In our last post, we discussed the genre of the gospels. We saw that Bart Ehrman, at least for this book (Jesus Before the Gospels), chooses to gloss over the issue of genre, and simply assumes that the gospels contain memories of the historical Jesus. Of course, he concedes that those memories may be distorted.
But what exactly do we mean by “memory distortion”? And is it a big deal, or is it just a minor annoyance?
Human memory can fail in two ways. First, we can simply forget the past. Second, our memories of the past can become changed and distorted. These inaccurate memories can contain false details, or they can represent incidents that never happened. Our capacity for distortion affects not only our personal recollection but social memories as well.
The nature of collective memory
In the introductory chapter to Memory Distortion: How Minds, Brains, and Societies Reconstruct the Past, Daniel Schacter writes:
A prominent theme in this area of study is that societies often hold beliefs about their pasts that are based on stories and myths that develop and change over time, often bearing little resemblance to the events that initially gave rise to them . . .
Thus, understanding the nature of collective memory is inextricably intertwined with understanding the nature of memory distortion. Yet here, too, issues pertaining to memory distortion are of more than purely academic concern. For example, recent attempts by various fringe groups to deny the occurrence of the Holocaust have alerted scholars and the lay public alike to the extraordinary dangers that are posed by willful distortion of collective memory . . . (Schacter, 1995, p. 3, emphasis mine)
At the end of the same book, Lawrence E. Sullivan offers some closing remarks in an essay entitled “Memory Distortion and Anamnesis: A View from the Human Sciences.” He writes:
Choosing memory distortion as a particular aspect of the larger issue of memory lends interdisciplinary considerations a sharper edge and an air of urgency. Memory distortion carries negative consequences for individuals and communities in such disturbing forms as personal disorientation, fractured identities, broken relations, litigious action, propagandist rewriting of the historical record, and war-time demagoguery. Memory distortion, it would seem, places human beings at risk of losing touch with their grounding sense of reality. Societies and individuals struggle to avoid these negative consequences and to preserve their grounding sense of reality. As a part of that struggle, then, we would do well to understand memory distortion and to do so with all the resources available from multiple disciplines. (Sullivan , 1995, p. 387, emphasis mine)
In many cases when experts discuss the failures of memory, they will quickly remind us that much of the time our memories serve us reasonably well. Schacter tells us:
Although the focus is on the analysis of distortion, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that memory is often accurate. But when distortion does occur, it can have important theoretical and practical implications. (Schacter, 1995, p. 4)
However, note well: when they remind us that most of the time we can trust memory, scholars will cite examples of personal recollection. You decide to go to the store to pick up some groceries. You remember where you parked your car. You remember how to drive. You remember where the supermarket is. You remember, perhaps, the five things you wanted to pick up, without even consulting your list.
Glossing over the issue
Yes, generally speaking, unless you have some sort of medical condition, you rely on your personal memory countless times a day with no ill effects. But collective memory is different. It is not firsthand knowledge. Furthermore, a distorted social memory will rarely affect one’s viability in the gene pool, let alone threaten the survival of the species. The processes by which we create, maintain, modify, forge, and forget social memories differ from the processes that drive personal memory in important ways. Beware of scholars who fudge on these distinctions when touting the reliability of “memory.”
Like many Biblical scholars who have dabbled in memory theory, Ehrman finds the idea that the NT contains distorted memories useful, up to a point. However, as with much else they have appropriated from anthropology, history, psychology, etc., they employ memory as a useful servant to “prove” their pet theory of Christian origins.
Some memories “must” go right back to a historical Jesus, they insist. This belief compels them to downplay the failures of memory — especially social memory’s lack of interest in preserving actual history — and instead to argue that distortion is no big deal.
When memory researchers speak about “distorted” memories they do not necessarily mean anything negative by it. They are simply referring to memories of things that did not really happen. (Ehrman, 2016, p. 33)
We might suspect he meant that as a throwaway line, but these two sentences begin the second chapter. Let’s try it on for size: “I don’t mean anything negative by it, but everything you just told me never really happened. No hard feelings, right?”
