Ehrman’s Jesus Before the Gospels

I decided to have a go at offering a “running review” of Bart Ehrman’s new book – a foray into memory and the Gospels. My perspective may be described as that of a memory theory non-specialist, or rather, a memory theory fan who specializes in the social processes of speech and talk in antiquity. EHRMANI know the folks at the Jesus Blog are reviewing the book, too. So, I encourage interested readers to go there for a memory specialist’s perspective.

I intend my review, or better, reviews, to be brief, offered over time – maybe a chapter at a time; don’t know! In any event, the review will unfold over time so that lauds and criticisms that come early on, may be corrected as the reading experience unfolds.

The lenses through which I will unapologetically read Ehrman’s book will ultimately be construed by a number of interests of mine, some of which I have more expertise in than others – memory, Jesus tradition and the “traditioning process,” speech and talk, gossip, and especially something I imagine as the intersection(s) between speech/talk/gossip and re-membering.

Alright, there’s the net. Here we go.

I read the introduction last night, and will point out just a few things I noticed. First, and as usual, Ehrman’s gift of communicating biblical scholarship to a general reading audience is obvious once again – and a source of personal envy on my part;-). All of us in the academy should recognize that when it comes to communicating complexities to non-professionals, Ehrman is an “angelic doctor” (pace St. Thomas Aquinas!).

That said, I didn’t get past the first paragraph before running into something that bothers me. In discussion about the memory of Jesus in the Gospels, E. (I’ll abbreviate his name since “E” is easier to type faster than “Bart” or “Ehrman”) E. begins by framing the discussion “[d]uring the intervening years (between Jesus’ death/resurrection and the Gospels) – even the years after our Gospels were written – stories about Jesus were in oral circulation” (1; parentheses mine). A lot of scholars limit their focus to the same sort of time frame which, to my mind, neglects the time before Jesus’ death – during his ministry. Of course, some haven’t neglected this time period for the emergence of the Jesus tradition – folks like Birger Gerhardsson.

Jesus was experienced by people when he was alive and doing his thing, and it’s quite safe to say he was talked about a lot – especially after saying and doing things that people obviously thought merited re-membering via gossip and rumor. I think any serious memory-approach to the historical Jesus needs to consider this, and wonder about the many descriptions in the Gospels of Jesus being re-membered in this very fashion.

Related to this is the important point that once Jesus said or did something, that “historical event” was gone, and still is gone. As soon as the event was completed, it was gone. Thus, E.’s constant emphasis on “accuracy” or lack of it in memory processes, seems to be aiming at a target that doesn’t exist. It’s not even a moving target – it’s just not there. And the event that was there, only exists in its being re-membered. And this re-membering likely began immediately after it happened: “What did he just say?” “What did he just do?”

In every edition (I think) of E.’s Oxford Intro to the New Testament, he describes the “oral traditioning process” by appealing to a children’s game – the “phone game” – where a child whispers a sentence to another child who then passes it on in whispers to another, and so on through the group until it comes out all messed up by the time the last child gets the story and shares it with everyone for a good laugh. This always bothered me – probably because it takes no real account of the social and cultural specificity of speech in Mediterranean cultures. In any event, E. explicitly appeals to this simplistic understanding of memory no less than seven times in the introduction, as if this may be the picture-image of memory processes that may ultimately drive the rest of his discussion of Jesus Before the Gospels. I hope it isn’t!

So, now I’ll read on…

Until next time.

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The Jesus Blog is reviewing Bart Ehrman’s latest!


I’m happy to see and share some of the latest great stuff going on over at The Jesus Blog, where Chris Keith et al, are reviewing Ehrman’s foray into memory.

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Applying the Can Opener

Teaching an undergraduate Philosophy intro course is a most rewarding experience, especially if most of the kids are not intending to major in Philosophy – only gathering a few required Gen-Ed credits. What can come out of their mouths is astonishing – surprising!, sometimes – and, at it’s best, reflects a really hungry curiosity. As Michael Wesch would certainly put it, when the “questions burning in their souls” risk having a peek outside. And, it is risky-business for these late adolescents to bare their souls by asking questions. When it’s safe, they know it. That’s what we strive for in the classroom, isn’t it? – vulnerability, in the open, and the security to bare it. That includes us professor-types.

Today in Philosophy 103 – the final discussion of God and Religion – topic: Doubting Religion and God. An outsider visits (a former student of mine, now a teaching colleague!) and deftly applies the can opener simply by being authentic, real, himself. And look what happens!!! All these questions poured out of the kids – and many, many more not on the board.


Days like this make it all worth while. Many thanks to a theologian named Justin Forbes.

