Bart Ehrman: Jesus Before the Gospels, Basic Element 3: Oral Tradition

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by Tim Widowfield

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In the previous post, we looked at the basic element of form criticism. Bart Ehrman in Jesus Before the Gospels uses the findings of the form critics to explain a commonly held assumption in NT scholarship. Many, if not most, of today’s critical scholars believe the stories found in our canonical gospels survived orally over a period of decades before anyone wrote them down. We refer to this phenomenon as “oral tradition.”

Basic Element 3: Oral Tradition

Traditions, the form critics held, were transmitted orally within the Christian community until at some point people began to commit them to papyrus. The author of Mark presumably constructed the first gospel from (1) stories that were still only preserved orally, (2) written traditions preserved only as Jesus’ sayings (logia), and (3) narrative fragments already preserved in writing.

♦ The context of transmission

Most of them assumed that tradents preserved the bulk of the sayings and stories for many years orally within the context of the early church. Here’s how Rudolf Bultmann put it:

[T]he gospel tradition did not arise within a literary movement, but had its origin in the preaching of Jesus in the life of the community of his followers, in their preaching, teaching, missionary work and apologetics. This is what one would expect not only from the oriental origin of Christianity, but above all from the fact that the earliest community formed part of Judaism and carried out its activity in the forms of Judaism, which were those of the synagogue and the teaching of the scribes. The spoken word was dominant, fixed forms had come into being, great use was made of the memory in preserving and reproducing what was heard, and the basis of everything was scripture. (Bultmann, 1961, pp. 90-91, emphasis mine)

He has described the general form-critical understanding of oral tradition. More recent research has added to our understanding of this process. In the first phase, Jesus himself preached and performed certain acts. His disciples remembered and retold those stories. Jan Vansina and other experts in oral tradition would call this the oral history phase. Once the tradition moves outside the sphere of eyewitnesses and direct memory, either because of geographic or temporal distance, we reach the second phase.

In phase two, the community that inherited the traditions of and about Jesus preserved them through memory and the telling and retelling of the traditions. The context of the transmission is, above all else, a social setting. It depends on the community of believers telling stories in an internal (preaching to believers, worship, catechism, cultic practices) and external (preaching to nonbelievers, apologetics) setting.

Ehrman appears to understand that context quite well. For example, he writes:

The stories are being told as leaders of the community teach the converts more information about Jesus and his life and death and what it means to believe in him. The stories are being told during the worship services when people reverence, and pray to, and reflect on, and adore Jesus and God his Father. The stories are being told as people are preparing to be baptized once they have been convinced of the truth about Jesus. They are being told by leaders, and by most other members of the community, when they exhort each other to be strong in the faith and to remember the life and teachings of Jesus when outsiders mock or even persecute them; when they are deciding how to live and how to behave and how to treat others; when they come to prayer, asking him to provide food when resources are scarce, or to heal once again, or to cast out a demon, or even to raise the dead. (Ehrman, 2016, p. 69)

So far, he agrees completely with the form critics. The medium was oral, and the context was structured and social. But Ehrman would give at least equal footing to unstructured, uncontrolled, person-to-person transmission — viz., “word of mouth.” He wants us to imagine that people told and re-told stories at home, at work, in the marketplace, anywhere followers of Jesus might have been “witnessing” their new-found faith.

Suppose the woman next door converts. She starts coming to our weekly gatherings. She convinces her husband to come. Six months later he converts. He takes a business trip to Smyrna. He tells his business associates about Jesus. They learn there is a community of people who follow Jesus in their town. They decided to go. They convert. They tell their families. Some of them convert.

And so it goes. In the midst of all this, what are the contexts within which stories of Jesus are being told? They are being told by evangelists, whether official missionaries or your spouse or the man next door. (Ehrman, 2016, p. 68)

In one sense, Ehrman is probably right. If there were stories about Jesus, then anyone could have told them. But in another, crucial sense, he misses the entire point of form-critical analysis. The question is not simply a matter of what stories were in circulation in the decades before the gospels were written; the question is: Where did the stories in the gospels come from? The form critics maintained that the gospels are products of the early church(es), crystallized memories of Christian communities. They weren’t haphazard rumors passed by word of mouth. They were well-rehearsed traditions kept alive in the cult for religious purposes.

