Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Bart Ehrman's Jesus before the Gospels (Part 5)

Ehrman begins chapter three of his book, Jesus before the Gospels, referring to a staged event that occurred in 1902. In this event, “a well-known criminologist named von Liszt was delivering a lecture when an argument broke out. One student stood up and shouted that he wanted to show how the topic was related to Christian ethics” (Ehrman 87). A fight ensured, a gun was drawn, and while Professor von Liszt tried to intervene, the gun when off (Ehrman 87). The professor then called the class to order assuring them that the whole scene had been staged as a test of observation and memory. Some students were then asked to write immediately about the event. Others wrote the next day or a week later. Still others were deposed under cross examination. Ehrman then reports that “The most accurate accounts were in error in 26 percent of the details reported. Others were in error as many as 80 percent” (Ehrman, 88). Ehrman concludes that “eyewitnesses are notoriously inaccurate” (Ehrman 88).

Ehrman got this story from a book by Elizabeth Loftus (Eyewitness Testimony, 2nd ed. Cambridge, MA : Harvard Univ. p 20-21). Loftus was quoting from someone named Hugo Munsterberg (On the Witness Stand. New York : Doubleday, 1908; 49-51), and Munsterberg was recalling the event which had been staged by professor von Liszt six years earlier. Unfortunately, Munsterberg gave no further detail on this study so it is difficult to know what to make of the statistics cited. For example, Ehrman didn’t happen to mention that in this study, any “Omissions… wrong additions and alterations” were counted as mistakes (Loftus 20-21). But in recounting any event, different parts of the event may stand out to, and be emphasized by, different people. The fact that two or more people should omit parts of the whole may be due to factors other than memory. Without knowing more about what was omitted or added, or the nature of the alterations, the statistics are not much good.

It would have also been helpful to know what percent of the gist of the story students got accurate.  Students undoubtedly got details wrong, but did any students remember the event entirely differently? Did anyone think the professor shot the student? Did anyone think both students were shot? Did anyone say there was no gunshot at all? My guess is that the gist of the event could have been reconstructed quite well from the eyewitness accounts even though minor details would vary from student to student. Nevertheless, Ehrman uses the story to make the point that “eyewitnesses are notoriously inaccurate” (Ehrman 88).

As an aside, it may also be worth noting that Ehrman is trusting Loftus’ summary of Munsterberg’s memory of von Liszt’s eyewitness account in an effort to show that memory can’t be trusted!

Another study cited by Ehrman related to the crash of an El-Al Boing 707 (Ehrman 89-91). Ehrman cites a study by psychologists Hans Crombag, Willem Wagenaar and Peter Van Koppen regarding a Boeing 707 that crashed into an apartment near Amsterdam in October of 1992 (Hans. F.M. Crombag, Willem A. Wagenaar, and Peter J. Van Koppen, “Crashing Memories and the Problem of ‘Source Monitoring,” Applied Cognitive Psychology, 10, 1996: 95-104).

Ten months after the crash, Crombag and his colleagues surveyed 193 university faculty, staff and students about the accident. Specifically, participants in the survey filled out a questionnaire which asked, “Did you see the television film of the moment the plane hit the apartment building?” (Ehrman 90; Crombag 99). Of the 107 who responded, 55% said yes. Later another questionnaire was given to 93 law students. Ehrman relates that “In this instance 62 (66 percent) of the respondents indicated that they had seen the film. There was just one problem. There was no film” (Ehrman 90). Ehrman concludes that “they were imagining it, based on logical inferences…” (Ehrman 91).

What Ehrman doesn’t mention—and what is only relegated to a footnote in Crombag’s article— is the fact that “some networks showed a schematic computer animation of the movements of the plane between take-off and the moment of impact” (Crombag 95 n.1). A television computer animation could legitimately be considered “a television film.” So those who said they saw the television film were not necessarily mis-remembering a non-existent film. They may have thought the questionnaire was referring to the television computer animation film which did, in fact, exist and was shown on TV. Even though this film “did not show how the plane crashed” it did show “the movements of the plane between take-off and the moment of impact (Crombag, 95 n.1). The existence and airing of the computer animation on TV calls this entire study into question.

The possibility that those taking the questionnaire thought they were being asked about the computer animation is supported by the fact that the researchers were actually puzzled by the fact that it would be very improbable that a video would exist of the actual impact (the study was obviously before 911). They wrote, “only very little critical sense would have made our subjects realize that the implanted information could not possibly be true. We are still at a loss as to why so few of them realized this” (Crombag 103). It is actually quite easy to explain. Those taking the questionnaire thought they were being asked about the television animation film they had seen.

