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UNC Chapel Hill professor publishes new book on the historical Jesus

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Editor’s note: Bart D. Ehrman is one of the most renowned and controversial Bible scholars in the world today. He is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. His latest book “Jesus Before the Gospels” was published earlier this week. FOX8 Web Producer Joe Borlik interviewed Professor Ehrman about the book via email.

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 05: (EXCLUSIVE COVERAGE) Author Bart D. Ehrman attends the 'Socrates In The City' debate reception at the New York Society for Ethical Culture on March 5, 2012 in New York City. (Photo by Ben Hider/Getty Images)

Author Bart D. Ehrman (Photo by Ben Hider/Getty Images)

Did Jesus exist? And what can we know about him from history?

There is no doubt in my mind at all that Jesus existed. Whatever else you might say about him, he was a Jewish preacher in rural Galilee who proclaimed an apocalyptic message of the coming appearance of God’s kingdom. The last week of his life he made a trip to the holy city of Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, and while there he aroused considerable animosity leading to his arrest on charges of political insurgency. After a short trial before Pontius Pilate, he was condemned and crucified.

This much we know with a high level of certainty. The question is: what about all the details? Can the Gospel accounts be trusted to preserve accurate memories of what Jesus actually said and did, both during his ministry and in the days and hours leading up to his death? That’s what I deal with in my book Jesus Before the Gospels.

Tell us about “Jesus Before the Gospels” and what you are looking to accomplish in your latest book.

Here is the fascinating issue that I deal with in the book. Virtually every one agrees that Jesus was executed sometime around the year 30 CE. Moreover, there is widespread agreement that the first Gospel to be written was Mark’s, around the year 70 CE. Matthew and Luke were 10-15 years later than that, and the Gospel of John was last, around the year 90 or 95 CE. Those dates are widely held by critical scholars. But what not enough people have thought about is the significance of those dates – specifically the time gap between the death of Jesus and the first accounts of his life. The gap is 40-65 years!

What was happening in all those years? Well, lots of things in the Roman Empire. But the most important thing that was happening for Christianity is that it was spreading throughout the Roman world. By the time John was written, there were Christian churches not just in the environs of Jerusalem, where the whole thing started, but throughout Judea, in Samaria, in Galilee, in Cilicia, in Asia Minor (modern Turkey), in Macedonia and Achaia (modern Greece), in Italy, possibly as far away as Spain, possibly in North Africa, and probably in Egypt.

How in the world did Christians convince people to give up their old religions to believe in Jesus? Obviously there was only one way: they had to tell them stories about him. And that’s what they did: stories about Jesus’ death and resurrection, stories of his miracles, stories of his controversies, stories of his teachings – story after story after story. And who was telling these stories? Only eyewitnesses? Impossible! Thousands of people were hearing the stories in major urban areas over hundreds and hundreds of miles. One person telling the next who told the next who told the next who told the next.

So what was happening to the stories? I argue in the book that the way to get to a sensible answer to that question we have to know what scholars have told us about memory. Whoever hears a story has to remember it. She then tells someone else, who has to remember it, before telling someone else, who has to remember it…. And so on.

For my book I did something highly unusual for a New Testament scholar: I studied intensely what scholars in other fields have learned about memory: what cognitive psychologists have learned (since the 19th century!) about individual memory; what sociologists since the 1920s have found about the influence on social groups and context on our personal memories (so called “collective memory”); and what cultural anthropologists have learned about the way stories and traditions are passed along in oral cultures where most people cannot read but have to communicate completely by word of mouth.

All of these are fascinating areas, and all are highly relevant for understanding how the stories of Jesus were remembered in the years between his death and the first accounts of his life, and forgotten, misremembered, and even invented, as memories were sometimes not only reliable (as they often are) but also, in many instances, frail, faulty, or even false.

How is this book different than your others?

The short answer is that it is dealing with a completely different topic. But to explain that at greater length, I should explain what the others focused on. First, I should say that four of my Harper books were on other things.

