Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior by Bart D. Erhman (HarperOne, 2016) 326 pages
This book was my Easter book, which shows you how far behind I am (or how fast I have been reading). Either way, I still have 6 or 7 books on the pile, and I might have to double up or something. Anyway, this is a religion book, but it’s by Bart Ehrman, an author I always try to read when he comes out with a new book.
Sometimes people who know my techie books are surprised to find that I have such a background in the Catholic Church. I wanted my children to have some idea of morality and religious experience until they were old enough to make up their own minds, so off to church they went to be baptized, communioned, and confirmed. Now, when I went to church as a child, my parents sent us kids and stayed home (that saga took years before I found out what the beef was). But as a parent myself, I progressed through the “lay hierarchy” and became a member of the parish council (advised the priests), a youth coordinator (so the children didn’t fight), a lector (readings at mass), Eucharistic minister (give out the host and the wine at mass), and they even wanted me to train as a Deacon (no thanks…you can’t serve in your own parish). I saw Pope John Paul II doing mass in Central Park, close enough that we could see without the TV screens. I even gave out ashes one Ash Wednesday (“Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return”), an event that eventually led to my “falling away” from the church.
This long introduction is so I can talk about Erhman’s book without you thinking that I am some kind of atheist. Not that I’m one of those people who think they are worthless sinners who survive each day only because of the love of Jesus. There’s nothing wrong with that if that’s what you believe – although I don’t like it when people like that think *everybody* should be just like they are. I try to get along with everyone, regardless of faith, creed, religion, or belief. 🙂
Erhman’s latest book is a kind of answer to books that position the Gospels as a kind of “eyewitness testimony” to Jesus’ time on earth. I have a few of those (my “religion section” in my library is only a bookcase and a half – maybe 250 books or so – but I have some good ones), but I am mainly unimpressed by arguments that the Gospels, written some 40 to perhaps even 70 years after the crucifixion, somehow preserve authentic details about the life of Jesus.
It’s clear that, with a few exceptions that Ehrman carefully covers, that the Gospels were based mainly on a long oral tradition: stories passed down from someone who knew someone who knew someone who knew a guy who hung around with a guy who was related to an Apostle, or maybe even saw Jesus himself.
Why couldn’t stories passed down this way be accurate? Well, Erhman says, that process depends on memory and stories, so lets’ look at the science and research says about that way of preserving facts. (Let me say again that I have no problem with people who believe every single word of the Gospels is…well, the Gospel truth…but I don’t think that means you get to ignore people who don’t agree with you. Surely God will grant you the strength to resist the snares of unbelievers!)
As Erhman has pointed out in his (many) other books, the Gospels are contradictory, have gaps in space and time (they alter the known geography of Galilee, a surprise for people who were supposedly born and raised there), show signs of alterations and editing, and so on.
The biggest surprise, for me, in the book was when Erhman discusses other oral traditions, such as the works of Homer or the “Singers of Tales” in Yugoslavia (p. 181). Homer is bad example, because we don’t have any “recordings” of oral recitations of the Iliad or Odyssey from the ancient world (perhaps obviously). But from 20th Century “singers” we do. And both studies of the surviving texts of Homer and the Balkan “singers” show signs of variation from performance to performance (sometimes a lot of variation). For example, one song could be between 8,488 lines and 12,323 line long, depending on audience or time available (p. 186). Erhman also cites studies from court records and experiments that show just how unreliable “eyewitness testimony” is. He uses John Dean of Watergate fame as an example (p. 140). When compared to his recorded words, which came to light later, Dean’s memory is fairly horrible (but so was Nixon’s).
The evidence in this book shows that the Gospels were made up by unknown writers, based on a few scraps of “sayings of Jesus” (like the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas), the letters of Paul (although not much of that), some oral traditions along the lines of “someone told me that Jesus…”, and a whole lot of fantasy. The result in a mish-mosh of stories that many people jump through many hoops of fire to reconcile and “prove” that every word is true.
The best example I found in the book of that is a conversation Ehrman records that he had with Professor Harald Riesenfeld when he was a graduate student of Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary. It concerned the variant stories of Jairus and his daughter, which go like this (p. 69-70):
In the Gospel of Mark, Jairus tells Jesus his daughter is very sick and would like Jesus to come and heal her. But they are delayed and before they get to the house, Jairus’ daughter dies, so people come and tell them not to bother coming. But Jesus is not concerned and raises her from the dead (Mark 5:21-43). But in the Gospel of Matthew, Jairus tells Jesus his daughter is *already* dead. He wants Jesus to raise her form the dead, not heal her (Matthew 9:18-26).
How can both versions be right? asked Erhman. How can the Gospels be absolutely true and infallible?
Easy, Erhman says Riesenfeld said: Matthew and Mark were describing *two* different occasions when Jairus’ daughter needed Jesus’ help. The first time, she had not yet died, and the second time she had (!). I suspect that Ehrman, like many people, saw others tying themselves up in knots like this so often that he finally had to give up the illusion that the Gospels are more than a bunch of (ill-remembered) stories about Jesus.
And so it was, after I put ashes on the foreheads about 300 or more people in church that Wednesday, I realized that whatever it was these earnest, honest, eager people came to get, that wasn’t being handed out at church that day. The priests and I were not saints handing out holiness on our right thumbs (I did not know that trick of putting olive oil on my thumb to make it easier to clean the ashes off, so my thumb was dirty for three days). We were just people, some of us trained to say and do certain things when a death occurred, or an accident, or a tragedy.
And I saw that the thing they were searching for and needed and wanted when I looked into those 300 pairs of eyes that day – yearning for hope or love or forgiveness – was something I didn’t have in those ashes…