It’s that time of year again, friends; the holiest in the secular calendar. It’s a time of contemplation, yes, but in the newsroom it’s also one of celebration.
For this is when journalists flood the æther-nets, filling them with heart-chilling stories suggesting Jesus and John may have been more than just friends, that Mary was a serial divorcée, that the apostles were paid double agents in the service of Rome, that a new fragment of gospel has been discovered which reveals an appalled Jesus lecturing the world about global warming. And that perennial favorite, Jesus never existed.
It’s usually long about Monday of this week that these stories begin cropping up, posted by reporters anxious to be noticed for their “brave” acts—of writing stories their comrades wholeheartedly agree with. The flood turned to a slow leak this year, however, mainly because of events.
One story made it, through. Predictably, its theme was the commonest trope, this time given a new twist. “Did Jesus really exist? Memory research has cast doubt on the few things we knew about Jesus, raising an even bigger question“, appearing in Maclean’s.
It’s the story of frustrated academic Bart Ehrman, who examined “what the science of memory might offer to separate the historical wheat from the theological chaff in the Gospels.” Turns out the “frailty of human memory turned out to be more profound than Ehrman suspected.” The kicker?
The reason Biblical historians cannot find even the outline of a historical Jesus, argues an increasingly persuasive chorus of challengers, is that there is nothing to find: Jesus Christ never lived at all.
Stay sharp, dear reader, because the irony is about to get delicious.
Ehrman, who has a history of softening scripture, said that he has been reading what he could about memory.
[E]very act of oral transmission, Ehrman cites one memory expert as declaring, “is also an act of creation.” That means one of the few pieces of common ground between believers and skeptics–that the oral transmission of stories about Jesus in the time between his death and the composition of the Gospels could be (more or less) trusted–is turning to quicksand.
Now, if this is so, if indeed every act of oral transmission, which must include recalling one’s own memories through a sort of “internal dialog”, is an act of “creation”, how can one ever trust what one believes? Every memory you have could be challenged on this ground. Even dramatic memories are suspicious. You weren’t in Fukushima, Japan on 11 March 2011 where “allegedly” there was a tsunami and nuclear reactor accident. How do you know it really happened? According to these scientists, you can’t trust your memory on this—or on anything.
This distrust must include memories imbued by written transmissions of facts. Why? Because you had to have heard, and at some point believed, that reading things is a good way of passing on information. That could be a bad memory!
According to the theory of these memory experts theory you must doubt what you read, because what you read relies on your memory. If you don’t believe that, define the word imbued, which appeared above. Does this, and the definition of every word and fact you read, come from your memory? Of course.
Who’s to say oral memories are more fallible than visual? Visual memories are not made just on what you’ve seen, but on what you have read. And just think: who is doing the writing? People remembering, that’s who. So even if your recall of what you read is perfect, the source material itself is up for doubt.
No, it just won’t do. The Gospel accounts and Paul’s and the other Biblical epistles were not some childish game of Telephone, where each witness whispered to the next about what color Mary’s robe sash was, the details undergoing subtle changes from one man to the next. No: these men were writing of world-shaking, monumental, stunning, undeniable events.
The miracles performed by Jesus were witnessed by enormous numbers of people. As John said, “But there are also many other things which Jesus did; which, if they were written every one, the world itself, I think, would not be able to contain the books that should be written.”
This is significant for a reason no memory researcher ever mentions. If Jesus didn’t exist and didn’t perform these shocking deeds, where are all the concurrent texts denouncing the apostles as frauds? Surely contemporaries anxious to deny the obnoxious Christian faith would have hit upon the happy idea of putting into writing affidavits saying things like, “A crowd of a thousand claims to have seen this man Lazarus raised from the dead. But I was there and the man never stirred from his tomb.”
But wait. Even if these contrary documents existed, scholars would be obliged to disbelieve them. They, too, would have been written from memory.
Scholars believe in the existence of Pontius Pilate, and about many another historical figure, people about whom almost nothing is written, but what little there was was also written from memory of witnesses. Yet we wonder whether the same critical techniques applied to Jesus’s existence will be applied to these others.