♦ Person-to-person transmission

It matters whether Ehrman correctly understands the context of transmission for a number of reasons. It is naive to think Christian stories spread from person to person as in the Telephone Game. As I wrote in an earlier post, “The model itself does not make sense, because it presumes a stream of story-telling from person to person, but no religion spreads like that, least of all one with embedded social rituals like baptism, the Eucharist, weekly meetings with hymns and scripture readings, etc.”

In Jesus Before the Gospels, Ehrman has subtly changed the way he tells this person-to-person transmission fantasy. After a person is convinced by his neighbor, his work mate, or some random guy in the street, now he meets up with fellow Christians. Ehrman muses about the process of conversion:

I eventually become convinced. I give up my pagan gods: the gods of Rome, the gods of Colossae, the gods of my family. I confess that I believe in only the Jewish God, who created all things and sent his Son into the world to die for my sins and be raised from the dead. I decide to get baptized to join the body of Christ. Then I start coming together with the small group of like-minded people, the followers of Jesus, every week to talk about our faith and the Lord we worship. (Ehrman, 2016, p. 68)

So now we see that Ehrman carefully acknowledges the group context of the transmission. He didn’t use to do that. But it would appear that he sees this group context as a place where believers share stories, where people tell what they can remember, probably embellishing here and there. None of them, of course, would be eyewitnesses. Suppose you were a new convert in 60 CE somewhere in Asia Minor. Who would correct you if you got a story wrong? Nobody.

However, at this stage we have to ask, “Is that really the way it worked?” Did all believers have the opportunity to get up and tell stories off the top of their heads? Could any believer teach? Could any believer baptize others? Could any believer perform the Eucharist? These are important questions. If the local church behaved as a kind of democratic commune, where anyone could do anything — “as the spirit moves me” — then Ehrman’s model is valid.

♦ Known historical models of transmission

I’ve criticized Ehrman in the past for his Telephone Game model, because I think it incorrectly puts the focus on the problems of transmission and personal recollection.

For Bultmann, though, the early Christian model of transmission most likely resembled that of contemporary synagogue behavior. If Christianity arose out of Judaism, it stands to reason that the ecclesia inherited at least some of the structure and practices of the synagogue. Some people filled the role of teacher, presumably out of respect and because they were able to read the scripture. From Paul’s letters and from the gospels, we can see that (at least some) early Christians read from the Jewish scriptures, in which they believed they found explanations and predictions about Christ.

Moreover, Paul tells us:

Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, each of us is to exercise them accordingly: if prophecy, according to the proportion of his faith; if service, in his serving; or he who teaches, in his teaching; or he who exhorts, in his exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness. (Romans 12:6-8, NASB)

Or, more pointedly:

And God has appointed in the church, first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, various kinds of tongues. (1 Corinthians 12:28, NASB)

If Paul is following the pattern of the Pharisees (from whom we think Rabbinic Judaism arose), these teachers would have the job of reading, remembering, understanding, explaining, and interpreting the traditions of the sect. We may presume that teachers in Paul’s churches would still rely heavily on the scriptures (our “Old” Testament), since Paul himself used it when explaining his points in the epistles.

The form critics further assumed that these teachers remembered and preserved the sayings and stories of Jesus, at first in oral form, and at some point in written form. In Ehrman’s model, however, rumors that circulated hither and yon ended up in a jumbled stew that eventually became our gospels. For that to be true, our known model of Rabbinic Judaism and our understanding of Pauline churches apparently must not apply.

