinating study, university students in the Netherlands were asked if they recall the film of a traumatic plane crash into a building as it tried to land. Roughly 50% remembered the footage, which didn't exist. It was never captured on any visual medium. At the end of this section, one is left to wonder whether anything they remember is true, much less anything written 2000 years ago, and 40 or 50 years after the events they describe. Eventually Ehrman gets to actually looking at the gospels, analyzing several along with various non-canonical writings, most interesting being the Gospel of Thomas, found only in 1945. The Gospel of Thomas is not really a gospel, but a list of sayings, just like what had long been theorized was the source the other gospels. Of course he goes into the differences, and he brings in the Pauline letters, which are much older, but actually have very little to say about Jesus's life, other than he was the messiah, he died and came back. If you like, that is essentially the base story. Well, it's even more basic than that, since, historically, we can't accept anything supernatural. So, the gist (or gist memory) is that Jesus came into Jerusalem, and caused enough trouble that he was later executed by crucifixion. The rest is a build off that gist memory - all the parables, and exorcisms, and sermons (even, sadly, the Sermon on the Mount) are ways that later groups of Christians found to remember Christ and his message. Not that that needs to surprise anyone. (And Ehrman argues, at some length, it shouldn't bother any Christians either. What is meaningful to us doesn't need to be historically verifiable or historically true. There are other planes of meaning.) As I'm reading the New Testament, one thing that stood out to me was Ehrman's take on why there are four anonymous gospels. He has an unprovable idea, but one I found made a lot of sense. To some extent you can trace in Rome when the gospels were given a name. There is a point where they are referenced, without any names, and there is a point where they are referenced by name. Roughly, in Ehrman's view, different groups would collect the writing of the gospel and put them together. There was no author, exactly, just a communal collection of writings. (They must have been shaped, though). The communities in Rome would have had these various versions circulating around. The Romans are both the cultural center of the empire and really far away from the origin of these stories. So, some group collected four of these gospels, gave them the most logical names they could come with as authors, basically formalized them as the official gospels. It's a curious thing to me, because they must have made the decision that they didn't know exactly what had happened, so instead of selecting one version, they chose four somewhat consistent, but also somewhat contradictory variations. Overall this book makes good use of a curious mixture of fields and perspectives. Recommended to those interested.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Andrew Roycroft

    This is a deeply disappointing read. Ehrman mashes together some of the well worn (and roundly answered) issues raised in NT studies from the past 150yrs, presenting them as defeaters to belief in the integrity and authenticity of the gospels. There is no judicious engagement with scholarship from opposing views and a patronising tone is adopted towards the reader throughout. Ehrman's treatment of memory is particularly disappointing, having to admit for himself that Hungarian troubadours are no This is a deeply disappointing read. Ehrman mashes together some of the well worn (and roundly answered) issues raised in NT studies from the past 150yrs, presenting them as defeaters to belief in the integrity and authenticity of the gospels. There is no judicious engagement with scholarship from opposing views and a patronising tone is adopted towards the reader throughout. Ehrman's treatment of memory is particularly disappointing, having to admit for himself that Hungarian troubadours are not the best comparative material to cite in terms of oral transmission in the first century. A poorly written, one sided, pseudo scholarly dismissal of the authenticity and authority of the gospel accounts. To be avoided.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Justin Powell

    After finishing the book and giving myself some time to browse other readers thoughts, I'd have to say I come out somewhere in the middle. I think it's a great, yet easily readable book. It's not an academic exploration, even if at times it does attempt to use research outside of the realm of NT studies, or historical Jesus studies. My biggest issue with this book is that it's dependent on you already agreeing with him on a historical Jesus having existed. Now that topic is obviously not the poi After finishing the book and giving myself some time to browse other readers thoughts, I'd have to say I come out somewhere in the middle. I think it's a great, yet easily readable book. It's not an academic exploration, even if at times it does attempt to use research outside of the realm of NT studies, or historical Jesus studies. My biggest issue with this book is that it's dependent on you already agreeing with him on a historical Jesus having existed. Now that topic is obviously not the point of this point, but it's the previous step before this one. If not, the more accurate title should mention this being more of a study on the earlier communities and what they specifically believed. It's under the assumption that all of x, y, or z are "remembered, changed, and invented", but the possibility of there not being a kernel that all stories go back to is not within this book. Nor is it up for debate any longer for Ehrman. It's a great book if you can get past this presupposition. He pleads at the end for readers not to approach the texts as pure, unadulterated historical documents. I think this is spot on! Where I don't think he is spot on and where I think he has much ground to cover is his assumption that there actually is any historical truths to be found in regards to the historicity of Jesus. I think he's far too confident in his ability to sift through the documents he deconstructs so well and find something of value on this. Anyways, interesting book. I'd imagine the liberal readers will love it and the conservative more theological driven readers will detest it as usual. As goes the world of "biblical studies" - totally divided by theological assumptions and jumps and not purely on verifiable historical fact.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Bob Buice