  • Did Jesus Exist was an attempt to show why scholars in the fields of New Testament, early Christian studies, and antiquity in general are convinced, and do not even question, that Jesus actually lived as a real human being. There I try to mount the arguments that almost no one has ever bothered to mount because they are so obvious to most people working in the field.
  • Forged was dealing not with the contents of the New Testament writings so much as with their authorship. It tried to show why scholars since (by and large) the nineteenth century have maintained that some of the books of the New Testament (e.g. the letters of “Peter”; six of the letters of Paul) were not actually written by the persons who claimed to be writing them.
  • God’s Problem was focused on the problem of suffering – how can there be so much pain and misery in this world if God is in control of it? – especially as it is dealt with in so many different ways by different authors of the Bible, both Old Testament and New Testament.
  • How Jesus Became God, my most recent book till now, is not interested in problems with the Gospels but with how the central affirmation of Christian faith – that Jesus is actually God on earth – came into existence, how the early Christians came to think that Jesus was not just an apocalyptic prophet or a messiah, but actually a divine being, eventually the second member of the Trinity.

So none of those books is actually dealing with the historical problems connected with the writings of the Gospels. Two of my other books, though, do deal with certain problems. It is very clear in my own head – even if it is not clear to people who have not read the books very carefully, if at all – that the problems these other books deal with are completely different from what I am interested in with Jesus Before the Gospels.

Misquoting Jesus, my first book with Harper, was interested in how scribes of the New Testament, in the centuries after the Gospels were written, copied their texts, changing them in places, in fact in lots of places. We have thousands of manuscripts (handwritten copies) of the New Testament, but these thousands of manuscripts have hundreds of thousands of differences in them. Most of those differences are completely immaterial and insignificant; but some matter a lot, affecting how passages and entire books are to be interpreted. And there are a number of places where scholars cannot decide definitively what the author originally wrote. That’s a problem. But it is a problem based on scribal copying practices for centuries after the New Testament was originally produced – it’s not a problem with what the authors actually said.

Jesus Interrupted focused on a completely different issue. Its concern was not with how scribes copied their texts later, but with what the authors actually wrote, insofar as we can know with relative certainty. This book tried to explain what critical scholars have said about the New Testament writings in modern times; in particular it was interested in the discrepancies, contradictions, and historical mistakes that one finds in the New Testament. These are matters that are taught in leading seminaries and divinity schools to those training for ministry, and one of the question asked in the book was why ministers who know this information decide not to pass it along to their congregations, for example in adult education classes, why they prefer that the people in their churches not know what scholars have long been saying about the Bible.

Jesus Before the Gospels now takes the questions back to a completely different point.

If Misquoting Jesus was about later scribes; and Jesus Interrupted was about problems with our written sources; Jesus Before the Gospels is about what was happening to the stories of Jesus before they were written down in the Gospels. It is about the oral traditions that were in circulation prior to their production in writing.

Why do you believe it is important to study Jesus and the Bible? What originally got you interested in this subject?

I originally got interested in Jesus and the Bible over 40 years ago because I was highly religious – a conservative evangelical Christian (OK, basically a fundamentalist) – and was personally invested in knowing all I could about the roots of my faith. Eventually I realized that my innocent view of the Bible as the inerrant word of God was mistaken – there are, in fact, discrepancies, contradictions, and historical errors in the Bible. But I continued to be fascinated by it.

Now, over four decades later, I’m still fascinated, not because of reasons of faith (I am now an agnostic – but not because of my biblical scholarship) but because as a historian I realize that the Bible is the single most important book in the history of Western Civilization, and Jesus without a doubt is the single most important figure in the history of our world. Who shouldn’t be interested in knowing all we can about both the Bible and Jesus!

But what I argue in the book is that the man Jesus, the historical Jesus, is not the one who revolutionized our civilization. Instead, it is the “remembered” Jesus who affected the world, and still affects, it as some two billion people cherish their own memories of who Jesus was. And this means we have to know about the remembered Jesus, not just the historical Jesus. And that’s what my book is all about.