Maybe Ehrman is right. Maybe the oral tradition did follow a more chaotic, uncontrolled pattern. I’ve criticized Ehrman in the past for his Telephone Game model, because I think it incorrectly puts the focus on glitches in transmission (errors of personal recollection) and embellishment by individual narrators. Conversely, I’ve emphasized the problems related to the processes of distortion that affect social memory, because I had always thought (along with the form critics), that the stories and sayings were preserved and transmitted in the social setting of the church.

In other words, the oral tradition of the church is, essentially, the collective memory of the church. And people remember, misremember, forget, suppress, distort, or invent stories based on the needs of the group. That’s fairly close to what the form critics said, except that they emphasized the Sitze im Leben of the church and the fixed forms of the stories to explain how they ended up in our gospels the way they did.

But maybe we’re all wrong.

♦ Models of transmission in the epistles

Paul seems to know only two things Jesus said before his last meal. Both exist outside any narrative context and neither is quoted verbatim.

Something odd happens when we start to look for examples of how early Christians passed on Jesus traditions. Ehrman himself acknowledges that our earliest epistle writers seem oddly unconcerned about the life of Jesus. Paul is, of course, a notorious example.

But assume Paul got information about Jesus’s words and deeds during those two weeks with Peter and James. He later converted former pagans in Corinth to become followers of Jesus. Presumably he told them stories about Jesus. They presumably told others, who converted. These told others, who converted. Paul was there for this time, directing the affairs of the church. But then he went away to start a church in some other city. After he left, the people certainly continued telling their stories. As did their converts. (Ehrman, 2016, p. 58, emphasis mine)

That’s a lot of assuming and presuming. Ehrman insists that everyone was telling stories about Jesus. Yet he admits that when Paul writes to his churches (as well as to the church at Rome, not a church he founded), the apostle is strangely silent about Jesus’ life on earth.

Still, one of the most striking features of Paul’s surviving letters is just how little he actually tells us about Jesus’s life prior to his death There are thirteen letters in the New Testament that claim to be written by Paul. Scholars are widely convinced that seven of them, at least, actually go back to Paul. There are debates about the authorship of the other six. But suppose you were to mine these letters—take all thirteen of them—for the information they provide about the things Jesus said, did, and experienced between the time he was born and the time he died. How many stories of Jesus would you discover?

I occasionally give this as an assignment for my undergraduate students. They are often surprised to find that for a full list, they don’t need a 5 x 7 card. (Ehrman, 2016, p. 87)

Still, against any evidence to support his “must have” arguments, he insists that missionaries, teachers, preachers and just plain Josephs were all telling stories.

They obviously could not convert anyone simply by saying “believe in Jesus.” Jesus who? No one is going to become a follower of a person they know absolutely nothing about. And so Christian missionaries were obviously, and necessarily, telling stories about Jesus. How else would someone decide to believe in him? Any potential convert had to know who Jesus was. What he did that was so special. What he taught that was so compelling. How he died. Why he died. What happened after he died. The stories had to be told. Otherwise there would be no converts. And the people telling the stories in virtually every case we know about were not people who accompanied Jesus during his public ministry. (Ehrman, 2016, p. 67, emphasis mine.)

Paul seems to know only two things Jesus said before his last meal. Both exist outside any narrative context and neither is quoted verbatim. Yet he “must have” known more and “must have” told stories in order to convince people Jesus was the Christ.

Well, what’s obvious to Bart Ehrman was evidently not obvious to the author of Acts. I decided to look closely at each preaching, teaching, or oration account in Acts and see what we can discern about the context and the content of the Christian message.

♦ Models of transmission in the Acts of the Apostles: The accounts

Acts 2:14–40 — Peter’s Pentecost Sermon

  • Audience: Jewish crowd at Pentecost.
  • Scripture References: Joel 2:28-32; Psalm 16:8-11; Psalm 110:1
  • Sayings of Jesus: None.
  • Deeds of Jesus: Unspecified miracles and wonders. Was crucified, resurrected, exalted.
  • Facts about Jesus: From Nazareth.