    How much do we actually know about Jesus of Nazareth? There are no portraits from his day, no eyewitness notes or accounts of His activities. In fact, the first accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry were written many decades after His crucifixion in c 30 CE – The Gospel According to St. Mark (written c 75 – 75 CE), the Gospel According to St. Matthew (written c 85 CE), the Gospel According to St. Luke (written c 95 – 115 CE), and the Gospel According to St. John (written c 95 CE). St. Paul’s epis How much do we actually know about Jesus of Nazareth? There are no portraits from his day, no eyewitness notes or accounts of His activities. In fact, the first accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry were written many decades after His crucifixion in c 30 CE – The Gospel According to St. Mark (written c 75 – 75 CE), the Gospel According to St. Matthew (written c 85 CE), the Gospel According to St. Luke (written c 95 – 115 CE), and the Gospel According to St. John (written c 95 CE). St. Paul’s epistles (written c 51 – 64 CE) say very little about Jesus’ life and ministry. Also, there are numerous non-canonical scriptures, mostly written in the second century. How did the authors of these writings obtain their information? Certain authors copied from other writings but, ostensibly, most was obtained by verbal communication from those who heard it from the previous generation, who heard it from an earlier generation, who heard it from an even earlier generation, etc. Accordingly, the authors of the early Christian writings had to base everything on memories that had been passed across several generations. Each generation’s recounting of the incident was influenced by that generation’s culture, interests, etc. In Jesus Before the Gospels – How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior, Bart Ehrman presents an intriguing analysis of memory, based on psychology, sociology, and anthropology. Experiments have demonstrated that verbally transferred information changes significantly from person to person. Memories of the past are sometimes based on that which occupies our minds in the present. He introduces the concept of “collective memory” which is “a reconstruction of the past that adapts the image of historical facts to the beliefs and spiritual needs of the present.” Accordingly, our memories of the past are often distorted by the needs of the present. Many memories accurate and historical, but we tend to be selective in the way we remember. We remember in a way that is important to us. Our memories of are affected by our current interests and needs and sometimes, because of that, these memories are sometimes “frail, faulty, or even false”. Human memory is highly subject to error. Mark was the first gospel to appear, assumed to be based on verbally communicated memories over the several generations since the crucifixion. Clearly, the author(s) of Matthew and Luke copied much of their material from Mark and probably some from the mysterious “Q Gospel”. However, the material unique to Matthew and Luke was probably obtained by word-of mouth from persons relying on memories passed on over several generations. This material differs noticeably and is often contradictory. A few examples (not all pointed out by Ehrman) include the following. The author(s) of Matthew received memories of Jesus being born during the reign of Herod I, who died in 4 BCE. The author of Luke received memories of Jesus being born during the Census of Quirinius, which occurred c 6 – 7 CE, more than 10 years after Herod I died. The author(s) of Mark received memories of Jesus as distraught and depressed, saying nothing on his way to the cross and shouting from the cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” This was repeated in Matthew. The author of Luke received memories of Jesus being more upbeat, speaking with people on his way to the cross, and saying from the cross, “Into your hands I commend my spirit”. The Markian and Matthian Jesus was scoffed at by both rebels being crucified with Him. The Lukan Jesus was scoffed at by one but accepted by the other. There are numerous examples such as these. Ehrman concludes this writing by making the point that biblical events do not have to be historical in order to be meaningful. For example, even if the Sermon in the Mount is not an established historical event, its message is no less powerful. This is the eighth Ehrman book I have read and at this point I must comment on his style. He overuses worn out phrases such as, “It is interesting to note…” and he should consider minor grammatical errors, e.g. “…… later Christians “remembered” him delivering the teaching”, which should have been, “…… later Christians “remembered” HIS delivering the teaching”. Moreover, he has an expressed tendency to end sentences with prepositions. Overall, this work was well written and informative. However, I didn’t detect much new historical information about the several decades between Jesus’ crucifixion and the first canonical Christian writings.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Jane

    I have read most of Ehrman's books, I think my favorite is Misquoting Jesus. I didn't find this one to be as interesting a read as some of the others because it was necessary to spend quite a bit of ink on memory research - important in reaching conclusions but not a spellbinding read. The gospels were written decades after the time of Jesus by unknown authors who would never have met him. How accurate could the stories being circulating about Jesus be? Did people really have better memories in I have read most of Ehrman's books, I think my favorite is Misquoting Jesus. I didn't find this one to be as interesting a read as some of the others because it was necessary to spend quite a bit of ink on memory research - important in reaching conclusions but not a spellbinding read. The gospels were written decades after the time of Jesus by unknown authors who would never have met him. How accurate could the stories being circulating about Jesus be? Did people really have better memories in the days of relying on oral history? There was a growing rift between traditional Jews and the Jesus followers, how would this influence memories? How can discrepancies in the gospels be explained? My own conclusion, "take the Bible seriously but not literally".

