Jesus Before the Gospels Review Part 6

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 6 for Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5

Chapter 6: Collective Memory: Our Earliest Gospel of Mark.

I have to wonder after reading this chapter why Ehrman is taken seriously by anyone but his most fervent fans. At the outset, Ehrman confesses that until 1988 he was unaware that there was another, reasoned side to the American Civil War. Ehrman was born in 1955. That means that until he was 33 years old, he had no idea that the South understood the Civil War as an issue of State’s rights and local sovereignty. Think about that. This is the guy who wants to be your guide into history. And that’s not the only thing that makes me wonder.

The Civil War issue is Ehrman’s way of backing into the assertion that groups of people share common stories about the past, some of which may or may not be accurate. This bridges to the “collective memories” of early Christian communities. And again, those collective memories are of no relevance whatever if the Gospels are derived from eyewitnesses, which he still has not disproven.

This of course leads us to another groundbreaking, breakthrough work from the 1920s, a book titled “On Collective Memory” by Halbwach. Ehrman uses Halbwach to assert that we recall the past because it is relevant to the present. This is simply nonsense. There are history departments at colleges in every city, town, state and country on this earth, studying every aspect of every era of the human past. All of it is being “recalled” somewhere. To be as generous as possible to Ehrman, perhaps he means that collective polities attempt, at the popular level anyway, to construct historical stories that serve their present interests, although the attempts may be as imperfect as is their understanding of their actual interests. At least that might explain why Lincoln is recalled in such and such a way today that he wasn’t in the past, or why, as will be discussed, Israel has massaged the story of Masada into the tale of an heroic, surrounded and courageous people. But these are popular level semantic “memories.” And there are alternative views of these stories available in those same polities. In fact, we know the Masada story is propaganda. The Israelis know it too. They don’t actually “remember” Masada the way the propagandists want them to. They simply make use of the symbol. But to put the matter this way makes mincemeat of Ehrman’s assertion that groups actually change their memories of the past in order to deal with the present.

If you don’t know the story, Masada was a last ditch hide out for a group of Jewish rebels who fled there after Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD. These were not nice people. They assassinated fellow Jews who cooperated with the Romans. They raided Jewish villages to gain supplies. They attacked and killed Roman soldiers. The Romans hunted them down to Masada, a hilltop fortress in the desert. Because the only way up was a narrow path easily defended, the Romans instead built an earthen mound all the way to the top. But when they got to the top, they found that the Jewish rebels had all killed themselves, soldiers killing women and children, then each other, and then the few survivors committing suicide. The nascent Jewish state took on this story as an heroic story of national will, turning the tale into one of courageous resistance to oppressive outside forces. However, within a single generation an Israeli historian wrote about the actual story of the protagonists as assassins and of the mass suicide.

Ehrman says this shows that groups shape their recollection of the past to fit their present needs. Therefore, “memory historians” can “show how the past is being remembered and for what reasons.” But it doesn’t. What it shows is that national propagandists will try to reconstruct the past to serve national interests, but that the actual history remains, and most informed Israelis are perfectly aware of the facts of Masada. They may choose to embrace it as a symbol of resistance, but their memory has not been changed, nor have the actual facts.

This leads us to Mark, which Ehrman says is the Gospel of “Jesus as the Messiah that no one understood.” He actually has a nice little essay on the first line of the Gospel – The Good News of the Anointed One – and how completely upside down the story was from what the world actually expected would be either good news, or the anointed one. But the rest of it is either sheer speculation or utter bull pucky.

Ehrman writes that Mark “was narrating a memory of the Christian community in which he lived” Not a shred of evidence is offered for this. He doesn’t say who the author was or what community it is, just for starters. Then there is a long discussion of how Mark presents Jesus as showing that we will suffer now, but later be rewarded if we keep to his message. Doesn’t this directly contradict what he said earlier about how the “pie-in-the-sky” message came in the later Gospels? “We remember the past because it is relevant to our present, and what we are experiencing in the present radically affects how we remember the past,” says Ehrman.

And now for the punchline. “It is unfortunate that we don’t have any other information about Mark’s community and its experiences.” Other than what? He hasn’t presented a shred! Does this utter lack of evidence cause Ehrman even a short pause in his “exposition” about what the Gospel of Mark means, how the memories in it were “radically affected” by the experiences of Mark’s community – of which he knows nothing? Not for a second. Knowing nothing about the community, but having concocted a meaning that now needs an experience to explain this concocted meaning, Ehrman concludes the chapter by saying that “This appears to be a community that is suffering hardship.” Well it would be, wouldn’t it, since he has: 1) made up a rule that communities falsify the past because of their present experiences, ; 2) assumed that Mark was written for some community somewhere, and 3) asserted that Mark is about how to get by when you’re suffering hardship.

Who, really, takes Ehrman’s popular level books seriously?

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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