Jesus Before the Gospels Review Part 7

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

Chapter 7: The Kaleidoscopic Memories of Jesus: John, Thomas and a Range of Others

Ehrman starts out Chapter 7 by asserting that Mark was “a collective memory” and says that now we’re going to talk about the “other collective memories.” However, he hasn’t demonstrated that Mark is anything less than the account of an eyewitness. He doesn’t believe it is, but he hasn’t established that. So this is not a promising start.

He asserts that the Gospel of John – or “the memories contained” in it – “differ radically from Mark.” On the surface, there is something to this. John is elaborately theological. Mark is more like a police report. If John is a Persian rug, Mark is a grocery list. And yet, at the core of these two Gospels, for 2,000 years, Christians have found the same Jesus. Oddly enough. Now why that might be Ehrman doesn’t bother to ask.

The purpose of this chapter for Ehrman is “to show that there was not one remembered image of Jesus among his early followers, but “a kaleidoscopically varied set of images.” But how can Ehrman include Marcion, the Gospels of Judas, Thomas and Theodotus as “remembered images of his early followers”? He doesn’t demonstrate that any of these authors had any connection to a witness to Jesus’ life. In fact, that lack of connection is exactly what kept these documents out of the canon. On the other hand, if all Ehrman means is that people who were not witnesses wrote stories about Jesus that differed from stories connected to witnesses, well, so what? But this sleight of hand is what Ehrman set up in Chapter 1. He can call Marcion “a memory,” even though it is not, because he set up the classes of “episodic” and “semantic” memory. Hack off the adjectives and, voila!, Marcion is “a memory of Jesus.” But it in fact isn’t.

In any event, to contrast Mark from John, Ehrman makes his first mistake in this chapter by asserting that the Gospel of Mark “starts with an account of Jesus’ apocalyptic forerunner.” Not so. Mark begins with Isaiah’s prophecy about “the Lord” and directly points to Jesus as that Lord: “I [God] will send my messenger ahead of you to prepare your way, a voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare the way of the Lord.” This is no less plainly a declaration of Jesus’ divinity than is the poetry of John 1. Is John more theologically developed? Yes. So what?

On pages 258-59, Ehrman does a nice job of explaining the ramifications of John 1, and how exceedingly high is the Christology of the Church even before the end of the first century. I disagree that this is “more exalted” than Mark 1, but it is definitely more developed. Unfortunately for Ehrman, this early high Christology conflicts with other claims he makes in this chapter.

In distinguishing John and Mark, Ehrman notes that Jesus is generally more vocal about his identity in John than in the synoptics. It is not the case, though, that Jesus never talks about his identity in the synoptics. See Matt 11:25-28 for instance. However, Ehrman really misses the mark when he claims that “unlike the other Gospels, [in John] Jesus is portrayed as a divine being who has become human.” p. 264. Really? As we saw, in Mark 1, Mark gives Jesus the divine name “Lord” right out of the chute. In Mark 2, Jesus is asked “who can forgive sins but God,” and replies, in essence, “I can.” In Matthew 11:25-28 Jesus declares his divine identity. And in Luke 2, his birth is accompanied by choirs of angels. In addition, Paul’s letter to the Philippians, probably predating the Gospels, declares exactly that:

Christ Jesus who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God
something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

This is exceedingly high Christology, preceding the Gospel of John. Clearly, Christians prior to the Gospel of John, understood Jesus as a divine being who became human. I find it difficult to believe that Ehrman is unaware of these passages.

The rest of this chapter is about “other memories.” He addresses Paul, the Gospel of Thomas, Q (really?), the Gospel of Judas, Marcion, and Theodotus.

Paul is an odd one to call out. Paul was not a direct witness of Jesus’ life. Perhaps he didn’t talk much about Jesus’ life because he knew there were such witnesses available to the churches. In any case, Paul doesn’t say much about Jesus’ life other than his death and resurrection. Ok.

Of Q, Ehrman writes that “Q provided Matthew and Luke with many of their sayings of Jesus” and asserts that Q “lacked” the story of the passion and resurrection. It is amazing, since no one has ever seen a copy of Q, that Ehrman knows what was and wasn’t in this imaginary document.

For Judas, Marcion, Theodotus and Thomas, the question has to be, who cares what they say if what we’re looking for is eyewitness accounts? They were rejected because they lacked a connection to the apostles and thus to eyewitnesses. Yet Ehrman tries to use these late texts to foist on his readers the idea that the Church’s belief that Jesus is both divine and human somehow arose as a combination of Marcion and Theodotus. Ehrman claims that – from Marcion – the church took the idea that Jesus was fully divine (though Marcion claimed he was not human) and – from Theodotus – the idea that Jesus was fully human (though Theodotus claimed he was not God). Ehrman’s assertion is nonsense. The full divinity and humanity of Jesus are stated in the Gospels and in Paul’s letters. The Church’s understanding of the precise meaning of the Gospels and Paul on that point certainly grew over time, but it had nothing to do with Marcion or Theodotus. Those books were rejected, as they are today, as not being connected to a witness.

Note again, nothing in Chapter 7 demonstrates that the Gospels we have are not derived from eyewitness accounts.

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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