A Brunch Book Review: "Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed and Invented Their Stories of the Savior" By Bart Erhman
Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior is the latest examination of early Christianity by Bart D. Erhman. Erhman continues in this his latest work to expand on themes he has written about in earlier books. His academic interests lie primarily in the ways the earliest manuscripts of Early Christian writings (from the gospels -canonical and non-canonical- letters etc) as well as the writings of historians contemporaneous with early Christian communities can tell modern historians about the historical Jesus. That is to say he is interested in the way these writings can tell us about the Jesus who actually lived -not the one described in the gospels or other writings Erhman is also deeply interested the way these early writings can inform historians about Early (and shockingly diverse) Christian communities. Erhman is deeply intrigued by the hunt for a more accurate historical Jesus.
Having read many of Erhman's lively, humane and informative books I must confess to a certain growing skepticism about the hunt for the Historical Jesus utilizing clues found in old manuscripts. The logic of the methods, a discussion of which would take us too far a field, seem defensible, and the arguments for what constitutes evidence quite clever and very seductive. This is to say that the arguments made by those using ancient texts to build a skeletal picture of what the actual Jesus was like are very convincing. The problem is that they are largely impossible to test. I can not overstate how the methods of these textual critics are incredibly plausible and logically sound, but I think an honest appraisal of what the earliest manuscripts of the Gospels, as well as other early writings, can tell us about the actual Jesus is this. The Gospels can't tell us very much about who Jesus actually was. Mostly what these earliest writings can tell us about is who the early Christian communities thought Jesus was as well as what they thought his mission was. Interestingly, on these points not even the canonical gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), agree.
The work of scholars like Erhman with these early texts have produced -in very broad outline- the following picture of the historical Jesus. Jesus, most biblical scholars tell us, appears to have been an apocalyptic preacher, who preached that the end of the world would come with in the life times of his followers. He is thought to have ran afoul Rabbinic elders, or Roman law, or both and this led to his death. Historians like Erhman tell us that for his offenses Jesus found himself at the mercy of the rather unpleasant, and largely unmerciful Pontius Pilot, was likely unceremoniously executed and dumped in a mass grave. For a more compelling presentation of this case, as well as a deep and thoughtful examination of Erhman's argument, complete with his evidence I will direct you to the superior Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. I bring up this interpretation only to set Erhman's context. This picture of Jesus comes up a lot, and Erhman doesn't waste a great deal of text defending what is largely a consensus view among historians, the majority of which, according to Erhman, seem to think that outline is the most plausible picture of the historical Jesus given the evidence.
Erhman on Early Christian communities, and early Christian writings, indeed on the logic and conclusions of Textual Criticism is hard to beat. All of his books contain interesting insight into the history and myriad, inconsistent and often mutually exclusive understandings of Jesus held by diverse groups of early Christians. In this, Jesus Before the Gospels is no different. It is often fascinating and includes some very important rebuttals to the methods of literalists. This book exposes their hypotheses to the cruel light of history. However, despite some very strong material this is Erhman's weakest book. The book feels like it is having arguments with several different factions, and its closing chapter is the very definition of tilting at windmills. All that said, the short version of my review is this. Flawed, and scattershot, but probably worth your time. Now to address to some particulars.
Any historical approach to Christianity is bound to be met with a strong fundamentalist objection. Erhman has never shied away from meeting these objections and in this book he addresses several hypotheses offered by biblical literalists/fundamentalist in defense of the idea that the bible represents strong historical evidence.
Are the Gospels reliable historical documents?
The canonical Gospels, and indeed the non-canonical gospels, were not written by eye witnesses to the events in question. While each gospel has a name attached, no one knows who wrote any of them. None were written by anyone who knew Jesus, or knew anyone, who knew someone who knew someone who knew Jesus. Nor can they be said to be entirely independent documents. The first gospel to be written, probably between the years 66-70, The Gospel of Mark, forms at least one source for the Matthew and Luke (both written, sometime between 80-100 AD). These three form the Synoptic Gospels, and while some startling differences and inconsistencies exist between them, they are not with out similarity. This is unsurprising. Two of them draw on Mark as a source, and seem to share another source as well. The Gospel of John, is much different than its canonical brethren, shares no sources with the Synoptics and seems to have a completely different message. It is also the last of the canonical Gospels to be written, between the years 90-110. These dates and their language of origin -decades later and Greek- strongly suggest that no one responsible for their production were eye witnesses to the events they purport to describe. Indeed, it would be hard square the actual ending of Mark, as written in the earliest and best manuscripts with an authorial witness. It will likely surprise some readers to learn that the original ending of Mark is at 16:8. The women flee the tomb and tell no one what they saw because they were afraid. Most scholars agree that this was the original ending. If that is so, and the gospel represents accurate history, how then did the author learn of the fleeing women who told no one what they saw? The author of the text clearly wasn't there. Problematic eh?
