Did the Early Christians Get the Jesus Story Wrong?

Bart Ehrman has (again) released a book attacking the reliability and historical integrity of the New Testament.

In sum, Ehrman has written another interesting, provocative, and, at times, even insightful book. But just like his prior books, he’s continually tripped up by a hyper-skeptical methodology that seems bent on poking holes in the authenticity of the Gospels. He takes possibilities and turns them into probabilities and eventually into established fact. 

 

Bart Ehrman has (again) released a book attacking the reliability and historical integrity of the New Testament.

Prior installments in this series include Forged in 2011 [review], Jesus, Interrupted in 2009 [review], God’s Problem in 2007, and Misquoting Jesus in 2005. Each of these books, though different in specific topic, tells the same overall story: Ehrman, once an evangelical who attended Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College, has now discovered, along with the consensus of modern scholarship, that the New Testament—and the Gospels in particular—don’t provide a trustworthy account of the historical Jesus. Instead, what we have are books that are forgeries, contain contradictions, have morally questionable teachings, and have been edited and changed through the centuries.

In this latest volume, Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior, Ehrman addresses a new area of scholarly concern: the gap of time between the events of Jesus’s life and the earliest written Gospels that purport to record those events.

So how were the stories of Jesus transmitted during this window of time? Can the process of oral transmission be trusted? And what of people’s limited, fallible, and spotty memories? Ehrman writes:

There are 40 to 65 years separating Jesus’s death and our earliest accounts of his life, and we need to know what was happening to the memories of Jesus precisely during that time gap. (15)

To address this question Ehrman delves into some new areas, including cognitive psychology, memory theory, cultural anthropology, and sociology. But the main rationale for his new volume is recent scholarly work on the transmission of oral tradition in the church’s earliest centuries. Particularly in mind is Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, but also studies by James D. G. Dunn and Kenneth Bailey.

Generally, these studies have suggested that the oral transmission of the Jesus tradition during this time would have been “controlled” in some fashion by either the Christian community (Bailey and Dunn) or the eyewitnesses themselves (Bauckham). Ehrman mounts a case that these views are mistaken; there were no constraints on oral transmission in the ancient world that could guarantee the story hasn’t been changed.

Ehrman doesn’t lay out his case in a tight syllogism—it’s scattered in various places throughout the book. But, in essence, it runs as follows:

  1. We know stories were changed since we have numerous examples of “distorted memories” of Jesus (e.g., Acts of Peter, Gospel of Nicodemus, Protevangelium of James, Infancy Gospel of Thomas, and the Gospel of Thomas).
  2. Practically, there would have been no way of preventing people from telling stories of Jesus and changing stories of Jesus. All sorts of people would have told (and changed) stories, not just eyewitnesses.
  3. The canonical Gospels weren’t eyewitness accounts of Jesus, but were written 40 to 65 years after the life of Jesus by Gentile Greek-speakers who never knew Jesus (nor any eyewitnesses).
  4. Even if the canonical Gospels were written by eyewitnesses, scholarly studies have shown even eyewitness memories can be mistaken. Ehrman appeals to memories of plane crashes, alien abductions, and the story of a Jewish teacher named Israel ben Eliezer (1698–1760).
  5. The canonical Gospels themselves contain many “distorted memories” of Jesus in accounts of his life and death. This should be expected in an “oral culture” like early Christianity where most couldn’t read or write.

While there is not space to address all these claims in a brief book review, several observations can be made.

Overstating His Claims

First, Ehrman repeatedly overstates the claims of prior studies on the transmission of oral tradition:

When someone who saw Jesus do or say something then told someone else who wasn’t there, it is impossible to believe that this other person was forbidden from sharing the news with someone else. (78)

Then, speaking as if he’s an early convert to Christianity, Ehrman asks, “Do I refuse to tell anyone about Jesus because I am not an eyewitness? Of course not” (84).

The problem with these statements is they don’t accurately represent what Bauckham and other scholars claim. No one has suggested non-eyewitnesses never shared stories of Jesus. No one could have prevented them from doing so nor, in many cases, would have wanted to. Instead, the issue is whether the early Christians had a source to which they could turn to find reliable and authoritative versions of what Jesus said and did. And Bauckham (and others) have argued that the eyewitnesses, and the disciples and companions of the eyewitnesses, would have functioned as just such a source.

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