  11. 5 out of 5

    Phil

    This completes my run of Ehrman's major works. This is different from 'Misquoting Jesus' 'Jesus Interrupted', and 'How Jesus Became God'. It is much less of the textual criticism of the previous works. Instead, Ehrman's focus is the oral tradition and its role in shaping the stories about Jesus that we encounter in the New Testament. IE the impact on memory, and the context in which it formed. In some ways, I think this would make a better first read for those brave enough to entertain the challe This completes my run of Ehrman's major works. This is different from 'Misquoting Jesus' 'Jesus Interrupted', and 'How Jesus Became God'. It is much less of the textual criticism of the previous works. Instead, Ehrman's focus is the oral tradition and its role in shaping the stories about Jesus that we encounter in the New Testament. IE the impact on memory, and the context in which it formed. In some ways, I think this would make a better first read for those brave enough to entertain the challenges Dr. Ehrman brings to Christ and how he was remembered; Christianity and how it was formed.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Andrea Engle

    Rarely do I ever agree with Bart Ehrman ... However, he always provides food for thought and challenges comfortable Christian assumptions ... in this current book, he deals with the subject of memory and how it impacts the Gospels ... he completely ignores the agency of the Holy Spirit ... a fatal error to my mind ...

  13. 5 out of 5

    Bryan Alkire

    Sensible argument

  14. 5 out of 5

    Ryan Battles

    I don't give 5 stars often, but Ehrman really delivered on this one. Personal takeaways aside, he delivered on his titular promise and explored how the earliest Christians remembered, changed, and invented their stories of The Savior. He builds a case through comparing sources, whether from the New Testament, historians like Philo and Josephus, as well as the apocrypha and pseudepigrapha (Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Judas, etc.). I knew that there were some inconsistencies within the 4 gospel ac I don't give 5 stars often, but Ehrman really delivered on this one. Personal takeaways aside, he delivered on his titular promise and explored how the earliest Christians remembered, changed, and invented their stories of The Savior. He builds a case through comparing sources, whether from the New Testament, historians like Philo and Josephus, as well as the apocrypha and pseudepigrapha (Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Judas, etc.). I knew that there were some inconsistencies within the 4 gospel accounts in the New Testament, but many direct contradictions are described to the point that it is hard to maintain academic integrity and believe that absolutely nothing was changed from the actual events of Jesus' life and that the Gospels are 100% historically accurate. Logic tells us that they are not, and only if we chose to do highly improbable logical acrobatics (like Jarius' daughter must have died and been risen by Jesus twice to account for the two different stories of her resurrections) or simply chalk it up to faith and not try to make sense of it...once you are shown the inconsistencies, it is hard to say that the Gospels are a pure historical account of Jesus. Outside of the writings around the time of Jesus, Ehrman delves modern studies in the realms of psychology, memory, and oral traditions. Common sense tells us that a word-for-word recall of events that happened 40 or more years ago (the breadth of time between the life of Jesus and the authorship of the Gospels of the New Testament according to academic consensus) will be hard to make completely accurate. Let alone the fact that the authors themselves (who never declare themselves Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John, but are in-fact anonymous) were likely not even eyewitnesses to the words of Jesus, but are instead writing down the stories that were being passed around about Jesus at that time. Also, let's not forget that Jesus and his followers spoke Aramaic, and the Gospels are written in Greek, so right off the bat we cannot have a word-for-word recall of what Jesus said. Finally, I am happy that Ehrman ends this book with a disclaimer that we shouldn't throw out the entire narrative of the Gospels simply because there are inconsistencies, or that the words and deeds of Jesus might not be 100% accurate. First of all, there are many parts of the Gospels that likely are accurately told stories of Jesus. We might not know exactly which ones are and which ones aren't, but there certainly is truth contained within them. Second of all, even if they were not 100% historically accurate, are not the stories and sayings of Jesus told through the Gospels still worth reflecting upon? I find this an appropriate ending to the thoughts laid out within the book, and a great way to see the Gospels.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Moshe Mikanovsky

    Although some repetitive points from his other books, I liked the different POV related to “remembering”, what it actually means from different perspectives and how it’s meaning explains some of the stories of the New Testament.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Ollie

    It’s truly impressive how Bart Ehrman can always find something interesting and fresh in such an old topic. And my appreciation of his work is even greater now that I just finished a terrible apologetics book that served both to disappoint and confuse me. Luckily, Ehrman is dedicated to the academic approach in answering questions about Christianity and he does so in a very clear and lucid way. Jesus Before the Gospels deals with the important questions of human memory and how they affected the p It’s truly impressive how Bart Ehrman can always find something interesting and fresh in such an old topic. And my appreciation of his work is even greater now that I just finished a terrible apologetics book that served both to disappoint and confuse me. Luckily, Ehrman is dedicated to the academic approach in answering questions about Christianity and he does so in a very clear and lucid way. Jesus Before the Gospels deals with the important questions of human memory and how they affected the period during/after Jesus’ life until the gospels were finally written down and the “correct” ones picked for the New Testament. This time, Ehrman takes the time to actually discuss the nature of human memory and how it affects our perception of the past. As you can imagine, our memories work well in functional settings in our daily routine, but are much less reliable when we need to remember a single event. It’s interesting how our memories essentially reflect the individual who is doing the remembering and how this affects their perception of how events actually took place. Needless to say, this is food for thought when we consider that the New Testament documents were written decades after the events they cover. The gospels each are different and throughout Jesus Before the Gospels it clearly lays out the idea that each of our gospels are merely a reflection of the community they were written for. Non-Jewish communities focus essentially on how one does now need to be a Jew to be saved. Jewish communities taught the opposite because they expected the end-times to occur much sooner. But what actually happened? And as he discusses these documents, Ehrman even finds interesting points in these discrepancies, like who was documenting Jesus’ private conversation with Pontius Pilate? How could everyone possibly hear Jesus' sermon on the mount? But that’s just the tip the iceberg. A very rewarding read for both believers and heathens.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Claudia Putnam