Distortion really is distortion
Actually, when psychologists talk about distorted memories, they typically do mean “false memories,” and they genuinely do mean something negative. As we saw above historians see “extraordinary dangers that are posed by willful distortion of collective memory.” And in neuropsychology, certain kinds of distorted memory can indicate the presence of serious mental illnesses. (See, e.g., “Confabulation,” by Morris Moscovitch in Memory Distortion.)
Ehrman at least avoids Anthony Le Donne’s inane fantasy of “mnemonic continuity,” which posits the notion that distorted memories aren’t even necessarily unreliable or uncertain, let alone “false.” He writes:
In order for the importance of mnemonic continuity to be fully appreciated, I must reiterate and underscore my conception of memory distortion. As stated in the previous chapter, memory distortion should not be immediately equated with “false” memory, nor should it evoke notions of unreliability or uncertainty.
Memory distortion, in its most prevalent form, can be likened to the convex shape of a lens that receives and refracts light by the very parameters of its design. When performing its proper function, a telescope lens distorts an imaged object in order to magnify it. Depending on the quality of the lens, the viewer is able to perceive an approximate distortion of distant objects not visible to the naked eye. The fact that the lens does not “report” the object’s image exactly how it was received is exactly its value. In the same way, memory distorts the past to render it intelligible to the present. (Le Donne, 2006, pp. 66-67, italics his)
Of course, this sort of embarrassing twaddle can make sense only if we assign the term “memory distortion” to even the most trivial deviation from the actual past, and if we believe that distortions occur incrementally along predictable paths. For a more in-depth look at Le Donne’s woefully inadequate treatment of memory distortion, see these two posts: “The Memory Mavens, Part 9: Social Memory Distortion (1)” and “The Memory Mavens, Part 9: Social Memory Distortion (2).”
Ehrman gets it right (sort of)
After chasing, page after page, the subject of eyewitness testimony like a kitten with a laser pointer and rightly concluding that it’s unreliable, Ehrman finally bumps into the truth. Many of the stories in the gospels have nothing to do with what really happened.
Since these are historically implausible episodes, they too would appear to represent distorted memories. These distorted memories are important, I will argue, not only for knowing as best we can what really happened in Jesus’s life (although certainly that), but also for knowing what his later followers thought was really important about his life, presumably because their own present contexts were influencing how they remembered him in the ways they did. (Ehrman, 2016, p. 135, emphasis mine)
He dares not let go of the hope that some actual history “certainly” lurks somewhere in the gospels. Still, a dangerous idea has appeared in the cracks — an idea that will not go away quietly.
Richard Carrier hits the nail on the head when discussing the parts of the gospels that appear to be allegorical myths. If the evangelists felt no constraint about moving the day of Jesus’ death or putting words into his mouth on the cross, just to conform to theological needs — then what hope do we have of extracting any actual history from the gospels?
But if the Gospels are myth, then both efforts [(1) harmonizing the contradictory stories and (2) using criteriology to find the truth] are futile, as both assume the intent of the authors is to record (if perhaps embellish) a collection of historical facts reported to them. If instead the intent of the authors is to construct symbolic myths about Jesus, then we have no reason to expect any of their content to be historical. Some of it may be, but since distinguishing fact from fiction would not have been of primary interest to the Gospels’ authors, we will have little hope of finding clues to such distinctions in the texts themselves. (Carrier, 2014, p. 391, emphasis mine)
I’m going to take a little break from Ehrman’s book for a while. I’ll be returning to the Memory Mavens series for a few more installments.
On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt, Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2014
Ehrman, Bart D.
Le Donne, Anthony
The Historiographical Jesus: Memory, Typology and the Son of David, Durham theses, Durham University, 2006
Schacter, Daniel L.
“Memory Distortion: History and Current Status” in Memory Distortion: How Minds, Brains, and Societies Reconstruct the Past, (Ed., Schacter) 1995
Sullivan, Lawrence E.
“Memory Distortion and Anamnesis: A View from the Human Sciences” in Memory Distortion: How Minds, Brains, and Societies Reconstruct the Past, (Ed., Schacter) 1995