Remembering Jesus (Or Not)

An interview with Bart Ehrman

Posted Mar 01, 2016

Bart Ehrman is one of the world's leading authorities on Jesus. A best-selling author, his many books examine the history of early Christianity, the veracity of the Gospels, and the historical controversies concerning what we know -- and don't know -- about Jesus. 

His newest book is Jesus Before the Gospels: : How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior. 

I recently had a chance to ask him some questions.

You’ve written a lot of books about Jesus and the Bible. What is new about this one? What makes it unique?

It would probably be easiest to explain this book in relationship to the two other books of mine that might seem related, Misquoting Jesus and Jesus Interrupted.  In Misquoting Jesus I dealt with how Christian scribes of the second and third centuries altered the manuscripts they were copying, so that there are some places where we don’t know what the authors originally wrote.  In Jesus Interrupted I examined the writings of the New Testament themselves (not the mistakes of the later scribes), to show how they appear to contain discrepancies, contradictions, and historical errors.  In this current book I go back a step farther, dealing now not with the scribes or with the original writings, but with the oral traditions that were in circulation before those writings.  

The deal is this:  Jesus died around the year 30 CE.  Our first account of his life was written in 70 CE.  There was a forty-year time gap between Jesus’ death and the first account of his life.  What was happening to the stories of Jesus as they were being told and retold year after year, decade after decade?  The later writers (e.g., Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) were not making up the stories they wrote; they were writing what they heard from others.  But how were the stories being shaped, transformed, and even invented by those others over the years? 

It is all about memory – how people remember what they saw and heard, and how they remember and restate what they heard someone else saw and heard.  And so the way I get to the problem of the early oral traditions of Jesus is by explaining what we know about the processes of memory – from the perspectives of cognitive psychology, sociology, and cultural anthropology.  What I show is that if we understand how memory works – and how oral cultures preserve and pass along their memories – we will be much better situated to know whether the accounts in the Gospels represent “accurate” memories, or “distorted” memories, or some combination of the two.

I was taken aback by your use of the word “remembered” throughout the book. From beginning to end, I felt like a more appropriate word would have been “invented” or “made up.” I mean, if some random person writes down some stories about a character named Jesus – making up all the details – they haven’t really “remembered” Jesus, have they? No. They’ve just made something up. If I write a new comic book about Superman in which he turns his nemesis into cheese, I haven’t “remembered” Superman differently. I’ve made up a new tale. When Hollywood produces a movie about Abraham Lincoln slaying vampires, the writers of that film have not “remembered” Lincoln differently. They’ve made shit up. Can you explain why you so often used the term “remembered” rather than “invented” or “made up”? Isn’t there a big difference?

Yes, if the Gospels consisted mainly of stories that the authors themselves simply made up because they felt like it – these would not be their “memories” of Jesus.  On the other hand, such stories could (and would) determine how the readers of these accounts remembered Jesus (after reading them).  It is important to realize that we “remember” all sorts of things that we have not ourselves experienced.  And so scholars talk about how we, today, “remember” Abraham Lincoln or Christopher Columbus.  That obviously doesn’t mean that we actually knew them at some time.  It means that we recall events from their lives and aspects of their character based on stories that we have heard.  So too with Jesus: we “remember” that he came from the town of Nazareth, that he had controversies with Jewish Pharisees, or that he was crucified by Pontius Pilate because we have heard stories that say so.  If someone simply invented such stories, they would not represent the inventor’s memory – but they may represent ours.

On the other hand, I need to stress that it appears that the vast majority of our stories in the Gospels – virtually all of them – were inherited by the Gospel writers, not invented by them.  That is to say, these are stories that had been in circulation for 10, 30, 50 years before the Gospel writers wrote them down.  These are stories that were indeed being remembered by the early Christian story-tellers, based on what they themselves had heard, as told to them by others who were basing their stories on what they had heard, and so on, for decades.

     One of the big “take home” messages I got from this book is that no one really knows what Jesus actually did or said and that the Gospels are just a bunch of invented fiction. Some silly stuff, some profound stuff. But made up, none the less. Thoughts?

