At this point, I've only read Ehrman's Introduction (pp. 1–16), so I'm not yet ready to praise or critique the volume. But we can note how Ehrman approaches his subject, recurrent patterns in his discussion, and the expectations he establishes for the rest of the book.
Ehrman says early on that he spent "about two years" spending his free time "doing nothing but reading about memory" (2). He specifically mentions three areas of memory studies: cognitive psychology (the study of individual memories), sociology (the study of social memory), and cultural anthropology (the study of oral cultures and unwritten traditions). These are all very good and vibrant areas of research; NT scholars are vigorously engaging each of these fields (individually and in various combinations), so Ehrman's voice joins a chorus-in-progress.
And so I was surprised by his presentation of NT scholarship as a whole, which (as I've said) has increasingly engaged questions of memory over the last decade-plus.
The more I read [about memory], the more surprised I became that so many scholars of the New Testament—the vast bulk of them, so far as I can tell—have never explored this research, even though it is so fascinating and most immediately relevant. Even those New Testament specialists who have delved into such fields have in many instances limited themselves to just one, or possibly two, of them. But they are all important. (3)In the Introduction, Ehrman does not refer to any "New Testament specialists who have delved into such fields," so I cannot evaluate his claim. Moreover, throughout this introduction he cites only one work of one memory theorist (Abraham Lincoln and the Forge of National Memory [University of Chicago Press, 2000], the first volume of sociologist Barry Schwartz's two-volume work on American memory of Lincoln). The Introduction, in other words, does not offer very much to substantiate either Ehrman's claim to have read broadly ("for about two years now") in memory studies or his claim about NT specialists. This is, however, only the Introduction, and I hold out hope that more meaningful and substantive engagements will come in the remaining chapters.
When Ehrman does acknowledge that "this book will not be the first to address such issues" (12), he links his work with Rudolf Bultmann and the form critics and never mentions contemporary scholarship on questions of media, memory, and testimony. He laments that "there is not a single book available on the topic for a general-reading audience, a book that explains the form-critics' views or delves into the issues they [!!] raised in an non-technical (and interesting!) way" (13; my italics and exclamation marks). If Ehrman were providing a nontechnical, interesting survey of contemporary NT scholarship on memory and media, I would cheer. I am disappointed, however, to find that he seems to intend to present the nearly century-old work of the form critics, with the subtle (but false) implication that he's the first to do by appealing to memory studies.
We can make another substantive critique even at this very early stage. Some NT scholars engage memory studies in order to assess the question, How well did the evangelists remember Jesus? I think here especially of Richard Bauckham's book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (Eerdmans, 2006), which is keen to link the Gospels with eyewitness testimony and memory. Ehrman positions his work to follow in this vein, even if his conclusions are very different from Bauckham's. (He says the question of the evangelists as eyewitnesses "is certainly a question worth exploring" ; see Chapter 3, "Eyewitness Testimonies and Our Surviving Gospels.") Note the following:
At that time [in the 1970s], I heard views from some of my teachers that many people continue to hear today: the Gospels are based on eyewitness reports; they can therefore be accepted as historically reliable; people in oral cultures (such as in the ancient Roman world) had better memories than we do today; and such people always preserved their traditions about the past accurately, since they were not literate and so could not learn about the past from writing.With that last question, Ehrman reveals that the book will be about how well—or how accurately—the Gospels remember Jesus. Unlike Bauckham, Ehrman does not have much confidence in quality of the Gospels' memory of Jesus. He says,
Are these views correct? (1)
This [before the Gospels were written] was a mysterious period of oral transmission, when stories were circulating, both among eyewitnesses and, even more, among those who knew someone whose cousin had a neighbor who had once talked with a business associate whose mother had, just fifteen years earlier, spoken with an eyewitness who told her some things about Jesus. (2)Later,
[The Gospels] are memories of later authors who had heard from Jesus from others, who were telling what they had heard from others, who were telling what they had heard from yet others. They are memories of memories of memories. (3)And then,
But we forget a lot of things as well—not just our keys, and the names of people we are sure we ought to remember, but also factual information that we used to know and events, even highly important events, that have happened in our lives. Even more disturbing, we misremember things. The older we get the more we realize: we sometimes remember clearly what took place and how it took place. Then it turns out we are wrong.A little later,
It happens to all of us. And it has happened to everyone who has ever lived. Including the followers of Jesus. Including the ones who told the stories about him. Including the ones who heard those stories and then passed them along to others. Including the ones who heard these thirdhand stories and told them then to others, who told them to others, who told them to others, who then wrote the Gospels. Each person in that link of memory from Jesus to the writers of the Gospels was remembering what he or she had heard. Or trying to do so. (3–4; my emphasis)
Who was telling the stories [about Jesus]? Was it only the twelve disciples and other eyewitnesses? Or would it have been other people as well? That is, did people who heard stories from eyewitnesses also tell the stories? Is it possible that stories were told by people who knew people who knew people who knew people who claimed that they heard stories from people who knew people who knew eyewitnesses? (11)And then almost immediately,
We all know from personal experience how much news stories get changed in the retelling (not to mention stories about us personally) just in a matter of hours, let alone days, weeks, months, years, and decades. Were the stories about Jesus exempt from these processes of alteration and invention that we ourselves experience all the time? (11)And finally,
All of the people who told stories about Jesus—eyewitnesses, people who heard from eyewitnesses, and people who heard from people who heard from people who heard from people who heard from eyewitnesses—remembered what they saw and heard. And their own stories were based on those memories. (14–15)These repeated comments about memory and the Gospels, all of which emphasize the multiple layers separating the original eyewitnesses to Jesus' life and teachings from the authors of the Gospels, betray a simplistic conception of memory. I highlighted a phrase from pp. 3–4, above: Ehrman refers to "that link of memory from Jesus to the writers of the Gospels." Like a chain wherein one link is attached to another link, that second link is attached to a third link, and that third link is attached to a fourth link, and that fourth link is separated and distinct from the first link by two intervening links, Ehrman writes as if memory moves from individual to individual in a unidirectional manner.
Memory, however, is not like a chain. Memory is like culture. Individuals create culture as they live and move and have their being together in society, but (and this point arises especially in the work of Barry Schwartz, whom Ehrman cites) individuals are themselves created by the cultures they inhabit. Memory (like culture) is not a chain but a web. Moreover, memory (like culture) is not a web of facts (which are either true or untrue, accurate or inaccurate) but rather "webs of significance" (Clifford Geertz, Interpretation of Cultures, 5) in which individuals and groups find and make (these are not the same thing) meaning. This broader understanding of memory poses problems for Richard Bauckham, who seems to assume that eyewitnesses have direct access to the reality and then subsequently offer interpretations of that reality. I suspect, on the basis of Ehrman's repeated characterizations of memory and memory transmission as akin to the Telephone Game, that this broader understanding will likewise present problems for Ehrman's work. We shall see.
Continue to watch this space.
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 1)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 2)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 3)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 4)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 5)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 6)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 7)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 8)