The non-canonical gospels were all written much later and also don't provide any reliable information about Jesus. In aggregate, the gospels, are not primary sources of historical data, at least not regarding the history, ministry or life and death of their central figure. One thing that gospels may help interested historians understand is the communities that produced the gospels. What did these communities think was true about Jesus? What social context helped shape these views of Jesus?
To give an example of how social context changed the Early Christian understanding of who Jesus was and what he preached, we can see, over time a dwindling of focus on an immediate end times message. From Mark to John, that preoccupation seems to dwindle as the idea of a swift return within the life time of Jesus' generation becomes less and less tenable with each passing year after Jesus death. By the time John is written it is hard to believe they can hold space as accurate representations of Jesus' message in the same book.
There is much more I could say here, but Erhman says it much better than I do.
Eye Witness reliability. The difficulties of memory and observation.
Before we proceed take the following test. Its important, how many times do the players in white pass the ball?
Did you get the right answer? Did you see everything the first time? A statistically significant percentage of people don't see everything that occurs in the video. That fact alone should increase one's skepticism at the idea of eye witness reliability.
If you have talked about the bible at length with fundamentalists you will often be presented with the idea that the gospel accounts are produced by eye witnesses. I know I have personally heard "Eye witness testimony is the most reliable testimony there is."
Lets leave aside what we just learned about the consensus of modern biblical scholars, which holds that none of the writings of the New Testament have been produced by any eye witnesses, or even anyone who spoke to eye witnesses. The question that we need to ask is this. Is eye witness testimony reliable? Incidentally, those who like to use this defense, seem strangely uninterested in the answer to this very germane question. Rather they like to cite judicial reliance on this kind of testimony.
Erhman, citing actual research on eye witness reliability, and the accuracy of memories demonstrates that eye witness testimony is actually the least reliable form of evidence there is. Most people convicted of crimes and later exonerated via DNA evidence, for instance, were convicted wholly on the basis of eye witness testimony. Eye witnesses reliably get what they witness wrong, and their memories of actual events get worse over time.
Research demonstrates that humans are actually fairly terrible observers and that our memories are quite malleable and prone to error. Erhman, with compelling use of evidence demonstrates that even if the New Testament produced by eye witnesses -it wasn't- their writing wouldn't be reliable without external corroboration. Erhman, in this book, only briefly addresses the subject of independent corroboration, but he does note that history contemporaneous with Jesus is silent. Erhman has addressed this paucity of external corroboration in the previously mentioned Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium.
The problem though, well explored by experts in the field of memory, and observation like Elizabeth Loftus is that false memories are easy to generate, impossible to distinguish from memories of real events and that the way we remember events is often influenced by social context and social pressure. Our presentation of our memories can even be influenced by how we want to be perceived within that social context. Researchers in this fascinating and troubling field have managed to implant false memories in subjects that subjects were unable to distinguish from real memories, and have documented the way in which our memories of events, even significant and visceral events (where were you when the space shuttle Challenger exploded say, or what were you doing when you learned of the attacks on 9/11) change significantly over time. Human memory isn't like a film reel laying down a perfect record of history. Erhman citing several studies demolishes confidence in eye witness accounts.
Prior to the writing down of the Canonical Gospels, the Early Christians, being Jews would have faithfully preserved their history and understanding of Jesus because they were a part of an oral culture and oral cultures are much better at preserving history and have better memories than literate cultures.
Another argument from fundamentalists that Erhman addresses is the alleged reliability of oral traditional cultures vs literate cultures. Oral cultures preserve history quite well, we told. Again, this hypothesis is offered without any actual evidence in support. Erhman again produces actual academic research that demonstrates that not only is it untrue that members of oral cultures have memories superior to literate cultures (the memories are more or less equal) oral traditions change all the time at the whim of the story teller. Sometimes the gist of the cherished traditions is preserved, but just as often it is not. The reasons for the changes are myriad, but chief among them is that story tellers are also entertainers and they tell their tales under a host of constraints and pressures. Anthropological research seems to suggest that oral cultures are actually much worse at preserving sound accounts of their history than literate societies.
I don't want to give away too much of what Erhman explores here. He does a great job and you should definitely read his more compressive accounts and not my summary.
But is memory the right word Bart?
While I found this book quite interesting, I kept arguing with its use of terminology. Specifically I found his use of the word "memory" quite problematic. How do we remember Jesus? How do we remember Lincoln? In the case of the latter, which Erhman uses by way of example, why do different groups of people remember Lincoln differently?
