If you are a Christian, Jesus should the primary leader of your life. But what if Jesus isn’t who the Gospels claim He is? Author Bart Ehrman has written a few books set out to discredit Christianity, the bible, and the foundation of our beliefs. Guest blogger, Tom Tozer, has taken on the claims of Ehrman’s latest book. Let’s get plugged into leadership and see what Tozer has to say!
This is a short “serial review” of the book “Jesus Before the Gospels” by Bart Ehrman. One thing should be made clear first. Christians who disagree with Ehrman should embrace – not reject – historical analysis of the faith’s texts. Understanding the history of the texts is critical to understanding them. Even more, contrary to Ehrman’s various claims, Cambridge historian Richard Bauckham and others before him have shown that there is plenty of reason to believe what the Church has long said about the historical sources of the Gospels and their authorship. At the end of the day, the historical analysis allows one to believe as the Church teaches on this issue. Another person may, based on their view of the evidence, disbelieve that teaching and instead indulge in speculation about other possibilities. This result shouldn’t be any source of discomfort to Christians examining the issue.
But the bottom line is, whatever the evidence is about who authored the Gospels and whether they contain eyewitness testimony, for Christians the ultimate source of the information contained therein is the Holy Spirit. As Jesus promised “the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” John 14:26. Based on this, Christians can be assured that the Gospels “firmly, faithfully, and without error teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the Sacred Scriptures.” But we don’t have to stop there. We also have good historical reasons to believe the Gospels are reliable as ancient sources grounded in eyewitness accounts of the events recorded. That said, here is the review.
Introduction – Ehrman’s Introduction to the book is odd. The introduction notes that Lincoln and Columbus are remembered today differently than they were remembered then. Lincoln was hated by many in his time, yet now is universally acclaimed; Columbus 100 years ago was a hero, and now is reviled by many as a tool of oppression. Which is true, but that has nothing to do with the issue he’s talking about in this book, which is the memory involved in the Gospels. If those documents are early and involve witness accounts, then that’s what those documents are. Just like a record of a Lincoln Douglas debate is a record of a witness account of that event. It’s the documented memory we’re talking about. He says at one point, “my ultimate point is not directly related to Lincoln or Columbus.” Well, it’s not actually directly related to the Gospels either. Oddly enough, too, he talks about form criticism, and says “that is, however, what this book is about” (p. 13) after decrying the lack of popular level books about form criticism. Yet on the “Unbelievable” radio program, Ehrman told Bauckham the his book wasn’t about form criticism.
Chapter 1 – Ehrman’s fundamental theme in the book is that “we do not have direct access to what Jesus said, did and experienced but only to later stories told about him.” (page 14) But he never establishes this assertion. And unless he can prove conclusively that the Gospels are not sourced in eyewitness accounts this entire book fails. I think the Gospels are sourced in eyewitness accounts, and that Bauckham makes a solid case for that in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. But Ehrman is going to have to prove the opposite. Rather than do that, instead he immediately fabricates a scenario where eyewitnesses told someone, who then told someone else, and so on, and then somewhere down the line a Gospel writer hears the story 20th hand or worse. In Chapter 1, Ehrman never considers the possibility that the Gospel writers could have spoken directly to the eyewitnesses and cut out all the middlemen.
The chapter does have a nice little introduction to memory and different ways of classifying it in different categories. Ehrman seems to be under the impression that by classifying something you have actually described its essence. You haven’t. You’ve pared away something to fit it into your classification.
In any case, the discussion of semantic and episodic memory is handy. Episodic memory is memory of something you experienced. Semantic memory is a memory of something you have learned. Ehrman gets himself into a bit of a fix when he describes Reza Aslan’s book Zealot (in which Jesus was portrayed as an anti-Roman revolutionary) as a “memory” of Jesus. “Aslan was not the first to remember Jesus in this way,” he says. But Ehrman can only use the word “remember” here because he has snuck it in through the semantic memory door. However, he’s mixing up his categories here. Semantic memory isn’t really memory. It’s learning. Your memory of what you learned, however, is episodic memory because the learning was your experience. The content of what you learned is not an episodic memory of the thing represented by the content. For instance, If I learn that Abraham Lincoln was President of the US, I don’t have a memory of Abraham Lincoln’s Presidency. I have a memory of the information I learned. So when Ehrman says people who read Aslan’s book will “remember” Jesus this way, he’s wrong. They will not “remember Jesus” at all. What they will remember is the (false) information they obtained from Aslan’s book. Thus, contrary to Ehrman’s case, Bill Reilly’s and Aslan’s books are not “memories of Jesus.” They are “memories” of – badly mistaken misinterpretations of – historical evidence they learned about Jesus. These are not “authors recalling who Jesus was.” They are not episodically recalling Jesus, but only information about him, well or badly. This semantic trick of calling both episodic and semantic memories of something “a memory of the thing” – when they are not – is a critical misstep in Ehrman’s later analysis.
For Ehrman, this is all to get us to this point: “As far back as we have recorded memories of Jesus, we have widely disparate accounts of his words and deeds.” He can only say this because he wants to include as “recorded memories of Jesus” books that the Church long ago rejected as in fact not containing episodic memories of Jesus. But if we look at the canonical Gospels, we don’t have “widely disparate accounts” of Jesus. The Jesus of the four Gospels is an exceedingly consistent character, despite the differences between them.
As if to prove my point, Ehrman then spends several pages talking – not about the Gospels – but about portrayals of Peter, Judas and Pilate in late apocryphal books which were rejected from the canon. These, he says, are “early Christian memories” of Jesus. But they aren’t. They were rejected on exactly that basis – they were not sourced in testimony from apostolic, that is, witness sources. Ehrman insists otherwise because he is intentionally trying to distort the meaning of “remembering” to help him cast doubt on the actual memories contained in the Gospels.
About the Author :
Tom Tozer is a lawyer in the Chicago suburbs and one of A.W. Tozer’s many grandchildren. He is married with three daughters, and has taught confirmation classes for almost 20 years. He has Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from University of Chicago as well as a J.D. from Indiana University, Bloomington. He recently converted to the Catholic faith.