Review of “Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior” by Bart D. Ehrman

Bart D. Ehrman, the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is an excellent writer who has popularized some of the historical research about early Christianity. His books, while tending to make similar points as more academic treatises, are a joy to read.

His latest book, Jesus before the Gospels,, is an investigation of yet another way of questioning the historical accuracy of the gospels.


Ehrman points out that the earliest of the canonical gospels, the one known as Mark, was written at least 40 years after the crucifixion. Other scholars date Mark as having been written between 60 and 70 C.E. Moreover, it, like the other three canonical gospels, was written in Greek. But Jesus and all the other major characters in the gospels spoke Aramaic. So it is very likely that the authors of the gospels [all of whom are actually anonymous] were writing based on hearsay from people who were not eyewitnesses to the events described. Nevertheless they purported to be “according to” eyewitnesses, a naming convention intended to add to the trustworthiness of the accounts.

[It must be added, in spite of the fact that Ehrman does not address this issue in this book, that the gospels were never intended to be “empirical” histories – in fact, the idea of a “neutral” history only developed in relatively recent times; most previous “histories” were homiletical – i.e., serving the functions of sermons or catechetical instruction. According to scholar Robert Bonfil, there was no substantial difference in how Jews and Christians construed the purpose of “history” until the sixteenth century. (Robert Bonfil, “Jewish Attitudes toward History and Historical Writing in Pre-Modern Times,” Jewish History, Vol. 11, No. 1, Spring, 1997, pp. 7-40.)]

Clockwise from top left: Matthew, Mark, John, and Luke, as depicted in The Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript Gospel book in Latin created by Celtic monks ca. 800.

In Jesus before the Gospels, Ehrman tackles the question of the veracity of the gospels from the point of view of psychology. In the past 30 years a great of research has been done on the [in]accuracy of individual memory, but until this book, virtually none of its findings have been applied to writings in the Bible. [The subject of collective memory is another matter. This is the practice of constructing histories so that they contribute to the present and future social and political consciousness and cultural identity of a people. The determination of what is declared significant is made to sustain a set of myths and ideologies. In that respect, much analysis has been applied to biblical stories in both the Old and New Testaments.]

Ehrman’s concern is with so-called biological memory – a study of the way in which the individual mind sorts, stores, and retrieves information. Though not a psychologist, Ehrman has read extensively in the field. He distinguishes between episodic memory, relating to things we actually experience, and semantic memory, relating to things we learn through hearing, reading, or some other indirect method. The authors of the New Testament were recording the semantic memories of people who were retelling oral histories of Jesus in circulation at the time. Although all memory gets distorted with the passage of time and because of the different perceptual lenses of observers, even semantic memory can seem credible where the events related are inherently plausible, they can be confirmed by other sources, and perhaps most importantly in this case, when there simply are no other sources of information.


Ehrman states that modern psychology debunks the notion that ancient illiterate people had better memories than modern man, and so were able to keep the stories of Jesus accurate in many retellings over at least 40 years. But as Ehrman observes, that may be a moot issue:

“…the historical Jesus did not make history. The remembered Jesus did . . . . Does it matter if Jesus considered himself to be God on earth? As a historian, it matters to me a great deal. But if he did not — and I think he did not — the fact that he was remembered that way by later followers is terrifically important. Without that memory of Jesus, the faith founded on him would never have taken off, the Roman Empire would not have abandoned paganism, and the history of our world would have transpire in ways that are unimaginably different. History was changed, not because of brute facts, but because of memory.”

When two or more of the gospels tell pretty much the same story, Ehrman credits at least the gist of the story with plausibility (in spite of the fact that the authors of Mark, Matthew and Luke used each other for sources and so of course there would be overlap). Matthew borrows from as much as 80% of his gospel from Mark, and Luke borrows from as much as 65%. While that may seem to modern readers too much like a game of telephone (in which one person whispers a message to another, which is passed through a line of people until the last player announces the message to the entire group), for centuries this overlap was enough to add credence to the stories.


Thus Ehrman contends that if we look at the parts of the stories that are basically the same (ignoring that they used one another as sources), we could possibly agree that a Jewish man named Jesus lived in Galilee in the first century C.E., that he was baptized, that he attracted a band of enthusiastic followers, that he proclaimed an apocalyptic message of the coming Kingdom of God, and that he was crucified by the Roman overlords of Judea. He also asserts that we can be certain that his followers taught that he rose from the dead and appeared to them. Beyond that, things get pretty dicey.

Although the Gospels overlap quite a bit, they are also filled with discrepancies. These discrepancies encompass some very important aspects of Jesus’ life and teaching. Ehrman argues that it is not even clear what Jesus actually taught. For example, In the gospel of Mark, Jesus is careful not to make any claims of divinity, and his apostles never quite “get” who he is despite his astounding words and deeds. Ehrman writes:

“Jesus himself seems to want to keep [his true identity] a secret. Not only does he command demons not to reveal who he is (3:11; see also 1:34), when he heals someone he orders him not tell anyone (1:44); when he performs miracles he sometimes does not let the crowds observe (5:40); when his disciples see his revealed glory he orders them not to divulge it (9:9); [and] when any one starts to have a sense of his identity he commands their silence (8:30).”

Contrast the Jesus of the gospel of John, the last of the gospels to be composed (written around 90 A.D.):

“Jesus spends almost his entire preaching ministry in John talking about who he is, where he has come from, and what he can provide. There is nothing like this in the Synoptic Gospels. The very gist of Jesus’s teaching has come to be transformed.”

Fragment of the New Testament from The Gospel of John, dated to around 125 A.D.

Fragment of the New Testament from The Gospel of John, dated to around 125 A.D.

The gospels are also totally inconsistent on a number of doctrines supposedly promulgated by Jesus, such as what Jesus taught about divorce. Ehrman points out five different versions of what Jesus said about breaking up a marriage, with striking differences among them.

Ehrman also notes that some of the gospel stories are simply inherently implausible, and that is not limited to the “miracle” anecdotes. [For a detailed elucidation of what portions are implausible, an excellent source is the also-very-readable book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan]


Finally, additional problems arise from the vagaries of translation. As one particularly interesting example, the Gospel of John has Jesus say we must be “born again” to enter the kingdom of heaven. What the text says in the original Greek is that a person must be born anothen. The Greek word has two different meanings, depending on context: it can mean “a second time” or it can mean “from above.” The reason this is important is that Jesus is speaking to Nicodemus, who thinks Jesus told him he must be born a second time, which seems a bit tough to accomplish. But Jesus tells him that he does not mean a second, physical birth — he is talking about a birth from heaven made possible by the spirit of God, who comes from above. Modern readers don’t “get” the story because they don’t read it in the original Greek. Moreover, it would have been impossible for Jesus to have said this in Aramaic, where the word for “from above” does not mean “a second time.” The story just makes no sense in Aramaic, and not much sense in English. Ehrman concludes that a Greek speaker, probably the author of John, just made up the story to make a point.

"St. John the Evangelist" by Giotto di Bondone, 1320-25

“St. John the Evangelist” by Giotto di Bondone, 1320-25

Evaluation: Ehrman as always makes a number of interesting and thought-provoking points about a subject that continues to fascinate both believers and doubters. However, religions clearly benefit from the fact that many believers do not undertake critical analyses of religious texts.

Rating: 4/5 stars

Published by HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2016


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