Bart Ehrman: Jesus Before the Gospels, Basic Element 5: Memory Distortion

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by Tim Widowfield

Mnemosyne, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

In our last post, we discussed the genre of the gospels. We saw that Bart Ehrman, at least for this book (Jesus Before the Gospels), chooses to gloss over the issue of genre, and simply assumes that the gospels contain memories of the historical Jesus. Of course, he concedes that those memories may be distorted.

But what exactly do we mean by “memory distortion”? And is it a big deal, or is it just a minor annoyance?

Human memory can fail in two ways. First, we can simply forget the past. Second, our memories of the past can become changed and distorted. These inaccurate memories can contain false details, or they can represent incidents that never happened. Our capacity for distortion affects not only our personal recollection but social memories as well.

The nature of collective memory

In the introductory chapter to Memory Distortion: How Minds, Brains, and Societies Reconstruct the Past, Daniel Schacter writes:

A prominent theme in this area of study is that societies often hold beliefs about their pasts that are based on stories and myths that develop and change over time, often bearing little resemblance to the events that initially gave rise to them . . . 

Thus, understanding the nature of collective memory is inextricably intertwined with understanding the nature of memory distortion. Yet here, too, issues pertaining to memory distortion are of more than purely academic concern. For example, recent attempts by various fringe groups to deny the occurrence of the Holocaust have alerted scholars and the lay public alike to the extraordinary dangers that are posed by willful distortion of collective memory . . . (Schacter, 1995, p. 3, emphasis mine)

At the end of the same book, Lawrence E. Sullivan offers some closing remarks in an essay entitled “Memory Distortion and Anamnesis: A View from the Human Sciences.” He writes:

Choosing memory distortion as a particular aspect of the larger issue of memory lends interdisciplinary considerations a sharper edge and an air of urgency. Memory distortion carries negative consequences for individuals and communities in such disturbing forms as personal disorientation, fractured identities, broken relations, litigious action, propagandist rewriting of the historical record, and war-time demagoguery. Memory distortion, it would seem, places human beings at risk of losing touch with their grounding sense of reality. Societies and individuals struggle to avoid these negative consequences and to preserve their grounding sense of reality. As a part of that struggle, then, we would do well to understand memory distortion and to do so with all the resources available from multiple disciplines. (Sullivan , 1995, p. 387, emphasis mine)

In many cases when experts discuss the failures of memory, they will quickly remind us that much of the time our memories serve us reasonably well. Schacter tells us:

Although the focus is on the analysis of distortion, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that memory is often accurate. But when distortion does occur, it can have important theoretical and practical implications. (Schacter, 1995, p. 4)

However, note well: when they remind us that most of the time we can trust memory, scholars will cite examples of personal recollection. You decide to go to the store to pick up some groceries. You remember where you parked your car. You remember how to drive. You remember where the supermarket is. You remember, perhaps, the five things you wanted to pick up, without even consulting your list.

Glossing over the issue

Like many Biblical scholars who have dabbled in memory theory, Ehrman finds the idea that the NT contains distorted memories useful, up to a point.

Yes, generally speaking, unless you have some sort of medical condition, you rely on your personal memory countless times a day with no ill effects. But collective memory is different. It is not firsthand knowledge. Furthermore, a distorted social memory will rarely affect one’s viability in the gene pool, let alone threaten the survival of the species. The processes by which we create, maintain, modify, forge, and forget social memories differ from the processes that drive personal memory in important ways. Beware of scholars who fudge on these distinctions when touting the reliability of “memory.”

Like many Biblical scholars who have dabbled in memory theory, Ehrman finds the idea that the NT contains distorted memories useful, up to a point. However, as with much else they have appropriated from anthropology, history, psychology, etc., they employ memory as a useful servant to “prove” their pet theory of Christian origins.

Some memories “must” go right back to a historical Jesus, they insist. This belief compels them to downplay the failures of memory — especially social memory’s lack of interest in preserving actual history — and instead to argue that distortion is no big deal.

When memory researchers speak about “distorted” memories they do not necessarily mean anything negative by it. They are simply referring to memories of things that did not really happen. (Ehrman, 2016, p. 33)

We might suspect he meant that as a throwaway line, but these two sentences begin the second chapter. Let’s try it on for size: “I don’t mean anything negative by it, but everything you just told me never really happened. No hard feelings, right?”

Distortion really is distortion

Actually, when psychologists talk about distorted memories, they typically do mean “false memories,” and they genuinely do mean something negative. As we saw above historians see “extraordinary dangers that are posed by willful distortion of collective memory.” And in neuropsychology, certain kinds of distorted memory can indicate the presence of serious mental illnesses. (See, e.g., “Confabulation,” by Morris Moscovitch in Memory Distortion.)

Ehrman at least avoids Anthony Le Donne’s inane fantasy of “mnemonic continuity,” which posits the notion that distorted memories aren’t even necessarily unreliable or uncertain, let alone “false.” He writes:

In order for the importance of mnemonic continuity to be fully appreciated, I must reiterate and underscore my conception of memory distortion. As stated in the previous chapter, memory distortion should not be immediately equated with “false” memory, nor should it evoke notions of unreliability or uncertainty. 

