[First,] Are the Gospels based on stories about Jesus that had been passed around, changed, and possibly invented by Christian storytellers for decades before being written down, or were they written by eyewitnesses? [And second,] If they were written by eyewitnesses, would that guarantee their essential accuracy? (p. 88)
Ehrman addresses these questions in reverse order.
The rest of the chapter addresses the former question: Are the Gospels based on eyewitness testimony and/or written by eyewitnesses themselves? (pp. 100–130). Ehrman begins, rightly, with a mention of Richard Bauckham's famous book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (Eerdmans, 2006). I reviewed Bauckham's book for Biblical Theology Bulletin; as readers can see, I was (and am) critical of Bauckham's work. However, Ehrman is unnecessarily dismissive of Bauckham ("Outside the ranks of conservative evangelical Christians, very few if any biblical scholars have found Bauckham's case persuasive"; p. 101); the main reason Ehrman gives for rejecting Bauckham's work is rooted in Jesus' and his followers' confinement to poor, uneducated, rural Palestine: "those who were involved with Jesus in his ministry were lower-class Aramaic-speaking Jews in rural Palestine. . . . The same can almost certainly be said about virtually all of his followers" (pp. 101–2). The only person with certain access to eyewitnesses was Paul, and Ehrman emphasizes that, "even though Paul is our one direct link to an eyewitness report, he doesn't give us much information about Jesus" (102–6 ). The bulk of the chapter surveys the original anonymity of the canonical Gospels and how they got their current appellations in the mid- to late-second century.
Ehrman's use of memory studies in this chapter is much more responsible than in previous chapters. He accurately relates the generally problematic nature of eyewitness memory and testimony, which nature Bauckham largely ignored or marginalized. However, here memory research itself is open, I think, to some criticism. Barry Schwartz (whom Ehrman cited approvingly in his Introduction; see pp. 5–8) often complains that experimental research on eyewitness memory is artificially contrived precisely in order to maximize and highlight the very thing it finds: memory's errors. This complaint does not negate such findings; we simply must account for the ways that experience as well as imagination contribute to our memories of things past, so that the distinction between remembering actual experiences and imagined ones is often (if not always) difficult to draw. Even so, Schwartz points out that none of us—apart perhaps from some manifestation of mental illness—lives our life as if our memories were tenuous and prone as often as not to be wrong. Sometimes I forget where I parked my car, but not usually. I never—almost never, at worst—forget where my office is. I may forget my anniversary, but that simply means I have forgotten that this day is my anniversary, not that I have forgotten when I duped my wife into marrying me. Memory is fallible, yes. And sometimes the things we think we remember never actually happened. More common, however, is that our memories of events that actually did happen differ than our experiences of those events at the time.
Again, this is not a critique of Ehrman as much as it is of (eyewitness) memory studies. Ehrman rightly notes that eyewitness memory both is and is not accurate, so that access to eyewitness testimony is not, tout court, a guarantee of that testimony's historical accuracy or its truth (these are two different things). And Ehrman's conclusion on p. 100 (cited above) is appropriate. If eyewitness memory can be either accurate or inaccurate, and if eyewitness claims "have to be examined historically" (p. 100), one wonders what memory studies has offered Ehrman that he did not have before. What gain has memory studies offered Ehrman's understanding either of the historical Jesus or the early Christian traditions about him? I was unable to identify much in this regard, especially since Ehrman rejects that eyewitness testimony played any role whatsoever in the formation of our Gospels.
We might make other observations about Ehrman's approach to "examin[ing] historically" the claims made either by the Gospel-writers themselves or by early Christians (to the turn of the third century CE). After examining the claims made by the second-century bishop of Hierapolis, Papias (which claims Bauckham features prominently throughout his book), Ehrman rejects Papias as a reliable witness even if he were claiming what Bauckham and others say he is claiming.
So can we rest assured about the truth of what Papias says, since he can provide guarantees based on his careful memory? It doesn't look like it. The only traditions about Jesus we have from his pen are clearly not accurate. Why should we think that what he says about Matthew and Mark are accurate? My hunch is that the only reason readers have done so is because they would like him to be accurate when he says things they agree with, even when they know he is not accurate when he says things they disagree with. (p. 118)This strikes me as an unfair swipe at historians, especially but not only Richard Bauckham. Ehrman has every right to challenge and critique both the interpretation and the reliability of Papias. But when he implies that "the only reason" historians might believe some of Papias's claims but not others is prejudice and bias, he betrays and indicts his own historical craft. After all, Ehrman himself accepts Mark's claim that Jesus "spent almost his entire life in Galilee before making a trip to Jerusalem in the last week of his life" (p. 101), and he similarly accepts (and actually goes further than) Acts' claim that the disciple John was illiterate (Acts 4.13; see Ehrman, pp. 109, 126). But it would be unfair of us to critique Ehrman for wanting Mark or Luke to be accurate when they say things he agrees with, even when he knows they are not accurate when they say things he disagrees with. Rather, Ehrman has made historical judgments, in just the same that Bauckham and others have. We may disagree with any of these judgments; this is the business of history and historiography. But we needn't impugn the integrity of our fellow historians (a lesson I myself continue to learn; see the update at the bottom of the second installment of this series).
One more critique. Ehrman offers a positive proposal for how the originally anonymous Gospels came to be known as "According to Matthew," "According to Mark," and so on (pp. 124–25). He proposes that "some kind of authoritative and influential edition of the four Gospels was published and circulated in Rome," which edition named our texts with the names we know and influenced the rest of the church—all of it!—to accept these names for the four texts that would eventually become canonical. Important parts of this hypothesis are (i) the observation that both Irenaeus and the Muratorian Fragment knew our four Gospels by name in Rome, and (ii) the assumption that Rome exerted sufficient authority in the second century CE to effect this kind of change across the whole of Christianity. This latter assumption deserves quoting at length:
Since Rome was the theological and practical center of Christendom at the time, and since it had so many people—Christians included—coming to and from the city, this edition of the Gospels spears quickly throughout the worldwide church.” (pp. 124–25; my emphasis)This, however is a thoroughly anachronistic portrayal both of Rome's influence and of the state of Christianity in the late-second and early-third centuries. The historical reality is that, in fact, Rome did not exert this level of influence so early in the history of Christian origins and that Christianity in the late-second and early-third centuries was sufficiently diffused that the Roman church could not command the allegiance Ehrman's proposal requires.
The overwhelming likelihood is that, in fact, the Gospels were originally anonymous (as Ehrman claims). Moreover, claims regarding their authorship are neither verifiable nor falsifiable (despite Ehrman's confidence to the contrary). We simply do not have the extant evidence we would like to know such things. And so the story of how our Gospels came to be known as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John must remain untold.
Continue to watch this space.
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 1)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 2)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 3)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 4)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 5)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 6)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 7)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 8)