Acts 3:12–26 — Peter at the Temple

  • Audience: Jewish crowd, witnesses to healing.
  • Scripture References: Deut. 18:15,18,19; Gen. 22:18; 26:4
  • Sayings of Jesus: None.
  • Deeds of Jesus: Killed by Pilate at their urging, raised from the dead, received into heaven.
  • Facts about Jesus: God’s servant and “author of life.”

Acts 4:5-12 — Peter before the Sanhedrin

  • Audience: Rulers, elders, and teachers of the law.
  • Scripture References: Psalm 118:22
  • Sayings of Jesus: None.
  • Deeds of Jesus: Crucified, raised. Ultimately responsible for healing lame man at Temple.
  • Facts about Jesus: Only path to salvation.

Acts 7 — Stephen’s Speech

  • Audience: A Jewish mob about to stone him.
  • Scripture References: Gen. 12:1, 15:13,14; Exodus 1:8, 2:14, 3:6, 3:5,7,8,10, 32:1; Deut. 18:15; Amos 5:25-27; Isaiah 66:1,2
  • Sayings of Jesus: None
  • Deeds of Jesus: None
  • Facts about Jesus: The people in the mob betrayed and murdered him.

Acts 10:28–47 — Peter on Gentile Inclusion

  • Audience: Cornelius.
  • Scripture References: None.
  • Sayings of Jesus: None.
  • Deeds of Jesus: Baptized by John, did good deeds, healed the sick, cast out demons, hanged on a tree, was resurrected, ate with and taught disciples after resurrection.
  • Facts about Jesus: Judge of living and dead. Sole source of salvation.

Acts 11:4-18 — Peter Tells What Happened at Joppa

  • Audience: Jerusalem Church.
  • Scripture References: None.
  • Sayings of Jesus: “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” (Oddly, a saying that was attributed to John the Baptist in the gospels.)
  • Deeds of Jesus: None.
  • Facts about Jesus: None.

Acts 13:16-41 — Paul at the Synagogue in Antioch

  • Audience: Men of Israel and God-fearers.
  • Scripture References: Psalm 2:7, 16:10; Isaiah 55:3; Hab. 1:5
  • Sayings of Jesus: None. (However, he quotes John the Baptist: “What do you suppose that I am? I am not He. But behold, one is coming after me the sandals of whose feet I am not worthy to untie.”)
  • Deeds of Jesus: Betrayed to Pilate, killed on a cross, laid in a tomb, raised.
  • Facts about Jesus: Through him sins are forgiven.

Acts 15:13-21 — The Judgment of James (Which Laws Apply to Gentiles?)

  • Audience: “Brothers” (gathered believers in Jerusalem).
  • Scripture References: Amos 9:11,12
  • Sayings of Jesus: None.
  • Deeds of Jesus: None.
  • Facts about Jesus: None.

Acts 16:30-32 — Paul and Silas Convert a Prison Guard

  • Audience: The guard.
  • Scripture References: None.
  • Sayings of Jesus: “And they spoke the word of the Lord to him together with all who were in his house.” (It is not altogether clear what this means. The sayings of Jesus? The scriptures?)
  • Deeds of Jesus: None.
  • Facts about Jesus: Saves from sin.

Acts 17:22–34 — Paul on Mars Hill

  • Audience: Athenian gentiles.
  • Scripture References: None, but he does quote two philosophers.
  • Sayings of Jesus: None.
  • Deeds of Jesus: None.
  • Facts about Jesus: “He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.” Paul never mentions the name of Jesus, let alone anything he said or did. This is a “God-centric” sermon.

Acts 20:17–35 — Paul to Ephesian Elders

  • Audience: Christians (elders of the church).
  • Scripture References: None.
  • Sayings of Jesus: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” (A saying found nowhere else in the NT.)
  • Deeds of Jesus: None
  • Facts about Jesus: The church was “bought” with his blood.

