"Jesus Before the Gospels"
RON’S REVIEW OF NEW BART EHRMAN BOOK ENTITLED,
Jesus Before the Gospels; How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented their Stories of the Savior
Have you ever wondered if all the Gospel stories about Jesus were true? We all know that they were oral stories passed on over the years and decades after Jesus died. Could there have been any changes or exaggerations in his life, his parables, or his miracles as the stories about him were passed from one person to another over dinner or in the marketplace before any written accounts were written down—decades later?
If we think about it, the real answer is, of course. Think about how stories grow today from person to person to person. It is a natural state of affairs, and it was no different two thousand years ago.
I know that some of you reading this will flinch when I tell you that I’m reviewing a book called, Jesus Before the Gospels; How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented their Stories of the Savior, by Bart Ehrman, and some of you will put up your walls.
Your mind is saying, “I’m not listening to this nonsense. I believe every work in the Gospels and I won’t hear of anything that tries to dissuade me from that belief.” After all, a true Christian doesn’t question the bedrock of our faith as recorded in the New Testament, especially the Gospels which were eye whiteness accounts of those that followed and recorded the sayings and deeds of the Messiah.” Right?
No, that’s not right!
Hang in there. A simple review of the Gospels tells us that there were different memories of the same stories recorded in different Gospels, so one, or several, of them have to be incorrect. Right? That’s just common sense. When two gospels tell the same story, but they are different in their meaning and message, then something is wrong.
Memories are a funny thing, and modern research into how we remember events in our life is fascinating. This book takes us on a journey through how this works with the life and teachings of Jesus.
Because I don’t have the author here with me today, I’m going to use many of his words to walk you through parts of this extraordinary book. But, trust me, I’ll be leaving out much of what you need to explore for yourself.
Ehrman surveys the ways that Jesus was remembered by Christians after he had died. He says, “We need always to remember that memories do not need to be historically accurate to be vivid and meaningful. The distorted memories of Jesus—by which I mean memories that are not accurate in the strictly historical sense—are just as real to those who hold and share them as true memories,” And I might add, that this was true then for the early followers, as well as now, two thousand years later.
When I say the word Gospels, we immediately think of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, but there were many Gospels circulating in the early decades of Christianity. Some of these Gospels might have been composed as early as the canonical Gospels themselves, and if true, one or more of these remembrances were composed closer in time to Jesus than Matthew, Mark, Luke or John.
This early Gospels reflected the “memories” of Jesus, and some were supposedly written by the Apostles or the followers of the first Apostles themselves. They were accepted as holy Gospels by tens, if not hundreds of thousands of people in the early decades and centuries of the faith. The Proto-Gospel of James as an example (“proto” meaning the events that took place before Jesus’s birth). It shaped the way Christians remembered Jesus and his parents for hundreds of years. These stories (although not in any of the four Canonical gospels) are part of written history. They were excised over time and considered anathema as early church leaders decided what should or should not be read within the ever more powerful church. But none of those decision makers every came within a hundred years of any person that lived when Jesus was alive.
As an example, in this Proto-Gospel of James that I mentioned, the birth of Jesus is recounted. It states that the earth stood still at the moment of Jesus’s birth. Let me quote from the author, “In some ways, for centuries this book affected how Christians remembered the events surrounding Jesus’s birth more than the books of the New Testament.
“As interesting as all its stories are—and most of them are highly interesting indeed—none is more intriguing to modern readers than the story of Jesus’s birth itself. In this account, as Joseph and Mary are nearing Bethlehem, she goes into labor. Joseph hurriedly finds a private place for her to give birth, in a cave. He leaves her there to go off to find a midwife. And then a miracle happens. As he is walking, Joseph suddenly sees time stand still. The birds in the air have stopped moving in midflight; in the field before him workers taking their lunch break have frozen in place, with their hands in a bowl or part-way up to their mouths; a shepherd is stopped immobile while reaching out his rod to strike the sheep. But ‘then suddenly everything returned to its normal course.’ The world had ground to a halt in honor of the Son of God, who has now become human.”
