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Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior Hardcover – March 1, 2016
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From the Publisher
An Interview With Author Bart D. Ehrman
Q: What is it that drives your fascination with how Jesus has been "remembered" and "misremembered"?
A: When most people today read the Gospels of the New Testament, they nearly always assume that these accounts were written soon after Jesus' death by people who knew him and his disciples: these are transcripts of the things Jesus said and did, down to the minute detail. What people tend not to realize is that these accounts were written 40–60 years after Jesus had died, by people who did not know him, who did not live in his same country, who did not speak his same language.
So how did these authors (who are all four anonymous) acquire their stories about Jesus? The answer scholars have given for a very long time is that these authors had heard stories about Jesus that had been in circulation for year after year, decade after decade, after his life. I've long been intrigued by this phenomenon, and several years ago realized that it is closely related to a field of study pursued by psychologists, sociologists, and anthropologists, all of whom are interested in how human memory works. Is memory always reliable? Can eyewitnesses be trusted always to give an accurate account of what happened? Do stories ever change when they are told? Do they ever not change? What happens to stories told and retold over decades? In short, how does our knowledge of human memory help us understand what was happening to the accounts of Jesus' words and deeds as they were circulating in the decades before any of our Gospel authors wrote them down?
Q: How have scholars traditionally explained the gap of time between when Jesus was alive and when the Gospels were written, and why is that problematic?
A: Many scholars have somewhat unreflectively maintained that the Gospels ultimately go back to eyewitness testimonies to Jesus' life and that they are therefore reliable; or that oral cultures preserve their traditions with a high degree of accuracy. I realized several years ago that these views can be tested by what we actually know, based on modern detailed studies, about eyewitness testimony (psychologists and legal scholars have studied the subject rigorously), about the reliability of memory (psychologists have delved into this question assiduously since the 1930s), and about the ways traditions are preserved in oral cultures (as we now know based on anthropological studies since the 1920s). As it turns out, what many New Testament scholars have assumed about such matters, in many cases, is simply not right. Many of their assumptions are not only unsupported, they have been shown to be highly problematic in study after study.
Q: What is the message you ultimately want people to take away from reading Jesus Before the Gospels?
The Gospels we have are not stenographic accounts of the things Jesus said and did. They contain stories that had been passed along by word of mouth decades before anyone wrote them down. If we understand what psychologists have told us about memory and false memory, and about how we sometimes actually invent stories in our heads about the past; if we understand what sociologists have told us about collective memory and how our social groups affect and mold the ways we preserve our recollections of past events; and if we understand what anthropologists have learned about how oral cultures not just cherish and preserve but also alter, transform, and even invent their traditions, we will have a much clearer sense of what the Gospels are and of how we should understand the stories they tell about the historical Jesus.
“Ehrman provides an intriguing overview of memory studies and introduces readers to a variety of important pioneers and studies. . . . Ehrman concludes that ‘the historical Jesus did not make history; the remembered Jesus did.’ An intriguing new angle on the well-worn field of ‘historical Jesus’ studies.” (Kirkus Review)
“An intriguing and entertaining take on the formation of the Gospels.” (Library Journal)
“With his typical humor, passion, and vivacity, Ehrman explores the ways that memory shapes, distorts, changes, and preserves the stories of Jesus passed along by the Christian community. Ehrman’s provocative book raises engaging questions that drive readers back to the sources of our information about Jesus.” (Publishers Weekly)
“One can see why Ehrman is so widely known and respected by so many people. Here Ehrman takes a completely different approach from his previous books. This book is a new approach to the study of the beginnings of Christianity.” (Association for Mormon Letters)
”Jesus Before the Gospels is a scholarly yet readable study of Jesus and the Gospels. Ehrman’s scholarship remains unmatched. Ehrman unveils several unexplored aspects of the life of Jesus and the Gospels. Everybody with an interest in Christianity and religion in general will find this fascinating book useful.” (Washington Book Review)
“With Jesus Before the Gospels, Bart D. Ehrman has written a thought-provoking book prompted by his interest as a historian in the various traditions about Jesus. Enjoyable to read ” (America Magazine)
“Our secular culture continues to be profoundly impacted by biblical influences - including fundamentalist biblical influences - and this controversial book raises some important questions.” (State of Belief Radio)
“Why buy this book if you’ve already got lots of volumes about Jesus? This book is something new. You’ll discover people in this book that you would never encounter in other religious books. There’s nothing like this 300-page exploration of our earliest human memories of Jesus.” (Read The Spirit)
“Ehrman is one of the foremost voices in the historical Jesus debates. In this, the latest of a long list of influential books, he combines his ideas about Jesus with cutting-edge research from cognitive psychology, cultural anthropology, and sociology. He more than succeeds in achieving his goal. Highly recommended.” (Spirit Connection NY)
“Author Bart Ehrman tackles a central question for scholars of the New Testament-- the accuracy of the text.” (NPR's Interfaith Voices)
From the Back Cover
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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Ehrman explains why the gospels are far from modern biographies which should not be taken as face value:
"the disciples of Jesus did not actually write the Gospels. 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"
But how can our modern knowledge on how stories change when they are retold for decades?
"We know in fact that they were changed, because we can compare different accounts of the same words or activities of Jesus and find discrepancies. Yet other accounts are historically implausible, and so appear to have been created in the years of transmission as people recounted what they had heard about the life of their Savior." Ehrman cites many interesting interdisciplinary examples as well as classic studies from a broad range of fields in support for his view. Ehrman also tries to explain how social groups remember, as opposed to how individuals remember stories:
"From that point on, as more members of a group recount this distorted memory, the other members of the group—even if they either distinctly think that the memory is wrong or don’t remember it — feel considerable social pressure to agree with everyone else."
The early Christians "... told stories that remembered Jesus’s past in light of the community’s present. These may have been “distorted” memories in the sense that—for the form critics—they involved words and deeds that did not actually go back to the historical Jesus. But they were valuable memories nonetheless, and no less real to the people who held and shared them than recollections that actually were rooted in the life of the historical Jesus"
When writing about a subject like New Testamant history, repetitions are unavoidable. If you have read Ehrman's earlier works, you will recognize more than half of the repeated from earlier works. (This is the reason I give it 4 not 5 stars). There may be decades between each time new and important written source may be discovered. Finding support from social science for writing about history gives new perspectives. Other fields of history has gained significantly from methods from social history, ever since historians of the "annales-school" started this movement of memory history more than fifty years ago.
Of Ehrman's books my favouries are "How Jesus became god" and "The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings". The newest book "How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee" is great, but not as excellent as these.