Review of Bart Ehrman, Jesus Before the Gospels

Review of Bart Ehrman, Jesus Before the Gospels February 3, 2017

My review of Bart Ehrman’s recent book, Jesus Before the Gospels, has appeared in Review of Biblical Literature. I have shared the review on Academia.edu for those who may not subscribe to RBL. Here is an excerpt:

Early in the book Ehrman justly emphasizes the relative neglect of recent work on the psychology of memory by New Testament scholars and the relevance of such studies to oral transmission and history. Yet one of the biggest issues with Ehrman’s book is that he does not interact sufficiently with the major exceptions from the past and in some cases does not even refer to the work of those who have been publishing on this subject more recently. Notable omissions include Dale Allison, Anthony Le Donne, Raphael Rodriguez, and Robert McIver, while James Dunn gets a single-page entry in the index. The same applies to many works outside of New Testament studies that have focused on memory, orality, and history. The work of Jan Vansina is mentioned in one section more than halfway into the book. David Rubin is footnoted twice. Some major topics—such as “flashbulb” memories—get the briefest of treatments, while others—such as the social and psychological study of the transmission of rumor, hearsay, and gossip—are neglected altogether or are barely mentioned.

Since the book is not aimed at scholars but an interested general audience, this is to some extent understandable. It is entirely possible that some of my disappointment with the book is a result of wrong expectations that I brought to it. Nonetheless, setting those matters aside, the book’s message still strikes me as unhelpfully negative. While there certainly is still a need for scholars to debunk widely held ideas such as that the gospels preserve a precise record of what happened, those views have already been addressed repeatedly—not least in a number of Ehrman’s earlier books. Meanwhile, there is a need for scholarship to address the constructive question of what we can say about the historical figure of Jesus in light of the latest research on memory. Pointing out that the gospels are not video or audio recordings may still be necessary in certain circles, but if we allow those entrenched circles of willful ignorance of scholarship to keep us focused on their narrow concerns, we will be allowing them to be a hindrance to progress in our scholarly work and the dissemination thereof. So, while I can certainly recommend Ehrman’s book as reading for fundamentalist religious people, those potential readers have, alas, already been warned against reading Ehrman or accepting what he says. I would thus have preferred that Ehrman go further in the direction of offering a clearer case for the positive impact of the study of memory on scholarship related to the historical Jesus and how we might reconstruct the historical Jesus differently as a result. Instead, Ehrman mostly sets forth the problems, issues, and things that are rendered doubtful. But cannot the gist of Jesus accurately come through even via doubtful material? And how might the historian make use of that insight from memory studies?

Nevertheless, it remains true that the study of memory as undertaken today is returning to ground that has been neglected in recent decades, when form criticism has tended to be ignored in English-language scholarship on the New Testament, so a presentation of that earlier work, updated and related to more recent methods and perspectives, is certainly worthwhile in and of itself. What the book is missing is a thorough exploration of whether those newer studies allow us to improve on shortcomings of older form-critical work, and if so in what ways.

 

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  • arcseconds

    Thanks for this, it was an interesting review.

    I was interested to read about Gerhardsson. I was particularly interested to read that the early rabbinic tradition had developed memorization techniques reminiscent of those used by the Vedic tradition, albeit not as sophisticated.

    I note that although Gerhardsson was rejected as anachronistically applying techniques present a century or so later to 1st century Judaism, he seems to have been rehabilitated in the last couple of decades. This paper says Neusner was initially dimissive and critical, but ended up writing a preface to a 1998 publication of Gerhardsson where he apologizes for this stance. The same paper uncritically repeats Gerhardsson’s claim that the rabbinical techniques were largely settled by 70 CE. Plus he also stresses that memorization was also used in the greco-roman world.

    I do wonder though how likely it is that these techniques would be adopted by a motley group of disciples many of whom are indicated as being drawn from sectors of society we would not expect to be literate or schooled in sophisticated memory techniques. Also, in the initial phases at least there wasn’t a text to be preserved, just a bunch of recollections of stuff Jesus did. Jesus does not seem to have instigated anything that could really be called a text. Even if someone was familiar with the rabbincal techniques, would it occur to them to apply the same techniques that they applied to the Torah to Jesus material? This would require them to compose a text. Gerhardsson seems to in fact draw a contrast between the static Torah and the living Word of the Lord, a contrast which would be lost or at least obscured if the same techniques were used to propogate both. Also, if you need to preserve a text for all time, then you need some specialist techniques (even writing could count) but if you think the end is coming pretty soon, this might not seem very important to you.

