Archives for September 2016

The courage of Devon Gales

photo of Devon Gales from DawgNation website

photo of Devon Gales from DawgNation

Sympathy is defined as feeling sorrow for the misfortunes of someone else.

Empathy means you can literally understand, or at least to some degree share their experience.

This post will be very short and to the point, because I can only type with one hand at the moment. My left arm is temporarily useless.

I had elbow surgery this morning, and my anesthesiologist put a nerve block on my dominant arm. Probably until tomorrow, I won’t  be able to feel anything or use my left hand, a very strange experience that once again has reminded me of Devon Gales.

Please forgive any typos or unclear thoughts expressed by my currently drug-impaired brain. The loss of use of my arm is a very strange sensation, yet in my case it will be temporary. When this wears off I expect to welcome pain as the indicator my body wants to heal itself and didn’t enjoy this morning’s experience. My arm may be hurting right now, but I don’t care.images-4

In case you forgot or didn’t know, wide receiver Devon Gales was paralyzed last year while blocking on a kickoff return during a game between the Southern University Jaguars and the University of Georgia Bulldogs, in Sanford Stadium. However, for young Mr. Gales, full recovery will take much, much longer, He’s made tremendous progress that has been reported in the news, but there is a long way to go for a complete recovery, and the restoration of full use of his extremities.

Usually when I write about a tragedy, typically a request that people contribute financially will accompany my shameless attempt to pull on your heart strings.

Perhaps the Percocet is clouding my judgment, but I know how generous the Bulldog Nation is, and think it might even be offensive to assume you need to be asked, so this post won’t be asking you to contribute even more money.

In truth, I don’t even know that his family needs more assistance at this time, and the cup has overflowed with love and generous donations from the Bulldog Nation, for an opponent who became a Dawg through adversity.

Today, after my surgery, briefly I can empathize with Devon Gales. Only for a moment, though, yet this experience has opened my eyes, because this time, cheating isn’t possible. I can’t merely imagine what it might feel like to have no control or use of one of my arms; it really is useless at the moment.

I can’t use my hand today. But for me, this is only temporary.

uga_livebulldogThe courage and determination of this young man has been shown to me in a new light. What I’d like more than anything today, is for everyone who reads this to join me in prayer for a major breakthrough for Mr. Gales that will lead to his full recovery, which will require a miracle in some form or fashion — either a secular miracle in the form of a major medical breakthrough, or divine intervention.

I’m the sort of person with more confidence in God than my fellow man, but beggars can’t be choosers. I’ll take either one, of course,

The body wants to heal itself. Nevertheless, Mr. Gales still needs our love and support. The Creator of this body listens to prayer. When two or three join together in sincere prayer…you get the idea.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Chihuly at Atlanta Botanical Gardens

Blue_treeSometimes I can feel like a complete idiot…like, for example, yesterday. The occasion was my first visit to the Atlanta Botanical Gardens. After nearly thirty years of living in this city, as many times as we’ve visited Stone Mountain, the Atlanta Zoo, Turner Field, even tourist “attractions” like the World of Coca-Cola and Underground Atlanta, I finally visited to the Atlanta Botanical Garden.

What on earth took me so long? This has to be the best-kept secret in the city. And the really sad thing was, I knew the Garden existed years ago, when Neil Young mentioned touring it during a concert at Chastain Park, piquing my curiosity when he claimed the catwalk was haunted.Yellow_Ball

“What’s up with that?” Neil asked the crowd. Sorry, Mr. Young, but I forgot to ask somebody last night, so I still couldn’t tell you.

But his question did make me curious.

Yet it took my wife expressing keen interest in a special exhibit of glass blown pieces by world-renowned artist Dale Chihuly to get me to visit, and now I sincerely regret all the other opportunities I’ve missed over the years.

The Atlanta Botanical Garden is breathtaking to visit, and during the Chihuly exhibit (which ends October 30th) is nothing short of spectacular, especially at night. We arrived early enough for the “night” session to enjoy the gardens in daylight…












but at night, the Garden becomes magical. The Chihuly exhibit will remain until October 30th. If you miss it, don’t blame me.

To me, the bottom left photo looks like something right out of Lord of the Rings.

Miss this exhibit and it will be your loss, not mine.

Only thanks to my wife.



Tom Tozer reviews Bart Ehrman’s book Jesus Before the Gospels, Part 4

Tom Tozer, as he hopes the world will see him

Tom Tozer, as he hopes the world will see him

[This is the final installment of a four-part series of articles written by Tom Tozer that reviews Bart Ehrman’s book Jesus Before the Gospels.]

See also:

Tom’s review, Part 1

Tom’s review, Part 2

Tom’s review, Part 3

And now, here is Part 4.

Chapter 7: The Kaleidoscopic Memories of Jesus: John, Thomas and a Range of Others.

Ehrman starts out Chapter 7 by asserting that Mark was “a collective memory” and says that now we’re going to talk about the “other collective memories.” However, he hasn’t demonstrated that Mark is anything less than the account of an eyewitness. He doesn’t believe it is, but he hasn’t established that. So this is not a promising start.

He asserts that the Gospel of John – or “the memories contained” in it – “differ radically from Mark.” On the surface, there is something to this. John is elaborately theological. Mark is more like a police report. If John is a Persian rug, Mark is a grocery list. And yet, at the core of these two Gospels, for 2,000 years, Christians have found the same Jesus. Oddly enough. Now why that might be Ehrman doesn’t bother to ask.

