Gist Memory and the Gospels

Gist Memory and the Gospels October 23, 2021

Bart Ehrman’s book Jesus Before the Gospels is really quite excellent. It’s a must-read for anyone looking into how stories became Gospels, about memory, memorisation, distorted memories, and transmission. I am listening to it now, but let me pick out a few sections for you.

In the last piece, I excerpted some of Chapter 4. In the comments, Cath Olic opined:

“The oft-heard claim from Christian apologists is that ‮laro‬ memory in cultures without a strong literary (or any literary) tradition meant that ‮laro‬ transmission was particularly accurate…
There are several problems with this.
1. It’s not true.
2. There’s no real way of being able to test the accuracy of ‮laro‬ traditions over time…”

How can you say it’s NOT true if you CANNOT test whether it’s true, especially in the case of the Bible?

and then:

So, if I say I remember certain specific things my father said to me decades ago, you would say,
No you don’t

To which I replied:

You might, at best, have a “gist” memory, and fill in the rest. Exactly the sort of stuff Ehrman talks about. You should read his book.

Cath Olic opined:

“You might, at best, have a “gist” memory”

Isn’t the gist the most important part?

It depends what you define by gist. On the one hand, you could argue a gist being “Jesus went to Jerusalem” and “Jesus was executed” as gist memories. This is an argument for some minimal historicism. The problem is, when you compare some other arguably gist memories such as “Jesus collected some early disciples in this way” or “Jesus was baptised in this way”, then you get into some right old problems because the Gospels disagree fundamentally in the way these things happened, as detailed in Ehrman’s book. Because what is going on is the authors are delivering theology not history.

He retorted:

“On the one hand, you cold argue a gist being “Jesus went to Jerusalem” and “Jesus was executed” as gist memories. This is an argument for some minimal historicism. The problem is… the authors are delivering theology not history.”

So, “Jesus went to Jerusalem” and “Jesus was executed” are theology, not history?

Pretty much the exact opposite of what I am saying.

In skeptical circles there are two approaches:

1) mythicism: the theology is built up out of whole cloth.
2) historicism (minimal): the theology is structured around some minimal historical gists.

Ehrman has it like this (quote from later in the chapter):

Gist Memories of the Life of Jesus

In all our Gospels, the majority of the narrative is devoted to recounting what Jesus did, said, and experienced prior to his last week in Jerusalem. If we are looking for gist memories that appear to be true to historical reality among these materials, most scholars would agree with at least the following:

•Jesus was born and raised a Jew.

•He came from Nazareth in rural Galilee.

•As an adult he was baptized by an apocalyptic prophet named John the Baptist, who was preaching the imminent judgment of God and baptizing people for the forgiveness of sins in preparation for this climactic moment in history.

•Afterward Jesus engaged in his own itinerate teaching and preaching ministry.

•Like John, he proclaimed an apocalyptic message of the coming Kingdom of God.

•Much of his teaching was delivered in parables and in thoughtful and memorable aphorisms that explained the Kingdom of God and what people should do in preparation for it.

•As a distinctively Jewish teacher, much of Jesus’s ethical teaching was rooted in an interpretation of the Torah, the law of Moses, as found in the Hebrew Bible.

•Jesus’s teachings about the Torah led to controversies with other Jewish teachers, especially Pharisees.

•Jesus had a number of followers, from whom he chose twelve to accompany him on his preaching ministry.

•Jesus was occasionally opposed by members of his own family and by people from his hometown of Nazareth.

•His followers, however, maintained that he spoke the truth; they may also have claimed that his words were vindicated by the miraculous deeds he performed.

If these gist memories are accurate, we have a fair outline of information about the man Jesus himself during his public life, beginning with his baptism by John. We also have numerous questions, too numerous to handle in a short treatment such as this. Here are some of them. More exactly, what did Jesus teach? Do his famous parables actually go back to him, or were some of them invented, or at least altered, by later storytellers? Did he really deliver the famous Sermon on the Mount, or is that an invention of the evangelist Matthew (it is found only in Matt. 5–7)?23 Did Jesus really deliver his famous discourses found in the Gospel of John, such as the one given to Nicodemus where he indicates that one has to be “born again” (or did he mean “born from above”?)? Did he teach extensively about his own identity? Did he actually claim to be equal with God? And what about his activities? Can we know what actually happened at his baptism by John? Or how he called his disciples? Can we know if he did miracles—walk on the water, calm the storm, feed the multitudes, heal the sick, cast out the demons, and raise the dead? Such deeds are recorded in the Gospels. Are they accurate memories?

We will begin by addressing some of the questions about Jesus’s teachings, since among the gist memories of Jesus’s life, none is more thoroughly attested to or reliable than that during his ministry he was a Jewish teacher.

