“Did Jesus Really Exist?” and Social Memory

COVER-1-150x200Brian Bethune, in a recent article, “Did Jesus Really Exist,” published in Maclean’s Magazine (28 March/4 April 2016), writes, “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” (39). Here we go again, chasing after another ill-conceived theory about the Bible, this being one that periodically rises from the mordant ooze. This hypothesis, however, is linked by Bethune with one of the latest and trendiest current fads in study of the Gospels and the historical Jesus: social memory theory. If lay-Christians, non-Christians, atheists, agnostics, and secularists all want to take advantage of the Jesus story by having something to say about it, so do a good number of scholars who want to have a piece of the social memory pie in Jesus studies.

It is unfortunate, however, that Bethune in his article has totally misconstrued the issue by juxtaposing Richard Carrier’s doubting Jesus’ existence and Bart Ehrman’s advocacy of social memory theory, as well as misrepresenting the utilization of social memory theories in Gospel studies by citing (only) Ehrman (Bethune could have cited some Canadian scholars, but didn’t—shame on Maclean’s). Bethune writes, “But every 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 into quicksand” (39). Far from this being an accurate construal of what social memory is about, this statement overlooks that there is much more common ground between the believers’ belief that Jesus existed and the skeptics’ argument that Jesus did not exist, even though we know (if we are correct) of only a few skeptics who actually question the historical existence of Jesus, Carrier being one of them. For instance, when Milman Parry and Albert Lord speak of the Serbo-Croatian bards composing new songs in every act of performance, they also say that the new composition is still based and draws upon known “oral formulas” that will fit the metrical lines or patterns of the new song. In short, “an act of creation” does not imply “an act of fabrication.” With respect to social memory theory, it is doubtful whether Ehrman is the appropriate and accurate authority to cite in terms of the scholarly research done on the subject. He may just be, as he has been before, trailing along in public support of the latest fad.

It is not our intention here to directly critique Ehrman’s or Carrier’s work, for we have not read them in full yet. Nor is it our objective to join in this ongoing social memory fad, for we have critiqued and will be critiquing elsewhere social memory theory as an interpretive tool used in Gospel and oral tradition studies (stay reading for notification of these publications). In short, it is not a theory of history and cannot be used to determine historicality (such as whether or not Jesus existed). More than that, it is not even a theory of how memories are transmitted, even if it is (and this may be questioned in its details) a theory of how memories are formed. There is also serious question as to whether or how social memory theories that are developed in a literate culture apply to ancient mnemonic contexts.

d8dc69063abe2ee4bec5c295a87f64a8We here simply want to point out and highlight the following realities (among still many others) regarding this recent discussion. The first is that scholars and non-scholars should be aware of the tendency of many to follow the current intellectual fad, and therefore be wary of embracing it too readily without first assessing it carefully. The use of social memory theories in Gospel studies is at most for purposes of elucidating and understanding the social constructs and the oral traditioning process of the Jesus stories in the Gospels, and definitely not for arguing for or against Jesus’ existence. Secondly, we should also understand that historians, while they evaluate the reliability of their sources, also depend on those same sources to do their work. To claim that the Gospel materials contain ahistorical information about Jesus does not automatically negate his existence; this is a huge leap from scholarly studies of historical sources to a denial of an actual historical fact. To be clear, to believe that “eyewitnesses tend to offer the least trustworthy accounts, particularly when recalling something spectacular or fast-moving, like Jesus walking on water” (39) is certainly different from arguing that the multitude of eyewitnesses who saw Jesus walk and live on earth (1 Cor 15:5-8; 1 John 1:1-3) lied about his existence. This kind of skepticism makes it hard to think that we know anything from the past, whether ancient or modern. Thirdly, the fact that archaeological artifacts also attest to and corroborate much historical information in support of the Gospel accounts should also prompt us to study and assess our presuppositions and arguments further, before making any hasty and preposterous conclusions. Finally, if Jesus really did not exist, how about his contemporaries, did they exist? The Gospels indicate that Jesus lived amidst a very dense and multiplex social network. How are we to make sense of this social network, if we say that Jesus did not exist, but that the people in his social network did exist? While some may agree with the idea that “tales grow in the telling, and Ehrman sees the Gospels rife with ‘distorted’ (that is, false) memories” (39), there are still many who (rightly) find such a claim absurd and merely following the latest fad that will ultimately lose its unstable and weak footings—just as has the previous fad and the one before that.