In addition to people wanting to know what Jesus was like before he was born, they also wanted to know what he was like as a child… and so the void was filed by creative writers who wrote in the name of well-known Apostles (such as James, the brother of Jesus, as well as the Apostles Thomas and Peter… and more that we don’t have time to list).
One of the very popular stories comes from the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. It purports to relate events from the life of Jesus from the age of about 5 to 12.
Quoting from Ehrman’s book:
“It begins with Jesus as a five-year old, playing by a stream. He decides to gather some of the muddy water together into a pool; he then orders it to become pure—and it happens instantaneously at his word. He then shapes twelve sparrows out of the mud. A Jewish man walking by, however, sees what he has done and becomes incensed: it is the Sabbath, and Jesus has violated the Law of Moses that forbids work on that day. The man hurries off to tell Jesus’s father, Joseph, who comes to the stream and sees Jesus with the mud sparrows. He too is angry and asks Jesus why he has done such a thing. Jesus looks at his father, looks at the sparrows, and then claps his hands and says ‘Begone!’ The sparrows come to life and fly off chirping.
This is a great story. Not only has Jesus shown that he is both the Lord of the Sabbath and the Lord of life, he has also destroyed all evidence of malfeasance. Sparrows? What sparrows?
In the next story we see why some readers detect a mean streak in the boy Jesus. Another child, the son of a Jewish scribe, is playing with him at the stream, and he decides to take a willow branch and scatter the water that Jesus has gathered together and purified. Jesus gets angry. He turns to the boy and tells him that he too will wither like a tree with no water and will never grow root or bear fruit. The child is withered on the spot. His parents come and carry him away bemoaning his lost youth.
Jesus’s reputation with his townsfolk does not improve from one story to the next. In the following account he is walking through his village and another boy who is running past accidentally bumps into his shoulder. Jesus is aggravated and announces, ‘You will go no further on your way.’ The boy falls down, dead.”
Most of us would say that these stories are absolute fantasy, but no so with many early Christians. They rang as true, and seemed as possible to them as Jesus walking on water, curing a man that was blind, causing evil spirits to invade a herd of pigs and causing them to all commit suicide by jumping over a cliff. A miracle is a miracle, is a miracle after-all.
Is one memory of a miracle more trustworthy than another? Or, are we just used to the miracles listed in our four canonical Gospels?
Many of you have recently heard about the Gospel of Thomas in the news. It is a very early Gospel that was discovered in the deserts of Egypt, where the dry sands have preserved these delicate and rare finds. The earliest versions of this Gospel could be as old, or older, than the 4 canonical gospels themselves.
The Gospel of Thomas is what is called a “Sayings Gospel,” meaning that there is no storyline, just remembered sayings by Jesus. We think that the earliest written records of Jesus’s teachings were probably like James, collections of sayings of Jesus. These were the pithy memorable words, parables and aphorisms that were easy to remember as they were passed along from mouth to ear over and over again before someone of learning (not from Palestine, and certainly not an Apostle because they were all illiterate) wrote them down in Greek. Later, with people wanting to know more about the life of Jesus, the infill was added to give them meaning. In addition to Thomas, many of these sayings were also included in the missing Gospel called “Q” from which Matthew and Luke drew upon to compose their Gospels.
Here are a couple of examples that come from the Gospel According to Thomas (remember this is not to be confused with the Infancy Gospel of Thomas). I’m quoting here from Ehrman’s book.
“The Gospel of Thomas consists entirely of sayings of Jesus, 114 of them altogether. Among these sayings there are certainly some—a lot, in fact—that will sound familiar to anyone conversant with the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In a way quite similar to these other Gospels, Jesus delivers the following teachings:
But he is also remembered saying things that strike most readers as highly puzzling, to say the least. The following examples can illustrate the point:
Or there is the saying that is probably the most perplexing, famous, and possibly offensive to modern sensibilities of them all, the one that ends the collection:
Did Jesus really kill his playmates when they got on his nerves? Did he really tame a group of dragons, or bless the lions who ate humans so as to become human? Did he really say, ‘females are not worthy of the life’?
