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 Ehrman is relying on an outdated model called “Form Criticism” which has been convincingly discredited (See for example, Paul Eddy and Gregory Boyd, The Jesus Legend.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The fact is that Ehrman is actually just stating opinion (which I would argue is based on an outdated theory!).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.