Acts 22:1–21 — Paul to Jerusalem Crowd

  • Audience: Hostile Jews.
  • Scripture References: None.
  • Sayings of Jesus: A handful of utterances from the resurrected Jesus, talking directly to Paul (Saul).
  • Deeds of Jesus: None.
  • Facts about Jesus: Knocked Paul down, talked to him, sent him to the Gentiles.

Acts 26:1-29 — Paul before Agrippa and Festus

  • Audience: King Herod Agrippa II, his wife, Bernice, and Porcius Festus, procurator of Judea.
  • Scripture References: None.
  • Sayings of Jesus: A handful of utterances from the resurrected Jesus, talking directly to Paul (Saul).
  • Deeds of Jesus: None.
  • Facts about Jesus: Suffered and died. Resurrected from the dead.

♦ Models of transmission in the Acts of the Apostles: The analysis

St. Peter Preaching at Pentecost by Benjamin West
St. Peter Preaching at Pentecost by Benjamin West (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

NT scholars grow wistful about the period between the death of Jesus and the writing of the first gospel. It’s a “dark period,” they say, where we make an awful lot of assumptions about what “must have” happened. They assume that early Christians had an insatiable thirst for stories about Jesus. Given the number of apocryphal gospels that popped up in the second and third centuries, that would seem to be true. But that happened after the first gospels were written, after the disastrous war with Rome, after the destruction of the Temple.

Ehrman says early Christians “obviously” told the stories, “Otherwise there would be no converts.” And yet one of our few existing sources for models of transmission, Acts, depicts sermons in which Peter and Paul tell people that Jesus was betrayed and executed, but not how it happened. They don’t tell stories.

They tell us he did good deeds and healed the sick, but offer no details whatsoever. The gospel kerygma centered around the facts of the crucifixion, resurrection, and exaltation — but only that they took place. Obtaining salvation required believers to recognize that Jesus was the only path to God and to confess their belief in him.

Peter and Paul, as depicted by the author of Acts, have practically no interest in the teaching of Jesus on Earth before his arrest. In the gospels, Jesus is frequently referred to and addressed as “teacher” (διδάσκαλος [didaskalos]). In Acts, he never is.

Only twice do we find sermons quoting the earthly Jesus. One is a quotation lifted from John the Baptist; the other is a saying not found anywhere else. Both are decontextualized. We have no idea when or in what situation Jesus said them. Since the author of Acts believes Jesus talked to the disciples after his resurrection (proving he was alive and talking about the Kingdom of God) and that Jesus communicated with people after his ascension (to Paul at the very least), we have no way of knowing whether these sayings are from the risen Lord.

Before you dismiss the evidence of Acts as late and heavily edited, I would raise two points. First, the sermons in Acts often sound quite primitive; Jesus is portrayed with a low Christology. He’s an exalted man, whom God raised. “God made him both Lord and Christ.” Second, the message of the gospel in Paul’s letters also largely ignores the earthly Jesus. In fact, if you compare the sermons to the letters, you’ll see that both frequently and faithfully quote from the Septuagint as an authoritative source of truth, while ignoring sayings of Jesus that might better prove their points.

♦ Other models of transmission

The extant writings of the earliest apostolic fathers don’t help the case for the “obvious” interest in stories about Jesus. Citing a passage from 1 Clement, Ehrman writes:

This is an interesting passage, and fairly typical, because it conflates a number of passages from the Gospels, containing lines from Matthew 5:7; 6:14–15; 7:1–2, and 12; Luke 6:31 and 36–38. But the author does not name the Gospels he has taken the texts from and certainly doesn’t attribute them to eyewitnesses. Instead, he simply indicates that this is something Jesus said. (Ehrman, 2016, p. 94)

These jumbled quotations are devoid of any narrative context, just as in Acts and in Paul’s letters. If early Christian communities were really up to their elbows in stories about and sayings by the historical Jesus, then how do we explain away this contrary evidence?

