Thursday, June 16, 2016

Bart Ehrman's Jesus before the Gospels (Part 4)

After attacking the work of Birger Gerhardsson in chapter two of Jesus before the Gospels, Bart Ehrman then focuses on the work of Kenneth Bailey. From decades of work in the Middle East as a missionary, Bailey observed that small villages would tell and re-tell the stories of their community’s history. Only the most knowledgeable and senior members of the community were allowed to tell the stories. They had some degree of freedom to tell the stories in their own words, but the core of the stories had to be accurate or it was considered shameful, and the community would correct them in no uncertain terms. Bailey argued that this model would explain what we see in the Synoptic Gospels in which the core of the stories are the same, but minor details vary from Gospel to Gospel.

Ehrman argued that there was no evidence to show that early Christian communities functioned that way (72-73). Ehrman is right that there is no direct evidence for Bailey’s theory from Jesus’ time, but the value of any hypothesis is its explanatory power—and Bailey’s hypothesis has a lot of explanatory power. Some scholars would argue that Bailey’s theory (especially as refined and elaborated by James Dunn in Jesus Remembered) makes sense of what we see in the Synoptic Gospels better than any other theory ever proposed. At least Bailey’s sources come from Middle Eastern culture and relate to the transmission of history, unlike the Form Criticism model, on which Ehrman seems to rely, which was developed from relatively modern studies on how German folklore was transmitted!

Ehrman asks, “Are we to imagine that eyewitnesses fanned out and rooted themselves in every village of Palestine where someone told stories of Jesus?” (73). Ehrman adds, “according to the New Testament book of Acts, the disciples of Jesus stayed for the most part in Jerusalem once the church had begun after Jesus’ death” (73). Ehrman’s argument is apparently based on Acts 8:1 which says, “On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.” Notice that although the apostles remained headquartered, so to speak, in Jerusalem, believers were “scattered throughout Judea and Samaria” (Acts 8:1). So it is entirely possible—even likely—that those who were “scattered throughout Judea and Samaria” included eyewitnesses who “fanned out and rooted themselves in every village….”

And although the apostles remained headquartered in Jerusalem, that doesn’t mean they never left. Church leaders like Peter, John and Philip traveled throughout the region as well, ministering to churches as they went (Acts 8:25-26; 9:32-38; 10:24). When the church in Antioch got large enough, the apostles sent a representative (Barnabas) to oversee the church (11:22) and when a dispute broke out, representatives from Antioch went up to Jerusalem to discuss the issue with the apostles (Acts 15:1-4). In fact, after his second missionary journey, even Paul may have given account of his ministry to the apostles in Jerusalem (Acts 18:22). In other words, unlike some ancient version of the telephone game, the earliest church had apostles, teachers and other eyewitness who were able to keep the stories of Jesus from wildly spinning out of control. If someone was preaching things about Jesus that wasn’t accurate, there were apostles and eyewitnesses who would certainly correct the story.

Curiously, after seemingly mocking the idea of eyewitnesses in Judean, Samarian and Galilean villages, Ehrman then concedes that false stories would have been corrected. But he finds fault with that too:

Possibly when someone tells a story, someone else corrects him. In fact, that seems more than likely: it almost always happens when one person tells a story that someone else knows. Does this group context for telling the stories ensure that they are accurate? Actually, modern psychological studies suggests that just the opposite is normally the case” (Ehrman 75).

Ehrman says that cognitive psychologists have discovered that “when a group ‘collectively remembers’ something they have all heard or experienced, the ‘whole’ is less than the sum of the ‘parts” (75). In other words, if you interview ten people separately, you will get more information than if you interview them as a group. As proof, Ehrman cites “Collaborative and Social Remembering” by Rebecca Thompson (chapter 9 in Memory in the Real World by Gillian Cohen and Martin Conway, 3rd ed. New York : Psychology Press, 2008).

Citing other research, Thompson stated that nominal groups (groups in name only, in which responses from individuals are added together) did better than collaborative groups (those that actually worked together as a group). Both groups did better than individuals. But Bailey is not talking about eyewitnesses collaboratively working together to remember something. Bailey is taking about someone retelling a story of a community’s history to a group that already knows the story well and is in a position to correct the story if the storyteller makes a mistake. Ehrman seems to be comparing apples to oranges.

