Can we know anything about the past?

Answering an agnostic’s radical skepticism


Published: March 22, 2016

A review of Jesus Before the Gospels by Bart Ehrman
HarperCollins, 2016

It’s that time of year again! Christians worldwide are preparing to celebrate the death, burial, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus in a matter of weeks. And skeptics, hoping to cash in and maybe even cause a few weak Christians to abandon the faith, are publishing their books, badly researched journalistic pieces, and even releasing movies to shipwreck any unsuspecting Christians they can.

Bart Ehrman’s latest popular-level work, Jesus Before the Gospels, attempts and fails to show that recent studies on memory prove that the Gospels cannot be true memories—at the most, they capture just the gist of who Jesus is, among many distorted (i.e. untrue) memories.

Anyone who has read Ehrman’s books knows just about what they should expect. Ehrman belongs to the radical school of skepticism. He brings an arsenal of unbelieving liberal scholarship, appeals to skeptical authorities, and presenting ‘old news’ as if it were devastating for Christians, despite many believing Christian scholars who see this information as presenting no tension for evangelical believers.

A book by a non-Christian isn’t automatically without value just because he’s not a Christian. For instance, in my review of Bart Ehrman’s Forgery and Counterforgery, I noted that it had a very useful discussion of how forgery worked in the case of the pseudepigraphal materials. So when we criticize an unbeliever’s book, it can’t just be because he’s an unbeliever. He has to be wrong about what he’s talking about. Unsurprisingly, in his latest book Ehrman is wrong a lot of the time, and where he’s right, he’s right about things that are utterly basic and unsurprising to anyone who has even the most basic training in the New Testament documents. Christians today need to be able to refute Ehrman’s laughable errors, so we hope this review helps you defend your faith.

Ehrman’s basic thesis is that memory, even when it comes to eyewitness testimony, isn’t terribly accurate when it comes to the details. While we can rely on our memory to give us the basic ‘gist’ of what happened, when we recall things that happened years or decades before, the details we remember, even when we’re very certain of those details, may not be correct. bart-ehrman
Bart Ehrman, author of Jesus Before the Gospels,

Of course, the Gospels were written decades after the resurrection of Jesus, so does that mean they are prone to the same errors, and are the variations between the Gospels proof of that? First, we have to come to the question as Christians and recognize that Scripture is not merely a human book, but a divinely inspired one. Jesus told the disciples, “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:26). The unbeliever doesn’t believe this because he doesn’t believe that the Holy Spirit exists—big surprise. However, while it is reasonable for the believer to cite the Holy Spirit’s role in inspiration, Ehrman’s skepticism about the ability of the disciples to remember the details of Jesus’ life ignores some important facts that would impact our judgments about the accuracy of the memories.

Ehrman assumes that there’s no way that the Gospels were written by either the Apostles or their direct associates, and he dates them absolutely as late as possible (but even he must admit they were written in the first century). However, there are elements, such as accurate recollections about the geography of Palestine and the layout of first-century Jerusalem, which make it likely they were written by people with knowledge of what first-century Judea and Galilee looked like. Compare for instance, with the Letter of Aristeas which was written perhaps a few generations before Jesus by someone who clearly had never visited Jerusalem—his work is filled with errors. The geographical and political details that the authors get right are hallmarks of authenticity that Ehrman never considers.

But even if the authors were apostles, wouldn’t decades degrade their memories (leaving aside, for the sake of argument, the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit)? Not necessarily. The parables and teachings of Jesus preserved in the Gospels are short and pithy for the most part, and use imagery and other devices that would make them easy to remember. Plus, Jesus would have likely repeated a given teaching many times as He moved from place to place.

What about the discrepancies between the Gospels? Actually, Ehrman never really cites a deal-breaking error; he just assumes there are discrepancies. In fact, the sort of discrepancies cited in the Gospels are the sort you would expect from people recollecting events from decades before, for different purposes. The Gospel writers were not attempting to write modern biographies, but bioi, the ancient almost-equivalent. There was a concern for historical accuracy, but it’s more along the lines of a painted portrait than a photograph; there’s a certain latitude for authorial intent and artistry in crafting the account, while remaining within the bounds of the historical information about the person.

