The third paper of the first day of the Memory and the Reception of Jesus in Early Christianity Conference (10th-11th June 2016, St Mary’s University) was by Richard Bauckham: “The Psychology of Eyewitness Memory”. Helen Bond followed with her paper on the Gospel of John’s use of Mark (see previous post) and then there was a discussion between the two presenter and audience. It was the discussion that I found most interesting.
Richard Bauckham’s talk was indeed about the psychology of eyewitness memory and with little in the way of specific applications to biblical studies. His primary concern appeared to be to assure the audience that though one often hears how unreliable our memories are, including how unreliable eyewitness testimony so often can be in courtroom situations, nonetheless, when it comes to the sort of episodic memory we are talking about when we think of Jesus’ followers, memories are generally pretty sound for most purposes.
Events that are remembered well are those that
- are unique or unusual
- are consequential, salient
- involve us emotionally
And of course such memories are cemented in our brains the more often we rehearse them.
Very broadly we can speak of three types of memory: procedural, semantic or conceptual, and episodic.
- Procedural memory refers to remembering how to ride a bike, etc.
- Semantic or conceptual memory refers to remembering concepts, book learning, etc.
- Episodic memory refers to events that happen to us, the stuff that makes up major events in our lives.
It is the third type of memory that we are addressing when discussing gospel narratives and their eyewitness source material. That type of memory is more stable than the other two. If you are injured in a car crash you are not likely to think back years later and wonder if your injuries resulted from falling off a mountain.
Many stories highlighting the unreliability of memory derive from laboratory conditions and involve semantic or conceptual memory exercises. There is little real-life relationship to these findings. You life-situations are not so vulnerable to forgetting major or unusual events in your life.
All of that makes sense to me. But of course it does not address directly the reliability of the Gospels. For that question Bauckham referred occasionally to his book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.
The Discussion — and Tough Questions
I should say that I considered them tough and I thought the answers were very slight, as if they had no solid response at all. But that may just be my bias so I have copied the discussion below for you to see for yourself.
First question was for Helen Bond:
“What do you mean by John’s cultural memory? Do we mean social and cultural frames rather than memory?”
Helen Bond did confess in her reply that we are not helped by the literature discussing social memory because there is very often a vagueness and ambiguity in the published arguments. (Tim Widowfield has been expressing some frustration about the same point.)
But the next question or cluster of questions was the one that I thought went straight for the jugular. Again I paraphrase:
“Is the whole eyewitness debate just another version of ‘Can’t we find out what really happened?’ The whole debate on memory seems to be beside the point:
(a) Whether we are dealing with memory at all in the gospels is rarely asked. We can assume the gospels are sourced by memories but that can never be proved. Besides, no-one regards the gospels as transcripts of eyewitness memory. So I have to wonder if the question of what type of memory we are talking about and how reliable it is really so important.
(b) Much more important is the question of how memory, experiences are recorded and repeated to construct identity and what happens when you put your thoughts to a page and share it with the community — all this is much more important than the question of eyewitnesses.”
Bauckham’s reply was to emphasize the importance of getting the psychology right; it’s important to know if the information we read in the gospels does come from eyewitnesses because that adds a measure of stronger credibility to their narratives. We have to start by asking if the gospels give us the general features that assure us of their reliability. If so, we can have a sense of “general probability” in their reliability. Don’t trust those who say “if we don’t have a reasonably high level of certainty then we don’t know anything.” That’s not how history works. Most of history is about probability.
Rome probably ruled the Mediterranean at the time of the Jewish War? Jerusalem and its temple were probably destroyed around 70 CE? The Greeks probably colonized much of the Middle East and Mediterranean lands, spreading their culture in those regions? There were probably tensions from time to time between Jews and their neighbours in places like Alexandria and Cyrene? Persian ideas probably had some influence upon Judaism? Slavery was probably commonplace in the ancient world?
Technically we can say everything must be reduced to a probability but in real life historians can be pretty certain that there were two world wars in the twentieth century, that Rome did rule the Mediterranean world and more, that Julius Caesar was assassinated, etc. I can’t help but suspect that when New Testament scholars start insisting that our knowledge of “what really happened” that led to the gospel narratives is no different from the probability status as any other event in ancient history that they are trying to cover for just how lacking they are in the kind of evidence other historians have at their disposal with, say, the study of Socrates and the emergence of Greek philosophy. The differences are vast.