Significantly, Ehrman leaves out a couple of other important aspects of Thompson’s article. First, one of the studies cited by Thompson found that when “when collaborating, individuals encoded to-be-remembered items together (in an episodic task) and they actually outperformed the nominal groups” (Thompson, Memory in the Real world, 260). Episodic memory is “recalling things that happened to you personally” as opposed to semantic memory which “involves factual information about the world, quite apart from whether you have personally experienced it” (Ehrman 18). In the case of Bailey’s theory, we are talking about episodic memory, i.e. personal memories of Jesus by the apostles or other eyewitnesses. So by way of application, if the apostles jointly remembered the words and deeds of Jesus during the 40 days they were together before Pentecost, that would increase their memory even above that of a nominal group.

Second, Thompson says “The accuracy of collaborative output has been detrimentally affected in certain situations and improved in others. Using a simulation of a police interrogation, Stephenson et al. (1986) reported an overall higher accuracy of the collaborating groups’ performance compared to individual performance” (Thompson, Memory, 253). The “higher accuracy of the collaborating groups’ performance” seems to contradict the Ehrman’s negative assessment of Bailey.
But all of this is actually a moot point. Ehrman began by asking, “Does this group context for telling the stories ensure that they are accurate? Actually, modern psychological studies suggests that just the opposite is normally the case” (Ehrman 75). As proof, Ehrman cites a quote from Thompson’s article that pertains to the amount of information groups or individuals remember but says nothing about the accuracy of what they remember.

For some reason, Ehrman didn’t quote from the part of Thompson’s article that addresses accuracy. For example, in one of the memory tests that showed lower accuracy, groups of people were shown a picture of “a common household scene, containing a variety of common objects.” They were only allowed to look at the picture for 15 or 60 seconds. When the groups collaborated together to recall what they saw, one member of the group deliberately “recalled” objects that were not there. This negatively affected the accuracy of the group’s memory as some of the other adopted that false memory (Thompson, Memory, 254).

One really has to wonder, however, whether 15 and 60 second showings of a picture in an artificial experiment for which nothing is at stake and in which false information is deliberately inserted, is analogous to memories of the life and teachings of Jesus by disciples whose lives were on the line. After all, Jesus had just been executed—his disciples had every reason to be concerned they could be next! Not only that, but an experiment in which people are asked to recall details of pictures of common items they had seen for less than 60 seconds, is certainly not comparable to the rememberances of Jesus’ apostles, or other eyewitnesses of Jesus (like some of the women) who traveled with him for up to three years and heard him preach, teach and explain the same or similar things over and over and over again! Besides, Thompson’s article presented no indication that the overall memories of the pictures were inaccurate, only that a few details had be deliberately inserted. 

Although Ehrman didn’t cite this part of Thompson’s article, it is important to keep this study in mind when you read of psychological studies that supposedly demonstrate the unreliability of memory.
Ehrman continues,

“But there are bigger problems with group memories. They are often more frail and faulty than individual memories—just the opposite of what you might expect. For one thing, if one person—say, a dominant personality—injects into the conversation an incorrect recollection or ‘distorted memory’ that others in the group do not remember, they tend to take the other person’s word for it. As one recent study has shown, ‘The misinformation implanted by one person comes to be shared by the group as a whole. In other words, a collective memory could become formed around misinformation. Misinformation shared by one person may be adopted by the rest’ (Ehrman, 75-76).

As an example, Ehrman cited a study that “found that 65 percent of the participants actually changed their views because of social pressure exerted on them (not necessarily consciously) by the group as a whole. About 40 percent of these errors were ‘persistent,’ that is, they became ‘permanent’ memories of those who actually did not at first have them” (Ehrman 76, citing Micah Edelson, Tali Sharot, Raymond Dolan, and yadin Dudai, “Following the Crowd: Brain Substrates of Long-Term Memory Conformity,” Science 333 (2011: 108-111)).

