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.