Were some of these stories just made up out of whole cloth or, are some of these stories just a product of stories being told, stories growing over time; are they faulty, exaggerated, or even false memories? Remember, about half of these sayings from the Gospel of Thomas are also in the Gospels that we know as “inerrant and revealed.”
Of course we can dismiss any and all stories that aren’t included in Matthew, Mark, Luke or John, but what about the canonical Gospels, could they have elements of faulty memories too? It’s something to think about.
The author says, “It is interesting that so many people can instantly recognize distorted memories about Jesus from outside the New Testament, but cannot see them inside of it. I suppose it is for the same reason that readers of the Bible typically do not see discrepancies in the New Testament Gospels themselves until someone points them out to them.”
Any time you have two or more irreconcilable accounts, they cannot all be historically accurate. Someone, then, is changing or inventing the stories. It isn’t that this necessarily means that the Gospel writers themselves were doing it, they were, for the most part, imparting the traditions that came down to them; and it’s important to remember, that none of them were written by eye witnesses, not even by people that knew the eye witnesses themselves, but by people who knew people, who knew people, that knew eye witnesses.
The authors of the Gospels—all of them—wrote down stories that had been passed along by word of mouth for years and decades before they were encapsulated within their own accounts. For that reason, when the Gospel writers produced their accounts, they were not simply inventing the stories themselves; but they were also not recording what actually happened based on direct testimony. They were stringing together stories that had long been circulating among the Christian communities.
I cite the opening from the Gospel of Luke as an example of what I’m saying:
“Dear Friend who loves God.
Several biographies of Christ have already been written using as their source material the reports circulating among us from the early disciples and other eyewitnesses.
However, it occurred to me that it would be well to recheck all these accounts from first to last and after thorough investigation to pass this summary on to you…”
Ultimately most of the stories they retold must have come from oral traditions, as followers of Jesus told and retold stories about him, starting while he was alive and then even more after he died. These oral traditions were in circulation year after year, and decade after decade, before they were inherited by the authors of our Gospels and finally written down. In Luke’s case, his Gospel was probably written near the end of the first century, in the Greek language, and in a Greek city that was a long way away from Jesus’s homeland and decades after those people that knew him personally had died.
We think that less than 5% of the population at that time could read or write, so we know that any stories that we now have as to what Jesus said and did were passed down for decades orally; and when that happens, stories change and grow.
For even if someone in a village hears a few stories about Jesus from an eye witness, he or she then passes the story along to family or friends, who then in turn go home at night and tell the stories to their families at dinner or friends in the marketplace the next day, who tell their friends, and on it goes, with the stories gaining amplitude as they move through time. Like the disciples, the persons that passed the stories on were probably lower-class Aramaic-speaking Jews in rural Palestine. That is where Jesus taught. They were not literate. They were not educated. They were poor. They didn’t have the time, money, inclination, or wherewithal to travel around the world—and except for Peter, to a limited extent, neither did the disciples themselves.
Finally, someone, who lived somewhere in the Greco-Roman world, other than in Palestine, decided (like Luke tells us) to gather the stories that were circulating at that time in his part of the world and write them down. And, we can tell from their writing, none of the writers of the Gospels read or wrote or spoke Aramaic, their language was Greek, and their lands were other than Palestine.
As another example, the Gospel of John was traditionally written by the Apostle John, the son of Zebedee. Are we really supposed to believe that John, a peasant fisherman from rural Galilee, who was known to be illiterate, could have produced a written report about Jesus’s life? The book of Acts (4:13) tells us that John was literally “unlettered” (in Greek, agrammatos), meaning that he didn’t even know the alphabet!
Let’s switch gears here a little. Let’s talk about Paul. It has always been fascinating to me that Paul, who produced our first written record of Jesus, never met Jesus himself. He is the closest writer we have to Jesus’s death; who intimately knew his land, his religion, and his Jewish roots. Remember, however, he starts writing some twenty years after Jesus died, and he tells us personally that he only met two of Jesus’s original disciples (Peter and James) before becoming an Apostle himself. And (except for two saying that Jesus supposedly spoke at the last supper; his admonition against divorce; and a reference to the fact that people should pay their preachers), in all of his writing, he never repeats any Gospel stories. That is incredible to me.
