Did distorted memories form the Gospels?

The four evangelists are depicted in an 11th-century Bohemian illumination. (Newscom/AKG-Images)

By Bart D. Ehrman
Published by HarperOne, 336 pages, $27.99

At 11:30 a.m. Mass, after the second reading, the visiting priest surprised us by grabbing a wireless microphone and strolling down the center aisle. Abandoning the Lectionary, he set out to recite from memory the Gospel story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery. I could sense some tension in the church: Would the priest forget anything?

In turned out that he didn't, if by "anything" one means the basic plot and dialogue. But why risk accuracy for intimacy? Soon we found out: Freed from the lectern and the book, the celebrant could make eye contact, insert metanarrative, repeat words for emphasis, add plausible reactions of the devious scribes and Pharisees, and bend down to dramatize Jesus writing in the dirt.

The congregants and I were engaged and enriched; I hadn't heard this Gospel before -- it felt new with this retelling. "That Gospel was pretty cool," my son whispered to me.

"I'm not trying this with the Passion," the priest deadpanned as he walked back to the altar.

The Gospels as living, recollected stories are the focus of Bart D. Ehrman's latest book, Jesus Before the Gospels. Asserting that the evangelists, writing decades after the deathof Jesus, neither witnessed the life of Jesus nor had contact with any eyewitnesses, Ehrman's book argues that the Gospels we read are not reliable histories. They are, instead, partially distorted memories that were passed down through a series of storytellers who forgot, fabricated or stretched the truth, and invented a Jesus who embodied their communities' wishes and values.

Ehrman's exhaustively researched analysis of Scripture poses a challenge to Christians: Can we still believe in the Gospels if they are proven to be historically inaccurate? Do Jesus' teachings, actions and miracles retain their value if we know they are largely misremembered or even fictional?

Distinguishing the historical Jesus from the Jesus in the canonical Scriptures has been Ehrman's pursuit through the 11 acclaimed and popular books he has written or edited over the past 11 years. The Jesus Christ we know, Ehrman has maintained, has been constructed through interested interpretations, outright forgeries, and suppression of heretical texts.

Ehrman's new book is the result of a thorough review of the relevant research by cognitive psychology, sociology, and cultural anthropology. It has validated his doubts about the accuracy of eyewitness testimony and has led him to find that even our memories of significant events can be substantially altered by suggestion, intervening occurrences, and social pressure.

To lend weight to his argument of the Gospels as distorted memories, Ehrman points to contradictions among various scriptural accounts. Some problems, like Judas' death, seem benign: Did Judas die by hanging, disembowelment, suicidal fear of a resurrected roasting chicken, or, according to Papias, from swelling with pus and worms to bursting?

Other contradictions have more serious implications. Sources agree on the "gist" memory that Jesus was tried and sentenced by Pontius Pilate. On the other hand, stories on which there is little or no agreement and that simply don't stand to reason constitute distorted memories, according to Ehrman.

For example, in the conflicting accounts of Pontius Pilate's adjudication of Jesus, why is the memory that exonerates the historically ruthless Roman governor and indicts the Jews the one that sticks? Furthermore, that Pilate would defer to the Jews in his decision to execute Jesus and free a criminal like Barabbas strains credibility and was probably invented by an early Christian community who found such a memory best suited to its fears and prejudices.

In this revisionist biblical analysis, Ehrman resuscitates the controversial form critics, who established the argument that the Gospels are not direct recordings of eyewitness testimony but retellings of stories that were exchanged, and thereby reinvented, among members of the Christian community of their time.

Ehrman claims that form-critic detractors have not convincingly shown that accurate eyewitness accounts could reach the evangelists through non-literate non-eyewitnesses who were spreading the story orally to other non-literate non-eyewitnesses.

Among those detractors, Ehrman singles out Richard Bauckham, whose popular, award-winning Jesus and the Eyewitnesses champions the Gospel's historical accuracy. Ehrman claims that Bauckham's argument, bereft of adequate evidence and inattentive to research on memory and testimony, has found few adherents "outside the ranks of conservative evangelical Christians."

If Papias, whom Bauckham trusts as historically accurate, is as unreliable as Ehrman finds him, then Bauckham's argument is based more on wishful thinking than on solid evidence.

Research into oral tradition further troubles any defense of the historical accuracy of the canonical Gospels' accounts of Jesus's words and deeds, including the Sermon on the Mount and the parables. The versions that we know, recorded long after Jesus' life by writers drawing from orally transmitted testimony, could not possibly be what Jesus actually said in the contexts in which we know him to have said them.

Similarly, the miracles reported in the Gospels may more accurately reflect the desires of early Christians to establish Jesus' divinity than any incredible feat that may have actually occurred.

The controversial nature of this book may win Ehrman new interviews with Trevor Noah and Stephen Colbert, and educated general readers will appreciate the uncluttered, often colloquial sentence style (Peter is Jesus' "right-hand man"). Ehrman's use of easily recognizable illustrations (our changing cultural memories of Lincoln and Columbus) and examples that include reports of alien abductions, the legends surrounding the Baal Shem Tov, and John Dean's Watergate testimony make biblical scholarship both accessible and exciting.

But will this deconstruction of the veracity of the Gospels shake the faith of the skeptical? Ehrman hopes not. If historical inaccuracy cannot undermine the magnificence of Michelangelo's imagistic distortions or George Herbert's fervent, fascinating poetic inventions, it certainly shouldn't devalue the power of Jesus' words and deeds, fictional though many of the accounts may be. Memory may be God's most precious gift: From it, both art and faith are derived and disseminated.

[Dennis McDaniel is associate professor and chair of the English Department at St. Vincent College.]

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