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Secular historians, without much questioning their own assumptions, accepted the entrenched academic idea that oral cultures were significantly better than literary cultures in preserving accurate memory.The passage of years explained, in a way acceptable to historians, why there were different accounts of the same event.Repeat one 10 times, as in a game of telephone, and the most salient details—who exactly said what or did what to whom—will change the most.What are the chances, 50 years after the fact, that the author of the Gospel of Matthew remembered hearing the Sermon on the Mount—a polished and nuanced discourse—exactly as it was said?“Do this in memory of me,” said Jesus at the Last Supper, according to the Gospel of Luke.But memories of Jesus the man have proved stubbornly elusive for historians who are convinced the truth of the son of God lies beneath the surface of Gospel accounts written decades after his death.His eye-opening may prove most useful for those who hold to a position Ehrman finds more wrong-headed than insistence on the Bible’s literal truth.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.

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.Yet at the same time, and of greater importance, historians’ trust in overall oral truth meant small detail changes did not trouble their assumptions about accurate “gist” memories lying at the heart of stories in Mark and the other Gospels. Memory studies and experiments cited by Ehrman show it would have been impossible to control the contents of stories about Jesus.One experiment a decade ago took 33 university students to a morgue, the sort of experience they would be bound to talk about.Ehrman’s aim was to illuminate the role of memory in crafting the stories of Jesus that would appear in the Bible, and to see how well the assumed role of eyewitnesses in supporting miraculous events stood up.There’s a twist in the tale, though, and frailty of human memory turned out to be more profound than Ehrman suspected or, perhaps, welcomed.

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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.

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