Quoting Ehrman again, “…one of the most striking features of Paul’s surviving letters is just how little he actually tells us about Jesus’s life prior to his death. There are thirteen letters in the New Testament that claim to be written by Paul. Scholars are widely convinced that seven of them, at least, actually go back to Paul… suppose you were to mine these letters—take all thirteen of them—for the information they provide about the things Jesus said, did, and experienced between the time he was born and the time he died. How many stories of Jesus would you discover? …
“That’s pretty much all that Paul tells us. And he is the one author who has any known connection with an eyewitness… But think of all the things that Paul doesn’t mention: that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, to a virgin; that he was baptized by John the Baptist; that he was tempted in the wilderness; that he preached about the coming kingdom of God; that he told parables; that he cast out demons; that he did any miracles of any kind; that he delivered any other teachings of any kind; that he had controversies with other Jewish teachers; that he was transfigured; that he traveled to Jerusalem in the last week of his life; that he made the triumphal entry; that he cleansed the Temple; that he was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane; that… well, it’s obviously a very long a significant list. To make a complete list, all you would have to do is cite virtually any story in the Gospels, and it would be something Paul doesn’t tell us.
“It is a very interesting question to ask just why Paul does not give us more information about Jesus. Is it because he did not think Jesus’s earthly life was important? How could it not be important? Is it because he thought his readers already knew all that information? If so, why doesn’t he remind them of it, just as he regularly reminds them of all sorts of other things he taught them when he was among them? Is it because he simply had no occasion to mention the events of Jesus’s life? Paul certainly seems to have occasions—plenty of them—as he talks in his letters about issues that were directly germane to things Jesus said and did (when he talks about miracles that he himself performed; when he tells people to pay their taxes; when he delivers his own ethical teachings; or when he indicates that Jesus had to die and be raised). So why doesn’t he appeal to Jesus’s own authority for such things? Is it because he actually doesn’t know much more about Jesus’s life than what he tells us? How could he not know much more? These are genuine questions that, at the end of the day, are not very easy to resolve.”
Thus, because the Apostle Paul doesn’t help us out, we have to wait for four decades after Jesus died before in the account of Mark we get the first stories about the life of the man Christians worship as the Son of God.
I completely agree with the author that perhaps the most important lesson we draw from this book is not the historical “truth” of what may or may not have occurred. You may also think that after listening to me, that if it can’t be proved historically, or if there are conflicting accounts for much that is in the various Gospels, that in the end, that is what is important.
You may think that I am one that believes that if it isn’t historically true, that we should throw the whole Christian faith in the trash heap; throwing the baby away with the bath water so to speak, but I do not. Like Bart Ehrman says more eloquently than I could…
“Does it matter if Jesus considered himself to be God on earth? As a historian, it matters to me a great deal. But if he did not—and I think that he did not—the fact that he was remembered that way by later followers is terrifically important. Without that memory of Jesus, the faith founded on him would never have taken off, the Roman Empire would not have abandoned paganism, and the history of our world would have transpired in ways that are unimaginably different. History was changed, not because of brute facts, but because of memory.”
Do I personally, Ron, believe every word (or to use the author’s words, “every memory”) that is recorded in the Gospels? No, but do I personally believe that Jesus was the Messiah, the answer (for me) is yes.
I hope that you can sense that I think that this is a book that you should read and keep in your library. The name of the book again is, Jesus Before the Gospels; How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented their Stories of the Savior, by Bart Ehrman.
From the picture of my own personal copy of the book below—with dozens of bookmarks—I think that you can tell that I think that this is a special work about the life of Jesus. Click on the picture of the book to order on Amazon.
Architect, software CEO, 30-year student of the historical Jesus and early Christianity. Show host of AuthorTalk, interviewing religious and spiritual authors.
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