Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Chapter 13

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by Neil Godfrey

13. Eyewitness memory

Richard Bauckham uses this chapter to relate modern studies in memory psychology “to gospel traditions in a systematic way”. RB acknowledges that others like Crossan have addressed memory studies before but B is attempting to apply them more specifically in a range of cases of eyewitness recall and as the sources of gospel episodes. B’s purpose for this study is once again to attest to the “authority” of the Jesus traditions in our canonical gospels:

How are we to gauge the reliability or otherwise of the gospel traditions? How far would they have been accurately preserved even within the memories of the eyewitnesses themselves? (p.319)

As a naturalist I find this question strange, like something a funny creature in one of those bizarre places in Gulliver’s Travels would be asking. To me the question that real people might have “accurately” and “reliably” reported nonhuman and unnatural events simply does not arise. (I do not deny that they may sincerely have believed they were accurately and reliably reporting them.) But since my Interlude post I have been reminded that 83% of Americans really do believe that Jesus rose from the dead, that the majority of the population are creationists, only a fraction believe in evolution without divine intervention, and most even have negative views of atheists, though I can’t think why! I know Bauckham is not American but he does represent a minority set of views in Britain. I have had to backtrack a little and take stock of how I handle the ideas expressed in B’s book. But my concern about “smoke and mirrors” still exists. How can one possibly believe in unnatural and nonhuman events on the one hand and a scientific study of the history of those supposedly unnatural and nonhuman events on the other? The mere question is a contradiction in terms. Still, I will finish this as best I can and make sure my next review will be on one of my favourite modern history books that I long ago promised an American friend.

My first reaction to this chapter was that it serves as a filler for those who have been so far convinced by Bauckham’s case for the gospels being sourced directly from eyewitnesses. I have not found any of his three-fold case case persuasive because he supplies no evidence to support the conclusions he draws from each of the three parts, and also because far less problematic explanations exist for each of his three points:

  1. that the gospels give names to some minor characters is best explained by those named characters being the eyewitness source of the events in which they appear
  2. the Twelve names being recorded much the same way in 3 gospels is best explained by that those Twelve were the chief eyewitness source of the gospels
  3. inclusio in Mark, Luke and John are indicators of the main eyewitness sources of those gospels

I discussed in an earlier chapter the “fallacy of the possible proof”. The discussion on memory here is really building on the foundation of that fallacy. It does not advance the argument that eyewitnesses were indeed the sources of the gospels, but discusses the reliability/validity/authority? of their eyewitness reports if they did so.

From the psychology studies Bauckham lists 9 types of events that are most likely to be remembered and remembered “well” and applies these to the gospel narratives:

1. Unique or unusual event.
I agree with B that “healings and exorcisms” would be pretty memorable. I would go one further and suggest that the most memorable healings, in order, would probably be the healing of Lazarus after three days in the tomb, the healing of the son of the widow of Nain and the healing of Jairus’ daughter. (Wonder why the most dramatic and memorable one of all that the Twelve witnessed only made it into the very last gospel written?)

And the most memorable exorcism by far would be the demoniac whose demons sent 2000 swine screaming over the cliff into the lake below. I can understand with Bauckham how Matthew would want to abbreviate that story to save on the costs of papyrus (there is evidence somewhere for that categorical reason given by Bauckham to explain Matthew’s abbreviating Mark, isn’t there?) but why did he go and change it to an exorcism of two men? I am still trying to grasp what B intends me to precisely understand about the function the Twelve as they guarded the formalized and orderly transmission of the tradition, traditions which he several times strongly implies were passed on either in large part of often nearly memorized word for word.

2. Salient or consequential event.
B gives no specific examples here but says “most of the gospel narratives” would have been possibly the most significant events in the lives of individuals and groups involved. I know I could never have forgotten seeing someone walk on water, or being transfigured with two other persons from the past appearing with him and hearing a voice out of the sky or still a storm with a shout.

3. An event in which a person is emotionally involved.
As an ancient I am sure I was as emotional as any modern but our literary culture did not usually show it. (Check out my notes in Ancient Novels and the Gospels.) But it is reassuring to see that two cases in the gospel narrative where emotional involvement surely helped prompt eyewitness memory do have remarkable parallels in our broader literary culture.

