Jesus Before the Gospels Review Part 4

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! Part 4 for Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

Chapter 4 is titled “Distorted memories and the death of Jesus.” Some of this chapter just makes no sense. Ehrman talks about people who can memorize hundreds of cards or numbers, and then says “we all forget stuff.” Another, someone named Ebbinghaus, used himself as the sole subject, and made up hundreds of nonsense syllables and memorized them. He showed that he – and by extrapolation others I guess – tended to do most of his forgetting right away, with memory stabilizing at about six months. In other words, what you remember at about six months after an event stays stable. Next is another “breakthrough” from 1932 by Bartlett, who shows that memories are stored in multiple places in the brain, and then reconstructed when we recall an event. If we do not have data for part of a memory, the brain will fill in the missing data with “typical” data. It seems to me that Bartlett helps explain why people have slightly different recall of events and there can be discrepancies between eyewitness accounts. Person A was not paying attention to the color of the table cloth, so his mind filled in “white” for that detail. Person B noticed the table cloth was red, but wasn’t drinking the wine that night and so has no data for that and recalls only water on the table. This seems to support, not undermine, the nature of the Gospels as eyewitness accounts.

From Bartlett, Ehrman floats over to the telephone game. Basically, A was a witness. He tells B. B forgets some of what A said and fills in with “typical” data. He tells C. C forgets some, fills in, and tells D, and so on. But, yet again, all of this is irrelevant if A talks to the person taking down the events and writing, oh, say, a Gospel. Then the only filling in is whatever A’s mind did. So really we’re back to the original question: were the Gospels sourced in eyewitness accounts? If so, all of this telephone game stuff is irrelevant.

Next Ehrman talks about “flashbulb” memories. These are memories of unusual or important events that leave a vivid impression. In one study, 44 students were asked to take a quiz multiple times after the Challenger space shuttle explosion in 1986. They mis-remembered where they were when they heard about it, who they heard from, and some didn’t recall taking the prior quizzes. What’s weird about drawing conclusions from this is that none of the things they misremembered was the actual unusual event at issue. Now if some of them thought the Challenger did not explode, or that something else had happened, that would seem to undermine the “flashbulb” memory idea. But none of them failed to remember the actual unusual event. Similarly (just spit-balling this) we might find that someone vividly remembered seeing a resurrected man, but didn’t recall everyone who went with them to a tomb, say.

Next Ehrman talks about “gist memories,” which he agrees can be reliable. However, I can see now why someone from his fundamentalist background might have been deeply disturbed by finding out that the Gospels are not word-for-word transcripts of events, but instead are human documents about human events. But even if the Gospels can only be said (and I don’t think this is correct, but arguendo) only to record “the gist” of Jesus’ life, what is “the gist” of a resurrected man? Seems to me, if that gist is correct, the details are somewhat less important.

Anyway, to attack gist memories, Ehrman misrepresents a paper by Neisser about John Dean, a Watergate witness who testified at length before Congress about the Nixon Watergate matter. Ehrman asserts that Dean’s failed memory for specific conversations shows how poor gist memory can be. Neisser, at the conclusion of his paper, says the opposite. “[Dean] is not remembering the “gist” of a single episode by itself, but the common characteristics of a whole series of events. … Nixon hoped that the transcripts would undermine Dean’s testimony by showing that it had been wrong. They did not have this effect because he was wrong only in terms of isolated episodes. Episodes are not the only kinds of facts. Except where the significance of his own role was at stake, Dean was right about what had really been going on at the White House. What he later told the Senators was fairly close to the mark: his mind was not a tape recorder, but it certainly received the message that was being given.”

Likewise, disciples who had been with Jesus for an extended period may not have been tape recorders, but they could “certainly [have] received the message that was being given.”

Having misrepresented Neisser, Ehrman now describes his “method” for assessing the evidence about the trial and death of Jesus. It is this:-

1) If there are contradictions between two stories, one must be false.
2) If an account includes events “that are simply implausible” or “utterly beyond what seems likely” then it must be a distorted memory (i.e.false).

Neither of those propositions is true. As we’ve seen from this very book, people fill in details about things they were not paying attention to, based on “typical” events. That does not mean that the overall story they tell is false, but only that some of the details may be incorrect. Nor is it the case that nothing “implausible” ever happens. What in the world would anyone ever write about or tell stories about if nothing “beyond what seems likely” ever happened? The implausibility of an event can’t, by that fact alone, demonstrate that the event did not occur.

Given this, let’s look briefly at one aspect of the death of Jesus that Ehrman examines. He first looks at the trial before Pilate. He sets out a long list of things the Gospels agree about, which is helpful, and he seems, I think, to agree that these things probably took place. He has problems with the accounts though, because:-

1) Matthew adds facts that Mark did not have (which doesn’t contradict anything nor seem unusual if Matthew also had other eyewitness sources);
2) Luke adds the detail of sending Jesus to Herod (which is not a contradiction and is not implausible);
3) John places the trial on the morning of the Passover meal.

Ehrman has a valid point about the Gospel of John. There are several “timing” issues with John, that seem to a lot of people – I’ve read this elsewhere – to focus on showing Jesus as the slain lamb of the Passover. So John’s placement of the trial on the morning of the meal, when the sacrifice and meal would be made later, makes sense from a story telling point of view. Recalling that ancient historians were more concerned with conveying the character of their subjects than with detailing minutia, this doesn’t seem to undermine the truth of the matter that Jesus was tried before Pilate, that Pilate found him innocent, but allowed his crucifixion anyway, and that Jesus died on the cross. Those are the events that matter. Ehrman then uses his “method” to examine the cleansing of the temple, the entry into Jerusalem, the tearing of the curtain to the holy of holies, and such, none of which seems very interesting.

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.

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