A follow-up study regarding the crash asked more specific questions, for example whether the plane was burning when it crashed, or whether it came in nose up, nose down or vertically, etc. (Crombag 100). Some who answered the questions admitted they had not seen the TV film of the crash. The researchers concluded that “The fact that in Study 2 many of the respondents answered the ‘memory’ questions’ after having admitted that they had not seen the (nonexisting) TV film indicates that they thought that all that mattered was getting it right” (103).
The researchers fail to realize, however, that this also undermines their study. The respondents simply misunderstood what they were being asked. They apparently thought this was a survey about what happened—and they pieced together what happened from memory of the extensive TV coverage of the aftermath of the crash. They were really being asked about what they personally remembered seeing on a television film. 
One of the points made in this article was that “Witnesses in legal trials must therefore be explicitly reminded that they can only testify as to what they know first-hand” (Crombag 103). Those who did the study should have followed their own advice. Were the respondents in Crombag’s study “explicitly reminded” that they were only to answer very specifically regarding what they had actually seen on a TV video (not an animation) of the actual crash—not what they inferred to have happened from videos of the aftermath? There is no way of knowing, therefore, whether these questionnaires were measuring memory or interpretation.

This study was a good reminder for those conducting court trials but has little relevance to historical studies. No one doubts that eyewitnesses get details wrong. What matters is the big picture or “gist” of the story. While the details in Crombag’s study varied, no one to our knowledge questioned the big picture, i.e. that a large plane (not a train or truck) did hit a building (not a soccer stadium) near Amsterdam (not Paris or London) and the result was chaos and disaster!

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Bart Ehrman's Jesus before the Gospels (Part 4)

After attacking the work of Birger Gerhardsson in chapter two of Jesus before the Gospels, Bart Ehrman then focuses on the work of Kenneth Bailey. From decades of work in the Middle East as a missionary, Bailey observed that small villages would tell and re-tell the stories of their community’s history. Only the most knowledgeable and senior members of the community were allowed to tell the stories. They had some degree of freedom to tell the stories in their own words, but the core of the stories had to be accurate or it was considered shameful, and the community would correct them in no uncertain terms. Bailey argued that this model would explain what we see in the Synoptic Gospels in which the core of the stories are the same, but minor details vary from Gospel to Gospel.

Ehrman argued that there was no evidence to show that early Christian communities functioned that way (72-73). Ehrman is right that there is no direct evidence for Bailey’s theory from Jesus’ time, but the value of any hypothesis is its explanatory power—and Bailey’s hypothesis has a lot of explanatory power. Some scholars would argue that Bailey’s theory (especially as refined and elaborated by James Dunn in Jesus Remembered) makes sense of what we see in the Synoptic Gospels better than any other theory ever proposed. At least Bailey’s sources come from Middle Eastern culture and relate to the transmission of history, unlike the Form Criticism model, on which Ehrman seems to rely, which was developed from relatively modern studies on how German folklore was transmitted!

Ehrman asks, “Are we to imagine that eyewitnesses fanned out and rooted themselves in every village of Palestine where someone told stories of Jesus?” (73). Ehrman adds, “according to the New Testament book of Acts, the disciples of Jesus stayed for the most part in Jerusalem once the church had begun after Jesus’ death” (73). Ehrman’s argument is apparently based on Acts 8:1 which says, “On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.” Notice that although the apostles remained headquartered, so to speak, in Jerusalem, believers were “scattered throughout Judea and Samaria” (Acts 8:1). So it is entirely possible—even likely—that those who were “scattered throughout Judea and Samaria” included eyewitnesses who “fanned out and rooted themselves in every village….”

And although the apostles remained headquartered in Jerusalem, that doesn’t mean they never left. Church leaders like Peter, John and Philip traveled throughout the region as well, ministering to churches as they went (Acts 8:25-26; 9:32-38; 10:24). When the church in Antioch got large enough, the apostles sent a representative (Barnabas) to oversee the church (11:22) and when a dispute broke out, representatives from Antioch went up to Jerusalem to discuss the issue with the apostles (Acts 15:1-4). In fact, after his second missionary journey, even Paul may have given account of his ministry to the apostles in Jerusalem (Acts 18:22). In other words, unlike some ancient version of the telephone game, the earliest church had apostles, teachers and other eyewitness who were able to keep the stories of Jesus from wildly spinning out of control. If someone was preaching things about Jesus that wasn’t accurate, there were apostles and eyewitnesses who would certainly correct the story.

Curiously, after seemingly mocking the idea of eyewitnesses in Judean, Samarian and Galilean villages, Ehrman then concedes that false stories would have been corrected. But he finds fault with that too:

Possibly when someone tells a story, someone else corrects him. In fact, that seems more than likely: it almost always happens when one person tells a story that someone else knows. Does this group context for telling the stories ensure that they are accurate? Actually, modern psychological studies suggests that just the opposite is normally the case” (Ehrman 75).