    However, up until now I have kind of assumed without any consideration that the written Gospels would have replaced oral traditions overnight, and on consideration that seems naive and untenable. Presumably local oral traditions (perhaps supplemented with writing) would have continued for some time while the Gospels were being propagated. I can now only imagine that the situation must have been quite complex, as the movement seems to have been geographically diverse quite early, and it was a couple of centuries before the canonical Gospels seemed to have come to the fore.

    What did you mean by this?

    Some will suspect that Ehrman is still influenced here by his fundamentalist background, which tends to think of matters of authenticity or historicity in an all-or-nothing manner. Yet that does not seem to me to explain what is going on.

    You have been inclined to this theory in the past. Do you mean that he’s not actually treating authenticity or historicity in an all-or-nothing manner, or he does but his background isn’t the explanation?

    • Sorry for not replying sooner. I think you are absolutely right to see the complexity of the relationship between oral tradition and writing, especially in a context in which the oral was the dominant if not the only mode of communication.

      My point about Ehrman was that he tends to be emphasizing our uncertainty as though that were an interesting point in and of itself. That is significant to conservatives, but most others are already aware of the point, and so I found myself wishing that he would have simply said that briefly and then focused on what if anything we can know, and with what degree of certainty, ideally not just in light of the older work on memory that he engages with, but more importantly the newer and more recent work that he fails to do justice to.

      • arcseconds

        I wonder how long oral traditions about Jesus that originated in part from people who knew him lasted before the written Gospels became the only story. In a way, it’s hard to see why a community would give up their tradition just because a book has come along. On the other hand, oral culture, while it can preserve things for centuries or even millennia, can be volatile and even fragile.

        Is there any community now that claims to be preserving authentic Jesus traditions orally that plausibly could? I know there are things like the holy grail coming to England and Jesus and Mary Magdalene settling down in Bordeaux or wherever it is, but while those traditions are quite old it seems unlikely that they date back to the first millennium, let along the first century, and probably their origins aren’t actually in Palestine…

        • In theory it is possible, and for an example, take a look at the book The Muslim Jesus, which includes some intriguing sayings from much later times which certainly could in theory have been passed by word of mouth from early Christians to later Jewish Christians to Muslims. But we obviously have no way of determining that that actually happened in the case of any saying.

  • John MacDonald

    Even if we assume historicism, I would say there is really less good hermeneutic ground to claim Jesus was an apocalyptic thinker than Dr. Ehrman allows. Paul says Jesus was the “First fruits (1 Corinthians 15:23).” of the general resurrection of souls at the end of days, but all this means is that Jesus was being interpreted by some after his death in an apocalyptic way, which would speak to Paul’s apocalyptic ideology, not necessarily Jesus’. As for the Gospel of Mark, the apocalyptic presentation of Jesus there may just reflect Mark’s desire to invent material to present Jesus as greater than John the Baptist and his apocalyptic message, in the same way Matthew invents material to make Jesus appear as The New Moses. Or Mark may have just been providing a narrative framework for the apocalyptic message he found in Paul’s letters. As for later gospels, those writers may just have been transmitting and inventing apocalyptic material based on what they had heard in their communities and in their travels – or from Mark. In short, there seems to be less ground on which to stand and call the historical Jesus an apocalyptic prophet than Dr. Ehrman realizes. And is there any reason to suppose Jesus’ apocalyptic message simply from Q, when the apocalyptic message there may simply reflect familiarity with Paul, or just an apocalyptic interpretation of Jesus spreading around after Jesus died?

  • John MacDonald

    Ehrman has just done another interesting post about why he thinks Jesus was not buried by Joseph of Arimathea, which is an important topic in Ehrman’s “Jesus Before The Gospels” – see Ehrman’s post here: https://ehrmanblog.org/was-jesus-given-special-treatment/

    This is an interesting point of disagreement between Dr. Ehrman and Dr. McGrath.

  • John MacDonald

    Hector Avalos recently posted his review of Ehrman’s “Jesus Before The Gospels.” See: http://www.debunking-christianity.com/2018/11/review-of-bart-ehrmans-jesus-before.html