Memory distortion, in its most prevalent form, can be likened to the convex shape of a lens that receives and refracts light by the very parameters of its design. When performing its proper function, a telescope lens distorts an imaged object in order to magnify it. Depending on the quality of the lens, the viewer is able to perceive an approximate distortion of distant objects not visible to the naked eye. The fact that the lens does not “report” the object’s image exactly how it was received is exactly its value. In the same way, memory distorts the past to render it intelligible to the present. (Le Donne, 2006, pp. 66-67, italics his)

Of course, this sort of embarrassing twaddle can make sense only if we assign the term “memory distortion” to even the most trivial deviation from the actual past, and if we believe that distortions occur incrementally along predictable paths. For a more in-depth look at Le Donne’s woefully inadequate treatment of memory distortion, see these two posts: “The Memory Mavens, Part 9: Social Memory Distortion (1)” and “The Memory Mavens, Part 9: Social Memory Distortion (2).”

Ehrman gets it right (sort of)

After chasing, page after page, the subject of eyewitness testimony like a kitten with a laser pointer and rightly concluding that it’s unreliable, Ehrman finally bumps into the truth. Many of the stories in the gospels have nothing to do with what really happened.

Since these are historically implausible episodes, they too would appear to represent distorted memories. These distorted memories are important, I will argue, not only for knowing as best we can what really happened in Jesus’s life (although certainly that), but also for knowing what his later followers thought was really important about his life, presumably because their own present contexts were influencing how they remembered him in the ways they did. (Ehrman, 2016, p. 135, emphasis mine)

He dares not let go of the hope that some actual history “certainly” lurks somewhere in the gospels. Still, a dangerous idea has appeared in the cracks — an idea that will not go away quietly.

Richard Carrier hits the nail on the head when discussing the parts of the gospels that appear to be allegorical myths. If the evangelists felt no constraint about moving the day of Jesus’ death or putting words into his mouth on the cross, just to conform to theological needs — then what hope do we have of extracting any actual history from the gospels?

But if the Gospels are myth, then both efforts [(1) harmonizing the contradictory stories and (2) using criteriology to find the truth] are futile, as both assume the intent of the authors is to record (if perhaps embellish) a collection of historical facts reported to them. If instead the intent of the authors is to construct symbolic myths about Jesus, then we have no reason to expect any of their content to be historical. Some of it may be, but since distinguishing fact from fiction would not have been of primary interest to the Gospels’ authors, we will have little hope of finding clues to such distinctions in the texts themselves. (Carrier, 2014, p. 391, emphasis mine)


I’m going to take a little break from Ehrman’s book for a while. I’ll be returning to the Memory Mavens series for a few more installments.

Carrier, Richard

On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt, Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2014

Ehrman, Bart D.

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

Le Donne, Anthony

The Historiographical Jesus: Memory, Typology and the Son of David, Durham theses, Durham University, 2006

Schacter, Daniel L.

“Memory Distortion: History and Current Status” in Memory Distortion: How Minds, Brains, and Societies Reconstruct the Past, (Ed., Schacter) 1995

Sullivan, Lawrence E.

“Memory Distortion and Anamnesis: A View from the Human Sciences” in Memory Distortion: How Minds, Brains, and Societies Reconstruct the Past, (Ed., Schacter) 1995


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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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11 thoughts on “Bart Ehrman: Jesus Before the Gospels, Basic Element 5: Memory Distortion”

  1. Memory is a strange entity.
    Some people have very accurate memories and others do not.
    Some have a memory for conversations, some for narrative, some for just the facts.

    What is historically accurate in the Gospels and what may not be can never be resolved.

    You can roll out theories and counter-examples from other religious narratives but they do not prove
    but only demonstrate other possibilities.

    The labelling of events as “Myths” that seem quite possible versus narrative stories that are clearly mythical
    is disingenuous.

    Theory should never presume to trump history.

    1. I think you’re missing the point, Stephen. The issue here is collective memory – that is, the way an event is remembered which no one actually personally experienced. For example, your memory of the stock market crash is influenced by many factors, but your personal ability to remember events in your life isn’t one of them, since that memory has been transmitted to you by others (I’m making an assumption about your age which statistically is pretty safe but could be, in fact, wrong).

      How good any one individual’s memory is, is not the question when it comes to the NT. Only Paul could have been an eyewitness to Jesus’ life and he specifically rules that out many times. So we’re dealing with collective memory, not personal recollection.

      1. HP, you are spot on. And as we’ve seen over and over, the content of collective memory depends substantially on the needs of the group in the present.

  2. One problem I have with Ehrman’s book is he claims that a certain memory of Jesus in the gospels can be considered reliable if it appears to be remembered “in a non-prejudicial way.” By that criterion we would be able to ascribe many of the events in the apocryphal Christian literature to the historical Jesus.

    1. Ehrman is clearly now inventing his own new invalid Criteria: if it seems objective, it must be true. This kind of pseudo history is typical of religious scholars.