Ehrman says that cognitive psychologists have discovered that “when a group ‘collectively remembers’ something they have all heard or experienced, the ‘whole’ is less than the sum of the ‘parts” (75). In other words, if you interview ten people separately, you will get more information than if you interview them as a group. As proof, Ehrman cites “Collaborative and Social Remembering” by Rebecca Thompson (chapter 9 in Memory in the Real World by Gillian Cohen and Martin Conway, 3rd ed. New York : Psychology Press, 2008).

Citing other research, Thompson stated that nominal groups (groups in name only, in which responses from individuals are added together) did better than collaborative groups (those that actually worked together as a group). Both groups did better than individuals. But Bailey is not talking about eyewitnesses collaboratively working together to remember something. Bailey is taking about someone retelling a story of a community’s history to a group that already knows the story well and is in a position to correct the story if the storyteller makes a mistake. Ehrman seems to be comparing apples to oranges.

Significantly, Ehrman leaves out a couple of other important aspects of Thompson’s article. First, one of the studies cited by Thompson found that when “when collaborating, individuals encoded to-be-remembered items together (in an episodic task) and they actually outperformed the nominal groups” (Thompson, Memory in the Real world, 260). Episodic memory is “recalling things that happened to you personally” as opposed to semantic memory which “involves factual information about the world, quite apart from whether you have personally experienced it” (Ehrman 18). In the case of Bailey’s theory, we are talking about episodic memory, i.e. personal memories of Jesus by the apostles or other eyewitnesses. So by way of application, if the apostles jointly remembered the words and deeds of Jesus during the 40 days they were together before Pentecost, that would increase their memory even above that of a nominal group.

Second, Thompson says “The accuracy of collaborative output has been detrimentally affected in certain situations and improved in others. Using a simulation of a police interrogation, Stephenson et al. (1986) reported an overall higher accuracy of the collaborating groups’ performance compared to individual performance” (Thompson, Memory, 253). The “higher accuracy of the collaborating groups’ performance” seems to contradict the Ehrman’s negative assessment of Bailey.
But all of this is actually a moot point. Ehrman began by asking, “Does this group context for telling the stories ensure that they are accurate? Actually, modern psychological studies suggests that just the opposite is normally the case” (Ehrman 75). As proof, Ehrman cites a quote from Thompson’s article that pertains to the amount of information groups or individuals remember but says nothing about the accuracy of what they remember.

For some reason, Ehrman didn’t quote from the part of Thompson’s article that addresses accuracy. For example, in one of the memory tests that showed lower accuracy, groups of people were shown a picture of “a common household scene, containing a variety of common objects.” They were only allowed to look at the picture for 15 or 60 seconds. When the groups collaborated together to recall what they saw, one member of the group deliberately “recalled” objects that were not there. This negatively affected the accuracy of the group’s memory as some of the other adopted that false memory (Thompson, Memory, 254).

One really has to wonder, however, whether 15 and 60 second showings of a picture in an artificial experiment for which nothing is at stake and in which false information is deliberately inserted, is analogous to memories of the life and teachings of Jesus by disciples whose lives were on the line. After all, Jesus had just been executed—his disciples had every reason to be concerned they could be next! Not only that, but an experiment in which people are asked to recall details of pictures of common items they had seen for less than 60 seconds, is certainly not comparable to the rememberances of Jesus’ apostles, or other eyewitnesses of Jesus (like some of the women) who traveled with him for up to three years and heard him preach, teach and explain the same or similar things over and over and over again! Besides, Thompson’s article presented no indication that the overall memories of the pictures were inaccurate, only that a few details had be deliberately inserted. 

Although Ehrman didn’t cite this part of Thompson’s article, it is important to keep this study in mind when you read of psychological studies that supposedly demonstrate the unreliability of memory.
Ehrman continues,

“But there are bigger problems with group memories. They are often more frail and faulty than individual memories—just the opposite of what you might expect. For one thing, if one person—say, a dominant personality—injects into the conversation an incorrect recollection or ‘distorted memory’ that others in the group do not remember, they tend to take the other person’s word for it. As one recent study has shown, ‘The misinformation implanted by one person comes to be shared by the group as a whole. In other words, a collective memory could become formed around misinformation. Misinformation shared by one person may be adopted by the rest’ (Ehrman, 75-76).

As an example, Ehrman cited a study that “found that 65 percent of the participants actually changed their views because of social pressure exerted on them (not necessarily consciously) by the group as a whole. About 40 percent of these errors were ‘persistent,’ that is, they became ‘permanent’ memories of those who actually did not at first have them” (Ehrman 76, citing Micah Edelson, Tali Sharot, Raymond Dolan, and yadin Dudai, “Following the Crowd: Brain Substrates of Long-Term Memory Conformity,” Science 333 (2011: 108-111)).