I was never very comfortable with this language. For instance, Erhman frames many of his accounts of Jesus in the following way, why did the author of X remember Jesus in this way? I kept asking the book, is "remember" the right word in this context? Lets imagine the author of The Gospel of John for a moment. It seems unlikely "remember" is the right way to describe the action of an author that has no actual memories of Jesus. The author is transcribing stories of other people, or stories in his community, or stories he is making up about Jesus rather than "remembering" events about Jesus witnessed by the author. No author in the New Testament was "remembering" things about Jesus they were telling stories they heard, making them up, or discussing something else entirely.
In a very early chapter of this book, Erhman pits two flawed "memories" of Jesus against each other to illustrated some of what he will be discussing in the book. One "memory" is that of Reza Aslan's as depicted in his book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, which holds that Jesus was a bit of radical, who like most Jews of his day detested Roman rule, but also thought he would rule the Jews once the yoke of Roman rule was cast off. The Jesus Aslan sees is one that is fairly sectarian, contradictory, with strong political ideas. Set against this "memory" of Jesus is Bill O'Reilly's "memory" of Jesus. O'Reilly's "memory" of Jesus is one who is conservative and annoyed with Roman taxation. Obviously right?
Its unclear how either author's account of Jesus can qualify as memory rather than an attempt, none too subtle it must be said, to validate ideology with a tendentious bit of history. Is it really fair to call these stories memories? Some people might, but given the grounding in the work of the scientists of memory it seems like his use of words like "remember" and "memory" are ill advised, and, ultimately, a bit confused, as well as confusing. At the very least this usage seems imprecise.
Tilting at Windmills.
The final chapter of the book looks like nothing so much as a whine. In recent years the rise of the Nones (that demographic that choses not to affiliate with any organized, or even disorganized religion) has led to a more serious examination of the hypothesis that Jesus never existed at all. To the Historical Jesus project we find, counter posed, an increasingly popular Jesus Myth Project. The latter project finds Jesus to be about as probable as Hercules, and unlikely to have actually existed. The Jesus Myth faction suspects, not with out strong arguments and evidence, that Jesus is a bit of an amalgam of local, similar mythologies that were thick on the ground in first century Palestine. It has become clear that Erhman has felt a bit harried by this branch of thought (he recently wrote an entire book rebutting it). Another pressure brought on, I think, by the rise of the Nones, and certainly a rise in the percentage of out of the closet atheists, is a disinterest in the actual history of Jesus. Atheists are, Erhman thinks, by and large, are disinterested in the bible and find lengthy studies of it, and indeed studies of the Early Christian community, to be huge wastes of time. Erhman spends paragraph after paragraph justifying to this group (I think) the importance of his field. The bible and its central figure represent, Erhman argues, a gigantic influence on Western Culture. Jesus may be the most important figure in history (this claim feels incredibly parochial to me but it is true that Jesus's figure has been influential on the world stage).
It is unclear to me that Erhman is actual correct here. In the first place, atheists, especially those in the west are actually quite familiar with the Bible. Many even find its evolution quite fascinating whether they think Jesus was an actual person in history or not. This brings me to Erhman's worst argument though for taking the Bible seriously.
Erhman goes on a lengthy tirade in which he points out that the bible is interesting simply as literature and is worthy of study whether or not it is accurate history. In this he is almost certainly correct, though mileage will vary with the claim that the bible actually represents great literature. Some passages are certainly well rendered in certain translations, but I doubt anyone could make a convincing argument that the begats of Genesis could ever make for exciting reading. On the whole though, I agree with Erhman. Like all great mythology Judeo-Christian mythology certainly provides a careful reader plenty to chew on. But Erhman then makes a slew of apples to oranges comparisons that feel, to use an uncharitable description, desperate.
Shakespeare is interesting even if Shakespeare wasn't the author or sole author.
Does great literature have to be true contain truth?
Mythology is interesting because it contains ineffable truths about humanity.
You can fill in any such deflection you have heard probably, because Erhman's list is long and exhaustive.
Erhman though makes a claim about the figure of Jesus that can only be true if he is a real character in history who was actually who the myths say he was. Erhman argues that we should be interested in the New Testament specifically is because Jesus was one of the great moral teachers of history. Really? Certainly this cannot be said unequivocally because Jesus also said a lot of immoral things (leave your family, give no thought for the 'morrow, lest you hate your family etc) that can only be wise things to do if, in fact he is who the tales say he is. A great deal of Jesus' wise and moral counsel hinges on the question of his historical accuracy.
But consider another great moral teacher: Spider-Man. Nothing Spider-Man says or does stands or falls on his actual existence. Spider-Man's moral teachings stand on their own whether or not he actually lives in New York using his great power with great responsibility. This is not the case with Jesus. His status as a great moral teacher rises and falls with, at least in large part, on whether or not he existed and was who he, or least his writers say he was. Erhman's literary deflections can't really change that fact. The Bible is more interesting than other mythologies only because so many people believe it is the inspired word of an all powerful deity.