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Reflections on the Man Born Blind and “Letting Go”

The gospel text for this Sunday, March 6 – Year A Scrutinies, is rather important for John’s gospel since it tells the story of a man, blind from birth, who receives his sight from our Lord, and is eventually described as the preeminent model of faith, understanding, and knowledge of who Jesus is. Indeed, the man born blind is to be compared with the Samaritan woman (Jn 4:1-42), and Nicodemus (Jn 3:1-21), both of whom model a comparative lack of understanding of who Jesus is. Nicodemus approaches the Light of the World at night, and walks away wondering “How can this happen?” (Jn 3:9). Similarly, and in stark contrast to Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman encounters the Light of the World at the very height of the day’s light, “about noon” (Jn 4:6). Although she’s only capable of testifying to Jesus as a prophet (compare Jn 4:16-19 with 4:28-29, 39), her talk about Jesus results in an entire town’s knowledge of Jesus as “savior of the world” (4:42).John9-Brookline-1small

In John 9, the man born blind is directly compared with the Pharisees (sometimes “the Jews”) – specifically the man’s blindness-leading-to-sight is compared with the Pharisees’ sight-leading-to-blindness. Paying attention to what the man born blind “knows” (or doesn’t know) about Jesus, and what the Pharisees “know” (or don’t know) is the key.

The way the text is laid out at the USCCB website is helpful in reading this narrative as it divides it into several “scenes” similar to a play – seven scenes, in fact.

As one reads through the story, taking notice when and wherever the man born blind says what he knows (especially about Jesus), and what he doesn’t know is enlightening. Likewise, when and wherever the Pharisees (or “the Jews”) say what they know or don’t know is instructive, too. And if you think there’s a similarity between knowing and seeing, blindness and not-knowing, you’d be right on target. So, let’s “see” (pun intended) what the man born blind knows and doesn’t know, and what the Pharisees’ know, or don’t know.

In answer to the question “How were your eye’s opened?” the man born blind replies “a man named Jesus…” – so, he knows Jesus’ name, and that Jesus opened his eyes (9:10-11). But, when asked “Where is Jesus?” the man answers honestly “I don’t know” (9:12).

In the next scene – and interestingly after John slips in the detail that Jesus made mud and healed on the Sabbath! (9:14) – the man is interrogated by the Pharisees who ask how he is able to see. After the man describes what Jesus did, some of the Pharisees say what they know, that is, that Jesus “is not from God!” (compare with Jn 1:1-18), while other Pharisees wonder “How can a sinful man (who doesn’t keep Sabbath) do such signs?” (9:16). Notice the Pharisees’ adjudication over Jesus’ origins and character leads to a division among them at the end of verse 16; talk about Jesus can have (should have?) social consequences. Then, when the Pharisees ask the man “What do you have to say about him, since he opened your eyes (not ours!!!)?” (parentheses mine), the man answers “He is a prophet” (9:17). So, at this point, the man born blind has reached the same level of knowledge the Samaritan woman reached (Jn 4:19). How much farther down the path can he go, will he go?

Let’s skip verses 18-23 (though it is not unimportant!), when the Pharisees question the parents of the man born blind. But, notice who or what they say they know and don’t know when asked.

The next, and longest scene, begins with the Pharisees questioning the man again, but starting off with a bold declaration of what they know: “We know that this man is a sinner” (9:24). The man replies by stating that he doesn’t know if Jesus is a sinner or not, but he does know that he (the man) was blind, and now he sees (9:25).

After asking the man again about the healing process – who then asks (ironically) if they want to be Jesus’ disciples – the Pharisees say more about what they know and don’t know: “You are that man’s disciple; we are disciples of Moses! We know that God spoke to Moses, but we do not know where this man is from” (see again, Jn 1:1-18). The man born blind responds (9:30-34) with amazement at the Pharisees’ lack of knowledge about Jesus’ origins in light of the healing, and then says a little about what he now knows: “If this man were not from God, he would not be able to do anything” (9:33). So, now the man born blind knows a bit more about Jesus; he’s not only a prophet – he is from God! In any event, at this point the Pharisees can only berate the man before kicking him out of the synagogue (see 9:22).

In the next scene Jesus – who has been conspicuously absent since verse seven – hears the gossip (9:35!), finds the man, and asks “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” to which the man asks “Who is he sir, that I may believe in him?” Then Jesus clearly identifies himself for the man, much like he did for the Samaritan woman (4:26). However, in contrast to her, the man born blind responds to Jesus’ “full disclosure” with full-blown knowledge, and with appropriate worship: “I do believe, LORD,” and he worshipped him” (9:38).

Finally, the Pharisees – who overheard Jesus and the man – ask Jesus, “Surely we are not also blind, are we?” (9:40). Blind like who? The man born blind before he was healed? Or, are they really asking “Surely we are not also ‘not knowing’ are we?” Jesus’ response (9:41) is incisive: “If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you are saying ‘We see,’ so your sin remains.”

What is so noticeable about this story is the blind man’s knowledge, especially how it evolves over time. And where he starts is perhaps most important: “I don’t know”! (9:12). Maybe starting with that humble admission prepares the man to receive the revelation of the Light of the World, the Lord Jesus, unencumbered by any preconceptions or pretense to certitude. His knowledge evolves from “I don’t know” to “he is a prophet” to he is “from God” to finally, “LORD.”