In this test, 30 participants were shown “an eyewitness-style documentary on a large screen in groups of five.” Three days later they took a memory test. Four days after that, they were given the same memory test, but this time they were deliberately misled, being told that four others in the group gave a different answer than they had. One week later they were given the same memory test again, but first they were accurately informed that they had been misled about the group’s answers.

The result was that the “participants conformed to the majority opinion in 68.3 +_ 2.9% of the manipulation trials, giving a false answer to questions they had previously answered correctly…When the social influence was removed (test 3), participants reverted to their original correct answer in 59.2 +_2.3% of the previously conformed trials (transient errors) but maintained erroneous answers in 40.8% (persistent errors). (Edelson et al., 108). The experiment demonstrated that social pressure can lead people to conform to the group. In the case of this experiment, the social pressure came when some test subjects were deliberately misled about answers from others in the group.

No one argues, however, that intruders had infiltrated the group of apostles and deliberately inserted false memories of Jesus, so this experiment has little if any relevance to Bailey’s theory. On the other hand, the social pressure discovered in this experiment is a double-edged sword that could cut both ways. In the experiment false information was deliberately communicated to the participant. Apart from an artificially concocted experiment, a more likely scenario would be that someone in a group mis-remembered something she saw and the group corrected her. The social pressure from the group may actually cause her to conform to the group’s accurate remembrance. This seems much more analogous to the scenarios proposed by Bailey in which everyone in the group knows the story so if the one telling the story changes the story significantly, the group will correct him.

In real life scenarios in which people are motivated to get the story right (these early Christians were, after all, basing their lives on accurate rememberances of the ministry and teachings of Jesus), it would seem that the social pressure may have actually served to preserve the accuracy of the stories of Jesus. Ehrman’s conclusion that, “It seems that the idea of a group ensuring the accuracy of traditions is not psychologically defensible” (76), is simply not warranted by the psychological evidence he cites in Edelson’s article.

These, of course, are not the only studies of eyewitness memories cited by Ehrman. I’ll discuss more of them in the next post.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Bart Ehrman's "Jesus before the Gospels" (Part 3)

In Jesus before the Gospels, Bart Ehrman asks the question, “wouldn’t Jesus’ followers have memorized his teachings and made sure that the stories about his life were not altered as they were told and retold” (66)? In a nutshell, his answer is no. Ehrman critiques of the work of Birger Gerhardsson who argued that Jesus’ followers would have memorized Jesus’ teachings just like the students of other Jewish rabbis (66). Ehrman discusses what he thinks are several problems with Gerhardsson’s views.

First, Ehrman points out that Gerhardsson gets his information about rabbinic teaching methods from about 200 years after the time of Jesus. Ehrman says Gerhardsson is “reading back into an earlier period information that we have for only a much later time” (68). That is true, since we don’t have much information about Jewish teaching methods during Jesus’ time. But on the other hand, it could be argued that Ehrman is thinking like a 21st century American, not like an ancient Middle Eastern Jew. Things change rapidly in 21st century America. Some things have been invented and have become obsolete just during the course of my own lifetime. Eight track tapes, for example, were invented, became obsolete, and were replaced by cassette tapes which have also become obsolete!

By contrast, things changed very slowly in the ancient world in which someone might live their entire life without any new inventions affecting their life in any way. So it is very probable that the use of memory by Rabbis’ disciples 200 years after Jesus’ time had not changed at all. How else would they learn other than memory? Books were very expensive in the ancient world so people often learned by memory. In fact, when the Pilgrims came to America in the early 1600’s, memory was still a big part of education. Two hundred years later in the early 1800’s, memory continued to be a big part of education. Why would we think it would be different from Jesus’ time to 200 years after Jesus’ time?

Ehrman also says that “there is nothing in the tradition to suggest that Jesus was a Rabbi in the later technical sense—or that anyone at all was in his day” (68). Before I went to Russia I was told that only Russian Orthodox clergy were allowed to be called Professors of religion. I taught a Christology class to seminary students. The fact that I couldn’t technically be called a “Professor” in the accepted Russian sense, did not make me any less of a professor in reality. Similarly, regardless of whether Jesus was a Rabbi in any later technical sense of the word, he was certainly a teacher and there is no reason to think that some of his students couldn’t or wouldn’t have memorized his teachings!

Finally, Gerhardsson responded to critics saying:

Many critics, however, believed and said that I simply tried to read back into the period before 70 the developed rabbinic techniques of about A.D. 200, and that I imposed the academic methods of the rabbis on the popular preachers of early Christianity; they rejected my whole argument, without further discussion, as anachronistic and inadequate. This is not a correct account of my standpoint or method; nor is it a fruitful way of discussing a complex problem (Birger Gerhardsson. Memory & Manuscript…with Tradition & Transmission in Early Christianity. Grand Rapids : Eerdmans, 1998, xiii).

