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 Topic: Bart Ehrman on oral transmission and historical memory

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  • Bart Ehrman on oral transmission and historical memory
     OP - September 21, 2016, 02:43 PM
    Bart Ehrman discussing his new book. It's about early Christianity, obviously, but many of the general arguments could be applied equally to the transmission of historical memory in early Islam.
    Here is the first interview I have done for Jesus Before the Gospels, for the American Freethought Podcast .... In the interview we talk about what research on memory–how it’s formed, how it’s recalled, how it can change when transmitted from person to person, and how it can be remolded based on historical perspective and current events.  Studies of memory, of course, can help us understand the oral traditions of Jesus before the written accounts of the Gospels were produced....
    This made me wonder: had the authors of the biblical Gospels fabricated or embellished any of their stories? How reliable was the oral tradition that preserved the stories about Jesus before they were written down?

    Essentially, this is a question of memory. How accurate were peoples’ reports of Jesus’ life? How well did people remember the stories that emerged from those reports?  How reliably were they passed on by the individuals and groups that retold them? And ultimately, what does this tell us about the accuracy of the Gospel writers’ memories of Jesus’ life? It is this question that Ehrman tries to answer in Jesus Before the Gospels.

    To answer this question, Ehrman not only looks at biblical scholarship, but at what we have learned about memory—both individual and social—and how accurately it preserves the past. The upshot? It’s unlikely the Gospels are very historically accurate. Neither human memory, nor our ability to pass on stories, are that reliable. As the stories of Jesus life were passed on through multiple communities and multiple languages, they were altered, elaborated upon, and new ones were even fabricated.

    Now, there are multiple arguments people have given for the reliability of the memory of the people who passed on the stories of Jesus before they were written down. Aren’t they based on eyewitness accounts? And weren’t they passed on in oral (pre-literate) cultures that couldn’t write anything down? Thus wouldn’t they have had to have learned carefully to recount and then pass stories down accurately? Some have even suggested that oral cultures do this still today; couldn’t the communities passing down the stories of Jesus been using the same techniques?

    Ehrman addresses such arguments and shows why they don’t hold any water. Let’s look at three major objections to such arguments....
    How reliable are the oral traditions that formed the basis of the New Testament writings before they were even written down?

    His answer depends on what you mean by “reliable.” If you mean how historically accurate they are in the details of Jesus’s life, death, and teachings, then that answer is probably “not very.” But if you’re asking how useful are they in tracing the early beliefs, needs, and travails of the Christian Church, then they are a mine of information.

    Ehrman outlines the problem he explores:

    The disciples were lower-class, illiterate peasants who spoke Aramaic, Jesus’ own language. The Gospels, on the other hand, were written by highly educated Greek-speaking Christians forty to sixty-five years later. . . .Ultimately most of the stories they [the Gospel authors] told must have come from oral traditions, as followers of Jesus told and retold stories about him—starting while he was alive and then even more after he was dead. These oral traditions were in circulation year after year, and decade after decade, before they were inherited by the authors of our Gospels.

    He then takes on the many problems this timeline raises, bringing to bear the most recent research on both memory and transmission of oral histories.

    One problem he tackles is the idea of eyewitness testimony itself. In the last twenty years, much research has been done on the reliability of such testimony, and, quite frankly, the results aren’t good. Even fresh eyewitness testimony is subject to much error, and within only a few weeks, much disinformation and distortion has (often unintentionally) slipped into even the most reliable accounts.

    Other problems lie in the transmission of this testimony from one person to another. Christianity in its early years was both oral and evangelistic. The stories weren’t told and retold with an eye to keeping them exact, but to illuminating the teachings and lessons of Jesus Christ. Layered on top of this was a continual renewal of the stories to reflect how they were germane to the events of the times, such as the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the expansion of Christianity outside of Israel into Rome and beyond.

