The Bart Ehrman interview on ‘Jesus Before the Gospels’

Bart Ehrman Jesus before the Gospels front cover

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Christians believe that Jesus Christ was fully human and fully divine, as we discussed with author James Martin as Lent began this year. And, because of that divinity, Christ existed since the origins of the cosmos, says the opening of the Gospel of John.

Eternal and unchangeable, right?

So, how could humans’ understanding of Jesus—and memories of Jesus’s life on earth 2,000 years ago—have changed over time? How could Jesus ever change in our collective memory? It’s a question that raises the anxiety of many Christians—until we step back and ponder how many ways our memories of Jesus have changed within our own lifetimes.

Thanks to Duke religion-and-art scholar David Morgan, we now know of many ways the American memory of Jesus was transformed in the 20th century. Flash back to the 1950s—and Americans thought that Jesus looked like one particular Nordic image first sketched by Chicago artist Warner Sallman in 1924. Morgan has described Sallman’s Jesus as “a Swede with a suntan”—definitely not Jewish. Morgan’s research shows that, in the middle of the 20th century, Salman’s Jesus was the single most-reproduced image of Jesus on Earth—more than 1 billion images in an era before the Internet or smartphones. What’s more, Salman’s many paintings of Jesus gave Americans deep memories of their Savior looking like a wandering, long-haired northern-European monk tending sheep or knocking on people’s doors in what looks like a quaint Scottish village.

Today, the memory of Jesus for Americans who lived in the 1950s still is shaped by this beloved but historically inaccurate artist who had a personal fondness for English and German culture.

Or, consider this: Best-selling author and Bible scholar Bart Ehrman points out in the opening pages of his 30th book, Jesus before the Gospels, that our collective memories of Christopher Columbus once were as a universally celebrated American hero. Now, however, Columbus touches off controversy each time his early October holiday rolls around, because of greater awareness of the cataclysmic destruction of Native American populations touched off by his arrival. Our collective memory of Columbus has changed dramatically. Ehrman also points out that, these days, most Americans don’t realize that Abraham Lincoln, arguably our greatest president, was despised by millions of our countrymen before his death. Plus, we now conveniently overlook the many troubling things Lincoln had to say about African-Americans even as he freed the slaves.

Our memories of our greatest heroes change all the time. Whether Jesus as divine has ever changed is a question for Christian theologians. But the truth is—our human memory of Jesus has changed a lot through the last 2,000 years.

Ehrman draws on years of globe-spanning research into the ancient world in the years after Jesus’s death in writing this new book, which is subtitled How the earliest Christians remembered, changed and invented their stories of the Savior. He also opens up his scholarly inquiry to explore the history of scientific research into the ways humans remember the past. Like a detective pulling together strands of evidence from many different sources—Ehrman tells us what likely happened in the four decades between Jesus’s crucifixion and the appearance of the first Gospel, now known as Mark.

Are you concerned about that word “invented” in Ehrman’s subtitle? One thing you’ll discover in this book is that lots of “alternative” books were written in the early centuries of Christianity—and some of those books that never made it into our modern Bible tell some whoppers about the founders of Christianity. The point is: There were many stories, including some out-and-out tall tales that circulated in those early years.

Why buy this new book, if you’ve already got lots of volumes about Jesus? The best answer: This book is something new. The story is new. You’ll discover people in this book, including memory researchers, that you would never encounter in other religious books. Even within Ehrman’s own lengthy list of titles, there’s nothing like this 300-page exploration of our earliest human memories of Jesus.

Bart Ehrman author of How Jesus Became God“My earlier books deal with various aspects of the New Testament but they haven’t dealt with the oral traditions of Jesus before the gospels were written,” Ehrman explains in our interview.

Wondering about this ancient timeline?

Ehrman explains, “The time of Jesus death is noncontroversial among scholars. Everybody dates it around the year 30. Some say 29 or vary slightly from that year, but it is widely thought among scholars that Jesus died about the year 30. Then, it also is widely thought, certainly among major scholars of the Bible, that Mark was the first of the four gospels in the Bible. Most believe that was around the year 70 or about 40 years after Jesus’s death. I would place Matthew and Luke about 10 or 15 years after that and John at about the year 90 or 95.

“After they were written and copied, versions of these books circulated widely without any names attached to them. The first record we have of the four gospels being named is about the year 185. At the same time, there were a number of other writings circulating in that period that aren’t in the Bible. That’s a long time for the stories of Jesus to be passed around through many sources. And, in this new book, I’m interested particularly in those decades between Jesus’s death and the first written accounts of his life.”

This raises central questions about memory: Why were certain stories about Jesus remembered? How they were remembered? And, how were they were transmitted from one person to another, then from one region of the ancient world to another?

Ehrman says that the speed and scale at which these stories spread in the ancient world is amazing!

