Who remembers what Jesus said? When those rag-tag Jewish fishermen heard Jesus speaking in his guttural Aramaic accent, did they remember exactly what he said? You know, decades before our four memory-laden evangelists washed his words into Greek? Memory is a tricky thing.
Bart D. Ehrman is one of today’s most famous New Testament scholars and historians, an author of 14 best-sellers on Jesus, and a man who knows the Bible much better than I will ever know it. Bart published, “Jesus Before the Gospels,” in which he explains how oral traditions and group memories work. He ends his book by saying: “The historical Jesus did not make history. The remembered Jesus did.” (pg. 294)
In other words, no one knows exactly what was spoken — except several Christians who believe God somehow spoke inerrantly to the evangelists. The rest of us accept the “Jesus story” as remembered in different ways by hundreds of different people. And memories, as Bart explains in detail, can be “frail, faulty, and even false.” Our New Testament gives us only one set of those memories. There are many other sets, or gospels, which were written around the same time: the gospels of Thomas, of Peter, of Mary, of Judas, etc.
For example, The gospel of Judas was discovered in Egypt in 1970 and had been written around the same time as John’s gospel; it remembers Jesus as coming from a divine realm that was higher than Yahweh himself. Marcion writes a few years later and he remembers Jesus as coming — not from the God who created this miserable world — but from a different God altogether. These memories multiplied and continued as new gospels were included and others excluded. The earliest record we have that excludes all but our current four is the year 367 CE in a pastoral letter of Bishop Athenasius.
This is the memory Christians follow today; a memory of faith. But what about the memory of history? Who is interested in what the historical Jesus said and did? Bart answers my question by saying: “only historians.” Bart asks if it would make any difference for believers whether Jesus historically spoke the Sermon on the Mount, or not. It’s “one of the greatest accounts of ethical teaching in the history of the planet.” Bart says it really doesn’t matter who said it.
Bart continues, “Does it matter if Jesus really healed the sick and raised the dead and walked on water and was resurrected on the third day? What matters for believers is that the history of our world was changed for the better, not because of any brute, historical facts, but because of the memories of these kinds of things; memories that morphed into faith.”
That may work for Bart, but I keep looking for those brute, historical facts. I enjoy reading the Gospel of Thomas. It’s a book of 114 Sayings of Jesus that were discovered in a cave (called Nag Hammadi) 300 miles South of Cairo, Egypt, in 1945. Some scripture scholars believe it was written years before our current gospels. Would that mean these memories might be more accurate?
John Dominic Crossan, the scholar who writes the introduction to this gospel of Thomas, says: “Let the reader beware. This is not the Jesus of your Bible School; this is a King Solomon or a Buddha: a humble man with a message.” For example, #95 reads: “If you have money, do not lend it at interest, but give it to those from whom you will not receive it back.” Banks, too?
Did Jesus say it? I don’t know. But the early Christians remembered this “saying of Jesus” and 113 more of them, and it’s easy to recognize a tough peasant with a strong voice and a radical message. There are no miracles here; no signs and wonders. He doesn’t ask for belief. He asks for action. People don’t believe their way into this kingdom; they work their way in.
I can understand why Bishop Athenasius rejected gospels like these in 367 CE and why Christians today still reject them. Who cares if Jesus said these things? Believing dogma is so much easier.