    It is in this last layer that the real meat of Ehrman’s analysis of early Christian history comes through most fully. He explores the stories as recorded—their differences, the known history from other sources—and teases out the reasons why those differences appeared. He places it solidly in the context of history and the needs of the early Christian church (and thereby, without directly saying so, debunks the argument that this is holy scripture, untouched by human bias).

    pdf of the introduction and first chapter:
  • Bart Ehrman on oral transmission and historical memory
     Reply #1 - September 21, 2016, 05:16 PM

    Definitely going to get this one. Great stuff!
  • Bart Ehrman on oral transmission and historical memory
     Reply #2 - September 21, 2016, 05:30 PM

    Looks great.  I will have to buy it.  Ehrman's stuff is excellent, if sometimes repetitive.
  • Bart Ehrman on oral transmission and historical memory
     Reply #3 - September 21, 2016, 05:47 PM

    I read his earlier book, How Jesus Became God, and thought it was very good. It's aimed at the general reader without much previous knowledge of the subject, but then that describes me as far as early Christianity goes. Now what's really needed is a Bart Ehrman to write about early Islam.
  • Bart Ehrman on oral transmission and historical memory
     Reply #4 - January 27, 2017, 04:21 PM

    From Bart Ehrman's blog: How do we know what "most scholars" think?
    I have received a particularly interesting question that has led to a bit of back and forth between me and a person on the blog.  This person pointed out that in my writings I often indicate that a view that I have (e.g., that the Gospel of John was not written by John the son of Zebedee; that the book of Ephesians was not really written by Paul even though the author claims to be Paul; or that the Gospels are all 40-65 years after the death of Jesus, etc.) is held by the majority of scholars.  But fundamentalist and conservative evangelical scholars say just the opposite, that their views (e.g., that John the son of Zebedee did write the Gospel of John, or that the Gospels date to before the destruction of the Jerusalem in the year 70) are the views of the majority of scholars.  So who is right?  And how can a person know?

    Some scholars are not critical even if they say they are.  They end up simply concluding – even based on a survey of all the evidence – precisely what they thought prior to conducting the investigation.  They presuppose their conclusion.  They may tell you they’re not doing that, but if time after time after time after time after time after time they end up arguing precisely for the view that fits their theological and ideological views, views they had prior to the investigation, views that coincide perfectly with those of the communities of faith that they belong to and serve, then there is precisely no evidence at all that they are engaged in krisis – judgement.  That is, they are not being critical scholars.

    Of course much the same goes for Qur'anic studies.
  • Bart Ehrman on oral transmission and historical memory
     Reply #5 - June 19, 2018, 08:34 AM

    History for Atheists reviews Bart Ehrman’s The Triumph of Christianity
  • Bart Ehrman on oral transmission and historical memory
     Reply #6 - October 24, 2021, 03:57 PM

    Bart Ehrman on lost Christianities
  • Bart Ehrman on oral transmission and historical memory
     Reply #7 - November 10, 2021, 06:09 PM

    Mohammed Hijab interviews Bart Ehrman
  • Bart Ehrman on oral transmission and historical memory
     Reply #8 - November 11, 2021, 11:13 AM

    Mohammed Hijab interviews Bart Ehrman

    good Job.. Good Job.,   

    but does Bart Ehrman really need a job  and he advertising through that imbecile beard punjabi hijabi??  .. the least learn to walk like an Egyptian ...

    Do not let silence become your legacy.. Question everything   
    I renounced my faith to become a kafir, 
    the beloved betrayed me and turned in to  a Muslim
  • Bart Ehrman on oral transmission and historical memory
     Reply #9 - January 06, 2022, 08:43 PM

    Bart Ehrman on the Islamic Jesus
  • Bart Ehrman on oral transmission and historical memory
     Reply #10 - January 18, 2022, 12:47 AM
  • Bart Ehrman on oral transmission and historical memory
     Reply #11 - July 29, 2023, 06:19 AM

    Bart Ehrman now has his own podcast:
    "Misquoting Jesus with Bart Ehrman," is a new podcast featuring Dr. Ehrman and host, Megan Lewis.  The show aims to uncover the many fascinating, little known facts about the New Testament, the historical Jesus, and the rise of Christianity.
  • Bart Ehrman on oral transmission and historical memory
     Reply #12 - August 27, 2023, 12:01 PM
  • Bart Ehrman on oral transmission and historical memory
     Reply #13 - September 14, 2023, 05:50 PM
  • Bart Ehrman on oral transmission and historical memory
     Reply #14 - September 17, 2023, 09:28 AM
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