In this test, 30 participants were shown “an eyewitness-style documentary on a large screen in groups of five.” Three days later they took a memory test. Four days after that, they were given the same memory test, but this time they were deliberately misled, being told that four others in the group gave a different answer than they had. One week later they were given the same memory test again, but first they were accurately informed that they had been misled about the group’s answers.

The result was that the “participants conformed to the majority opinion in 68.3 +_ 2.9% of the manipulation trials, giving a false answer to questions they had previously answered correctly…When the social influence was removed (test 3), participants reverted to their original correct answer in 59.2 +_2.3% of the previously conformed trials (transient errors) but maintained erroneous answers in 40.8% (persistent errors). (Edelson et al., 108). The experiment demonstrated that social pressure can lead people to conform to the group. In the case of this experiment, the social pressure came when some test subjects were deliberately misled about answers from others in the group.

No one argues, however, that intruders had infiltrated the group of apostles and deliberately inserted false memories of Jesus, so this experiment has little if any relevance to Bailey’s theory. On the other hand, the social pressure discovered in this experiment is a double-edged sword that could cut both ways. In the experiment false information was deliberately communicated to the participant. Apart from an artificially concocted experiment, a more likely scenario would be that someone in a group mis-remembered something she saw and the group corrected her. The social pressure from the group may actually cause her to conform to the group’s accurate remembrance. This seems much more analogous to the scenarios proposed by Bailey in which everyone in the group knows the story so if the one telling the story changes the story significantly, the group will correct him.

In real life scenarios in which people are motivated to get the story right (these early Christians were, after all, basing their lives on accurate rememberances of the ministry and teachings of Jesus), it would seem that the social pressure may have actually served to preserve the accuracy of the stories of Jesus. Ehrman’s conclusion that, “It seems that the idea of a group ensuring the accuracy of traditions is not psychologically defensible” (76), is simply not warranted by the psychological evidence he cites in Edelson’s article.


These, of course, are not the only studies of eyewitness memories cited by Ehrman. I’ll discuss more of them in the next post.

Thursday, June 09, 2016

Bart Ehrman's Jesus before the Gospels (part 3)

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.

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Bart Ehrman's Jesus before the Gospels (part 2)

In Jesus before the Gospels, Bart Ehrman cites numerous psychological studies demonstrating the unreliability of memory. As I read many of the research articles he cited, it occurred to me that the degree of reliability (or unreliability) in such memory studies is directly related to the specificity of the questions asked. The more eyewitness studies deal with minutia, the more unreliable memory will be seen to be.

For example, consider the case of the Jamar Clark shooting in Minnesota. Eyewitnesses differed on whether Clark was handcuffed in front, in back, on one hand or whether he was handcuffed at all. But none of the eyewitnesses (to my knowledge) disputed the central story: Clark beat up his girlfriend who called 911. She was treated in an ambulance while he was outside yelling. The police came and a struggle ensued resulting in Clark being shot and killed by one of the officers. Eyewitnesses differ on the details but agreed on the gist of the story.

Similarly, although scholars often delight in pointing out minor discrepancies in the stories regarding Jesus’ crucifixion, virtually all Jesus scholars (even the most critical) would acknowledge as historical fact that Jesus was tried by Jewish authorities and handed over to Pontius Pilate who had Jesus beaten and crucified. Most, I think, would even affirm that Jesus’ tomb was later found empty by some women and that early Christians came to believe that he had risen from the dead!

In the numerous research articles I read on memory, virtually all of the researchers seemed interested in demonstrating how terribly unreliable memory is. And yet each of the researchers cited by Ehrman presumably remembered where and how to eat breakfast, where and how to get to work, who their coworkers and colleagues were, how to communicate with them, how to operate their computers and word processing programs, where and when to eat lunch, how to get home, and the many, many minor cultural conventions necessary to understand daily interactions and to avoid offending others.

There are thousands and thousands of things we remember accurately every day, including things from our past. When we start failing to remember these things we get tested for various forms of dementia! But in spite of the fact that Ehrman gives two or three statements affirming the reliability of “gist memory,” the bulk of his book—and the research he cites—focuses on the times when memory fails leading to the impression that the Gospels are terribly unreliable (I’ll leave it to those who know him personally to conclude whether this impression was intentional or not). 