The same criticism would apply to Ehrman. In fact, one of Gerhardsson’s critics, Jacob Neusner, a world-renowned expert in ancient Judaism, later took back his criticism. He even wrote the forward to a later edition of Gerhardsson’s Memory & Manuscript endorsing the book and explaining that he had previously not read it carefully enough (Gerhardsson, Memory, xxvii-xxix). Perhaps Ehrman would benefit by reading Gerhardsson more carefully.

Second, Ehrman points out that “the striking differences in the words and deeds of Jesus as reported in the Gospels is compelling evidence precisely that they were not memorized and passed along without significant change” (69). But just because I may memorize something does not mean that I just parrot what I memorized in my teaching and writing. I may summarize and synthesize what I had memorized and teach the essence of what I had memorized in my own words. In his massive book, Jesus Remembered, James Dunn argues persuasively that the earliest followers of Jesus re-told the core of stories about Jesus accurately and reliably, but in their own words. Dunn’s theory, which he defends admirably, has a lot of explanatory power when it comes to what we actually see in the Gospels. It can explain why the stories in the Synoptic Gospels are sometimes word-for-word identical as well as why they often have minor differences. It does not exclude the possibility of memorization.

Third, Ehrman says that Gerhardsson’s view “does not take seriously the realities of how traditions of Jesus were being circulated in the early church” (70). Ehrman says the stories about Jesus “had been in circulation for decades, not simply among disciples who allegedly memorized Jesus’ words and deeds, but also among all sorts of people, most of whom had never laid eyes on an eyewitness or even on anyone else who had” (70). 

Ehrman, of course, would explain away the facts that Luke claims to have been in touch with eyewitnesses (Luke 1:1-3), the Gospel of John claims to have been written by an eyewitness (John 21), and several early church leaders say that Mark got his information from Peter. But aside from that, Ehrman is simply parroting the old, discredited Form critical theory that the Gospel writers really knew nothing at all about Jesus and were simply collecting folk traditions about Jesus from all kinds of sources—regardless of whether those sources were reliable or not, or whether they actually knew anything about Jesus or not. This makes me think of some modern TV reporter with a microphone asking random people, “Who do you think Jesus was?”

As I mentioned in my first post (and I cited a few sources as examples), this Form criticism theory has been thoroughly refuted! Someone once commented that if Form Criticism was correct, the early disciples of Jesus must have all been raptured right after his resurrection since they apparently had no influence whatsoever on how Jesus words and works were remembered, taught and transmitted.

My intent is not to endorse everything Gerhardsson wrote. I tend to think the model proposed by Baily and Dunn are closer to the truth. But regardless of whether Jesus’ disciples actually memorized his teachings or not, we need to remember that Jesus’ disciples were not like modern college students who may take a class from a professor one hour a day three times a week. Jesus’s disciples traveled with him, lived with him, and heard him preach and teach the same or similar things over and over and over again in villages throughout Galilee and elsewhere. Then, as they spent hours and hours walking along the roads or resting in the evenings, they had plenty of time to discuss these things since they did not have TV, radio, video games or even books to eat up their time. After two or three years of this, something was bound to sink in even if not by formal memory!

After the disciples were convinced that Jesus had actually risen from the dead, they began preaching and teaching about Jesus throughout the villages of Judea, Samaria and Galilee. Judging from what we can gather from Acts and some of Paul’s letters, they continued this leadership role for decades! The essence of what they taught was eventually written down in our Gospels which are the earliest extant records of the words and works of Jesus.

No one, of course, thinks Mark and Luke were written by eyewitnesses and whether Matthew and John were written by eyewitnesses is disputed. But contrary to Ehrman, there is no good reason to doubt, and very good reasons to believe, that the Gospels contain reliable—even eyewitness—records of the ministry and teaching of Jesus.

But are eyewitness memories reliable? I haven’t forgotten about the psychological studies on memory cited by Ehrman. We’ll get to them.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Bart Ehrman's Jesus before the Gospels (part 2)

In Jesus before the Gospels, Bart Ehrman cites numerous psychological studies demonstrating the unreliability of memory. As I read many of the research articles he cited, it occurred to me that the degree of reliability (or unreliability) in such memory studies is directly related to the specificity of the questions asked. The more eyewitness studies deal with minutia, the more unreliable memory will be seen to be.

For example, consider the case of the Jamar Clark shooting in Minnesota. Eyewitnesses differed on whether Clark was handcuffed in front, in back, on one hand or whether he was handcuffed at all. But none of the eyewitnesses (to my knowledge) disputed the central story: Clark beat up his girlfriend who called 911. She was treated in an ambulance while he was outside yelling. The police came and a struggle ensued resulting in Clark being shot and killed by one of the officers. Eyewitnesses differ on the details but agreed on the gist of the story.