The purpose of this chapter for Ehrman is “to show that there was not one remembered image of Jesus among his early followers, but “a kaleidoscopically varied set of images.”

But how can Ehrman include Marcion, the Gospels of Judas, Thomas and Theodotus as “remembered images of his early followers”? He doesn’t demonstrate that any of these authors had any connection to a witness to Jesus’ life. In fact, that lack of connection is exactly what kept these documents out of the canon. On the other hand, if all Ehrman means is that people who were not witnesses wrote stories about Jesus that differed from stories connected to witnesses, well, so what?

This sleight of hand is what Ehrman set up in Chapter 1. He can call Marcion “a memory,” even though it is not, because he set up the classes of “episodic” and “semantic” memory. Hack off the adjectives and, voila!, Marcion is “a memory of Jesus.”

But it in fact isn’t.

In any event, to contrast Mark from John, Ehrman makes his first mistake in this chapter by asserting that the Gospel of Mark “starts with an account of Jesus’ apocalyptic forerunner.” Not so. Mark begins with Isaiah’s prophecy about “the Lord” and directly points to Jesus as that Lord: “I [God] will send my messenger ahead of you to prepare your way, a voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare the way of the Lord.” This is no less plainly a declaration of Jesus’ divinity than is the poetry of John 1.

Is John more theologically developed? Yes. So what?

On pages 258-59, Ehrman does a nice job of explaining the ramifications of John 1, and how exceedingly high is the Christology of the Church even before the end of the first century. I disagree that this is “more exalted” than Mark 1, but it is definitely more developed. Unfortunately for Ehrman, this early high Christology conflicts with other claims he makes in this chapter.

In distinguishing John and Mark, Ehrman notes that Jesus is generally more vocal about his identity in John than in the synoptics. It is not the case, though, that Jesus never talks about his identity in the synoptics. See Matt 11:25-28 for instance. However, Ehrman really misses the mark when he claims that “unlike the other Gospels, [in John] Jesus is portrayed as a divine being who has become human.” p. 264.

Really? As we saw, in Mark 1, Mark gives Jesus the divine name “Lord” right out of the chute. In Mark 2, Jesus is asked “who can forgive sins but God,” and replies, in essence, “I can.” In Matthew 11:25-28 Jesus declares his divine identity. And in Luke 2, his birth is accompanied by choirs of angels.

In addition, Paul’s letter to the Philippians, probably predating the Gospels, declares exactly that:

Christ Jesus who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!

This is exceedingly high Christology, preceding the Gospel of John. Clearly, Christians prior to the Gospel of John, understood Jesus as a divine being who became human. I find it difficult to believe that Ehrman is unaware of these passages.

The rest of this chapter is about “other memories.” He addresses Paul, the Gospel of Thomas, Q (really?), the Gospel of Judas, Marcion, and Theodotus.

Paul is an odd one to call out. Paul was not a direct witness of Jesus’ life. Perhaps he didn’t talk much about Jesus’ life because he knew there were such witnesses available to the churches. In any case, Paul doesn’t say much about Jesus’ life other than his death and resurrection. Okay.

Of Q, Ehrman writes that “Q provided Matthew and Luke with many of their sayings of Jesus” and asserts that Q “lacked” the story of the passion and resurrection. It is amazing, since no one has ever seen a copy of Q, that Ehrman knows what was and wasn’t in this imaginary document.

For Judas, Marcion, Theodotus and Thomas, the question has to be, who cares what they say if what we’re looking for is eyewitness accounts? They were rejected because they lacked a connection to the apostles and thus to eyewitnesses. Yet Ehrman tries to use these late texts to foist on his readers the idea that the Church’s belief that Jesus is both divine and human somehow arose as a combination of Marcion and Theodotus. Ehrman claims that – from Marcion – the church took the idea that Jesus was fully divine (though Marcion claimed he was not human) and – from Theodotus – the idea that Jesus was fully human (though Theodotus claimed he was not God).

Ehrman’s assertion is nonsense. The full divinity and humanity of Jesus are stated in the Gospels and in Paul’s letters. The Church’s understanding of the precise meaning of the Gospels and Paul on that point certainly grew over time, but it had nothing to do with Marcion or Theodotus. Those books were rejected, as they are today, as not being connected to a witness.

Note again, nothing in Chapter 7 demonstrates that the Gospels we have are not derived from eyewitness accounts.

Chapter 8: In Conclusion: A Paean to Memory

In Chapter 8, Ehrman attempts to strike a noble pose as “defender of the value of the Christian scriptures,” not for their value in conveying factual information or historical truth, but because they have been influential in human civilization and are, essentially, almost as good as a nice painting. Having, in his mind, conquered the Gospels, he now poses over them, defending their defeated husks against those who would simply discard them on the ash heap of history.

It’s comical. Ehrman hasn’t come anywhere close to achieving what he imagines. The chapter begins with assertions that are essential to his thesis (and his pose), but for which he offered no support in the seven preceding chapters.

For instance, Ehrman asserts: “The Gospels were written decades after Jesus’ death by people who were not eyewitnesses and probably never laid eyes on an eyewitness.” Not demonstrated. They were written decades after Jesus’ death. Sure, that’s likely. But the author of John may have been an eyewitness and maybe Matthew, too.

If Mark is Peter’s scribe, then certainly he laid eyes on an eyewitness, as Luke also says he did. Ehrman just does not demonstrate that the Church’s traditional attribution of authorship is wrong.