            I would not put it that strongly at all.  The Gospels contain oral traditions about Jesus that had been in circulation for many years, and most of these traditions had been shaped and transformed in the processes of telling and retelling.  Some stories were indeed invented.  But that doesn’t mean that there is no historical information in the Gospels.  Quite the contrary, the Gospels do contain a good deal of valuable historical information about Jesus.  One of the tasks of the historian is to determine what is historical and what is legendary.  In my book I explain how historians go about doing that.

        The more I read of your book, the more I found myself actually sympathizing with those scholars out there who say that Jesus never existed at all. That he is pure fiction. And yet you insist, throughout the book, that Jesus did exist. Why? What is your best evidence?

            Ah, that is a big question that would take a big answer.  And in fact I give a big answer in another book that I wrote a few years ago, Did Jesus Exist?  There I show why there is really no question among the vast majority of scholars (with one or two exceptions out of many, many thousands!) that Jesus existed, whatever else we might want to say about what he said and did.

        As you note, Paul’s writings – the earliest Christian writings we have – say almost nothing about Jesus’s biography, deeds, or teachings. Why? Seems to me, it proves that the later Gospel biographies are all made up. Not “memories” at all, but pure inventions. Isn’t the distinction important?

            No, I don’t think that’s true at all.  Paul does tell us some biographical information about Jesus, including some of his teachings.  And among other things, Paul personally knew Jesus’ brother James.  If Jesus didn’t exist, you would think that his brother would know it.  (!)

           I have always believed that anti-Semitism was born in the Christian scriptures. I believe that the seeds of Auschwitz were planted in the Gospel of John. You seem to agree. Thoughts?

          I don’t think that it is that simple.  I would say, indeed, that many early Christians were anti-Jewish.   The opposition to Judaism in earliest Christianity eventually came to involve an opposition to Jews as people in later Christianity.  And without that opposition to Jews as people, we certainly could never have had the history of anti-Semitism as it has come down to us in modern times.  But you can’t have anti-Semitism as a phenomenon prior to the invention of modern anthropological views of “race,” in which Jews were “Semites” and as such were inferior, by blood, to other races (such as the Aryans).  Ancient people simply never, ever thought of it in this way.  Race theories such as those accepted by the Nazis were the invention of modern times.

       Many Christians in America today, as you note, see Jesus as being the embodiment of contemporary American conservatism: for smaller government and less taxes! Against immigration! Against gay rights! For guns! What’s up with that?

            The great Albert Schweitzer, in arguably the most significant book written about Jesus in the twentieth century, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, showed that every generation of scholars that has described Jesus has painted him in their own image.  That is no less true today than in 1906 when he wrote the book.  Conservative Republican American authors who write about Jesus portray him as a Conservative Republican American.  Bill O’Reilly is only the most obvious example.

       I felt throughout the book like you were taking a sort of “soft sell” approach: rather than coming out clearly and strongly declaring that the Gospels are all made up fictions by people who didn’t know or see Jesus, writing many decades after his presumed life, with highly dubious contents, you sort of imply it very carefully, almost gently, throughout the book. For example, rather than call a fairy tale a fairy tale, you call it a “distorted memory.” Is this a conscious tactic on your part, or are you just a nice guy? Or both?

            I certainly am a nice guy.  Well, OK, I certainly try to be a nice guy.   But that’s not the point.  I would say that it is absolutely wrong that the Gospels are “made up fictions.”  If they were that, the authors would have invented all their stories themselves.  But they can be shown not to have done that.  (Evidence: Gospel writers who did not know each other and did not use each others’ books [for example, the author of John did not know Matthew; Q did not know Mark; etc.] tell the same stories; that would not be possible if any one of them made up the stories, since then the others – who are independent -- could not have known the stories)  Instead, they are writing down stories that they have heard.  That means the stories were in oral circulation prior to the authors’ hearing of them.   And so what matters is not the question of why an author would make up a story (since they didn’t do that much if at all) but the question of how stories came to be shaped, transformed, and invented in the oral tradition.  Understanding that can help us not only to know where there are legendary accretions in the Gospels but also to see what the early Christians who passed along and cherished such memories thought, hoped, and believed – a valuable historical exercise.