    Erhman is an infuriating writer. He knows what he's talking about, has all the creds. But he doesn't really know how to write for the general public, though he tries. Over and over. In each book, he tries, over and over. I'd give this book 5 stars for the general content, and 2 for the delivery. The trouble is that he assumes the layperson is lying all the way down on the ground. Like, comatose. The patronizing tone is just unbelievable, as is the level of repetition. He could learn a lot from t Erhman is an infuriating writer. He knows what he's talking about, has all the creds. But he doesn't really know how to write for the general public, though he tries. Over and over. In each book, he tries, over and over. I'd give this book 5 stars for the general content, and 2 for the delivery. The trouble is that he assumes the layperson is lying all the way down on the ground. Like, comatose. The patronizing tone is just unbelievable, as is the level of repetition. He could learn a lot from the style of Elaine Pagels, a person he never once cites. But about that content: Look, the gospels, as anyone who has done the most basic amount of research knows, are not eyewitness accounts. (And even if they were, eyewitness accounts have been shown to be totally unreliable.) So, what are they? They're cribbed from the oral tradition. (The idea that oral cultures somehow remember better is put to the chase as well.) What oral tradition? Well, various oral traditions arising out of different communities led by different followers or follower-claimants. These communities remember Jesus in different ways based on the evolving needs of their communities as they tell and retell their stories. So, the stories that were eventually written down are historical records of a community memory, which tells us more about the community and its priorities in a moment and place in time than it does about the historical person of Jesus. There follows a discussion of several of the NT gospels with these points in mind as well as of Thomas, Paul, Marcion, Theodotus, and the Gospel of Judas. Much of this is quite interesting if you can sort it from the unending hammer blows and the unnecessary apologies for fucking with your faith. I have four pages of highlights and notes below if you're interested. It's fairly linear and does pull out a lot of the main points.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Melissa

    Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior Bart Ehrman ~nonfiction, adult, religion, Christianity, Jesus, memory, history I have thoroughly enjoyed all the books I've read by Dr. Ehrman and this one is no exception. This book delves into questions of memory - individual memory, group memory, historical memory, oral traditions vs written traditions - as researched in various academic communities - psychology, neuroscience, anth Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior Bart Ehrman ~nonfiction, adult, religion, Christianity, Jesus, memory, history I have thoroughly enjoyed all the books I've read by Dr. Ehrman and this one is no exception. This book delves into questions of memory - individual memory, group memory, historical memory, oral traditions vs written traditions - as researched in various academic communities - psychology, neuroscience, anthropology, etc - and how these relate back to Jesus (as historical person and as remembered messiah). We all remember playing 'Telephone' when we were young, right? One person whispers a sentence to another, that person whispers what she heard to a third person... and so on, until the last person says out loud what they heard. And, pretty much every time this game has been played, the ending sentence is so different from the original that they have little to no bearing on each other. History can be like that, too. Jesus and his followers were poor, illiterate, and spoke Aramaic. The writers of the Gospels were highly educated and spoke Greek - and had likely never set foot anywhere near where Jesus lived or preached. Not to mention that the Gospels were written at least 50 years after the death of Jesus. That's at least 50 years of Telephone in at least two languages! Now, I don't want to give the wrong impression here... Dr. Ehrman is not saying in this book that everything in the Bible is utterly wrong. But he does look at this with an interesting critical eye. And the explanations behind the science of memory are quite intriguing.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Greg Anglen

    Ehrman approaches the topic of the “Historical Jesus” from a perspective of memory study. He utilizes the work of several “experts” in the field of memory study, citing the findings of individuals from over the past few centuries. Not surprisingly, Ehrman deduces that the Jesus of history is far removed from the Jesus that actually lived. He believes that the “gist” of the stories in the New Testament are based on some elements of truth but claims the men who wrote the gospels decades later—base Ehrman approaches the topic of the “Historical Jesus” from a perspective of memory study. He utilizes the work of several “experts” in the field of memory study, citing the findings of individuals from over the past few centuries. Not surprisingly, Ehrman deduces that the Jesus of history is far removed from the Jesus that actually lived. He believes that the “gist” of the stories in the New Testament are based on some elements of truth but claims the men who wrote the gospels decades later—based on hearsay, speculation, and “made-up” memories—were not eyewitnesses and could not have been the “unlearned” or “illiterate” disciples for whom some of the gospels are named. I believe that Ehrman uses limited research studies and erroneous, and at times grotesque, assumptions about the gospel writers, inserting his own presuppositions and using strawman arguments to make his points. At one point he even refutes his own claim that secondhand information cannot be trusted as reliable by proclaiming that while we do not have any of the writings of Papias, we can “access” his writings through the work of later church fathers such as Irenaeus and Eusebius. He then proceeds to use Papias as “evidence” that some of the gospels do not contain truth, etc. He simultaneously attempts to prove that we cannot know who the historical Jesus was based on the memories of the gospel writers and then proceeds to interject his own opinions about what happened as if they are historical fact. I believe this book is very poorly executed. For a much better approach to the topic, in my opinion, check out 40 Questions About the Historical Jesus by C. Marvin Pate.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Mickey