But aren’t the Gospels only a few of the many documents claiming to tell us about Jesus, and aren’t some of those accounts widely divergent from each other and the Gospel accounts? Well, yes. But Christians have always known some teachings about Jesus were false, and they made judgments between documents that were judged to be trustworthy and actually authored by eyewitnesses (those documents make up our New Testament today), and the ones that were judged to be false. Even Paul and John combated false teachers—teachers who were presenting a false Jesus. So it was never the case in Christianity that we had this egalitarian “anyone’s Jesus goes” mentality. Whether it was true or not mattered, and it mattered very early on. And we can tell that these judgments were spot-on; they kept the four canonical Gospels while rejecting the ‘flashier’ Gospels that feature things such as the boy Jesus striking his playmates dead and receiving worship from dragons. Ehrman completely ignores this historical reality. This lack of understanding permeates the book, and really limits its usefulness.

There are some other elements of the book worth mentioning; Ehrman is fond of the appeal to authority of “critical scholars”—by which he means “unbelieving scholars”. Jesus Before the Gospels is a popular-level book, so Ehrman plays a bit fast and loose with the footnotes in places where we might like to know where he’s getting some of his information. There is a lot of interesting information about studies on memory, but it’s largely irrelevant when we’re discussing whether the Gospels are actually trustworthy accounts of Jesus’ life because Ehrman comes to the subject with so many wrong assumptions.

Jesus Before the Gospels is intended to make Christians doubt the accuracy and reliability of the New Testament. But a little critical thought on your part will not only encourage your faith, but help you to be more confident to share the truth about the Bible.