Ehrman also complains that the Gospels “are filled with discrepancies and contradictions. They represent different perspectives on what Jesus said and did.” Well, yes. As witness testimony often is. Indeed, the useful parts of Ehrman’s book show exactly how eyewitness testimony can be tainted by “filler” and give rise to discrepancies for other reasons. But this is unremarkable. Every street beat cop knows this. This would only be a problem for someone who had, say, spent his youth thinking that the Gospels were literal transcriptions of events, like a video or a court reporter’s transcript.

Ehrman concludes with the utterly trivial declaration that “we have to apply rigorous historical criteria to these sources to reconstruct historical realities from later distorted memories.” He really didn’t need to go this far to get here. Of course we should apply rigorous analysis to the Gospels in viewing them as historical documents.

And even if they are eyewitness accounts, we would be justified in thinking that some parts of the memories involved may have been distorted by the experiences, life, and perspective of the witness. But this is not what Ehrman is suggesting in the book or in this chapter. By “distorted memories” Ehrman means something he has not shown, namely that the Gospels were written by non-witnesses based on utterly unreliable telephone-game-relayed stories, by and in communities that then further massaged the stories to assuage their own difficulties. He hasn’t shown this.

This is probably the tenth time I’ve said this. If the Gospels are sourced in eyewitness accounts, stories that come directly from eyewitnesses – something which Ehrman has not in the least shown not to be the case – then very little of what he says in this book is of any relevance to his topic.


Tom Tozer reviews Bart Ehrman’s book Jesus Before the Gospels, Part 3

 zEW3q[This is the third installment of a four-part series of articles written by Tom Tozer that reviews Bart Ehrman’s book Jesus Before the Gospels.]

See also:

Tom’s review, Part 1

Tom’s review, Part 2

Chapter 5 is called “Distorted Memories and the Life of Jesus.” There is something strange about the story Ehrman begins with, about a man with a remarkable memory. He says a Doctor Luria studied a man “named S, to protect his privacy.” S could memorize long lists of data effortlessly, and even recall lists memorized years before that he had not thought about in all that time, backwards or forwards, again without effort. But, Ehrman says, this ability was detrimental to S’s life and he could never hold a job, even when he toured as a professional mnemonist (memory freak). See any- thing odd there? Why did Luria need to protect the identity of someone who toured the country highlighting his abilities? It’s odd that Ehrman doesn’t ask this question. It makes me wonder if S is a fiction?

Anyway…..Ehrman spends most of this chapter making the case that oral cultures (which he has so far failed to established is what the first century Jewish or surrounding Greek and Roman cultures were) did not have better information strategies for oral material than literate cultures do. This is aimed at, again, showing that when person A tells person B a story, it morphs a little, and then B tells C, with more morphing, and C tells D, etc etc etc. And again, this is irrelevant if the Gospels derive from eyewitnesses.

Some of this is interesting anyway. There was a study of oral performances, and although the artists and audiences claimed the performances were “the same,” data showed there were huge changes in the length and substance of the stories. Ehrman postulates that oral cultures didn’t view sameness as we do, i.e., verbatim the same, but as “the same basic thing.” Interesting. But as he admits, the Gospels were not oral performances.

But Ehrman tells this story so he can get to this: “As Lord [the study author] himself notes, the kinds of epic tradition that are recorded are quite different from ‘when A tells B what happened, and B tells C and so on with all the natural errors and exaggeration and distortion.’ It is obviously the latter sort of tradition we are interested in when dealing with stories and saying of Jesus.”

That is so ridiculously presumptuous it made me laugh out loud. “Obviously” we should be interested in this thing that has failed to show has any relevance to the Gospels. Good grief!

Next Ehrman describes the narrative tradition of oral cultures. Now, keep in mind, he hasn’t yet demonstrated that Jewish culture or the Greeks or Romans were oral cultures. I doubt he can. All he’s shown is that he assumes the early Christian community was illiterate because the main twelve disciples were from Galilee. That doesn’t seem like enough, but anyway, this culture involved “pro- to-testimony of an observer – chain of transmission [A to B to C etc] – final informant – recorder and earliest written record.” Ehrman asserts “this is exactly what happened with the traditions about Jesus as passed down from eyewitnesses to authors of our earliest written accounts.”

Ehrman’s assertions are baseless. Jewish, Greek and Roman culture was not exclusively oral, and he hasn’t demonstrated otherwise. Nor is there evidence (how could there be written evidence?) that there was a long chain of oral transmission from original witnesses to the authors of the Gospels. That is speculation. And there is evidence contrary to both of his assertions. There is evidence that there were many literate early Christians, and evidence that the Gospels record eyewitness accounts. He doesn’t deal with any of this.

The remainder of the chapter is Ehrman telling more just-so stories about how Jesus’ teachings “must have been” changed, and why, and this or that agenda, etc, but really he was just an apocalyptic preacher who wanted to be the king.

Ehrman bases this specious garbage on the claim that, the early Gospels (assuming we know the order) are about the kingdom of God coming on earth, but that in the later Gospels, namely John, it was clear by then that Jesus wasn’t coming back right away, so they changed the message to “the kingdom is something you’ll get after you die.”

Ehrman’ s claim is nonsense. Paul’s letters are filled with references to the afterlife and attaining the kingdom then. And even Ehrman admits that Paul’s letters probably predated the Gospels. See Romans 5:21, 6:22-23, Galatians 6:8, Titus 1, etc. The message didn’t change the way Ehrman claims.

Chapter 6: Collective Memory: Our Earliest Gospel of Mark.