The first is Peter’s confused awe at seeing Christ transfigured into the divine being he was. He was so confused and frightened he didn’t know what to say except to propose making some worship edifices (Mark 9.6). This sort of “helpless amazement” was what overtook Jason’s crew in the Argonautica, too, when they unexpectedly saw their god Apollo in all his glory:

And to them the son of Leto [the god Apollo], as he passed from Lycia far away to the countless folk of the Hyperboreans, appeared; and about his cheeks on both sides his golden locks flowed in clusters as he moved; in his left hand he held a silver bow, and on his back was slung a quiver hanging from his shoulders; and beneath his feet all the island quaked, and the waves surged high on the beach. Helpless amazement seized them as they looked; and no one dared to gaze face to face into the fair eyes of the god. And they stood with heads bowed to the ground; but he, far off, passed on to the sea through the air; and at length Orpheus spake as follows, addressing the chiefs: “Come, let us call this island the sacred isle of Apollo of the Dawn since he has appeared to all, passing by at dawn; and we will offer such sacrifices as we can, building an altar on the shore . . . . http://classics.mit.edu/Apollonius/argon.2.ii.ht

And there’s that other memory triggering emotional moment when Peter wept outside the palace courtyard over his failure to stand up for Jesus when his life was in the balance (Mark 14.72). That’s the sort of emotional display also found in Homer’s Odyssey, well known to all educated in Greek, when Odysseus’s right hand man, Eurylochus, stood back at a palace door while he cowardly let his fellows walk inside to mortal danger, and then ran off and wept in dismay:

but Eurylochus hurried back to tell me about the sad fate of our comrades. He was so overcome with dismay that though he tried to speak he could find no words to do so; his eyes filled with tears and he could only sob and sigh . . . .

At the very least then, the few emotions expressed in the gospels do conform to those found in comparable incidents in other stories well-known to the ancients.

4. Vivid imagery.
I’ve already made passing note of B’s categorical statement that the reason Matthew and Luke abbreviated Mark (though they did not abbreviate all of them — compare the temptation in the wilderness scenes for starters) was the economical one of saving “paper”, so the touch of “green” had to be deleted from the “grass” where the 5000 sat to eat. But again Bauckham leaves me even less clear about his earlier description of the role of the Twelve when he says that different gospels introduced different details as a consequence of different oral performances and storyteller’s licence. It is one thing for B to say that the Twelve were guarantors of the formal and ordered preservation of the traditions, and stress how much of this was word for word, and to draw on examples of peoples who were pressured to get stories “exactly” right, and another to now make allowances for variations that are still going to require redaction critics to sort out. I suspect that after he makes allowance for all the deviations and niggling variations, a few more of which are alluded to below, that the Twelve will be reduced to a fairly toothless controlling role. Woolly thinking seems to be at work here.

5. Irrelevant detail.
Bauckham rightly notes that there is very little irrelevant detail in the gospel narratives. Mark’s source may, true to the way we know memory works, have made mention of the seemingly pointless “other boats” in Mark 4.36. But over the years these storytellers, B surmises, would have honed their stories to “manageable units” for ease of remembering and passing on to others. B is departing from the findings of psychology here, since he has already informed us that it is irrelevant details that are oddly prone to stay in memories and they in no way pose a “burden” to recall! Would deleting the “other boats” really have made the story “more manageable” over the years?

A simpler and well known hypothesis, with long and widespread scholarly support, is that the amount of detail in many of the stories is the product of the stories being adaptations of stories in the Hebrew Scriptures. So the call of the disciples, Peter and Andrew, is as a stark distillation of its forerunner, the call of Elishah by Elijah; the healing of Jairus’s daughter is likewise told as something of a summary of Elishah’s healing of the son of the Shunammite woman; and the details of the Passion scene are drawn directly from verses mostly found in the books of Psalms and the Prophets.

6. Point of view.
I found it interesting to have it pointed out that we all can recall our experiences from an observer point of view even though we experienced the events as participants. What mystifies me and what Bauckham nowhere addresses are the sources of those scenes where there were no eyewitnesses, as discussed in my recent Interlude post.

One might also add here scenes like the heavens opening and the voice coming to Jesus after his baptism — Mark 9 suggests Jesus had not told his apostles about this incident since a similar event left them totally shocked with no apparent reference to any earlier event. And how did the author know that the Pharisees and Herodians went out and plotted to destroy Jesus at Mark 3.6? Did they not keep their scheme secret? And who was it who passed on all the narrative details of the feast that resulted in the death of John the Baptist (Mark 6.14-29) — matched only by the vivid detail of that other major scene where there were no witnesses sympathetic to the Christians, the trial of Jesus?

These scenes are all written from the omniscient narrator’s viewpoint alone, as every student of literary criticism 101 would know.

7. Dating.
Dates can be the hardest things to recall. In this context some may find interest in Josephus disagreeing with the chronology of the gospels and placed John the Baptist’s death after the death of Jesus. Luke recalls Jesus was about 30 years old when he began his ministry and John recalls he was “not yet 50” — clearly implying something much older than 30.