“Just think about how quickly and how far the stories spread—and how Jesus’s followers tried to maintain an accurate tradition through all of that,” Ehrman says in our interview. “This must have been very difficult. The historical reality—according to the gospels themselves—is that there were not many people right after Jesus’s death who came to believe that he had been raised from the dead. We’re talking about 11 men and some women. About 20 people. But, by the time the Gospel of John is written, there are major Christian churches across Asia Minor, modern-day Turkey, possibly in Spain and North Africa and certainly in Greece and Egypt. So how was Christianity spreading during this time?”

The story of Jesus is absolutely central to that spread, he argues. “How were people converted? Someone told them about Jesus. Nobody is going to give up whatever their existing religious practices may have been without getting some idea about who they’ll be worshipping if they convert to Christianity. So, it’s fascinating to consider how these stories spread so rapidly, where the stories were shared and how the memories that people shared changed in that time period.

“There were so many challenges in this whole process. The followers of Jesus spoke Aramaic, but these stories about Jesus were circulating around the Roman Empire in Greek. So there were different languages involved. And there were third- and fourth- and fifth-hand versions of the stories. Suppose that a Christian missionary comes to Ephesus and he spends a whole month telling people about Jesus. One day, a man starts listening and he keeps coming back day after day and he decides to convert. He’s heard enough about this Jesus to decide that Jesus is the son of God, then he goes back home and tells his family about this so they will convert, too. He may tell a close business associate, then a friend. And they’re hearing these stories from him—not from the missionary or from someone who actually had seen Jesus during his lifetime. On and on, these stories were passed person to person for decades. Waves and waves of people converted as the stories spread.”

Today, Erhman reminds us, many Christians assume that the expansion of Christianity was simply a matter of circulating the Bible. That’s how a lot of evangelical work is carried out today—spreading translations of the Bible, as a book. “But that’s not how these stories spread in those first decades. Even if they had written accounts earlier than Mark, remember that literacy rates were very low in the ancient world. Scholars debate how widespread literacy was in this era; I tend to agree with estimates that, even in periods of great culture like the heyday of Athens, literacy rates were 10 to 15 percent at most. So, we’re talking about oral transmission.”

As these stories were passed around the ancient world, what details might have changed?

Dieric Bouts 15th Century Arrest of Christ with Peter preparing to cuf off an ear (1)

Countless paintings over many centuries depict swords in the Garden in Gethsemane on the night Jesus was captured. Some artists show fairly modest knives being used by Peter. This image, painted in the 1400s, has Peter (at left) raising a particularly long and lethal-looking sword.

One of the most fascinating sections of Erhman’s new book is his discussion of whether Jesus’s followers were armed when Jesus was captured in the Garden of Gethsemane—a story millions of Christians will consider this spring as Easter approaches. All four gospels say that at least one of Jesus’s followers was armed—and the most famous of these stories involves Peter slicing off an enemy’s ear.

Reading this book, you can weigh Ehrman’s arguments about our collective memory that places Peter’s flashing sword in the garden on that fateful night. As Ehrman points out, many scholars argue the sword must have been a historical fact; however, he disagrees and provides some intriguing analysis about why this detail may have crept into the story as it was retold. As a reader, of course, you can decide what you think.

“There have been some strong arguments in favor of regarding this as a reliable detail,” Ehrman says in our interview. “One argument is that the early Christians didn’t want to portray Jesus as supporting an armed rebellion against Rome—so this detail of swords in the garden doesn’t seem like the kind of story they would make up. The argument says that it’s an unlikely detail for someone to add. But I think there’s another way to look at this and I explain it in detail in the book.”

Some Christians shudder at the thought of questioning the accuracy of any detail in the Bible. But many mainline clergy have struggled throughout their ministry with this question of deadly weapons among Jesus’s followers. Ehrman’s historical detective work will be welcomed by many readers.

It’s that openness to fresh research and dialogue that has drawn a large circle of readers to Ehrman’s work.

“Many people want to understand why the gospels contain memories that are not historically reliable,” he says. “And to put it simply: These were cherished memories that changed people’s lives, but there were so many people around the whole region who were doing the remembering and the repeating of these stories.

“And that leads me to the next book I’m working on. If you think that Christianity spread at an amazing rate in these early years, think about how it grew to millions of people within 300 years. But you’ll have to look for the next book to explore that later era.”

Care to read more?

At least once a year, Bart Ehrman has been a guest in the pages of www.ReadTheSpirit.com, usually in an interview about a new book. If you care to go back a bit, you may enjoy our stories about his book How Jesus Became God, or his earlier book Did Jesus Exist? (it’s not a spoiler to say—yes, Ehrman believes he was a real historical figure), or his big reference work The Apocryphal Gospels (a book you may want to add to your library if you’re fascinated by the “other” ancient gospels that were rejected from the final Bible).

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