— Stanley E. Porter and Hughson T. Ong

7 thoughts on ““Did Jesus Really Exist?” and Social Memory

  1. I was with you for most of your social memory discussion, but hit a few bumps in the last paragraph that I was hoping you could address.

    You mention “THE FACT THAT ARCHAEOLOGICAL ARTIFACTS ALSO ATTEST TO AND CORROBORATE MUCH HISTORICAL INFORMATION IN SUPPORT OF THE GOSPEL ACCOUNTS” I’m aware of some archeology that might point to some Old Testament location or person names, but I’m unaware of similar archeology for events of the New Testament. What examples did you have in mind?

    While I haven’t read their prolific full works of Carrier or Erhman, I’ve read quite a bit from each. If you are referring to either of them with “THE MULTITUDE OF EYEWITNESSES WHO SAW JESUS WALK AND LIVE ON EARTH (1 COR 15:5-8; 1 JOHN 1:1-3) LIED ABOUT HIS EXISTENCE”, then I think you’ve set up a strawman. I’ve heard both men say that they would accept that the gospels rose from people who believed what they were writing. (Paul, for example, didn’t meet pre-ascension Jesus, but had his life changed in the context of visions he believed.) Depending on the context, those authors would argue that we do not have the writings of anyone who claim to be eye witnesses, which is not the same as accusing anyone of a lie.

    Some say that the beginning of 1 Cor 15 is actually a recitation of a Christian creed that Paul was taught, which allows the argument that this makes the passage’s origin much closer to the time of Jesus’ death. Do you hold this opinion as well, and if so, doesn’t that make Paul even one further step removed as an authenticator of the truth of the words? I’m not sure what to make of the passage.

    You ask “HOW ARE WE TO MAKE SENSE OF THIS SOCIAL NETWORK, IF WE SAY THAT JESUS DID NOT EXIST, BUT THAT THE PEOPLE IN HIS SOCIAL NETWORK DID EXIST?” Not my argument, but I’ve heard enough from mythicists to know that they would argue a combination of historical fiction motif (stories weaving known figures into the narrative, like Barrack Obama meeting Spider-man) and fictional characters made out of whole-cloth. For example, Carrier postulates that the Lazarus in John is a reimagining of the Lazarus character from Luke. Given your statement, would you say that the secondary characters of the gospel are more historically attested from outside sources than Jesus?


  2. There are many discovered artifacts now that can corroborate the places, things, events, etc. mentioned in the Gospel. For example, the Gospels mention the Jerusalem temple. A Greek inscription known as the Herodian Temple Inscription discovered in 1935 outside the wall of Jerusalem near the Lion’s gate warns Gentiles to keep out. This is one such example (confirmed by Josephus, J.W. 5.5.2). This inscription is dated to the time of Jesus. Another is the thousands of New Testament manuscripts that we have at present that are dated after the first century CE. They point to the events in the New Testament not the Old Testament. A third one is the Babatha archive that dates from the late first century to early second century CE, which gives an idea of the Roman legal system of the time. A fourth one is the necropolis of Beth She’arim, the most important cemetery of ancient Palestine from ca. 100 CE-351 CE, where a lot of funerary and stone inscriptions were discovered. There are endless examples (see these recent publications all published in 2015: Hughson T. Ong, The Multilingual Jesus and the Sociolinguistic World of the New Testament; Michael O. Wise, Language and Literacy in Roman Judaea: A Study of the Bar Kokhba Documents; G. Scott Gleaves, DId Jesus Speak Greek).

    The eyewitnesses that we are referring to are the first-century people who saw the Jesus events mentioned in 1 Cor. 15:5-8 and 1 Jn 1:1-3, for example. Paul was one of them, and he was a contemporary of Jesus and a persecutor of his followers (see the recently published book by Stanley E. Porter, When Paul Met Jesus). He wrote 1 Corinthians, and so it is either we believe that the things he said in the letter are true and reliable or we do not believe them to be true or reliable—that’s your call. As far as we are concerned, we think that 1 Corinthians is a historically reliable document and source regarding events that happened in the first century CE. The Gospels and In fact the entire New Testament are historical sources that provide us with a multitude of information concerning the first-century CE world. If we think that they are unreliable and ahistorical, then there is no point to talk about these things.