    Just a quick review on this one. Ehrman's normally a good writer but after a few of his books, they can get repetitive. If this is one of the first you've read, you'll most likely enjoy it. Lost Christianities is still his classic though, so I'd recommend you put this down and go to it. The author attempts to update his approach with an adventure in pop psychology, spending five or so chapters (about a third of the book) summarizing memory research and applying it to biblical, pseudographia, and Just a quick review on this one. Ehrman's normally a good writer but after a few of his books, they can get repetitive. If this is one of the first you've read, you'll most likely enjoy it. Lost Christianities is still his classic though, so I'd recommend you put this down and go to it. The author attempts to update his approach with an adventure in pop psychology, spending five or so chapters (about a third of the book) summarizing memory research and applying it to biblical, pseudographia, and apographia texts. The approach would have been bettered played with just a solid introduction or even one chapter on memory, then moving onto the impact of communal memory on the writings.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Kent

    Another excellent book by Bart Ehrman exploring how oral traditions and memory, especially group memory, may have influenced and guided the creation of the four Gospels. Professor Ehrman notes in the closing of his book that the Gospels should be considered not as historical but as the memory-history of specific early Christian communities and how each of those communities remembered the Jesus that lived and died..."The historical Jesus did not make history. The remembered Jesus did." Another excellent book by Bart Ehrman exploring how oral traditions and memory, especially group memory, may have influenced and guided the creation of the four Gospels. Professor Ehrman notes in the closing of his book that the Gospels should be considered not as historical but as the memory-history of specific early Christian communities and how each of those communities remembered the Jesus that lived and died..."The historical Jesus did not make history. The remembered Jesus did."

  22. 5 out of 5

    Fred Kohn

    Bart Ehrman is a brilliant fellow, but the problem is that he's written so many popular books now that he tends to write the same book over and over. This book was a bit better in that respect, but not much. It gets tiring to wade through the same old stuff to add just a bit to what he's already told you in previous books. Still, I don't regret reading this book, and the last chapter was worth the entire price of admission. Bart Ehrman is a brilliant fellow, but the problem is that he's written so many popular books now that he tends to write the same book over and over. This book was a bit better in that respect, but not much. It gets tiring to wade through the same old stuff to add just a bit to what he's already told you in previous books. Still, I don't regret reading this book, and the last chapter was worth the entire price of admission.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Andi

    More than just another "what" book, this is also a "why" book. 'Jesus Before the Gospels' examines both "What do we remember?" and "Why do we remember it in this way?" It's a fascinating look at the evolution of how Jesus was (likely) remembered immediately after his death and for centuries after. Not all of the information that Dr. Ehrman presented was new, something I often criticize, but in this case, the information is examined in a new way and that made this book a worthwhile read for me. More than just another "what" book, this is also a "why" book. 'Jesus Before the Gospels' examines both "What do we remember?" and "Why do we remember it in this way?" It's a fascinating look at the evolution of how Jesus was (likely) remembered immediately after his death and for centuries after. Not all of the information that Dr. Ehrman presented was new, something I often criticize, but in this case, the information is examined in a new way and that made this book a worthwhile read for me.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Ali علی

    I had listened to Bart Ehrman's lectures and interviews before, but this was his first book I read. I really enjoyed it. There is a lot of stuff on psychology and sociology of memory etc as a preamble to a description of historical Jesus. I would have loved to read a more detailed account of Jesus's life's and teachings and a bit less on memory research (which is almost half the book, I think) but it's still good. I had listened to Bart Ehrman's lectures and interviews before, but this was his first book I read. I really enjoyed it. There is a lot of stuff on psychology and sociology of memory etc as a preamble to a description of historical Jesus. I would have loved to read a more detailed account of Jesus's life's and teachings and a bit less on memory research (which is almost half the book, I think) but it's still good.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Cindy O

    Very intriguing take by a biblical scholar who used current research on memory to inform the words written about Jesus at varying times in history. Since none of the Gospels were written by people who actually knew the historical Jesus, they necessarily relied on oral tradition, making how memory works a crucial part of any evaluation.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Rick Herrick

    An excellent book. Ehrman spends two years in extensive study of memory and how it works. He then applies the results of this research to the gospel stories about Jesus. He is able to reach some amazing insights about the workings of the oral tradition and about how the gospels were written. The book is written for a general audience. I highly recommend it. Rick Herrick