I have to wonder after reading this chapter why Ehrman is taken seriously by anyone but his most fervent fans. At the outset, Ehrman confesses that until 1988 he was unaware that there was anoth- er, reasoned side to the American Civil War. Ehrman was born in 1955. That means that until he was 33 years old, he had no idea that the South understood the Civil War as an issue of State’s rights and local sovereignty. Think about that. This is the guy who wants to be your guide into history. And that’s not the only thing that makes me wonder.

The Civil War issue is Ehrman’s way of backing into the assertion that groups of people share common stories about the past, some of which may or may not be accurate. This bridges to the “collective memories” of early Christian communities. And again, those collective memories are of no relevance whatever if the Gospels are derived from eyewitnesses, which he still has not disproven.

This of course leads us to another groundbreaking, breakthrough work from the 1920s, a book titled “On Collective Memory” by Halbwach. Ehrman uses Halbwach to assert that we recall the past be- cause it is relevant to the present. This is simply nonsense. There are history departments at colleges in every city, town, state and country on this earth, studying every aspect of every era of the human past. All of it is being “recalled” somewhere. To be as generous as possible to Ehrman, perhaps he means that collective polities attempt, at the popular level anyway, to construct historical stories that serve their present interests, although the attempts may be as imperfect as is their understanding of their actual interests.

At least that might explain why Lincoln is recalled in such and such a way today that he wasn’t in the past, or why, as will be discussed, Israel has massaged the story of Masada into the tale of an heroic, surrounded and courageous people. But these are popular level semantic “memories.” And there are alternative views of these stories available in those same polities. In fact, we know the Masada story is propaganda. The Israelis know it too. They don’t actually “remember” Masada the way the propagandists want them to. They simply make use of the symbol. But to put the matter this way makes mincemeat of Ehrman’s assertion that groups actually change their memories of the past in order to deal with the present.

If you don’t know the story, Masada was a last ditch hide out for a group of Jewish rebels who fled there after Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD. These were not nice people. They assassinated fellow Jews who cooperated with the Romans. They raided Jewish villages to gain supplies. They attacked and killed Roman soldiers. The Romans hunted them down to Masada, a hilltop fortress in the desert. Because the only way up was a narrow path easily defended, the Romans instead built an earthen mound all the way to the top. But when they got to the top, they found that the Jewish rebels had all killed themselves, soldiers killing women and children, then each other, and then the few survivors committing suicide. The nascent Jewish state took on this story as an heroic story of national will, turning the tale into one of courageous resistance to oppressive outside forces. How- ever, within a single generation an Israeli historian wrote about the actual story of the protagonists as assassins and of the mass suicide.

Ehrman says this shows that groups shape their recollection of the past to fit their present needs. Therefore, “memory historians” can “show how the past is being remembered and for what reasons.” But it doesn’t. What it shows is that national propagandists will try to reconstruct the past to serve national interests, but that the actual history remains, and most informed Israelis are perfectly aware of the facts of Masada. They may choose to embrace it as a symbol of resistance, but their memory has not been changed, nor have the actual facts.

This leads us to Mark, which Ehrman says is the Gospel of “Jesus as the Messiah that no one understood.” He actually has a nice little essay on the first line of the Gospel – The Good News of the Anointed One – and how completely upside down the story was from what the world actually expected would be either good news, or the anointed one. But the rest of it is either sheer speculation or utter malarkey.

Ehrman writes that Mark “was narrating a memory of the Christian community in which he lived.” Not a shred of evidence is offered for this. He doesn’t say who the author was or what community it is, just for starters. Then there is a long discussion of how Mark presents Jesus as showing that we will suffer now, but later be rewarded if we keep to his message. Doesn’t this directly contradict what he said earlier about how the “pie-in-the-sky” message came in the later Gospels?

“We remember the past because it is relevant to our present, and what we are experiencing in the present radically affects how we remember the past,” says Ehrman.

And now for the punchline: “It is unfortunate that we don’t have any other information about Mark’s community and its experiences.” Other than what? He hasn’t presented a shred of evidence!

Does this utter lack of evidence cause Ehrman even a short pause in his “exposition” about what the Gospel of Mark means, how the memories in it were “radically affected” by the experiences of Mark’s community – of which he knows nothing?

Not for a second. Knowing nothing about the community, but having concocted a meaning that now needs an experience to explain this concocted meaning, Ehrman concludes the chapter by saying that “This appears to be a community that is suffering hardship.”

Well it would be, wouldn’t it, since he has:

  1. made up a rule that communities falsify the past because of their present experiences
  2. assumed that Mark was written for some community somewhere, and
  3. asserted that Mark is about how to get by when you’re suffering hardship.

Who, really, takes Ehrman’s popular level books seriously?

Next: Tom’s review, Part 4.

Tom Tozer reviews Bart Ehrman’s book Jesus Before the Gospels, Part 1

Tom Tozer

Tom Tozer

Author biography: Tom Tozer is a real estate attorney based in the Chicago area. He received his law degree from from Indiana University-Bloomington. His undergraduate and master’s degrees were issued by the University of Chicago. Tom and his wife Lori and have three daughters.

Publisher’s Note: Occasionally I am given the opportunity to publish work that I cannot take credit for writing myself. Tom Tozer has produced an outstanding, very thorough review of Bart Ehrman’s book Jesus Before the Gospels and graciously agreed to allow his efforts to be published here as well.

From this point forward, the words you will be reading are Tom’s, not mine.

