The full title is Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior (HarperOne, 2016). That long subtitle more or less summarizes the book, so I won’t add much. [Plus it’s a holiday, not a regular Monday, so I’m not terribly motivated to write a long blog post.] Ehrman spends a couple of chapters debunking the convenient fiction that oral cultures possess the ability to retain uncorrupted versions of long and detailed narratives over many generations. Ehrman shows just the opposite, in fact, citing and summarizing the literature on memory and oral transmission.
Ehrman then applies this literature to the oral transmission of stories about Jesus for 35 or 40 years before they were selectively edited and recorded in the written gospels: first Mark, then Matthew, Luke, and John. Even an eyewitness to events from the life of Jesus would likely have altered memories of those events after three decades. Add the fact that there was person-to-person-to-person transmission of the stories over many years, across different cultures, and across different languages, and there are certainly a lot of changes and additions that entered the retellings of the stories and teachings. Varying versions of particular events and teachings that appear in different gospels are just one indication of this process. An LDS reader is likely to take the same set of ideas and apply it to the various accounts of the First Vision, the first of which was written down 12 years after the event and the various versions of which highlight different and sometimes inconsistent details. So an LDS reader will find Ehrman’s latest book quite interesting.
Readers are welcome to comment on any of Erhman’s other books. The first one I read was his Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (OUP, 2001), his very readable contribution to the historical Jesus literature. He also runs a website full of articles and information on early Christianity and early Christian literature, but it’s behind a paywall (he states that the proceeds go to charity). Anyone have access to the site and some feedback on the material available there?