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Apologetics: Can We Trust the Memory of the Gospel Writers?

Apologetics: Can We Trust the Memory of the Gospel Writers?

In the opening pages of his recent book Jesus Before the Gospels, Bart Ehrman asserts:

When it comes to Jesus, all we have are memories. There are no lifelike portraits from his day, no stenographic notes recorded on the spot, no accounts of his activities written at that time. Only memories of his life, of what he said and did. Memories written after the fact. Long after the fact. Memories written by people who were not actually there to observe him.[1]

From a historical perspective, I agree with just about everything Ehrman claims here. It’s only his last claim that’s problematic. To say that none of the Gospel writers were eyewitnesses of Jesus is Ehrman’s opinion rather than a fact based on scholarly consensus. But other than that, he’s right. We don’t have any personal writings of Jesus, and the Gospels were written in the form we have them decades after Jesus’ life.  So, the question of real importance is whether the memories of Jesus we have in the Gospels are reliable or not.

Why Do We Even Know About Jesus?

Obviously Ehrman believes the Gospels are only partially reliable. Given his own agnosticism, what else would we expect him to say about the Gospels? To admit that they give a reliable testimony of Jesus is to admit much more than a secular worldview allows. But, presuppositions aside, is there good evidence that the Gospels have preserved a faithful memory of Jesus’ life and teachings?

This question alone could occupy months of blog posts, but one question that deserves attention is why we even have memories about Jesus preserved at all. Jesus was not the only Jewish man crucified at the hands of the Romans in the first century. Nor was he the only Messiah figure with a group of followers who met the wrath of the Romans.[2] Even if Jesus was an exceptional teacher and healer with a large following, his crucifixion would be reason for any memory of him to fade away from the pages of history, or at most receive a few passing lines in Josephus.

And yet, we have four Gospels that preserve memories about the life of Jesus. And despite the differences in these Gospels, the main focus of their memory is not so much the life of Jesus as his death. Why are all four Gospels united around this particular memory? We often forget how shameful this memory would be for the early church, especially if the resurrection did not happen. N.T. Wright explains:

A moment’s disciplined historical imagination, then (something ‘historical criticism’ has often been unwilling to employ), is enough to make the point. Jewish beliefs about a coming Messiah, and about the deeds such a figure would be expected to accomplish, came in various shapes and sizes, but they did not include a shameful death which left the Roman empire celebrating its usual victory.[3]

But still, the central focus of the Gospels is the death of Jesus. This is odd. If Jesus was yet another victim at the hands of Rome, we should expect his followers to find another Messiah figure, or give up any hope of a Messiah altogether.[4] We should expect Jesus to be either forgotten, or briefly mentioned as a footnote in history. But this is not the case. Surprisingly, we have four extended passion narratives that preserve the memory of his death−and not simply his death as a brave martyr, but instead as the very embodiment of the promised Messiah and the fulfillment of God’s covenant with Israel.

Praxis as Memory

Ehrman and others may point out that the Gospels were written decades after Jesus’s death, thus allowing plenty of time for layers of theological meaning to obscure the real defeat of crucifixion. With the gradual development of resurrection stories, even something as lethal to Jesus’ Messiah status as crucifixion could be redeemed. This would all be plausible were it not for the very early memory we have of Jesus’ death and resurrection preserved in the practice of the early church.

The Apostle Paul, writing to the church in Corinth about AD 55, mentions the Lord’s Supper as a normal, established practice of the early church. Given that the church in Corinth already knew of and practiced the Lord’s Supper when Paul wrote to them, it’s almost certain that the practice goes back to the earliest days of the church.[5] The same is true of baptism. In Paul's letters to the Corinthians, Galatians, and Romans, baptism is a practice that, like the Lord’s Supper, is identified with the death and resurrection of Jesus.[7]

What this means is that from the church’s earliest days it remembered Jesus’ death and resurrection through its most basic practices. The memory we have of Jesus in the Gospels, though possibly written later, is a memory embodied by the church’s early practice rather than a doctrine that gradually developed later. N.T. Wright summarizes:

The symbolic actions of baptism and eucharist, though of course having Jewish antecedents and pagan analogues, were consciously undertaken with reference to him. His status as Messiah and lord, and the worship accorded him by people determined to remain Jewish-style monotheists rather than pagan polytheists, are everywhere apparent in the early Christian world, generating new symbolic usage; this is particularly noticeable in the case of the cross, which lost its shameful symbolic value as a sign of degrading imperial oppression and became a sign of God’s love.[8]

How odd that the church, from its earliest days, would remember Jesus though practices rooted in the rehearsal of a cruel form of capital punishment, but now understood as the embodiment of reconciling love and new life. Perhaps the memories of Jesus that we have in the Gospels were not forgotten because, odd as they are, they are memories of truth. 

Pastor John Rasmussen - Our Savior Lutheran Church - South Windsor, CT

[1] Bart Ehrman, Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior (New York: HarperOne, 2016), 3.

[2] See N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003), 557-59. Wright notes that would-be Messiahs such as Simon bar-Giora and Simon bar Kosiba (ba-Kochba) were also put to death in close historical proximity to Jesus. However, their followers never claimed that they were raised from the dead. They either found a new leader, or gave up the cause.

[3] Ibid., 559.

[4] “Many of the messianic movements between roughly 150 BC and AD 150 ended with the violent death of the founder. When this happened, there were two options open to any who escaped death: they could give up the movement, or they could find themselves another Messiah.” Ibid., 700.

[5] See 1 Corinthians 11:23-26.

[6] 1 Corinthians 1:13-17, Galatians 3:28 and Romans 6:1-4.

[8] The Resurrection of the Son of God, 580.

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