Bart Ehrman’s Jesus Before the Gospels

This post is more of a reaction to Ehrman’s book Jesus Before the Gospels than it is a review. And, if you’ll kindly allow me to ramble on the subject, I will.

The Book

I picked up this book, or rather found it on my audio-book provider, while searching for something to read over spring break. While scrolling through the various spirituality nonsense that you find online, I stumbled across this book by Bart Ehrman. Now, the name Bart Ehrman has a rather insidious ring to it in my conservative theological circles, similar to Lucifer or the Devil. This is what attracted me to this book. I figured, “Well, might as well have a go of it. Perhaps he isn’t as bad as people make him out to be.”

The book is about memory and how our memories as very fallible. This is indeed the main stress of the book. He said that he spent several years studying memory psychology. And he wanted to apply his new findings to the years between Jesus’s life and the writing of the Gospels. He emphasized again and again that memories were very fragile and soon twisted and forgotten. Even some memories could be forged in the imagination and become so real to the person that he thinks they actually happened. Thus his oft repeated conclusion is that the memories regarding Jesus by those poor early disciples were so utterly confused that there was no hope to recover the Historical Jesus from the Gospels. Only the faintest of outlines remains of Jesus, which of course Bart is able to deduce.

The Oddities

What struck me as odd in the whole thing was Bart’s amazing ability to remember all that he studied about memory. He seemed to recall all the facts about memory with remarkable clarity in order to convince us that the memory is very fallible and not to be trusted. Or perhaps he just thinks he remembered all those things when wrote his book? Or maybe he is the exception that he occasionally admits exist.

He also seems to recall facts from the ’80s (Or even earlier) to illustrate his point. Are we to believe his memories or not? For all we know his memories are so fraught with imagination and error that we should not trust them. What is striking is that the time between his memories of youth and the writing of the book is about the same amount of time between the death of Christ and the writing of the first Gospel. I dare say that if we are to reject the record of the Gospels then we also reject Bart’s memories of his childhood.

Another thing about his book that stuck me as odd was his intense reliance on the arguments from silence. For example, he notes that “Luke” never said that he interviewed eyewitnesses. Then he confidently says, obviously “Luke” never did interview eyewitnesses. Several other such examples exist in his fine work. The only problem with such arguments is that they prove nothing. They only show that nothing was said about it. The exact opposite conclusion is also possible in his argument. Luke may have expected the reader to have enough sense to conclude that he interviewed eyewitnesses because their testimony was delivered to him. Either way, the lack of evidence proves neither position.

The final thing that I found odd was his amazing ability to speculate. You will find the words “probably” or “possibly” quite often. And then after proposing the idea as possible, he then talks about it as inspired fact. But just because a certain reading in between the lines is possible, it does not follow that it is actual or even probable. He takes many facts (but not all of them) and strings them together to form his theory.

I hear this stringing together of facts all the time at my day job. I spend a good bit of time earning money in construction as an electrician. I often hear conspiracy theories and how the government is plotting to take over our lives. While I do agree that the government would take over our lives, I think the government does it far more deviously than they suggest.

My favorite conspiracy theory is that our government puts fluoride in the tap water. “Yes,” they say, “the government wants you to think it’s to help you teeth, but really it’s about mind control.” Then come a battalion of facts strung together to make their point–all of which I am not able to argue against. And if I were to deny it, that is evidence of the government controlling my mind. So, I simply respond, “Yes, you are right–or is that theory just what the government wants you to believe?”

You see, anyone can propose a theory and string together evidence, but that does not prove his theory as correct. Bart has this amazing ability, and so I place his speculation on par with the above theory. I prefer to trust those people closer to the events than Bart who is so far removed from the original circumstances.

Anyway, these are my short, ignorant, and unfortunate ramblings. I did find his book engaging, but I will probably not read it again (just not my cup of coffee). If you have gotten this far in the post, I thank you. And if you would like to correct my criticism, I gladly accept it. I often misunderstand or miss-remember things anyway.

The cover image was taken from Amazon.com.

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