    The secondary characters you are referring to were actual historical figures if you take the Gospels and other related literature as historically reliable sources. Otherwise, you can come up with and argue for all kinds of things like mythical figures you mentioned. So it really depends on how you treat your sources. For us, because we think that Jesus had a clear and identified social network of people whom he interacted with as evidenced by the Gospels, it seems superfluous to say that some of them are historical and others are mythical figures.

    We hope that these clarify your questions and concerns. Thanks again.

    — Stan and Hughson

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I will check the NT archeology publications you listed for me, thank you. From your original article, I was under the impression you meant some specific finds and not the general case.

    It’s not surprising that by the late-first-early-second century some of the names and places of the NT would be verifiable, even if one takes an extreme view that the entire works are merely historical fiction. Steve Mason’s “Josephus and Luke-Acts” delves in to the numerous overlaps between the works of Josephus, including specific vocabulary and phraseology, and concludes that Josephus was most certainly one of the sources the author of Luke-Acts describes in Luke 1:1-3. As Luke’s source for historical details, Josephus is not a specifically compelling corroboration of those details.

    In any case, my question was about archeological confirmation of the events of the NT, rather than names and places. I will look to Hughson’s article, along with Wise and Gleaves.

    As I understood your blog post, it was to point out scholarly problems with a magazine article and with that article’s sources. You highlight following intellectual fads, reliability of sources, attestation by archeological artifacts and the existence of a social network for Jesus. I agree on the first, we discussed the third, and we seem to agree that the second and fourth are really the same issue.

    The “believe or don’t, your call” reply makes me think you consider source reliability to be arbitrary, more of a presupposition as opposed to a position demanded by evidence. As such, if honest students can reach different opinions on this matter, then I don’t think you’ve presented a case to justifiably label the magazine’s sources as unscholarly. Wrong, perhaps, but not dishonest.

    Or perhaps I misread your intent.


  4. Thanks for your further comment, Paul.

    We are not sure about what you mean by “events of the NT.” A historical event is a social situation, and it definitely includes places, people, topics of conversations, etc. The resurrection event, for example, includes those people who were eyewitnesses to the event, the empty tomb, the time (3 days after Jesus’ death), etc. The thousands of surviving Greek manuscripts that tell of the NT events seem to be historical sources that can confirm those events, the resurrection, for instance. Because at least four Gospel authors also write about the resurrection event, this could also be taken as another confirmation of the event.

    We are also not sure about what you mean by “source reliability to be arbitrary, more of a presupposition as opposed to a position demanded by evidence.” Archaeological discoveries are only one factor that can corroborate the facts of historical documents, and they even need to be interpreted using appropriate methodological tools. But adjudicating the reliability of historical sources can take other means as well. Science takes a natural explanation, for example. But not everything can be explained by science—for example, supernatural events like the resurrection. So here people have different opinions—this is just the reality. Our point here is that not all historical events or facts can be proven or confirmed by evidence, not least because some archaeological evidence perhaps has still to be discovered and because historical documents (e.g. the NT) are already one type of such evidence (but some people question their reliability).

    We are not saying that the article in the magazine along with its sources is dishonest but rather that it is perhaps misinformed. We are pointing out some of its problems and inadequacy in supporting its claim concerning “Did Jesus Really Exist” in the light of recent studies on social memory in biblical studies.

    — Stan and Hughson


  5. Craig Evans is scheduled to have a public debate with Richard Carrier on 04/13/2016. Do you know if Craig has been made aware of Dr. Porter’s book entitled When Paul Met Jesus?


    • Paul,

      Sorry for the late reply; we must have somehow missed your question. Craig is very good friends with Stan, so I’m pretty sure he was aware of it. Thanks for the interest.

      — Dave


  6. Pingback: Vridar » Biblical Scholars Reacting to Public Interest in Mythicism: Part 1

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