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Readers’ comments
Trevor G., Australia, 22 March 2016
Spot on Lita, as usual. The more operational science discovers about our bodies and all living things, the less the unbelievers have to cling to. They are on a slippery slope (Dawkins:"It appears to have been designed.") Scripture is clear: Romans 1:20 For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities--his eternal power and divine nature--have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. They keep trying, because the only alternative is a supernatural God, all powerful, omniscient, moral God, who has judged the earth through sacrificing his sinless son, truly man and truly God, united but distinct, sacrificing him on the cross for our salvation, and the salvation of all who believe. They are without excuse. The OT prophets saw the shadow of the Kingdom of God, and the NT brings it to fulfillment as the the Gospel is proclaimed and fulfilled, so that we will be taken up with him. We are not afraid. Having such a moral and gracious God is a wonderful thing. We pray that many more may stop fighting the reality and Kingship of the lamb that was slain, for he will surely come again as the Lion of Judah. Many eye witnesses saw Jesus and his miracles, heard his parables, and his teachings. He was and is real, and the NT is utterly reliable, just as is the OT. We pray that you will turn on your heel just as Paul did, and follow our Wonderful Saviour. Trevor
Joseph M., United Kingdom, 22 March 2016
I have never read Ehrman's books, but does he say when we can actually trust our memories and eyewitnesses? If not then the word 'Gospels' can be replaced with 'Ehram' and read "...memory prove that the [Ehrman's books] cannot be true memories—at the most, they capture just the gist of who Jesus is, among many distorted (i.e. untrue) memories..." If we cannot trust our memory senses then why should we trust the senses of others such as Ehrman? Unless the brain is physically damaged, memory is reinforced by : 1.Teaching method (parables, catchy phrases, stories, pictures, worship practices, repeated recital, etc.) 2. our experiences (social environment - friends, relations, partners, formal worship times, disasters) 3. Able to live out what we are taught (apostles and others spreading Christ's teachings, pastors in a church, artist in arts profession, software programmer in coding environment). 4.Documenting (scrolls, letters, notes, diaries, etc.) 5.Persecution (consciously doing the things we are persecuted for) 6. And many more. Fortunately, we can be our own science experts in the field of memory rather than relying too much on biased experts trying to make monetary profit. Christ, His death and resurrection is one of those monumental events that is actually difficult to forget.
Don J., United States, 22 March 2016
if one follows Bart Ehrmann's arguments to their logical conclusions, then we have to throw out everything we know about ancient history.
David James R., United States, 22 March 2016
In discussions with non-believers and believers who challenge the inerrancy of Scripture, I usually say something like: Do you think there is any chance that an all powerful Creator God of everything that exists, would ever have the slightest difficulty delivering His absolute truth to every person who diligently sought it, throughout human history, in spite of wars, destruction, ignorance, evil schemes, translations, and numerous other negative factors? With non-believers, I then proceed to tell them that they "cannot receive things (facts/truth) of the Spirit of God, neither can they know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor.2:14), since access to God and His knowledge is exclusively available to believers in Jesus Christ (and to a limited degree - those who seek salvation), irrespective of barriers that are difficult or impossible for mortal men to overcome. Interestingly, non-believers seem to barely grasp the concept within that Scripture, nor do they easily consider that an almighty God is in no manner constrained to the same limitations as are men.
Philip K., United Kingdom, 22 March 2016
A well written article Lita. Thank you very much. Truly it is said that the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. Lita, with your knowledge on the subject, is it not the case that some if not all of the writers of the gospels would have taken notes for later reference? (not that I discount the memorising work of the Holy Spirit). Also Matthew was quite used to making accurate tax entries for the authorities. I believe I read, long ago, that he might have practiced a form of shorthand.
Lita Cosner responds
It is not out of the question that some written documents pre-existed the Gospels, but there is no evidence of their existence today. Because Jesus may have used the same parables and teachings as He preached from place to place, it is quite possible that they were 'drummed into their memory' by sheer repetition.
Gil K., United States, 23 March 2016
Even beyond the power of the Holy Spirit, would it not be fair to assume that in the first century, where written documents were not widely available to all, that average people of that era may have had far better memories than we in the modern age?
Tom M., United States, 23 March 2016
The claim that the Gospels were written many years after Jesus, and the feebleness of our memory precludes any accuracy, has been made by skeptics before. Putting aside the fact that the writers were inspired by the Holy Spirit, isn't it quite possible that notes were written at the time of the events or at least much earlier than the Gospels and when compiled, those notes were disposed of? I do this all the time in my own writing.
Brian W., United States, 23 March 2016
Ehrman and the rest of the skeptics will continue to get it wrong as long as they continue leaning on their own understanding instead of acknowledging Christ in all their ways.
Ronald W., United States, 23 March 2016
"Bart Ehrman’s latest popular-level work, Jesus Before the Gospels, attempts and fails to show that recent studies on memory prove that the Gospels cannot be true memories—at the most, they capture just the gist of who Jesus is, among many distorted (i.e. untrue) memories." So, no memory studies from the First Century AD were used in the development of his argument? Is that not bad science? Assuming the average first century citizen had the same limitations in regards to their memory as "modern" people have is kind of foolish.
Jeremy S., United Kingdom, 23 March 2016
