Interview with Bart Erhman RE: the source of the Gospels

I ran across this brief interview with Bart Erhman and I thought it might interest the group.

An Interview With Author Bart D. Ehrman

Q: What is it that drives your fascination with how Jesus has been “remembered” and “misremembered”?

A: When most people today read the Gospels of the New Testament, they nearly always assume that these accounts were written soon after Jesus’ death by people who knew him and his disciples: these are transcripts of the things Jesus said and did, down to the minute detail. What people tend not to realize is that these accounts were written 40–60 years after Jesus had died, by people who did not know him, who did not live in his same country, who did not speak his same language.

So how did these authors (who are all four anonymous) acquire their stories about Jesus? The answer scholars have given for a very long time is that these authors had heard stories about Jesus that had been in circulation for year after year, decade after decade, after his life. I’ve long been intrigued by this phenomenon, and several years ago realized that it is closely related to a field of study pursued by psychologists, sociologists, and anthropologists, all of whom are interested in how human memory works. Is memory always reliable? Can eyewitnesses be trusted always to give an accurate account of what happened? Do stories ever change when they are told? Do they ever not change? What happens to stories told and retold over decades? In short, how does our knowledge of human memory help us understand what was happening to the accounts of Jesus’ words and deeds as they were circulating in the decades before any of our Gospel authors wrote them down?

Q: How have scholars traditionally explained the gap of time between when Jesus was alive and when the Gospels were written, and why is that problematic?

A: Many scholars have somewhat unreflectively maintained that the Gospels ultimately go back to eyewitness testimonies to Jesus’ life and that they are therefore reliable; or that oral cultures preserve their traditions with a high degree of accuracy. I realized several years ago that these views can be tested by what we actually know, based on modern detailed studies, about eyewitness testimony (psychologists and legal scholars have studied the subject rigorously), about the reliability of memory (psychologists have delved into this question assiduously since the 1930s), and about the ways traditions are preserved in oral cultures (as we now know based on anthropological studies since the 1920s). As it turns out, what many New Testament scholars have assumed about such matters, in many cases, is simply not right. Many of their assumptions are not only unsupported, they have been shown to be highly problematic in study after study.

Q: What is the message you ultimately want people to take away from reading Jesus Before the Gospels?

The Gospels we have are not stenographic accounts of the things Jesus said and did. They contain stories that had been passed along by word of mouth decades before anyone wrote them down. If we understand what psychologists have told us about memory and false memory, and about how we sometimes actually invent stories in our heads about the past; if we understand what sociologists have told us about collective memory and how our social groups affect and mold the ways we preserve our recollections of past events; and if we understand what anthropologists have learned about how oral cultures not just cherish and preserve but also alter, transform, and even invent their traditions, we will have a much clearer sense of what the Gospels are and of how we should understand the stories they tell about the historical Jesus.