Many recent studies on the historical Jesus have shown that we actually can know quite a bit about Jesus as a person of history and that we have good reason to believe that the Gospels are quite reliable.

In future posts I will get down into the weeds of some of the memory studies Ehrman cites in his book.

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Bart Ehrman's "Jesus before the Gospels"

The subtitle of Bart Ehrman’s new book, Jesus before the Gospels, summarizes the content in a nutshell: “How the earliest Christians remembered, changed, and invented their stories of the savior.” I plan to eventually write an article responding to Ehrman’s book but in the meantime I thought I’d just post some random observations. Here is the first.

It is important to note that conservative, Evangelical Bible scholars do not generally believe that the Gospels contain anything like word-for-word transcripts of Jesus’ teachings. With regard to Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels, scholars distinguish between ippsima verba (exact words) and ippsima vox (exact voice). Conservative scholars generally deny the first but hold to the second. Ippsima vox is the idea that what we have in the Gospels is the accurate sense or “gist” of what Jesus taught.

Ehrman’s view of how Jesus’ teachings were transmitted is that the Gospels contain “memories of later authors who had heard about Jesus from others, who were telling what they had heard about Jesus from others, who were telling what they heard from yet others. They are memories of memories of memories” (3). Ehrman is relying on an outdated model called “Form Criticism” which has been convincingly discredited (See for example, Paul Eddy and Gregory Boyd, The Jesus Legend. Grand Rapids : Baker, 237-268. See also Dale Allison, Constructing Jesus. Grand Rapids : Baker, 2010, 1-30.  N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God. Minneapolis : Fortress Press, 1992, 418-435. James Dunn, Jesus Remembered, 125-133).

The fact is that Ehrman is actually just stating opinion (which I would argue is based on an outdated theory!). He simply does not know that that the Gospel writers “were telling what they had heard about Jesus from others, who were telling what they heard from yet others…” (3). Contrary to Ehrman and the critics, the writer of the Gospel of Luke claims to have heard from eyewitnesses (Luke 1:1-3) and the Gospel of John claims to have been written by an eyewitness. The second century Christian writer Papias confirms this. James Dunn (Jesus Remembered) and Richard Bauckham (Jesus and the Eyewitnesses) have argued persuasively that although the Gospels were not written by eyewitnesses, they are the product of eyewitness remembrances. Of course Ehrman tries to discredit these writers but I think he does so unfairly and superficially.

Jesus’ teachings were remembered by disciples who lived and traveled with Jesus, probably for up to three years, hearing him preach and teach the same messages over and over and over again as they went from village to village—explaining those messages in more detail when they were alone (remember, unlike modern college students, they didn’t have TV, radio, or video games to eat up their time--and books were too expensive)!

Did the disciples remember the exact words (ippsima verba) of Jesus? Not necessarily, though in some cases they may have (There is evidence from after the time of Jesus that some Rabbi’s had students who would use a form of shorthand to record their teacher’s instruction, and then commit that teaching to memory). Did Jesus’ disciples remember the essence or gist (ippsima vox) of what Jesus taught? Even Bart Ehrman concedes that “gist memory” can be accurate. He writes, “Our own memories are, on the whole, reasonably good. If they weren’t, we would not be able to function, or even survive, as human beings in a very complex world” (3). “Let me stress again: most of the time our memories are pretty good. Otherwise we couldn’t function as individuals or society” (20-21).

So I guess the bottom line is that in the process of writing a 326 page book leaving the impression that eyewitness memory in general and the Gospels in particular, are thoroughly unreliable, Ehrman throws in two or three statements here and there emphasizing that “gist memory” is actually “pretty good.” Evangelicals agree.

But what about Inerrancy, an idea Ehrman doesn’t address but would undoubtedly mock? How can the Gospels be without error if most of what they contain is just “gist memory”?  The answer is that something does not have be recited word-for-word to be accurate and without error. Summaries can accurate and without error too. Of course we can’t prove the Gospels are without error—Many Evangelicals take that on faith based on what Jesus teaches about Scripture and what Scripture teaches about itself—but there is no good reason to doubt—and very good reasons to believe—that the Gospels contain reliable memories of the words and works of Jesus, Bart Ehrman notwithstanding. More on this later.