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How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior

by Bart D. Ehrman

Pub Date: March 1st, 2016
ISBN: 978-0-06-228520-1
Publisher: HarperOne

Understanding the role of memory in the formation of the Christian Gospels.

In his latest work on the historical Jesus, Ehrman (Religious Studies/Univ. of North Carolina; How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee, 2014, etc.) delves into the oft-neglected role of memory in the context of the early Christian church. The author argues that memory is of paramount importance to understanding such basic Christian writings as the four Gospels, since these arose from remembered events and were written decades after the life of Jesus. Ehrman demonstrates the widely accepted view of scholars that none of the Gospels were written by people who actually knew and followed Jesus personally. As such, each is based upon the memories of others, often transmitted through unnumbered sources in the early Christian community. Understanding the science behind memory, therefore, helps students of the Bible to understand the origins of, and differences among, the Gospels. Ehrman provides an intriguing overview of memory studies over the past century and introduces readers to a variety of important pioneers and studies in the field. The author finds that memory constructs the past. No matter if the topic is ancient history, recent news events, or personal happenings, the human understanding of all things past is constructed via memory. Furthermore, memories are often flawed or “distorted.” This fact is simply a reality of the human condition; nevertheless, distorted memories lead to distorted history. Readers of the Bible can, however, assume that “gist memories” are based in solid reality. Gist memories reflect the basic situation (e.g., Jesus was crucified) without potentially distorted qualifications (e.g., dialogue at the site of the crucifixion). Despite the fact that his work is highly critical of the Bible as history, Ehrman concludes that it is still important, just as Shakespeare and Dickens are important. “The historical Jesus did not make history,” he writes. “The remembered Jesus did.”

An intriguing new angle on the well-worn field of “historical Jesus” studies.