Similarly, although scholars often delight in pointing out minor discrepancies in the stories regarding Jesus’ crucifixion, virtually all Jesus scholars (even the most critical) would acknowledge as historical fact that Jesus was tried by Jewish authorities and handed over to Pontius Pilate who had Jesus beaten and crucified. Most, I think, would even affirm that Jesus’ tomb was later found empty by some women and that early Christians came to believe that he had risen from the dead!

In the numerous research articles I read on memory, virtually all of the researchers seemed interested in demonstrating how terribly unreliable memory is. And yet each of the researchers cited by Ehrman presumably remembered where and how to eat breakfast, where and how to get to work, who their coworkers and colleagues were, how to communicate with them, how to operate their computers and word processing programs, where and when to eat lunch, how to get home, and the many, many minor cultural conventions necessary to understand daily interactions and to avoid offending others.

There are thousands and thousands of things we remember accurately every day, including things from our past. When we start failing to remember these things we get tested for various forms of dementia! But in spite of the fact that Ehrman gives two or three statements affirming the reliability of “gist memory,” the bulk of his book—and the research he cites—focuses on the times when memory fails leading to the impression that the Gospels are terribly unreliable (I’ll leave it to those who know him personally to conclude whether this impression was intentional or not). 

Many recent studies on the historical Jesus have shown that we actually can know quite a bit about Jesus as a person of history and that we have good reason to believe that the Gospels are quite reliable.

In future posts I will get down into the weeds of some of the memory studies Ehrman cites in his book.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Bart Ehrman's "Jesus before the Gospels" (Part 1)

The subtitle of Bart Ehrman’s new book, Jesus before the Gospels, summarizes the content in a nutshell: “How the earliest Christians remembered, changed, and invented their stories of the savior.” I plan to eventually write an article responding to Ehrman’s book but in the meantime I thought I’d just post some random observations. Here is the first.

It is important to note that conservative, Evangelical Bible scholars do not generally believe that the Gospels contain anything like word-for-word transcripts of Jesus’ teachings. With regard to Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels, scholars distinguish between ippsima verba (exact words) and ippsima vox (exact voice). Conservative scholars generally deny the first but hold to the second. Ippsima vox is the idea that what we have in the Gospels is the accurate sense or “gist” of what Jesus taught.

Ehrman’s view of how Jesus’ teachings were transmitted is that the Gospels contain “memories of later authors who had heard about Jesus from others, who were telling what they had heard about Jesus from others, who were telling what they heard from yet others. They are memories of memories of memories” (3). Ehrman is relying on an outdated model called “Form Criticism” which has been convincingly discredited (See for example, Paul Eddy and Gregory Boyd, The Jesus Legend. Grand Rapids : Baker, 237-268. See also Dale Allison, Constructing Jesus. Grand Rapids : Baker, 2010, 1-30.  N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God. Minneapolis : Fortress Press, 1992, 418-435. James Dunn, Jesus Remembered, 125-133).

The fact is that Ehrman is actually just stating opinion (which I would argue is based on an outdated theory!). He simply does not know that that the Gospel writers “were telling what they had heard about Jesus from others, who were telling what they heard from yet others…” (3). Contrary to Ehrman and the critics, the writer of the Gospel of Luke claims to have heard from eyewitnesses (Luke 1:1-3) and the Gospel of John claims to have been written by an eyewitness. The second century Christian writer Papias confirms this. James Dunn (Jesus Remembered) and Richard Bauckham (Jesus and the Eyewitnesses) have argued persuasively that although the Gospels were not written by eyewitnesses, they are the product of eyewitness remembrances. Of course Ehrman tries to discredit these writers but I think he does so unfairly and superficially.

Jesus’ teachings were remembered by disciples who lived and traveled with Jesus, probably for up to three years, hearing him preach and teach the same messages over and over and over again as they went from village to village—explaining those messages in more detail when they were alone (remember, unlike modern college students, they didn’t have TV, radio, or video games to eat up their time--and books were too expensive)!

Did the disciples remember the exact words (ippsima verba) of Jesus? Not necessarily, though in some cases they may have (There is evidence from after the time of Jesus that some Rabbi’s had students who would use a form of shorthand to record their teacher’s instruction, and then commit that teaching to memory). Did Jesus’ disciples remember the essence or gist (ippsima vox) of what Jesus taught? Even Bart Ehrman concedes that “gist memory” can be accurate. He writes, “Our own memories are, on the whole, reasonably good. If they weren’t, we would not be able to function, or even survive, as human beings in a very complex world” (3). “Let me stress again: most of the time our memories are pretty good. Otherwise we couldn’t function as individuals or society” (20-21).

So I guess the bottom line is that in the process of writing a 326 page book leaving the impression that eyewitness memory in general and the Gospels in particular, are thoroughly unreliable, Ehrman throws in two or three statements here and there emphasizing that “gist memory” is actually “pretty good.” Evangelicals agree.