An Illustration of the Method: The Sermon on the Mount

As we saw in chapter 4, when evaluating the accounts of Jesus’s trial before Pilate, in one and the same episode there may be some elements that are completely plausible and well attested (Jesus was executed on order of the governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate), other elements that represent discrepancies among the Gospels and thus show that memories of the event were changed over time as the stories were being recounted (the role of the Jews in the trial), and yet other elements that are implausible and almost certainly not historical (no one was there to hear what Jesus said to Pilate in private in the Gospel of John). The same is true of accounts of Jesus’s teaching, as we can see by considering the Sermon on the Mount, found in Matthew 5–7.

This long sermon is one of the best-remembered selections of Jesus’s teaching even now, nearly two thousand years later. It is here that Jesus delivers his famous Beatitudes, beginning with one of his most memorable lines: “Bless are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” It is in this sermon that Jesus speaks some of his most memorable metaphors: “You are the salt of the earth. . . . You are the light of the world.” Here he also gives his well-known “antitheses”: “You have heard it said that you shall not commit adultery. . . . But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman in order to lust after her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” And the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father, who art in heaven . . .” Here as well one finds some of Jesus’s famous ethical injunctions: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth where moth and rust consume and where robbers break in and steal.” This is the teaching of Jesus in a glorious three-chapter nutshell, arguably the most famous religious discourse of all time.

Surely Jesus did deliver a number of these teachings at one time or another. But it is also important to note that there are certain features of this sermon that seem implausible. At the beginning of this account Jesus is said to have seen the “great crowds” that had come to him from Galilee and Jerusalem and Judea, and from the other side of the Jordan River. Massive crowds. Then, going up on a mountain, he sat down and began to teach his disciples. Was he teaching only the disciples? That would make sense, since who else would be able to hear him? But if he was teaching only his disciples, why would Matthew bother to mention that he began teaching only after noticing the large crowds that came to him? Are we to imagine he didn’t want anyone else to hear? But if, as is commonly understood, he was also teaching the crowds, how is that even imaginable? How could a massive crowd possibly hear anything he had to say if he was in an outdoor setting sitting on a mountain?

Moreover, how would Matthew, writing fifty or sixty years later, know exactly what Jesus taught on the occasion? Was someone taking notes? Certainly not the disciples—they were all illiterate peasants from rural Galilee. Is it possible that the words of Jesus could be preserved intact for more than fifty years as storytellers recounted what happened that afternoon? Think about it for a second. Suppose you were asked to recall a conversation, word for word, that you had this time last year. Could you get it exactly right? Suppose you tried it with a speech that you heard once, say, twenty years ago. Or suppose you tried it with a sermon you heard fifty years ago. Would you remember the exact words? Matthew himself wasn’t there to hear these words. He was a Greek-speaking Christian who lived outside of Palestine, five decades after the events he narrates. What are the chances that he got the words of the sermon down accurately?

But was there even a sermon given that afternoon? It is important to note that the Sermon on the Mount cannot be found in Mark, Luke, or John—or in any other Gospel from the ancient world.24 Yet it is such a powerful and moving account of Jesus’s words. Why would the others not include it in their Gospels if it was otherwise known?

Could it, then, be a creation of the author of Matthew, or of someone living in his community before him? It is striking in this connection that many of the sayings in the Sermon on the Mount are indeed found in the Gospel of Luke, though not in Mark. That means that they come from the Q source I discussed in chapter 4. For example, Luke also has an account of the “Beatitudes,” the Lord’s Prayer, and many of the sermon’s aphorisms, metaphors, and ethical injunctions. But in Luke these sayings are scattered throughout the Gospel in various places and various contexts. Of course, Jesus may well have said the same thing, or similar things, in different times and places. He almost certainly did. But why are the Q sayings found in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount located in relatively random places in Luke? Many scholars think it is because Luke is following the sequence of the sayings presented in Q, but Matthew has gathered many of these sayings together to create the Sermon on the Mount.25

For all these reasons it has long appeared to scholars that the Sermon on the Mount represents a collection of sayings of Jesus that Matthew himself has shaped by arranging a large number of Jesus’s teachings into one long and memorable sermon. The sermon poses several other difficulties as well, the most interesting of which is that some of Jesus’s sayings here are recorded in different forms elsewhere in the Gospels. Sometimes the differences are really different, to the point that they appear to be discrepancies.

This creates an enormous problem for trying to establish what Jesus really taught—not just in this sermon, but generally. A large part of the problem involves a factor you may have already inferred. As I stressed earlier in the chapter, in oral cultures especially, every time someone passes along a tradition of something she has heard—for example, about someone else’s teachings or actions—she changes the story in light of her audience and context. That would obviously have been true of Jesus as well. He certainly delivered numerous teachings numerous times on numerous occasions in numerous contexts to numerous audiences. And those who talked about his teachings would have changed them regularly as they recounted them as well. As New Testament scholar Werner Kelber has expressed the matter, “All too often when we think of transmission of traditions, we think of it primarily as the passing on of fixed forms. In other words, we think of it in literary terms. In orality, tradition is almost always composition in transmission.”26

Let me give two illustrations of the problem from sayings in the Sermon on the Mount. Some of the Beatitudes come from Q material, but the differences between Matthew and Luke (the only Gospels that record them) are significant, not only because they give different nuances but actually represent very different ideas. In Matthew Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3); but in Luke he says, “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20). At first that might seem like an unimportant difference, but in fact it’s highly significant. There is a huge difference between being humble or lowly (poor in spirit) and being impoverished (poor). Of course the same person could be both, but many people are one or the other. Which one is blessed? Did Jesus say one of these things, or the other, or both?