  27. 5 out of 5

    Susan O

    Review to come.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Jeremy

    The question Ehrman is trying to answer in this book is: what was the nature of the oral tradition in early Christian communities between Jesus’s death in 30 CE and the first gospel (Mark) in 70 CE? To answer this question, he looks at what we know about memory from the disciplines of psychology, sociology, and anthropology. Ehrman used to be a committed Christian but lost his faith over the problem of pain (as I found out from starting his book “God’s Problem” after finishing this one). He makes The question Ehrman is trying to answer in this book is: what was the nature of the oral tradition in early Christian communities between Jesus’s death in 30 CE and the first gospel (Mark) in 70 CE? To answer this question, he looks at what we know about memory from the disciplines of psychology, sociology, and anthropology. Ehrman used to be a committed Christian but lost his faith over the problem of pain (as I found out from starting his book “God’s Problem” after finishing this one). He makes it clear that he is not a biased author out to destroy the truth of religion. As a former Christian and a historian, he is interested in finding out what we can say about the historical Jesus and states that he still finds value in the gospels outside of their historical study: “Even though I do deal with the Bible as a historian, I do not personally think that is the only way to deal with the Bible, and I find it unsettling when readers think that once the Gospels are shown to have discrepancies, implausibilities, and historical mistakes, we should just get rid of them and move on to other things… The Gospels are more than historical sources. They are deeply rooted and profound memories of a man, memories that ended up transforming the entire world.” Big Ideas: + Our view of the past is influenced by the needs of the present - “Remembering Jesus is not simply an antiquarian exercise. It is about today. Not only does the past impose itself on us when we remember; but also our memories of the past are always affected by our views of the present.” - The way America has “remembered” Lincoln and Columbus has changed wildly over time, depending on what was going on in the present - The Gospel of Mark may have been that community’s attempt to answer the question of why people didn’t accept Jesus as the messiah during his lifetime (because he told them to keep it a secret) - Barabbas (bar-abbas) means “son of the father” in Aramaic. No such person exists in history outside the gospels. It’s highly unlikely that Pontius Pilate would release a violent, murdering insurrectionist just because the Jews wanted him to (history shows him to care nothing for what the Jews wanted). A more plausible explanation is that the gospel writers wanted to show which “son of the father” the Jews preferred, in the context of the early Christians struggling to convert their fellow Jews or to convince them that Jesus was the messiah. When the gospels are read in the order in which they were published, you can see the escalating level of responsibility the Jewish people are said to bear for Jesus’s death + None of the gospels were written by Jesus’s disciples and probably weren’t written by eyewitnesses or even by people who knew eyewitnesses - Literacy rates for Jesus’s time and place were about 3%; Jesus’s disciples were all lower-class, illiterate, and spoke Aramaic; the gospel writers were all well-educated and wrote in Greek. “The disciples were lower-class, illiterate peasants who spoke Aramaic, Jesus’s own language. The Gospels, on the other hand, were written by highly educated Greek-speaking Christians forty to sixty-five years later. The stories had been in circulation for decades, not simply among disciples who allegedly memorized Jesus’s words and deeds, but also among all sorts of people, most of whom had never laid eyes on an eyewitness or even on anyone else who had. And so, just as there is no evidence that Jesus’s followers memorized his teachings, the idea that everyone throughout Christendom telling stories about Jesus had memorized them is beyond belief.” - Paul’s letters were written before the gospels, but he doesn’t include many details about Jesus’s life and it is unclear why - The Apostolic Fathers don’t mention the gospels by name but they do quote directly from them. This suggests that the gospels weren’t given their names (titles) until the late 2nd century CE + There is reason to question the historical reliability of the oral tradition - Rabbinic Judaism, the process by which disciples would carefully memorize teachings verbatim, did not emerge until after 70 CE (The Mishnah is from 200 CE and the Babylonian Talmud from 6th century CE - Inconsistencies and contradictions in the four gospel narratives suggests that the oral tradition preceding them was not one of precise memorization of verbatim teachings. “The Gospels were written decades after Jesus’s 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 Jesus’s life we have to apply rigorous historical criteria to these sources to reconstruct historical realities from later distorted memories.” - There are many other non-canonical memories of Jesus, his followers, his family, and even of Pontius Pilate. The details of these accounts differ even more radically from the gospels than the gospels differ among themselves. “Our ancient Christian texts provide us with an entire kaleidoscope of images of Jesus.” - “Being exactly ‘the same’—in our sense of verbatim repetition—is not a concern in oral cultures. That concern came into existence in written cultures, where such things could be checked. Those passing along traditions in oral cultures are not interested in preserving exactly the same thing. They are interested in making the same thing relevant for the new context. That necessarily involves changing it. Every time. For that reason, when someone in an oral culture claims that the current version of the tradition—a story, a poem, a saying—is ‘the same’ as an earlier one, they do not mean what we mean. They mean ‘the same basic thing.’ They do not mean ‘exactly’ the same. At all.” - “The historical question of what could be shown to have actually happened in the life of Jesus was not the ultimate concern for people living in these churches. Their communities were not made up of historians interested in applying rigorous historical criteria to establish what Jesus really said and did.” + Problems with group and individual memory apply to the oral traditions of early Christianity - “Most of the time our memories are pretty good. Otherwise we couldn’t function as individuals or as a society. But there are times when we simply don’t remember the past accurately.” - Psychological studies show you get less information when you interview a group together than when you interview its members separately - Powerful personalities within a group can inject distortions that go unchallenged, or others just take their word for it and doubt their own memory - Over half of survey respondents “remembered” seeing video footage of the 1992 Amsterdam plane crash, even though no such video exists - Problems with memory can occur during the stages of perception, storage, and retrieval, or any combination of these. “People’s perceptions will necessarily be partial (you simply can’t observe everything) or in error (you misperceive some things); what they store in memory will be partial and sometimes in error, as will be what they construct when trying to retrieve the memory. If they tell and retell what they experienced soon after the event and frequently thereafter, their first recollection will tend to be how they tell it every time. If they do not tell it for a while, and retell it only infrequently, every retelling may be different.” + There is still good reason to treasure the gospels, despite these problems with their reliability as historically accurate documents - “The Gospels are more than historical sources. They are deeply rooted and profound memories of a man, memories that ended up transforming the entire world.” - “Memories do not need to be historically accurate to be vivid and meaningful—at least true in our own consciousness. The ‘distorted’ memories of Jesus—by which I mean memories that are not accurate in the strictly historical sense—are just as real to those who hold and share them as ‘true’ memories (that is, historically true).” Potent Quotables: Jesus says that he is “the bread of life,” that is, the one who can provide what is needed for eternal life; he proves it by multiplying the loaves for the multitudes (John 6). He says that he is the “light of the world” (John 8); he proves it by healing a man born blind (John 9). He says that he is “the resurrection and the life”; he proves it by raising a man from the dead (John 11). Jesus’s words and deeds interconnect and entwine with one another in this Gospel.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Chris Jaffe