But what about Inerrancy, an idea Ehrman doesn’t address but would undoubtedly mock? How can the Gospels be without error if most of what they contain is just “gist memory”?  The answer is that something does not have be recited word-for-word to be accurate and without error. Summaries can accurate and without error too. Of course we can’t prove the Gospels are without error—Many Evangelicals take that on faith based on what Jesus teaches about Scripture and what Scripture teaches about itself—but there is no good reason to doubt—and very good reasons to believe—that the Gospels contain reliable memories of the words and works of Jesus, Bart Ehrman notwithstanding. More on this later.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

How dare you question someone else's faith!

Both Barack Obama and Donald Trump consider themselves to be Christians. Those who have had the audacity to call their claims into question have often stirred a firestorm of criticism. Faith is often seen as a very private thing which no one has the right to challenge or question. I would suggest that the difference of opinion stems in part from two different ways of understanding faith and Christianity. For lack of better terms, I will call these two viewpoints “Traditional Christianity” and “Progressive Christianity.”

Traditional Christianity

Traditional Christianity crosses denominational boundaries and has always taught that all human beings have sinned against God. Our sinfulness manifests itself in specific attitudes, thoughts and actions, but is more deeply rooted in ultimate allegiances to power, glory, honor, wealth, religion, family, self, entertainment—anything but absolute allegiance to the God of the Bible! This sinfulness has separated us from a holy God and results in his wrath against us. No amount of good works on our part can make up for our rebellion. By ourselves, our situation would be hopeless.

The solution, however, was provided by God Himself who became human in the person of Jesus Christ, lived among us as a perfect example, and died a torturous death as an atoning sacrifice in our place. God applies the benefit of this sacrifice—a right standing before Him—to all who repent of their sin and turn in faith to Jesus as their lord and king.

Repentance is often misunderstood. To repent is not just being sorry we’ve sinned. To repent means to have a change of mind or a change of heart. A repentant heart is one that no longer looks at sin as merely a mistake. It no longer relativizes sin as if the fact that I’m not as bad as others somehow excuses me. It no longer excuses sin as the fault of my environment, or circumstances or genetics, or parents. Repentance emotionally and intellectually comes to grips with the fact that I have rebelled against a holy God and am without excuse. This heart attitude, coupled with a sincere desire to change, is repentance.

Faith is also widely misunderstood. Biblical saving faith is not just believing certain facts about Jesus, like his deity or resurrection—as important as those facts are. Even demons have that kind of “faith”! Saving faith is not just trusting that God is going to take you to heaven. Jesus said that many on judgment day will say to him, “Lord, Lord…”, but he will say to them, “Depart, you workers of iniquity.” Biblical saving faith is a heart attitude of loving devotion/ commitment/ dedication/ allegiance, to Jesus Christ as Savior, Lord and King; trusting him alone to make us right with God. This kind of repentance/faith cannot help but result in a change that produces increasing obedience to Jesus, our King, resulting in love, kindness and compassion (theologians call this “sanctification”). Biblically speaking, repentance and faith are like two sides of the same coin. Repentance turns from sin. Faith turns toward Jesus.

Although some traditionalists will quibble with my wording, I would argue that this gospel has basically been the core teaching of Christianity for 2,000 years, precisely because it is so thoroughly and solidly rooted in the New Testament. Admittedly, this teaching has been widely distorted at times by both Catholics and Protestants. For example, many in the Roman Catholic Church have, throughout history, seemingly substituted good works, or adherence to rituals, or commitment to “the Church” for genuine devotion to Christ. Among Protestants, John Calvin, once denounced those who have no devotion toward God and yet falsely think they are saved just because they intellectually believe certain doctrines. The view Calvin denounced is still wide-spread in contemporary Christianity. But these are distortions of Traditional (biblical) Christianity.

Progressive Christianity

A second kind of “Christianity” is what I will call, “Progressive Christianity.” This also crosses denominational boundaries but tends to be found more in old, mainline denominations. In his book, The Heart of Christianity, Marcus Borg calls this the “emerging paradigm.” This is misleading, however, since Borg’s “emerging paradigm” is pretty much the same as “liberal” or “modernist” Christianity and has been around for over two hundred years. Progressive Christianity tends to deny what Traditionalists have—for almost two thousand years—seen to be core doctrines of the Christian faith—e.g. the inspiration of Scripture, the deity of Christ, the atoning sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, and the bodily resurrection, etc. In Progressive Christianity, the core ideas of sin, repentance and final judgment tend to be ignored, downplayed, denied or even denounced. Progressive Christianity is primarily, if not exclusively, concerned with being kind, compassionate, loving, tolerant and non-judgmental towards everyone (the book by Marcus Borg cited above gives a detailed explanation and defense of this view). In this view, faith is not so much loving devotion to a person but a feeling or preference for a particular religious worldview. How dare anyone call in to question your personal preference!