A fitting end to a wonderful story in a Gospel about Jesus who eludes such grasping, such certainties – a Jesus who responds to all of my grasping about who and what I think he is, much like he responds to Mary Magdalene – “Stop holding on to me!” (20:17). It is only after letting go of what she knows (“Rabbouni”), that Mary Magdalene comes to know Jesus fully – “I have seen the LORD” (20:18). Oh, for the grace that enables me to just let go of what I think I know, and humbly receive the astonishing revelation of Jesus Christ, the Light of the World.

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Brock Little – Going Home!

Brock Little died yesterday. Read HERE.

“In the end, the beginning of life…”


All Time Cloudbreak Session

Brock Little’s gargantuan, 25-foot wave, widely considered, at the time, the largest wave anybody has ever paddled into. Mandatory Photo Credit: Winer/A-Frame For high res file please contact 949.361.4879

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Brock Little | Cancer!


Brock Little drops at Mavericks

Cancer is a horrible thing.

Checking the WSL site for information about the Eddie Aikau contest at Waimea Bay (starting today), I find out Brock Little – a very well known Hawaiian big wave surfer – has cancer – Stage Four! I’d wondered recently why I haven’t heard news about him for some time over the “surfers-sphere.” Now I know why.__ID-15--4-brock_little

Here’s a link to the story at Surfline:

And to Brock’s Instagram account – set up for him by his brother:

Here’s a video interview with Little (filmed in December 2015, I think). You can see in his eyes the joy he experiences surfing, and hear it in his voice as he describes the two waves he caught at Waimea in “The Eddie” back in 1990.

Feel like calling God out for a street-fight, Job?


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“Gossip” Addressed by Papa Francesco

Reading an interesting story about Papa Franc speaking to members of religious orders over the past few days, and directly mentioning the troubles that negative gossip can generate within such faith communities.  151126144443-glum-pope-francis-kenya-exlarge-169Reminded me of a very nice study by Maud Gleason – reading from the Apophthegmata Patrum (“Sayings of the Fathers) – about 3rd (or 4th?) century Anchorite religious in Egypt gossiping in their community(ies).  “Visiting and News: Gossip and Reputation-Management in the Desert 1″ Journal of Early Christian Studies 6.3, 501-521, 1998.



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Tommy Curren – The Perfect Surfer

Back after Christmas break, and starting to get the feet underneath again.

I’m beginning the year with a post, not about Jesus or the bible, but about the perfect surfer…Tommy Curren. A great article about another surfer’s experience of Tommy, seven years ago at Jeffrey’s Bay (THE perfect wave!) Enjoy the article here:

And enjoy the video of Tommy (red) surfing against Occy (blue) in a “seniors heat.” Tommy’s glide on the face is simply beautiful!

Curren X Occy from Mellin Videos on Vimeo.

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Gossip at The Bible Odyssey Site!

I’m happy to share with folks my article “Gossip in the New Testament” published at the Society of Biblical Literature’s Bible Odyssey site. FEEDING THE FIVE THOUSAND

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Paul Gossips in Galatians! Epistolary Gossip about an “Incident at Antioch”

Recently, an anonymous peer-reviewed editor of another project I’ve been working on, commented rather passionately (i.e. negatively!) about my suggestion that the “incident at Antioch ” (Gal 2:11-14) is an example of what I’ll call “epistolary gossip.”  What was curious about this is the editor’s thinking was based on the definition of gossip in the Oxford English Dictionary(!).

From a sociological perspective, the basic elements necessary for speech to be considered gossip are “face-to-face” evaluative communication between/among persons about an absent third party.  The project I’m presently focusing on will suggest that Paul’s recollection of his tussle with Peter in Antioch – in a written correspondence between himself and the Galatian believers, that was likely “performed” (read!) out loud to the congregations – easily constitutes gossip as it embodies all of the necessary ingredients of such speech.185738731

This project will see Paul’s recollection of the “incident” as an attempt at self-interested “information management/control” (a la Robert Paine’s classic article “What is Gossip About?” Man, New Series, 2(2), June 1967, 278-85) embodying a peculiar invitation to the Galatians to engage – at a distance! – with Paul in constructing an absent Peter’s identity as a “coward” and a “hypocrite.”  Following Holly Hearon’s lead in a recent article (“A Social Semiotic Multi-Modal Approach to Communication Practices in Early Christianity”Journal of Early Christian History 4.1, 2014), I will utilize a multi-modal approach to oral (performance) and scribal (epistolary) communication to unpack the recollection of the incident by Paul in the letter, not only to suggest a plausible reason(ing) behind Paul’s gossip at that point in the letter, but to unpack the social risk(s) Paul takes by engaging in such evaluative speech.

People know when it’s a good time to gossip, and sometimes, people “gossip” in writing, too.

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