Even in Pliny the Younger’s letter to Trajan, we see no hint of Jesus being described as a teacher whose words of wisdom were shared among believers. The tortured witnesses said:

[T]hey were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food–but ordinary and innocent food. Even this, they affirmed, they had ceased to do after my edict by which, in accordance with your instructions, I had forbidden political associations. (See the page on Pliny the Younger at EarlyChristianWritings.com.)

Granted, the portrayal of Christian worship is pretty sketchy here, but even so we find no depiction of Christ as a remembered teacher or, for that matter, anything other than a divine being. Now you could argue that the witnesses held back from saying everything they knew, and that they “must have” told stories about Jesus and “obviously” remembered sayings from their wise teacher. But the only evidence we have leads us in the opposite direction.

♦ Taking the evidence seriously

To assume a historical Jesus at the outset, who was remembered by disciples and whose stories, more or less, ended up in our New Testament would be putting the cart before the horse.

I have no interest in arguing for a legendary Jesus. I’m on record as a Jesus-agnostic, and I see no reason to drop off my fence, one way or the other. My focus in this post is how Jesus was remembered by the first Christians. For them, Jesus was the exalted messiah, the savior of the world. The Pauline messiah was not a teacher who instructed disciples, but the risen Lord who sent out apostles. Given what we know about existing models of tradition transmission, I have to ask, “Do we have any real, surviving memories of Jesus at all?”

One of the works of the Memory Mavens, which I’ve cited before here on Vridar, is entitled Why John Wrote a Gospel. And the subtitle — Jesus–Memory–History — is, I think, emblematic of a core problem in modern NT studies. Scholars assume Jesus existed. They assume that the early Christians kept stories of Jesus in Memory. Finally, they assume that the gospels are deposited memories that contain History.

Notice that this process is exactly the opposite of what the form critics said they were doing. They looked at the gospels first and asked, “What are these books?” Not until we know their genre can we understand anything about what (if anything) lies behind them. What was the intent of the gospel authors? Are the gospels biographies? Are they compilations of folk tales? You could argue that the form critics were wrong in their methods and in their conclusions, but their first step is unquestionably correct. Genre matters.

Until we’re reasonably sure about what they are, what’s the point of our idle speculation? To assume a historical Jesus at the outset, whom disciples remembered and whose stories, more or less, ended up in our New Testament would be putting the cart before the horse. It’s starting with the conclusion and working backward to confirm our assumptions.

Next time

So far in this series we’ve looked at three basic elements: Maurice Halbwachs, form criticism, and now oral tradition. In the next installment, we’ll look at genre. According to Bart Ehrman, just what is a gospel?

Bultmann, Rudolf

“The Gospels (Form),” in Twentieth-Century Theology in the Making, vol. I: Themes of Biblical Theology, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan, Harper, 1971

Ehrman, Bart D.

Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior, HarperOne, 2016

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Tim Widowfield

Tim is a retired vagabond who lives with his wife and multiple cats in a 20-year-old motor home. To read more about Tim, see our About page.

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14 thoughts on “Bart Ehrman: Jesus Before the Gospels, Basic Element 3: Oral Tradition”

  1. Some argue that hagadic midrash in the New Testament may be the result of Oral traditions about Jesus being shaped in the synagogue.

    References to the synagogue appears appears 11 times in Mark, 9 times in Mattthew, 16 times in Luke, and five times in John (The Christian movement was expelled from the synagogue around 88CE, which is probably why the references drop off in John). And there is (possibly) a heavy lining of Midrash in the gospels. Mark says “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ ; as it is written in the prophets.” Mark immediately interprets John the Baptist as a forerunner of the Messiah (a la Elijah in II Kings 1:8). Mark then clothes John similar to Elijah (Mark 1:6. II Kings 1:8.) He then says John ate locusts and wild honey,the food of the wildernes in which Elijah lived (and so on and so on).

    Primarily in the synagogue did people hear scriptures read, taught, discussed, or expounded. The vast majority of first century people could not read. So people didn`t own bibles. The Jews had access to their sacred stories in the synagogue. The memory of the historical Jesus could have been recalled, restated, and passed on in the synagogue. And the gospel stories may also be shaped in terms of Jewish liturgy. The crucifixion may be shaped against the passover. The transfiguration echoes Hanukkah. Many things are reminiscent of Rosh Hashanah.

