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Follow-up by the researchers showed that within three days news of the visit had spread in garbled form, via intermediaries, to 881 people.
The more often a story is repeated—and a growing new religious community will repeat its stories very often—the more it changes.
More than three-quarters said they did, even though there was no such footage. A group of students in one test Ehrman cites were led, one by one, to a Pepsi machine; half were asked to get down on one knee and propose to it, the other half to imagine doing so.
(Not unlike Donald Trump’s crowds of Muslims dancing for joy on New Jersey rooftops on 9/11.) And there’s no reason to believe memories of the more mundane details of Jesus’s life would be any more reliable. Two weeks later, half of the second cohort remembered actually making the marital offer.
If a dominant member of the group interjected his version or a new (and potentially suspect) detail, the others would often let it slide unchallenged, incorporating it into the new collective memory.
His list of what historians, including himself, think they can attest to hardly differs from a list he would have made a decade ago: Jesus was a Jew, an apocalyptic preacher like the man who baptized him, John the Baptist; his teaching, rooted in Torah, was delivered in parables and aphorisms; Jesus had followers who claimed his message was validated by the miracles he wrought; in the last week of his life, Jesus went to Jerusalem, where he caused a disturbance in the Temple that, some hours later, led to his arrest; Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor found him guilty of sedition and had him crucified.Ehrman recalls how, as a young professor, he asked an older expert—a proponent of sturdy oral transmission—how he dealt with the fact the gospels give two accounts of Jesus’s visit to the 12-year-old daughter of Jairus: one in which the girl is dying, another in which she is already dead.The answer, that there must have been two visits to the (unlucky) child, was essentially impossible for anyone not committed to gospel truth.Now, for the first time, one of America’s most prominent New Testament scholars has gone outside of his narrow field, driven as much by frustration as curiosity, to examine what the science of memory might offer to separate the historical wheat from the theological chaff in the Gospels.In so doing, University of North Carolina religious studies professor Bart Ehrman may have opened a new front in the currently quiescent Jesus wars, a quarter-century of devout and secular scholars battling over what, exactly, is the gospel truth.