This is his review…many thanks, Tom!

One thing should be made clear first. Christians who disagree with Ehrman should embrace – not reject – historical analysis of the faith’s texts. Understanding the history of the texts is critical to understanding them. Even more, contrary to Ehrman’s various claims, Cambridge historian Richard Bauckham and others before him have shown that there is plenty of reason to believe what the Church has long said about the historical sources of the Gospels and their authorship. At the end of the day, the historical analysis allows one to believe as the Church teaches on this issue. Another person may, based on their view of the evidence, disbelieve that teaching and instead indulge in speculation about other possibilities. This result shouldn’t be any source of discomfort to Christians examining the issue.

But the bottom line is, whatever the evidence is about who authored the Gospels and whether they contain eyewitness testimony, for Christians the ultimate source of the information contained therein is the Holy Spirit. As Jesus promised “the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” John 14:26.

Based on this, Christians can be assured that the Gospels “firmly, faithfully, and without error teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the Sacred Scriptures.” But we don’t have to stop there. We also have good historical reasons to believe the Gospels are reliable as ancient sources grounded in eyewitness accounts of the events recorded.

That said, here is my review.

Bart Ehrman

Bart Ehrman

Introduction – Ehrman’s Introduction to the book is odd. The introduction notes that Lincoln and Columbus are remembered today differently than they were remembered then. Lincoln was hated by many in his time, yet now is universally acclaimed; Columbus 100 years ago was a hero, and now is reviled by many as a tool of oppression. Which is true, but that has nothing to do with the issue he’s talking about in this book, which is the memory involved in the Gospels. If those documents are early and involve witness accounts, then that’s what those documents are.

Just like a record of a Lincoln-Douglas debate is a record of a witness account of that event, it’s the documented memory we’re talking about. Ehrman says at one point, “my ultimate point is not directly related to Lincoln or Columbus.”

Well, it’s not actually directly related to the Gospels either. Oddly enough, too, he talks about form criticism, and says “that is, however, what this book is about” (p. 13) after decrying the lack of popular level books about form criticism. Yet on the “Unbelievable” radio program, Ehrman told Bauckham the his book wasn’t about form criticism.

Chapter 1 – Ehrman’s fundamental theme in the book is that “we do not have direct access to what Jesus said, did and experienced but only to later stories told about him.” (page 14)

But he never establishes this assertion. And unless he can prove conclusively that the Gospels are not sourced in eyewitness accounts this entire book fails. I think the Gospels are sourced in eyewitness accounts, and that Bauckham makes a solid case for that in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. But Ehrman is going to have to prove the opposite.

Rather than do that, instead he immediately fabricates a scenario where eyewitnesses told someone, who then told someone else, and so on, and then somewhere down the line a Gospel writer hears the story 20th hand or worse. In Chapter 1, Ehrman never considers the possibility that the Gospel writers could have spoken directly to the eyewitnesses and cut out all the middlemen.

The chapter does have a nice little introduction to memory and different ways of classifying it in different categories. Ehrman seems to be under the impression that by classifying something you have actually described its essence.

You haven’t. You’ve pared away something to fit it into your classification.

In any case, the discussion of semantic and episodic memory is handy. Episodic memory is memory of something you experienced.

Semantic memory is a memory of something you have learned.

Ehrman gets himself into a bit of a fix when he describes Reza Aslan’s book Zealot (in which Jesus was portrayed as an anti-Roman revolutionary) as a “memory” of Jesus. “Aslan was not the first to remember Jesus in this way,” he says.

Ehrman can only use the word “remember” here because he has snuck it in through the semantic memory door.  However, he’s mixing up his categories here.

Semantic memory isn’t really memory. It’s learning. Your memory of what you learned, however, is episodic memory because the learning was your experience. The content of what you learned is not an episodic memory of the thing represented by the content.

For instance, If I learn that Abraham Lincoln was President of the US, I don’t have an actual memory of Abraham Lincoln’s Presidency.

I have a memory of the information I learned. So when Ehrman says people who read Aslan’s book will “remember” Jesus this way, he’s wrong. They will not “remember Jesus” at all. What they will remember is the (false) information they obtained from Aslan’s book.

Thus, contrary to Ehrman’s case, Bill Reilly’s and Aslan’s books are not “memories of Jesus.” They are “memories” of badly mistaken misinterpretations of historical evidence they learned about Jesus.

These are not “authors recalling who Jesus was.” They are not episodically recalling Jesus, but only information about him, well or badly. This semantic trick of calling both episodic and semantic memories of something “a memory of the thing” when they are not is a critical misstep in Ehrman’s later analysis.

For Ehrman, this is all to get us to this point: “As far back as we have recorded memories of Jesus, we have widely disparate accounts of his words and deeds.”

He can only say this because he wants to include as “recorded memories of Jesus” books that the Church long ago rejected as in fact not containing episodic memories of Jesus. But if we look at the canonical Gospels, we don’t have “widely disparate accounts” of Jesus. The Jesus of the four Gospels is an exceedingly consistent character, despite the differences between them.

As if to prove my point, Ehrman then spends several pages talking – not about the Gospels – but about portrayals of Peter, Judas and Pilate in late apocryphal books which were rejected from the canon. These, he says, are “early Christian memories” of Jesus. But they aren’t. They were rejected on exactly that basis – they were not sourced in testimony from apostolic, that is, witness sources. Ehrman insists otherwise because he is intentionally trying to distort the meaning of “remembering” to help him cast doubt on the actual memories contained in the Gospels.