B explains “the greater chronological precision in John’s Gospel hinges on the relationship of events to the Jewish festivals” (p.344). Not so. Both John and all three Synoptics hinge the “Temple cleansing” to the Jewish festival of the Passover. John still manages to get it 3 or 4 years before the Synoptic date, and has totally lost sight of the integrally related cursing of the fig-tree. The meanings of the temple incident are quite different between the two sets of gospels. What has happened to the formal and orderly transmission of the overall outline of events that the Twelve were responsible for upholding? (A more rational set of clues that explains the differences here is found in my notes on Loisy’s comments on John’s gospel.)

8. Gist and details.
Bauckham tells us that the numerical details of 5 loaves, 2 fish and 5000 men are memorable and were clearly essential to the story as it was “formulated and transmitted”. Ditto for the other story of the 4000 and 7 loaves. Bauckham clearly believes that these numbers were accurate and reliable eyewitness details. I find it odd that he makes no mention of other details equally integral to both stories, the left over 12 and 7 baskets full of food scraps. Presumably he believes these numbers were equally reliable eyewitness testimony. It is also clear that an integral part of the story as told to all authors was that the crowds had no other food with them.

I can only conclude that Bauckham is writing here with a wink to his fellow-believers that he believes these two miracles were indeed genuine miracles just as told in the gospels, but that he avoids making this too obvious to those readers, perhaps some scholarly peers, who do not share his faith.

I find it easier — and more in accord with the evidence before my eyes — to believe that these stories were modelled on the story of Elishah feeding the 100 men in 2 Kings 4:42-44, showing the faithful that “a greater than Elishah is here”.

Another set of variations is in the way the 4 gospels tell the story of Peter’s denials. Bauckham allows that one possibility for the differences is that after Peter had passed on this account to others (presumably in a formal and ordered manner to be part of a stable chain of transmission), some of those others may well have gone and changed the “performance” as entrusted to them.

Bauckham seems to have forgotten here that the gospel authors were relying on the Twelve themselves to get things right. Would those authors have relied on someone Peter had taught when they had access to Peter himself? Of later gospel authors had Peter die on them before they had a chance to interview him, would not they have turned to others of the Twelve, or even to the gospel of Mark with its “clear” inclusio indicator that Peter was its source? We do know that Matthew and Luke copied the bulk of Mark elsewhere. Or if they did not copy Mark then they were getting the same formal and near word-for-word memorization of the tradition that Mark had received.It appears to me that Bauckham’s attempts to patch over the anomalies in the gospels with a “less ambitious” redaction criticism than that practiced by the form critics only serves to unravel the logic of his eyewitness hypothesis.

9. Frequent rehearsal.
Frequent retellings of their stories by the eyewitnesses would result in their stories “acquiring a fairly fixed form quite soon” (p.345), nor can we exclude the tendency to “improve or embellish a good story” (p.346). This seems a safe two-way bet. If the stories contradict or sound a bit over the top, then put it down to human tendencies; if they remain consistent then put that down to a combination of reliable eyewitnesses under the overall guidance of the Twelve.

But I still would like to know how Matthew got to split that demoniac into two while Mark before him and Luke after him kept him as one. And did the Twelve become more embarrassed over the years about the baptism of Jesus so that by the time of John they avoided all mention of Jesus’ baptism by John?

Divergences in the gospel versions of miracles and pre-Easter events need to be taken seriously by Bauckham since on page 355 he writes of that it was frequent rehearsal of these stories before the Easter event that resulted in them diverging to only “a relatively small extent”. So how did Matthew manage not only to turn the Gardarenes demoniac into two, but also to turn Bartimaeus into two blind men. These are not “relatively small” divergences. They are but two of many questions that hit every first time reader of the Bible between the eyes, and that tax the minds of redaction critics, form-critical and others.

Deferred meaning
Sometimes we find meaning in our recollections only after deeper reflection over time. This was the case with the interpretations attributed to the Jesus events during his final days and death. It was only after “the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus” that the disciples began to make sense of those final day through a revised understanding of scriptures (p.352-3). The earlier miracle stories had by now long been established through frequent rehearsal so were not subject to the same scriptural interpretations as the Jesus’ final days, death, resurrection and exaltation. The death of Jesus had seemed incomprehensible and intolerable — “even in the light of the resurrection” (p.353) — until they were reinterpreted by scriptures.

Did the Twelve really find more comfort in reading their “Bibles” than they did in experiencing the resurrected Jesus?

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