Evangelicalism once stood firmly in the line of Traditional Christianity, though in recent times, many evangelicals seem more like practicing progressives. What I mean is that while these progressive evangelicals technically still hold to core tenets of the faith, they tend to shy away from teaching doctrine, and they ignore or downplay ideas like sin, repentance and final judgment. Preaching on sin and repentance may seem too judgmental, intolerant and politically incorrect to Progressive congregations. Like the liberal version of Progressive Christianity, the evangelical version seems to focus largely on tolerance, love, and compassion.


Of course, love and compassion are essential features of any version of Christianity, but the Progressive version is problematic. First, traditional Christianity places a great deal of emphasis on biblical standards of honesty, ethics, biblical morality etc. In the book cited above, Marcus Borg characterizes this as an emphasis on purity rather than on compassion. The problem is that when compassion and tolerance are separated from biblical standards or “purity,” they quickly descend into inconsistent and sometimes even hypocritical relativism.

Secular progressives, for example, loudly preach tolerance, and yet they are often among the most intolerant people on the planet—showing tolerance only toward the views they support! Being compassionate toward someone (e.g., a rapist) may unintentionally involve being uncompassionate toward someone else (e.g. his victim). Non-discrimination toward one group may necessarily involve discrimination toward another. Love, compassion and tolerance must be rooted in absolutes—what Borg decries as “purity” standards, which Traditionalists find in the Bible—or else the result is often inconsistent relativism.

Second, unless love and compassion flow out of a heart of repentance and loving devotion (faith) toward Jesus Christ, our acts of love and compassion are really nothing more than the kind of works-righteousness or works-salvation denounced so strongly by the Apostle Paul. Paul strongly and repeatedly insisted that no one is saved by the good works they do, but only by God’s grace through faith in Christ. Besides, if our ultimate allegiance (faith) is not to Jesus as King, then any good works we do are but “filthy rags” to God since they would be coming from a heart which is ultimately in rebellion against God.

Finally, the idea of faith as a feeling or personal preference is a modern viewpoint congenial to modern pluralist sensibilities in which would be loath to place any one “faith” or religion over another (except by way of personal preference). It is certainly not, however, the viewpoint which, according to the New Testament, was taught by Jesus and apostles. According to the Gospel of John, Jesus taught, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.” 

It is hard for me to avoid the conclusion, therefore, that the apostles and very earliest followers of Jesus would have considered many modern “Progressive Christians”—whether of the liberal version or the “evangelical” version—to be Christians in name only. And when I look at the "fruit" of the words and deeds of Barack Obama and Donald Trump, I find it hard to believe that the apostles would have considered either of them to be Christian.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Trusting God with tomorrow

I was listening to someone on the radio this morning telling listeners to trust God more with the events in their lives. The message seemed to be that if we just trust God enough he will make everything turn out OK for us. I’ve heard this message numerous times from well-meaning Christians.

My question is: So how did that work out for Jesus? Didn’t he trust the Father enough? Is that why he was mocked, beaten, and tortured to death?  What about Paul? He was flogged, stoned, shipwrecked, beaten with rods, threatened with death and often went without adequate water, food, shelter and clothing. Wasn’t he trusting God enough?  What about the Christians who were imprisoned, starved, tortured and eventually killed in Nazi prison camps? Didn’t any of them trust God enough?

So what happened? Did God fail them?

Not at all! I just think many American Christians have an unbiblical, Pollyanna, view of trusting God with the future. Trusting God with our future is not about trusting hard enough that God will make our life turn out better from our perspective. God never promised that this life would be easy. In fact, tomorrow may turn out terribly from our perspective (First Peter 1:6; 4:12)!

But—and this is where trust comes in—we should pray earnestly and trust God to strengthen and empower us to get through whatever tomorrow may bring—good or bad, wonderful or terrible! We must also trust that, regardless of appearances, we serve an all loving, all powerful God who will make all things ultimately (if not in this life, then in the next) work out for the good of those who love him (Romans 8:28).

In the meantime, Jesus taught that we should concern ourselves first and foremost with the Kingdom of God and not to worry about tomorrow—“each day has enough trouble of its own” (Matthew 7:25-34). This doesn’t mean that we should stop planning for tomorrow or that we shouldn’t take necessary precautions (see, for example, Proverbs). But when it comes to worry, we should take one day at a time.

In a recent reality-based movie starring Tom Hanks, a spy had been captured and was facing possible death. Tom Hanks’ character asked the spy—three separate times throughout the movie, as I recall—if he was worried. The matter-of-fact response each time was, “would it help?” 

Of course not! We can plan or take precautions for the possibilities of tomorrow—we can even try to influence how tomorrow may turn out—but it just will not help in any way to worry about tomorrow (so easy to write, so hard to do—I’m still working on it).

But don’t trust God to make this life easier. He never promised he would, in fact, quite the contrary (e.g. 2 Timothy 3:12).