Jesus Before the Gospels Review Part 5

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 5 for Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4

Chapter 5 is called “Distorted Memories and the Life of Jesus.” There is something strange about the story Ehrman begins with, about a man with a remarkable memory. He says a Doctor Luria studied a man “named S, to protect his privacy.” S could memorize long lists of data effortlessly, and even recall lists memorized years before that he had not thought about in all that time, backwards or forwards, again without effort. But, Ehrman says, this ability was detrimental to S’s life and he could never hold a job, even when he toured as a professional mnemonist (memory freak). See anything odd there? Why did Luria need to protect the identity of someone who toured the country highlighting his abilities? It’s odd that Ehrman doesn’t ask this question. It makes me wonder if S is a fiction?

Anyway…..Ehrman spends most of this chapter making the case that oral cultures (which he has so far failed to established is what the first century Jewish or surrounding Greek and Roman cultures were) did not have better information strategies for oral material than literate cultures do. This is aimed at, again, showing that when person A tells person B a story, it morphs a little, and then B tells C, with more morphing, and C tells D, etc etc etc. And again, this is irrelevant if the Gospels derive from eyewitnesses.

Some of this is interesting anyway. There was a study of oral performances, and although the artists and audiences claimed the performances were “the same,” data showed there were huge changes in the length and substance of the stories. Ehrman postulates that oral cultures didn’t view sameness as we do, i.e., verbatim the same, but as “the same basic thing.” Interesting. But as he admits, the Gospels were not oral performances.

But Ehrman tells this story so he can get to this: “As Lord [the study author] himself notes, the kinds of epic tradition that are recorded are quite different from ‘when A tells B what happened, and B tells C and so on with all the natural errors and exaggeration and distortion.’ It is obviously the latter sort of tradition we are interested in when dealing with stories and saying of Jesus.”

That is so ridiculously presumptuous it made me laugh out loud. “Obviously” we should be interested in this thing that has failed to show has any relevance to the Gospels. Good grief!

Next Ehrman describes the narrative tradition of oral cultures. Now, keep in mind, he hasn’t yet demonstrated that Jewish culture or the Greeks or Romans were oral cultures. I doubt he can. All he’s shown is that he assumes the early Christian community was illiterate because the main twelve disciples were from Galilee. That doesn’t seem like enough, but anyway, this culture involved “proto-testimony of an observer – chain of transmission [A to B to C etc] – final informant – recorder and earliest written record.” Ehrman asserts “this is exactly what happened with the traditions about Jesus as passed down from eyewitnesses to authors of our earliest written accounts.”

Ehrman’s assertions are baseless. Jewish, Greek and Roman culture was not exclusively oral, and he hasn’t demonstrated otherwise. Nor is there evidence (how could there be written evidence?) that there was a long chain of oral transmission from original witnesses to the authors of the Gospels. That is speculation. And there is evidence contrary to both of his assertions. There is evidence that there were many literate early Christians, and evidence that the Gospels record eyewitness accounts. He doesn’t deal with any of this.

The remainder of the chapter is Ehrman telling more just-so stories about how Jesus’ teachings “must have been” changed, and why, and this or that agenda, etc, but really he was just an apocalyptic preacher who wanted to be the king. Ehrman bases this specious garbage on the claim that, the early Gospels (assuming we know the order) are about the kingdom of God coming on earth, but that in the later Gospels, namely John, it was clear by then that Jesus wasn’t coming back right away, so they changed the message to “the kingdom is something you’ll get after you die.” Ehrman’s claim is nonsense. Paul’s letters are filled with references to the afterlife and attaining the kingdom then. And even Ehrman admits that Paul’s letters probably predated the Gospels. See Romans 5:21, 6:22-23, Galatians 6:8, Titus 1, etc. The message didn’t change the way Ehrman claims.

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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