The following was on Bart Ehrman's Blog this morning:
The comment that I sometimes get from readers that I find puzzling or disheartening is when they tell me that if there is something in the Gospels that is not historical, then it cannot be true, and if it is not true, then it is not worth reading. My sense is that many readers will find it puzzling or even disheartening that I find this view puzzling and disheartening. But I do.
It is true that to do the work of the historian requires one to be extremely critical about the sources of information that are available about the past. Some readers seem to think that this is only what atheistic, hard-headed, liberal historians with anti-supernaturalist biases who are out to destroy religion do. But in fact, it is what all historians do. The reason some readers find this approach to the Gospels objectionable is that they simply aren’t accustomed to dealing with the Bible as history.
But even though I do deal with the Bible as a historian, I do not personally think that is theonly way to deal with the Bible, and I find it disheartening when readers think that once the Gospels are shown to have discrepancies, implausibilities, and historical mistakes that we should just get rid of them and move on to other things.
I find that disheartening because the Gospels are so much more than historical sources. They are memories of early Christians about the one they considered to be the most important person ever to walk the planet. Yes, these memories are all distorted, when seen from the perspective of historical reality. But that doesn’t rob them of their value. It simply makes them memories. All memories are distorted.
And yes, the New Testament memories are all different from one another in one way or the other. But that doesn’t mean that we should then throw them all away because they are not trust worthy. Everyone’s memories – even of the same event – will be different from everyone else’s. That’s just how memories work.
And yes again, these memories have all been shaped by the lives, histories, and concerns of the people who recorded them, so that the “present” of these authors affected what they remembered about the past and how they remembered it. But that doesn’t mean that we should just go on to read other books instead. All memories of the past are chosen and shaped by the present.
At the end of the day, I find it very puzzling that so many people think that history is the only thing that matters. For them, if something didn’t happen, it isn’t true. Really? Do we actually live our lives that way? How can we? Do we really spend our lives finding meaning only in the brute facts of what happened before, and in nothing else?
Think about the things that matter to us: our families, friends, work, hobbies, religion, philosophy, country, novels, poetry, music, good food, and good drink. Do we really think that the brute facts about the past are the only things that matter?
To pick one just one of these examples: is literature unimportant because it does not deal with the brute facts of history? Is Dickens’s great novel David Copperfield of no value because its main character didn’t actually live? Well, that’s different you say, because it’s fiction. Yes indeed, it’s fiction. And fiction can be life-transforming because it is full of meaning — even though it never happened. Or consider further: can historical discoveries undermine the power of great literature? Does the earthshattering force of King Lear evaporate if it can be historically proved that someone other than Shakespeare wrote it? Does Dover Beach really fail to grip us with its powerful pathos if we learn that these were not actually the author’s thoughts the last time he was looking out over the English Channel?
Literature speaks to us quite apart from the facts of history. So does music. So does sculpture. So do all the arts. The Gospels are not simply historical records about the past. They are works of art.
They are also written forms of memory. The truth is that most of us cherish our memories – memories of our childhood, of our parents, of our friends, of our romantic relationships, of our accomplishments, of our travels, of our millions of experiences. Other memories, of course, are terribly painful – memories of pain, of suffering, of misunderstandings, of failed relationships, of financial strain, of violence, of lost loved ones, of millions of other experiences.
When we reflect on our past lives, when we remember all that has happened to us, all the people we have known, all the things we have seen, all the places we have visited, all the things we have experienced, we do not decide, before pondering the memory, to fact-check our recall to make sure that we have the brute facts in place. Our lives are not spent establishing the past as it really happened. They are spent calling it back to mind.
When we do so our memories may be frail, and faulty, and even false. But they are how we remember. And that is how we live our lives, with these memories. If someone tells us that something happened to us differently from how we remember, we may change how we think about it. But that’s not usually what happens. More often we’ll simply say that we don’t remember it that way. And we stick to our memories. If we do shift what we think about our remembered past, we don’t jettison our memories, but we transform them.
We live not only with our own memories, but also with the memories of others. We share our lives. Others share their lives with us. The only way to share a life with someone outside of that non-existent nano-second of the present is to share a life of memory. Our presents are affected by these pasts – both ours and those of others. Just as these pasts are molded by our presents. And our reflections about the future are molded by both. Living life is never a matter of isolation – from either our past or the pasts of others. The living and sharing of memories is what makes up our lives.
The Gospels are shared memories of the past. Yes, they can be scrutinized by historians who want to get a better sense of what actually happened in the life of Jesus. That’s what I do for a living. But if they were only that, they would be dry, banal, and frankly rather uninteresting to anyone except those with rather peculiar antiquarian interests. The Gospels are more than historical sources. They are deeply rooted and profound memories of a man whose memories ended up transforming the entire world.
It is easy to make the argument that the historical Jesus did not transform the world. He does not transform the world today. You may wonder how that could possibly be, if Christianity became the religion of the West. Look at it this way. There are two billion people today who are committed to the memory of Jesus. How many of those two billion have what I, as a historian, would consider to be a historically accurate recollection of the basics of Jesus’ real life and ministry? Some thousands? It’s a tiny fraction. The historical Jesus did not make history. The remembered Jesus did.
For me as a historian it goes without saying that we should pay close attention to what can be learned about the historical Jesus. But we should not neglect the remembered Jesus.
Does it matter if Jesus really delivered the Sermon on the Mount the way it is described in Matthew 5-7? It matters to me historically. But if Jesus didn’t deliver the sermon, would it be any less powerful? Not in the least. It is, and in my view deserves to be, one of the greatest accounts of ethical teaching in the history of the planet.
Does it matter if Jesus really healed the sick, cast out demons, and raised the dead? Does it matter if he himself was raised from the dead? But if these stories are not historically accurate, does that rob them of their literary power? Not in my books. They are terrifically moving accounts. Understanding what they are trying to say means understanding some of the most uplifting and influential literature that the planet has ever seen.
Does it matter if Jesus considered himself to be God on earth? As a historian, it matters to me a great deal. But if he did not – and I think he did not – the fact that he was remembered that way by later followers is terrifically important. Without that memory of Jesus, the faith founded on him would never have taken off, the Roman Empire would not have abandoned paganism, and history as we know it would never have transpired. History was changed not because of the brute facts of history, but because of memory.
Memory can certainly be studied to see where it is accurate and where it is frail, or distorted, or even false. It should be studied that way. It needs to be studied that way. I spend most of my life studying it that way. But it should also be studied in a way that appreciates its inherent significance and its power. Memory is what gives meaning to our lives – and not only to our own personal lives, but to the lives of eeryone who has ever lived on this planet. Without it we couldn’t exist as social groups or function as individuals. Memory obviously deserves to be studied in its own right, not only to see what it preserves accurately about the past, but also to see what it can say about those who have it and share it.
Christian memory is particularly and uniquely important. Christian memory transformed our world. Christian memory brought about a revolution in the history of Western Civilization. Christian memory continues to influence billions of lives in our world today. Ultimately, of course, Christian memory goes back to the earliest memories of Jesus. These too need to be studied, both for what they can tell us about the historical person who stands behind the memory, but also about those who came in his wake, who remembered him and passed along their memories to those of us living today.
 This is my argument in Bart D. Ehrman, How Jesus Became God (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2014).