       One of your main contentions seems to be that Christianity is a religion based on memory: people recalling things that happened way back when. And yet you go to great pains to show that memory is not all that it is cracked up to be. People often remember things inaccurately, groups of people remember things inaccurately, and this is especially true among oral cultures, and over long spans of time. So, in essence, you’re really proving that Christianity does not hold up – at least not in terms of its claims to historical truth. Sure, in terms of philosophy, poetry, ethics, artistry, and human creativity, it holds up just fine. But not in the terms most of its adherents believe and have committed their lives to. Am I right?

            Again, I wouldn’t paint it in black and white terms.  I’m absolutely not saying that Christianity has no historical roots, or that the New Testament does not contain any historical tradition, or that the Gospels are entirely fictional.   Christians can agree with every single thing I say in this book and still be Christian.  It’s true that they would not be able to be fundamentalists who think that the Bible is infallible and historically accurate up and down the line.  The Bible is not that.  The Gospels are not that.  The Gospels are not eyewitness reports by people who are recording with a high degree of accuracy, in the modern sense, what actually happened in the life of Jesus.  They are accounts written decades later by people who were not eyewitnesses who possibly didn’t know anyone who knew anyone who knew anyone who was an eyewitness.   Even if they were written by eyewitnesses, that would not guarantee that they were accurate (as I show based on what scholars have learned about eyewitness testimony). 

But still, they were not written by eyewitnesses.  They were written by unknown authors living many years later who are recording, and editing, stories they heard that had been in circulation by word of mouth for a long time.  If we understand how memory – including memory in oral cultures – works, we will have a far better appreciation of what the Gospels actually are. 

Moreover, even though the memories of Jesus found in these books are sometimes, or even often not historically accurate, that does not rob them of all value.  On the contrary, I argue that it is possible to study memories to understand better why these particular recollections of the past were preserved, cherished, and passed along in the communities that shared them.  That too is an important historical enterprise.

     Towards the end, you conclude that “The Gospels are shared memories of the past” (p.293). No, they are not. They are made up tales of fiction. Your own work proves that, so eloquently. So why not just say that? I found that frustrating. I mean, words have meaning, and when you call a made up fiction a “shared memory,” aren’t you just making things more confusing? More obfuscated? More untrue?

        No, I’m afraid you have misunderstood me.  The Gospels are not fiction in the sense you state.  The authors of these books did not make up their stories about Jesus.  They inherited their stories from the oral tradition.  Most of these stories had been shaped and transformed by their oral transmission; some of them were invented, either with intent or not.  (It is oh so possible for stories to be made up without anyone exercising intentional deceit.  It happens all the time: that’s what rumors are).   But the point is NOT simply that they are a bunch of lies.  That’s not the point at all.  The point is that to understand these books for what they are we have to understand and appreciate how memory works.  If we don’t appreciate how people remember the past, then we privilege dry “fact-checking” over “meaning.”  I argue strongly that we don’t do that normally in our lives and should not do it with the New Testament.  That’s the entire point of my final chapter.

 Can you say a little about your blog and the charitable work it does?

Yes indeed, this is a big part of my life.  The Bart Ehrman Blog has been going for nearly four years now.  It is focused entirely on issues related to the New Testament, the historical Jesus, the Gospels, the apostle Paul, the books that didn’t make it into the New Testament, the apostolic fathers, the history of Christianity up to and including the conversion of the emperor Constantine, and all things related.  I post 5-6 times a week, a thousand words a post, I answer readers’ questions, and I post their comments.

So the deal with the blog is that it costs to join.  The price is $24.95 / year (less for one-month or three-month trials).  But I don’t keep any of the money myself.  I give every dime to charities dealing with hunger and homelessness.   For the amount of money it costs to join – which is less than 50 cents a week! – members get a lot.  And it all goes to good causes.  This past year, I’m pleased to say, we raised over $100,000 for charity.  This year I hope to do much better.  So I hope everyone reading this will consider joining!  Members get a huge benefit, the blog gets a huge benefit, the charities get a huge benefit – it is win, win, win!

Bart D. Ehrman is an expert on the New Testament and history of early Christianity, and author of five New York Times bestsellers. His new book, Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior was published on

Source: HarperCollins

March 1 by HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins, hardcover, $27.99.