Chapter 2 of Ehrman’s “Jesus Before the Gospels” begins, egregiously enough, with these words: “When memory researchers speak about ‘distorted’ memories they do not necessarily mean anything negative by it. They are simply referring to memories of things that did not really happen. Most, probably all, of the memories of Jesus discussed in the previous chapter are distorted in that sense. People brought to mind words and deeds of Jesus that the historical Jesus did not actually say and do.”

Which “memories” of Jesus is he talking about here?

The “memories” that are not actually memories of Jesus (not episodic), but memories of learned information? The apocryphal books? Ehrman goes on to talk a bit about the apocryphal stories, but as we’ve established, the Church rejected those as memories. So why does he continue to act like they are? More to the point though, what basis has Ehrman established so far to apply such a statement to the Gospels themselves? Without any real support, he has simply lumped the Gospels in with those books that everyone agrees are not eyewitness memories.

Nice trick. But he hasn’t established anything to show that the Gospels are anything other than eye- witness accounts written in living memory of the events. If they are, all his issues with memory in the prior chapter and introduction are irrelevant.

Next Ehrman discusses a seventeenth century writer named Reimarus. I honestly have no idea why. Reimarus was not an eyewitness. He reviewed the Gospels and decided that Jesus never intended to be the savior of the world, but was just a firebrand revolutionary who wanted to be king. Then he was crucified. Then the disciples hatched this great plan that would allow them to continue to reap the rewards of preaching and missionary work. All they had to do was pretend Jesus rose from the dead.

Seriously. That’s Reimarus’ story. Personally I find that less credible than a resurrection. But Reimarus certainly didn’t have any personal memory of Jesus.

Anyway, the next section is about “a major breakthrough” in critical analysis of the Gospels – form criticism. That thing that Ehrman told a radio audience on the “Unbelievable?” show he wasn’t do- ing in his book. Ehrman asserts that form critics began to realize “that the Gospels could not all be eyewitness accounts of the life of Jesus and that there were, in fact, serious discrepancies among them.” The form critics as he describes them seem to have made up criteria for things they cannot possibly know to be true, and reached conclusions based on that speculation. For instance, Ehrman says there is no basis to believe that the disciples memorized his sayings because the Gospels don’t have scenes of Jesus grilling the disciples in memorization drills (Page 69). “Therefore,” Ehrman says, the view that the disciples memorized things “was anachronistic.” That is possibly one of the dumbest things I’ve ever read. Apparently Ehrman thinks the Gospels should have included Jesus’ top tips on memory drills for rabbinical students. Because that is clearly the focus and message of Jesus’ life, how to memorize sayings. Oy.

Ehrman also discusses the theory of a scholar named Bailey of “controlled” oral tradition. The basic idea is that Bailey attended haflat samar, local gatherings where stories were told. The tellers were given some freedom in the telling, but important facts and details were carefully policed by the community, and the tellers shamed if they misstated something. In any case, whether or not this was a widespread thing is unimportant, again, if the Gospels are in fact sourced in eyewitness accounts. The rest of the chapter continues about various “must have beens” imaginings of how the stories about Jesus spread. Once again, if the point of this is the Gospels, then it is irrelevant how some stories spread if the Gospels are sourced in eyewitness accounts. Why? Because if stories were spread as Ehrman imagines, then if they accurately portray an eyewitness account they are included in the Gospels. If they do not, then they are not included. Simply put, we do not need to worry about the accuracy of stories that are NOT in the Gospels when deciding about the accuracy of the Gospels.

Next: Part 2 of Tom’s review.

Tom Tozer reviews Bart Ehrman’s book Jesus Before the Gospels, Part 2


[This is the second installment of a four-part series of articles written by Tom Tozer that reviews Bart Ehrman’s book Jesus Before the Gospels.]

See also:

Tom’s review, Part 1

Chapter 3 is about eyewitness testimony, and it’s good that we’re finally going to get to that. I couldn’t resist a sneak peek though. In the first couple of pages Ehrman tells the story of a staged event to test eyewitness accuracy. A teacher was giving a lecture when two students stood up and started to argue, the teacher intervened, and a gun went off. Then the teacher explained it was all for show. Over the next few weeks, they had people write down what happened. There were errors. (So why the shock about discrepancies in the Gospels?)

It’s the von Liszt experiment which you can look up. I didn’t find a description of what the people got right and what they got wrong, but I bet they all correctly described the basics, a fight, intervention, and a gunshot. Now why would that be and what kind of event in the Gospels might resemble that?

Chapter 3 begins with the von Liszt experiment which I already mentioned. It doesn’t get much better. Ehrman mentions some other “memory studies,” although I’m not entirely sure that’s what they amount to. One, for instance, involved a plane crash into a building in the 1990s, before phone video and other ubiquitous handheld video was available. There was no film of the crash. Nevertheless, weeks after the crash, someone asked hundreds of people whether they had seen video of the plane crashing into the building. A significant percentage said yes. Ehrman thinks this is a big deal, but I fail to see how. No one doubts that the plane crashed into the building. The only issue this might expose is whether people who claim to witness an event actually were direct witnesses. However, there is nothing here to suggest they were inventing events.

