I've recently resumed working on the next installment of my serial review of Bart Ehrman's book, Jesus before the Gospels (HarperCollins, 2016). But before we turn our attention to Chapter 5, I would like to address Larry's very interesting comment that was left on the previous installment. In sum, Larry raises a question about the "direction of reasoning": that is, if we knew the historical Jesus (the actual man from the 20s CE) we could likely understand and explain the Gospels, but can we with any real confidence know the historical Jesus having only the Gospels? Also, Larry mentions the very important factor that the significance of "the essential truth" of the historical event or figure we are trying to discern (the true essence of that event or figure) changes as the social context of the remembering present changes. So, in the example of Jonathan Dillon, the watchmaker who repaired Abraham Lincoln's pocket watch, "The first gun is fired. Slavery is dead. Thank God we have a President who at least will try," and "Fort Sumpter [sic] was attacked by the rebels on the above date . . . thank God we have a government" might have been essential synonyms, but they are not so today.
There is much to commend here. The basic fact is, Yes, we are dealing with a problem of directionality. It is quite difficult—if not actually impossible—to move backward from the traces of the past to the actuality of past events, in part because the actuality of past events no longer exists. Even in the relatively straightforward example of Lincoln’s watch, the historian cannot disprove the claim that, within a week of the watchmaker’s having inscribed Lincoln’s watch, a cat burglar exchanged the watch expressing the hope for slavery’s end with one expressing a hope for the reunification of the Union, and that the Smithsonian actually opened this latter watch rather than the former. Perhaps the watchmaker’s testimony is righter than we might think on the basis of the watch found within the Smithsonian’s custody. This isn’t just a silly example; it rather demonstrates the point that even when we have excellent evidence (as in this case), historians do not have the past itself. Hence the common claim that historians trade in probabilities rather than certainties.
It is also the case that historians of Jesus do not have sufficient evidence of Jesus’ life to warrant the kind of confidence we might have in our knowledge of the historical Lincoln. With Lincoln, we have actual manuscripts of at least some of his speeches. We have public records relating to and stemming from Lincoln’s public life. We have words and other materials from his contemporaries, both his supporters and his opponents. We are awash in data when we study Lincoln; Jesus scholars can only look on with envy. We have no accounts written by Jesus himself of his teachings. We have no public records (demographic data, bureaucratic documentation, etc.) from Jesus’ day. We don’t even have materials from Jesus’ contemporaries, though the Gospels are not terribly far removed from the time of the historical Jesus (being only three to five or seven decades after him; the closest reports we get from Jesus’ opponents other than those recorded in the Gospels come from the second century Roman historians and the even later Talmudic tradition). In terms of the standard investigation of ancient history, historians of Jesus rely on fairly solid data. But that standard is orders of magnitude below the kinds of data that survive for the study of modern history, which is a pity.
Even so, reasoning backwards from the claim of Lincoln’s watchmaker to the inscription inside his pocket watch actually helps clarify the task of historical Jesus scholarship, especially from the so-called memory approach. While we might not be able to reason backward from “I hope the war ends slavery” to “I hope the war reunifies a divided country,” we would be able to recover the watchmaker’s expectation that Lincoln was a significant figure in the troubles of mid-nineteenth-century America, that those troubles were related to tensions between slave and free states, and that the Union in Lincoln’s day was in dire straits. The watchmaker was able to participate in the effort to express the value of the Union—perhaps without the overt reference to slavery he would later recall—in his own, small way (viz., an inscription where no one would see it), and in doing so he identified the hope of the Union with Lincoln and his tenure in office. Historians would be able to have this fairly clear picture even if they mistakenly thought the inside of Lincoln’s watch read, "The first gun is fired. Slavery is dead. Thank God we have a President who at least will try," when it actually read, "Fort Sumpter [sic] was attacked by the rebels on the above date . . . thank God we have a government."
Larry is right to raise questions about the applicability of the story of John Dean’s testimony against Nixon to our study of Jesus. John Dean’s testimony is only heuristically helpful for Jesus historians. That is, it describes one way that memory sometimes works (and exposes one potential dimension of the truth of historical claims); it does not tell us how memory always works. I would, however, make two final points. First, I did not apply the case of John Dean to the Gospels’ testimony about Jesus; Bart Ehrman did. Second, my point was not that the case of John Dean salvages the historical value of the Gospels. Rather, it was that Ehrman provided a selective portrayal of Neisser’s study and that, to whatever extent we might apply that study to the Gospels, Neisser will lead us to very different conclusions to those drawn by Ehrman.