    This is a pretty good book by Ehrman that tries to dig into what the authors of the gospels may have changed or invented due to the limitations of human memory. Ehrman notes at the outset that he's spent as much time as possible over the last several years digging into the study of human memory: what we know, how we know it, how our memories fade or change or stay the same. He says that while this seems like a nature field of study for a New Testament scholar to get into, no one's ever tried cro This is a pretty good book by Ehrman that tries to dig into what the authors of the gospels may have changed or invented due to the limitations of human memory. Ehrman notes at the outset that he's spent as much time as possible over the last several years digging into the study of human memory: what we know, how we know it, how our memories fade or change or stay the same. He says that while this seems like a nature field of study for a New Testament scholar to get into, no one's ever tried crossing these streams before. What he's learned from memory study: Surprisingly, sometimes our most vivid memories are created. The human mind stories different parts of the same memory in different parts of the brain, so things can change or are included with alternate fill-in-the-blank items. Also, eyewitness memories are notoriously unreliable. He notes that many studies have shown this consistently to be the case. There is also collective memory: where the memories of others in the community can effect how individuals remember things. As for oral cultures, there is really no good evidence that they remember things better than literate cultures. In fact, it may even go the other way, as literate cultures can always go back and check what's been written down. For oral cultures, memories end up being more fluid. But ultimately, the social meaning of memories may be the most important of all. While these are all key concerns and qualifiers about the limitations of human memory, Ehrman ends on a different note. He says that in his time interacting with readers of his book, he finds no view so disheartening as the notion that if something isn't historical accurate, then it isn't true, and therefore isn't worth studying. Ehrman notes that the perceived reality matters tremendously also. Even if the historical Jesus isn't the exact character in the New Testament, the guy in the gospels is still tremendously important. Much of the talk he has of religion is interesting, though lots of it has been mentioned in other books. Among other nuggets... He provides a complete list of things St. Paul ever said about Jesus before the crucifixion: Jesus was born to a woman, was born a Jew, was descended from King David, has brothers (one was named James), had 12 disciples, conducted his ministry among Jews, had his last meal with his disciples, spoke of the body/blood as bread/wine at the Last Supper, appeared before Pontius Pilate (and this is from a disputed Paul-written letter, 1 Timothy), and two other things he said: pay your priests, and never divorce. That. Is. It. Zip on any miracles (until the resurrection) on John the Baptist, or the virgin birth, or mother Mary, or Mary Magdalene, or healing, or damn near anything he ever taught, or going to Jerusalem at the end, or cleansing the Temple, or disputes with Jewish leaders....) As for the Gospels, we have early Christian sources who quote Jesus, but never mention what gospel - even when they're quoting a Gospel. Ehrman's take: its evidence the gospels hadn't been named yet. The first known time someone quotes a gospel by name came in 185 AD. Ehrman theories that in the mid/late 2nd century, in Rome the four gospels were first printed together with their current names. There was a tradition that Mark had wrote down all of Christ's sayings (as told to him by Peter), though this doesn't really reflect the Gospel of Mark. Ehrman also explains the Jerusalem temple exchange. People going to the city couldn't bring their sacrificial animals with them, so they had to buy them there. But they couldn't bring a Roman coin into the temple complex (because it had the emperor's image on it) so they had to exchange it outside the temple area. The space inside the temple walls was large enough to accomodate 25 US football fields. Did Christ and his men really prevent anyone from going inside, as Mark says (11:16)? We know about Pilate as governor. He was ruthless. Stories like Barabbas make no sense. Why would he let people free one man? If Barabbas was an insurrectionist and a murder, why make freeing him an option? Ehrman includes the gist of Jesus's life that all gospels agree on: born/raised a Jew. He came from Nazareth in rural Galilee. He was baptized by the apocalyptic preacher John, who said the judgment of God was imminent and baptist for forgiveness. Jesus than had his own ministry and teaching. Like John, he proclaimed an apocalyptic message of God's coming kingdom. Much of his teaching was in parables and aphorisms. His ethical teaching was rooted in Jewish custom and scripture. His teachings on the Torah led to disputes with other Jewish teachers, especially Pharisees. He had many followers, including 12 he picked as apostles. He was sometimes opposed by his own family and home town. He performed miracles. Plus the whole last week and aftermath - went to Jerusalem, temple issues, arrested, tried, convicted, executed - and returned. Ehrman doubts there was an actual Sermon on the Mount, but it's just a collection of his greatest hits. Matthew and Luke (when he includes various Sermon on the Mount statements) have different takes on it. In Matthew, it's for those craving righteousness, but for Luke it's for the poor and needy. ("Blessed are the poor in spirit" vs. "Blessed are the poor.") There's a passage in John which only works because of a double meaning in a Greek work. Christ is asked (3:1-15) about what one must do to become all the things Christ says. JC replies that one must be either (depending on how you interpret the word) - double born, or born from above. The guy asks should we climb out of the uterus again, and Christ says, no - born from above. This wouldn't make since in Aramaic. John's Jesus calls himself the Son of God, explicitly does miracles to prove who he is, doesn't talk in parables, doesn't talk of an imminent apocalypse, talks about himself not God's coming judgment, etc. These are all totally different from the other gospels. (He does miracles in the other, but not to prove who he is - he flatly refuses when people ask him to do it to prove who he is). John also flatly says that Christ's enemies were "the Jews." Luke's baptism of Jesus has God say, "You are my son, today I have begotten you." So, no virgin birth then? Compare this with John, with begins as eternal and divine who then becomes human. Ehrman doubts miracles actually happened or that he cast out demons. He thinks this was made up later to make Christ more impressive to the believers. In Mark, the miracles are all done in secret. Random fact: Thomas is Aramaic for twin. Ehrman looks at the community memory of Mark: They were likely suffering in this world, as that gospel has a theme of suffering as something one must go through to achieve the Kingdom of Heaven. John's community he argues (based on Raymond Brown's book "The Community of the Beloved Disciple" was a group of Jesus-believing Jews who were thrown out of their synagogue for creating problems and division. They then doubled down and this gospel is the result). The book starts slow, but is really good once it gets going.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Bradley Farless