God bless you, Lita for a good, clear article refuting the usual rubbish dredged up by unbelievers at certain times of the year! I know you and I have our differences of opinion on certain doctrinal matters regarding N. D. E.'s and the gender of the Holy Spirit, but I do want to commend you for contending for the faith the way you do. Happy Easter. Love and prayers, Jeremy
Robert M., United States, 23 March 2016
Since I started reading CMI's articles sometime in 2015, I have found them both informative and well written. As a philosopher in my formal education, I have studied all the major world religions and many minor ones. It always seemed disingenuous to me that atheists feel quite comfortable critiquing Christianity, but withdraw that same level of critique when applied to others. If Ehrman applied the same intense scrutiny to the Koran, not only would he find major textual and historical problems, but his life expectancy would be less than optimal. The atheists in Muslim countries are much less vociferous in their religious denunciations. Ehrman, Dawkins, Harris, etal find refuge behind the protective custody of Christianity as they seek to destroy the only platform that underwrites their literary license.
Dean Y., South Africa, 24 March 2016
Very good article Lita. I'm glad you picked up his fast and loose appeal to "authority." Erhman, again, is completely wrong here. You just have to read Dr Gary Habermas' "The Minimal Facts Approach to the Resurrection of Jesus: The Role of Methodology as a Crucial Component in Establishing Historicity" to see what the majority of critical historians actually believe.
Alan J., United Kingdom, 27 March 2016
There are several instances cited by non-believers or supposed contradictions in the gospels. A graphical example of why two people could write differing accounts of the same event was described to me shortly after the Falklands war. A Harrier limped back to the aircraft carrier after being shot up by the Argentinian air force. Two aircraft engineers were later having their dinner and were discussing the aircraft and the damage. One said that such a small hole should be easy to repair. The other maintained that it was a large hole and would need extensive work. The discussion became very heated but common sense prevailed and they went over to the hanger to examine the aircraft. On one side was a small hole where the shell went through, which was what the first engineer had seen. However, after impact and passing through the structure, the shell expanded in width leaving a much larger hole on the other side where it exited the airframe. One shell, two (literal) sides to the same event - the two men saw something that the other hadn't. So I believe is the case with the alleged contradictions in the gospels.
Brent w D., Australia, 31 March 2016
Why do we question the Bible, who wrote it and what it means for all of us today? The Bible is the infallible Word of God as prophets and firstfruits wrote as they were inspired by the Holy Spirit. Effectively the Bible is the Voice of God reaching out to all generations, and all nations. Saying repent you sinners. and if U do sin, as we all do, we have an advocate, Christ Himself, who redeemed us with His blood sacrifice. And then He sat down at the right hand side of God His Father until all His enemies are made His footstool.
Tim G., United States, 1 April 2016
Good lay-level article, thanks Lita! It might be worth linking to lengthier studies such as the Christian Think Tank study replying to James Still (especially comments 12, 18, 21, and the "alternative understanding" page and their page discussing Loftus' research, which contain some excellent material on oral traditions, memory research, and the creation of the New Testament, which are relevant in rebutting Ehrman's claims. Another great resource to link to would be the "Cold Case Christianity" book/website, which similarly delves into the memory issues, from a detective's perspective.
G. S., Australia, 2 April 2016
I agree with Alan J on this and we all know as Christians that it is our understanding that requires transformation not the word of God. The concept today of people is not about listening and what they can learn but more about how can I change this to make a name for myself or to suit myself. The charge is to see exactly the truths of the Gospel and the entire word of God not saying this little piece of the jigsaw does not fit when you have just started putting it together We know this of all human life Ecclesiates 12:7 "then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it." We recognise that we do not get aligned with even one piece of scripture says to us in just one reading. Scripture is forever new and refreshing. Living water. I have not read Bart Ehrman's books and I would not choose to resulting from what I hear from reliable sources. Simply pray that God will have His way in Bart Ehrman's life that he will retract his own books. The dust is telling who what? verse 1a says it all
Geoffrey B., Australia, 3 April 2016
I basically agree with your article but even if the words are not precisely the same ones that Jesus used, they are certainly accurate enough to convey the essence of his powerful message. Surely the effect of those words on people who follow them is proof enough of their accuracy without having to strain credulity by saying every syllable is exactly as JC said it. The various translations themselves must have the effect of distorting the exact words.
Lita Cosner responds
Translation necessarily changes the meaning a little bit, but not as much as you might think, particularly between two languages that are related. Nevertheless, we believe the New Testament was inspired, meaning the very words of the Greek New Testament is the Word of God.
Madeline B., Canada, 3 April 2016
The following informal article reveals that Ehrman misused the application of the memory studies, and in fact the memory data rather appears to support the historicity of the New Testament. What do you think? [link deleted per feedback rules]
Lita Cosner responds
The link (which I unfortunately could not publish due to feedback rules) adds some interesting information. Apparently the memory studies do not support Ehrman's thesis, because they find that while memory of a particular episode erodes over time, there is an exception when an episode is rehearsed and gone over repeatedly, and 'gist' memory is especially good. So it would seem that Ehrman was citing the parts of the memory studies that ostensibly supported his conclusion, while ignoring any problematic details.