Next he discussed something about alien abductions, which Ehrman claims involve “many” people. He mentions the number 100. That doesn’t sound like many in a nation of 300 million. That “study” does seem to go more directly to the issue of eyewitness credibility, and it is most interesting for the fact that no such events were reported prior to movies and television shows about aliens. In other words, the “memories” had to be socially plausible before they started occurring. People didn’t invent stories of experiencing aliens until the existence of aliens had been suggested to them. That’s pretty interesting. But I think it actually cuts the other way for Ehrman’s thesis. The question, as applied to Jesus, is this: Were resurrections of crucified Messiahs ever socially acceptable? Was this a widespread idea that would have created the suggestion in the disciples, like TV shows created the suggestion in the abductees? For this alien abduction study to tell us much about Jesus, Ehrman would have to offer evidence that resurrected-Messiah stories were widespread prior to Jesus’ time so as to create the suggestion in the apostles. Of course, he doesn’t offer such evidence.

Ehrman only glancingly deals with Bauckham’s ‘Jesus and the Eyewitnesses’. He really deals with none of Bauckham’s research, but just asks a lot of “oh really?” questions, as if those were responses. What “response” he does give is utter speculation stated as though it were known fact- who the Gospel writers were (not Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, clearly!), what their sources were (not eyewitnesses! No sir!), none of which Ehrman can possibly know. In fact, he concedes, on page 103, that “some of the basics about Jesus” were well known, especially the crucifixion and resurrection, in the early church as made plain by Paul’s letters. Seems to me those are the most important facts of all about Jesus. The lack of stories about Jesus’ life in Paul’s letters is a non-event, I think. Paul did not need to retell stories that were well known, and the purpose of his letters were more along the lines of encouraging church leaders and church governance. He was not writing homilies about one of Jesus’ parables or healings.

Several items in the chapter stand out.

First, Ehrman attacks Papias’ credibility. Papias states that Mark wrote Mark as the memoirs of Peter. Ehrman cannot allow this to stand because it destroys his entire hypothesis. If the Gospels record eyewitness accounts, 95 percent of Ehrman’s book is irrelevant. But the way he attacks Papias is utterly ineffective. Ehrman notes that Papias records a saying of Jesus that is not recorded in any of the Gospels. It goes something like this: The days will come when a vine has ten thousand boughs, and each bough ten thousand branches, and each branch ten thousand clusters, and each cluster ten thousand grapes, and each grape will cry out to bless the Lord. Ehrman seems bemused by this. “Really? Jesus taught that?” he asks mockingly.

Uh, yeah, I don’t know why Jesus would not have taught that. That parable – which I’d never heard before – works perfectly with the parable of the mustard seed becoming the bush that takes over the field. Jesus could have meant it as a description of the church in 100, 1000 or 2000 years later and he was using it to encourage the disciples. Who knows? But there’s nothing weird about the parable at all. It may well be genuine. It is not inconsistent with anything Jesus said. But Ehrman thinks it “sounds weird” and so must be false, I guess.

The second thing that stands out is how Ehrman picks a Lukan introduction to make it seem as though Luke did no personal investigation of the facts. There are translations of Luke 1:1-3 which state that Luke investigated, and some which state that he “followed” the facts. The word used in Luke 1:3 is parēkolouthēkoti, a combination of “para” which one Biblehub’s lexicon defines as “be- side, or in the presence of” and akoloutheó, defined as “accompany, attend or follow.”

Seems to me “investigation” is closer than mere “following” and the word definitely conveys personal presence of the author in the following.” But Ehrman can’t have Luke investigating anything, and so, unsurprisingly, chooses the latter translation. It isn’t even tricky.

Next, Ehrman’s response to the fact that all four Gospels had names when Irenaeus was writing (and another list, from the same time, found hundreds of miles away) is to fabricate a scenario where someone writes a book for his church from stories they tell there, and then that gets passed around, and so on. Ehrman writes, “there was no name attached to the books” [what books?] “The author was writing an account based on what he heard.” [what author? What did he hear? From whom?] “Within months most of the people reading the book would not know its author” and “no one cared who the author was” and “there was no discussion of the matter for many many decades.” Etc. etc. etc. Evidence?

The most egregious part of the chapter is in the last four pages. Ehrman backs his way into agreeing that names of the Gospel authors and their association with each book makes sense. (pp. 125- 128).

But he does so by assuming that later name-suppliers combed through the books for clues about what names to invent for them. For instance, he admits it makes sense that Matthew is called Matthew because it contains the call of Matthew, and seems the “most Jewish” of the books. He claims that the Gospel of John had to be named John because, well, it couldn’t be named for Peter because Peter is named in it alongside the beloved disciple who claims authorship at the end.

He says Luke makes sense for Luke because it appears to be written by Paul’s traveling companion, who appears to be a gentile, and since Paul mentions his companion the gentile Luke in a letter, that name fits. Finally, Ehrman says Mark makes sense to be named for Mark, because since the time of Papias everyone thought Mark wrote down Peter’s memoirs, and they couldn’t name it Peter because there already was an heretical Gospel of Peter, so they adopted the name Mark for it since Mark was already associated with Peter through Papias.

Hilariously enough, all of that actually explains exactly why the traditional authorship makes sense. But you can either assume the names make sense because of the historical data, or you can assume that a cabal of later editors conspired in a fascinatingly byzantine fashion to make up names because it matched that historical data. I guess you’ve got to do the latter when you’re Ehrman and you’re trying to sell books. But the former seems simpler.

Chapter 4 is titled “Distorted memories and the death of Jesus.” Some of this chapter just makes no sense. Ehrman talks about people who can memorize hundreds of cards or numbers, and then says “we all forget stuff.” Another, someone named Ebbinghaus, used himself as the sole subject, and made up hundreds of nonsense syllables and memorized them. He showed that he – and by extrapolation others I guess – tended to do most of his forgetting right away, with memory stabilizing at about six months.