So too the later Beatitude in Matthew: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matt. 5:6). But in Luke it is, “Blessed are you who hunger now, for you shall be satisfied” (Luke 6:20). It is very different to crave for righteousness in your life and to crave for food in your belly, as anyone who has not eaten for days will tell you. Which was Jesus concerned for and whom was Jesus blessing?

As I’ve indicated, it is possible that the answer is “both.” It is also possible that since Matthew and Luke both got their sayings from Q, one of them changed them in light of his own interests. Did Matthew change them to emphasize humility and righteousness, or did Luke change them to emphasize Jesus’s concerns for the poor and hungry? Or did they both change the sayings? Moreover, where did the author of Q get the sayings? Did he also change them? Did the author of the source that he got the sayings from change them? And have the sayings changed so much in the process of retelling that it’s almost impossible to know what Jesus said, other than that he blessed someone experiencing something now for what was going to happen later?

The same issue emerges when considering Jesus’s teaching on divorce in the Sermon on the Mount. The problem here is that there are actually four, or possibly five, different versions of what Jesus said about breaking up a marriage, with striking differences among them. In Matthew 5:32 Jesus says that if a man divorces his wife except on the grounds of sexual immorality (presumably on her part) he makes her commit adultery; and if a man marries a divorced woman he commits adultery. It is not obvious why a man would make his wife commit adultery by divorcing her. Possibly the logic is that if they are “united” as “one” in marriage, and he divorces her, but then she remarries, she is considered to have committed adultery against him, even though he was the one who pushed for the divorce. Still, it is hard to see how the man “makes” her commit adultery: did he force her to remarry? In any event, that rule does not appear to apply if she first committed a sexual impropriety, presumably with someone else. Moreover, if he marries any divorced woman (even if she was divorced for the reason of sexual impropriety of her husband?) he commits adultery.

That one saying is hard enough to understand, but matters get harder when the other versions of the saying are considered. Later in Matthew, Jesus indicates that if a man divorces his wife for any reason other than sexual impropriety and marries someone else, then he commits adultery—evidently because he is already united with his first wife. But here there is nothing said about the original wife: does she too commit adultery? In Mark 10:11–12 Jesus teaches that if a man divorces his wife and remarries another he commits adultery, just as does a woman who divorces and remarries. But here there is no “exception” clause: adultery committed if the divorce happens for any reason, including for sexual impropriety. That is a very big difference from the sayings in Matthew.

In Luke’s version the man who divorces, again apparently for any reason, and remarries, commits adultery. And he also commits adultery if he marries a divorced woman, whether or not she was divorced because of sexual impropriety (Luke 19:18). But why has he, rather than his new wife, committed adultery?

The matter gets more complicated by what we find in one of Paul’s letters, where he indicates that he has a teaching of Jesus that a woman should not divorce her husband, but if she does, she should either remain single or be reconciled with her husband (1 Cor. 7:10–11). A husband, however, should not divorce his wife. What are we to make of the first injunction? It appears to allow divorce grudgingly, and only if the woman does not remarry but remains single. So has she committed adultery? Apparently not—as long as she doesn’t marry someone else. A few verses later Paul gives one of his own teachings that he appears to think does not go back to something Jesus said but stands within the general framework of Jesus’s teaching, that a believer can grant a divorce to a nonbelieving spouse if the spouse wants it. But nothing is said about whether adultery is then committed if a person is remarried. And here divorce is allowed in a case other than sexual impropriety.

This is a real tangle. Did Jesus think divorce was ever allowed? For Mark, the answer is no. But for Matthew there is an exception: it is allowed in cases of sexual impropriety. In Paul’s understanding it is allowed with a nonbeliever. Further, is the problem the divorce or the remarriage? Is remarriage allowed in the case of divorce for sexual impropriety? Or not? For marriage to a nonbeliever? Or never?

To repeat: it is possible that Jesus taught each and every one of these various things. But if so, one has to ask: what did Jesus actually think about divorce? Did he think different things at different times? Can we say nothing more than that he generally thought it was a bad thing? In some cases?

One thing we can almost certainly say is that Jesus was remembered as teaching different things about divorce (either slightly different or significantly different). And it is not difficult to see that the storytellers who were remembering those precise teachings could well have been influenced by the views of divorce in their own communities, or that they were influenced by the views they wanted to have in their communities. Some Christian communities had stricter rules than others (no divorce could be allowed, ever, under any circumstance; or, sometimes it was allowed depending on the circumstance); some of the communities were concerned principally with what constitutes adultery in the case of a separation; some were more concerned about the moral propriety of the man, and others about the woman. For each of the surviving recollections of Jesus’s teachings on the matter, the “present” of the community has appeared to influence the memory of the “past” sayings of Jesus.


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