    This is a really interesting book that helped me look at the Gospels, Jesus, and the way I think of the whole topic in a new way. I also have a history degree and if things had gone a bit differently for me I think I would have wound up following almost exactly in Ehrman's footsteps regarding his pursuit of religious education and employment. Religion was always important to me and I committed pretty heavily to it but I started getting hung up on inconsistencies in the narrative. Understanding h This is a really interesting book that helped me look at the Gospels, Jesus, and the way I think of the whole topic in a new way. I also have a history degree and if things had gone a bit differently for me I think I would have wound up following almost exactly in Ehrman's footsteps regarding his pursuit of religious education and employment. Religion was always important to me and I committed pretty heavily to it but I started getting hung up on inconsistencies in the narrative. Understanding how and why the narratives were constructed in the way they were isn't suddenly going to make me a 100% believer again, but it does make me better informed and gives me something to think about while I read through the Bible again. 100% accuracy and consistency maybe isn't as important as the morals of the stories that people were trying to get across. And we can learn a lot about what problems people were dealing with based on how they told those stories. I also really appreciated that Ehrman dove into non-canonical gospels. I feel like they get a bad rep and should be more widely read. I had some issues with Ehrman's writing style. It felt like there was a lot of summary and not as much analysis as I would have liked. I also think the summary he gave in the last chapter should have come at the beginning of the book and then he could have focused on each perspective in turn to give readers something to hold onto while picking up new ideas. Having finished the book, I feel like I need to read through it again to retain the information. Granted, I learn better by talking about a book with other people or through watching discussions online. I also don't like how Ehrman regularly says in his books that he already discussed something in a previous book so he's not going to discuss it again here. Hey, guess what? Maybe I haven't read your earlier books, won't stop reading this book to go find them and read them first, and maybe it's relevant to the topic so you should in fact go into it a bit so I fully understand your point.

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