    So as it says in Acts, they would read from the Torah, then from the former prophets (Joshua through Kings), and finally from the latter prohets (Isaiah through Malachi). At that point the synagogue leader would ask if anyone would like to bring any message or experience that might illumine the readings. So followers of Jesus may have then recalled their memories of him which that Sabbath elicited. This could be where all the midrash is coming from. This is what Paul does in Acts (13:16b-41). They went through this process for about forty years before the gospels were written.

    1. I would only add to your model that “prophecy” apparently played a role as well. People received messages from above, either in clear text or in the tongues of angels.

      In the alternative model I’m proposing there really is a black hole in the period between approximately 30 to 70 CE. I hope to explain the reasons behind the silent period in subsequent posts.

      1. One question I have always pondered is: In the forty years between the Pauline epistles and Mark, how many people were having hallucinations and dreams about Jesus that, over time, became part of the collective historical memory of the life of Jesus that later appeared in the gospels (regardless of whether Jesus existed or not)?

        1. I think that sayings from the risen Lord or the historical Jesus were remembered and finally written down, and only later did we get the narrative wrapper. The word-for-word saying may not have been as important as the gist. So, for example, Paul talks about the Lord’s proscription against divorce, but he doesn’t quote it.

    2. Jesus himself is frequently presented as preaching inside the synagogues as well as in the countryside, perhaps the most notable case being the account of the Galilean congregation enraged when he pointed out that two Syrians had been preferred to all Israel at a time when, according to Josephus who seems to have been a source for Luke, these two peoples were enemies.

  2. Readers of some of Ehrman’s recent books are being seriously short-changed. As you quote in the post, in this current work Ehrman turns to very scant scholarship and relies heavily upon arm-chair imagining of what could have happened that anyone could do. He did the same often enough in his “Did Jesus Exist?”

    And as Raphael Lataster points out, the imaginings extend to building cases not only on imaginary sources but also on imagining a chronological sequence of those imaginary sources.

    All the while, as you point out, the actual evidence becomes clear glass to slightly refract the imaginary scenario the scholar sees on the other side.

  3. The usual rebuttal to the scarcity of biographical detail in Paul, is that these biographical stories were known to his audience. So Paul didn’t need to write them down.

    One could apply this reasoning to Acts as well: why would the author repeat the stories that are so abundantly found in the Luke’s gospel?

    1. Bob: “Why would the author repeat the stories that are so abundantly found in the Luke’s gospel?”

      Well, he does repeat stories. He tells the Road to Damascus story three times. He has his speakers tell their audiences that Jesus died and was resurrected again and again. They talk about good deeds and healing the sick. Oddly missing are references to Jesus as a teacher.

  4. The “oral tradition” argument is another example of early critical rationalizations of the existing evidence being untethered from their original context and spun around as evidence for the events themselves.

    “Oral tradition” is only invoked to explain why, assuming there was a Jesus whose teachings founded Christianity, all the personal details seem to skip a generation and only show up much later in the Gospels. If there was no historical Jesus, oral traditions are totally unnecessary, and the lack of documentation is perfectly explicable (most of the early Christian writings would have been shockingly heretical and tossed out with the rest of the garbage).

    Overall, it’s much like the Q issue – you can’t use an argument founded on the assumption of a historical Jesus as evidence of a historical Jesus.

    I appreciate you as a Jesus agnostic, Tim, but even an agnostic can’t deny that the historicity camp requires a lot of post hoc hypothesis and unnecessarily complex epicycles to even come close to functioning as well as the myth hypothesis does in the face of the evidence we actually have.

  5. Above: Widowfield: “Models of transmission in the Acts of the Apostles: The accounts”

    This post’s of 13 “Acts” accounts with the “sayings” and “deeds” of Jesus is Brilliant!

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