In other words, what you remember at about six months after an event stays stable. Next is another “breakthrough” from 1932 by Bartlett, who shows that memories are stored in multiple places in the brain, and then reconstructed when we recall an event. If we do not have data for part of a memory, the brain will fill in the missing data with “typical” data. It seems to me that Bartlett helps explain why people have slightly different recall of events and there can be discrepancies between eyewitness accounts.

Person A was not paying attention to the color of the table cloth, so his mind filled in “white” for that detail. Person B noticed the table cloth was red, but wasn’t drinking the wine that night and so has no data for that and recalls only water on the table. This seems to support, not undermine, the nature of the Gospels as eyewitness accounts.

From Bartlett, Ehrman floats over to the telephone game. Basically, A was a witness. He tells B. B forgets some of what A said and fills in with “typical” data. He tells C. C forgets some, fills in, and tells D, and so on. But, yet again, all of this is irrelevant if A talks to the person taking down the events and writing, oh, say, a Gospel. Then the only filling in is whatever A’s mind did. So really we’re back to the original question: were the Gospels sourced in eyewitness accounts? If so, all of this telephone game stuff is irrelevant.

Next Ehrman talks about “flashbulb” memories. These are memories of unusual or important events that leave a vivid impression. In one study, 44 students were asked to take a quiz multiple times after the Challenger space shuttle explosion in 1986. They misremembered where they were when they heard about it, who they heard from, and some didn’t recall taking the prior quizzes. What’s weird about drawing conclusions from this is that none of the things they misremembered was the actual unusual event at issue.

Now if some of them thought the Challenger did not explode, or that something else had happened, that would seem to undermine the “flashbulb” memory idea. But none of them failed to remember the actual unusual event. Similarly (just spit-balling this) we might find that someone vividly remembered seeing a resurrected man, but didn’t recall everyone who went with them to a tomb, say.

Next Ehrman talks about “gist memories,” which he agrees can be reliable. However, I can see now why someone from his fundamentalist background might have been deeply disturbed by finding out that the Gospels are not word-for-word transcripts of events, but instead are human documents about human events. But even if the Gospels can only be said (and I don’t think this is correct, but arguendo) only to record “the gist” of Jesus’ life, what is “the gist” of a resurrected man? Seems to me, if that gist is correct, the details are somewhat less important.

Anyway, to attack gist memories, Ehrman misrepresents a paper by Neisser about John Dean, a Watergate witness who testified at length before Congress about the Nixon Watergate matter. Ehrman asserts that Dean’s failed memory for specific conversations shows how poor gist memory can be. Neisser, at the conclusion of his paper, says the opposite. “[Dean] is not remembering the “gist” of a single episode by itself, but the common characteristics of a whole series of events. … Nixon hoped that the transcripts would undermine Dean’s testimony by showing that it had been wrong. They did not have this effect because he was wrong only in terms of isolated episodes.

Episodes are not the only kinds of facts. Except where the significance of his own role was at stake, Dean was right about what had really been going on at the White House. What he later told the Senators was fairly close to the mark: his mind was not a tape recorder, but it certainly received the message that was being given.”

Likewise, disciples who had been with Jesus for an extended period may not have been tape recorders, but they could “certainly [have] received the message that was being given.”

Having misrepresented Neisser, Ehrman now describes his “method” for assessing the evidence about the trial and death of Jesus. It is this:

  1. 1) If there are contradictions between two stories, one must be false.
  2. 2) If an account includes events “that are simply implausible” or “utterly beyond what seems likely” then it must be a distorted memory (i.e.false).

Neither of those propositions is true. As we’ve seen from this very book, people fill in details about things they were not paying attention to, based on “typical” events. That does not mean that the overall story they tell is false, but only that some of the details may be incorrect. Nor is it the case that nothing “implausible” ever happens. What in the world would anyone ever write about or tell stories about if nothing “beyond what seems likely” ever happened? The implausibility of an event can’t, by that fact alone, demonstrate that the event did not occur.

Given this, let’s look briefly at one aspect of the death of Jesus that Ehrman examines. He first looks at the trial before Pilate. He sets out a long list of things the Gospels agree about, which is helpful, and he seems, I think, to agree that these things probably took place. He has problems with the accounts though, because:

  1. Matthew adds facts that Mark did not have (which doesn’t contradict anything nor seem unusual if Matthew also had other eyewitness sources);
  2. Luke adds the detail of sending Jesus to Herod (which is not a contradiction and is not implausible);
  3. John places the trial on the morning of the Passover meal.

Ehrman has a valid point about the Gospel of John. There are several “timing” issues with John, that seem to a lot of people – I’ve read this elsewhere – to focus on showing Jesus as the slain lamb of the Passover. So John’s placement of the trial on the morning of the meal, when the sacrifice and meal would be made later, makes sense from a story telling point of view.

Recalling that ancient historians were more concerned with conveying the character of their subjects than with detailing minutia, this doesn’t seem to undermine the truth of the matter that Jesus was tried before Pilate, that Pilate found him innocent, but allowed his crucifixion anyway, and that Jesus died on the cross. Those are the events that matter. Ehrman then uses his “method” to examine the cleansing of the temple, the entry into Jerusalem, the tearing of the curtain to the holy of holies, and such, none of which seems very interesting.

Next: Tom’s review, Part 3