  3. So Ehrman: some Greek memories of the god Zeus, must certainly trace back to a real historical Zeus?

    The problem with Historical Jesus scholars, is that they have not learned anything from mythography. In fact, they have clearly never bothered to really study myths. Having rejected that study and its relevance, out of hand, from the start. But that was an arbitrary rejection after all. Which has hopelessly prejudiced their results.

  4. The main article poses the following question: “If the evangelists felt no constraint about moving the day of Jesus’ death or putting words into his mouth on the cross, just to conform to theological needs — then what hope do we have of extracting any actual history from the gospels?”

    I am going to swim against the current and propose that one of these apparent issues is actually the key that allows us to extract history from the gospels. I think that a strong case can be built that supports the conclusion that the gospels actually agree on the date of Jesus’ death.

    I recommend the following three resources:

    Humphreys, Colin J. The Mystery of the Last Supper: Reconstructing the Final Days of Jesus. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

    DeLashmutt, Gary. “Sejanus and the Chronology of Christ’s Death.” Web. Accessed 11 May 2016. .

    Maier, Paul L. “Sejanus, Pilate, and the Date of the Crucifixion.” Church History 37.1 (1968): 3-13.

    Gary DeLashmutt’s article covers much of the same ground as Paul Maier’s article and is more accessible.

    In his book, Humphreys argues that, at first glance, the Synoptics and John do appear to contradict each other regarding the day of Jesus’ death, but on closer examination, they actually agree exactly on the date. He writes (pages 3 and 193-4), “Could it be, however, that the gospel accounts of the last days of Jesus are not filled with discrepancies, but that we are failing to understand the gospel writings because of our lack of knowledge of life in Israel in the first century AD? Is it our ignorance that is preventing us from interpreting some key verses in the gospels in the way the writers intended? … Using a different calendar theory, all four gospels agree on the date and nature of the last supper. The last supper was a real Passover meal according to the calendar used by the synoptic gospels. However, the Passover meal in this calendar was eaten before that in the official calendar, hence John was correct in saying that the last supper was before the official Passover meal. All four gospels also now agree on the date of the crucifixion. It was on Nisan 14 in the official Jewish calendar … From these calendar reconstructions we can identify the date of the crucifixion as Friday, April 3, AD 33, and the date of the last supper as Wednesday, April 1, AD 33.”

    It is not possible to go into the details here, but I think that Humphreys’ theory is likely to be basically correct because it explains the key evidences from a wide variety of sources. It even explains several pieces of evidence that are never mentioned in the book. I have looked for evidence that does not fit within Humphreys’ reconstruction and have not found anything that I would classify as a serious issue. I have studied a lot of other harmonization proposals and have found that other theories fail to explain key pieces of evidence. This includes the harmonization proposal that is found in Brant Pitre’s recently published book about Jesus and the Last Supper.

    I am aware that criticisms of Humphreys’ thesis have been published or posted by Richard Carrier, Aaron Adair, John P. Meier, Helen K. Bond, Mark Goodacre, Brant Pitre, William Telford, Andrew McGowan, Danny Faulkner, Rainer Riesner, Roger T. Beckwith, Joseph Moloney, John Byron, Bryan Spinks, and others. I think that a few of the criticisms are clearly valid, but it seems to me that none of them are capable of knocking the key parts of the theory down.

    I have read Richard Carrier’s books Proving History and On the Historicity of Jesus, but have not found his main conclusions convincing.

    I think the debate about the chronology of the last days of Jesus is important. If it could be shown that, “the evangelists felt no constraint about moving the day of Jesus’ death”, then perhaps we would have grounds for doubting the possibility of extracting any reliable bits of history from the gospels. However, given Humphreys’ recent reconstruction of the chronology of the Last Supper and crucifixion, it seems to me that it is still reasonable to think that we can extract actual history from the gospels.

    1. Mark says that Jesus at the trial says nothing in his defense, other than “You said it.” John says Jesus really chats it up with Pilate. “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” And that’s only part of it.

      Mark says Jesus prayed for the cup to be taken away. John says he looks forward to it: “Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?”

      If you can harmonize those conflicting views of Jesus, and if you aren’t persuaded by “Richard Carrier, Aaron Adair, John P. Meier, Helen K. Bond, Mark Goodacre, Brant Pitre, William Telford, Andrew McGowan, Danny Faulkner, Rainer Riesner, Roger T. Beckwith, Joseph Moloney, John Byron, Bryan Spinks, and others,” then what hope would I have of persuading you? I would guess none at all.

      You clearly want to believe that the the gospels aren’t in conflict. All right, then.

    2. I have read Richard Carrier’s books Proving History and On the Historicity of Jesus, but have not found his main conclusions convincing.

      You say you don’t find his “conclusions convincing” but what about his argument, evidence and method? Do you find fault with any of those?

  5. “I have read Richard Carrier’s books Proving History and On the Historicity of Jesus, but have not found his main conclusions convincing.”

    I have also read Carrier’s books. Which “main conclusions” don’t you find “convincing?”

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