Should a Historian Test a Memory Against an “Original”?

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Catching up with blogs I found myself wanting to comment on one a couple of weeks old, Cognitive Science, Memory, Oral Tradition, and Biblical Studies but don’t have access to the comments there. The misunderstanding wearyingly continues and repeats . . . .

I was surprised by [Hector Avalos’s] suggestion that memory is meaningless if we cannot check it against “the original.” That misses the whole point, in my opinion, which is precisely that historians do not have access to an uninterpreted and undistorted “original.” Whether the person writes about themselves or is written about by others, memory plays a role in selecting, interpreting, and distorting.

Point one: Avalos did not say that memory needs to be checked against an uninterpreted and undistorted original. For a start, it is impossible to perceive and comprehend anything without interpretation. So the author of this post (let’s keep it impersonal) has missed the point Avalos was making by setting up a pseudo-contradiction.

The whole point: Unless there is some sort of original (an original that we, as observers, can see through our interpreting and distorting craniums, and an original that was itself documented by interpreting and distorting sculptors or scribes) then we have to ask how we can know if what we are encountering is indeed a memory (distorting and interpreting anew as it may be) of anything past at all, or if it is a fantasy, a “memory” that we like to think is about something that happened but in fact may really be about an event fabricated from whole-cloth.

I know biblical scholars say they have the tools of criteriology (e.g. criterion of embarrassment) to determine if a “memory” is a “real memory” of some past event, however distorted and reinterpreted it may be. But my reading of ancient historians indicates to me that biblical scholars stand alone with that tool-kit.

(Yes, some “memory theorists” in biblical studies do not allow for the use of those criteria, but those scholars have even less methodological justification for deciding whether or not a narrative is indeed a “memory” as distinct from a literary composition without any “oral-tradition heritage”.)

The end of the post links to articles published in science journals that supposedly support the blog author’s perspective, but they don’t. Example: in New Scientist is an article, Edge of Memory: Distrusting oral tradition may make us more ignorant. It’s about aboriginal oral traditions that may (i.e. may) be relating the events of rapidly rising sea levels thousands of years ago. We posted about it some years ago here. Now on what grounds do the anthropologists suspect that certain stories told by the Australian Aboriginals may be passing on genuine memories? Through criteria such as “multiple attestation” or “embarrassment”? No. By checking the stories against “the original”. We have geological evidence of the rapid rise of sea levels. Yes, and that evidence, the data, is made meaningful to us for particular purposes through “interpretation”. We don’t have a perfectly clear vision of exactly what happened in all detail so our interpretation of the data in some sense will “distort” the event, but we have enough information to be able to speak of “an original”.

And it is because we can check stories against an “original” that we can infer they can be traced back to that “original event” and are not as totally fabricated as, say, other myths like a frog swallowing up all the water in surrounding lakes and rivers or a human turning into a bird.

But I have written about this so often now. Apologies for the repetition. Perhaps someone might like to try to spread the word so the fallacy does not repeat so often on other blogsites.


Yes, there are indeed times when all we have is a report that is removed from the time and place of “an original”. On whether to trust some aspect of such a report brings us to the need to make a judgment that is based on the provenance of the report and its record (or its provenance’s record) of proven (tested) reliability in other matters.


The following two tabs change content below.

Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)

If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!

8 thoughts on “Should a Historian Test a Memory Against an “Original”?”

  1. I thought Richard carrier in ‘Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus” did an excellent job of dissecting the toolkit of Biblical Scholars, he of course favoring Bayes’ Theorem. The criterion of embarrassment was among those he disparaged.

    1. He did indeed. More significantly for biblical scholars themselves, though, is that the logic of the criteria have been exposed as fallacious by a number of well respected biblical scholars themselves.

  2. And how does one know they have the original? Even if a copy of Mark turned up that could be indisputably dated to Thursday April 4th 85 CD that wouldn’t in any way price there was no earlier version.

    1. My interpretation of “original” was more broad than that. I was thinking of some primary (contemporary) evidence of an event or activity that was related in a later source. Merely finding an autograph of the Gospel of Mark would not do anything to test for historicity of its narrative.

      1. Do you think it at all likely we will come by such? It is sixty-odd years since the Nag Hammadi and Qumran finds. Every fellahin, bedouin, and his Mum – never-mind archaeologist – must have ferreted in all the hiding places since. Scraps drip onto the market, but that is all they are: scraps. The potentially epoch-making is, on past form, far more likely fraud. There is always accident and something might come of the likes of The Villa of the Papyri but it is increasingly long-shot when every urchin has been wise to a dollar for decades.

        1. Not at all likely. Besides, how could one ever test whether a find was in fact the autograph? And besides besides, what use would it be without also unearthing evidence to determine who wrote it (the person in his social context, not just a name), why, for whom, where, and when?

          1. I was referring more to your second sentence “…some primary (contemporary) evidence…”, I understood your point about the autograph.

            My favourite Australian aboriginal oral tradition is that about the Red Cabbage Palm of central Australia. A few years ago botanists were aglee at finding through DNA it wasn’t the remnant of a Gondwana Land rain forest but had been brought in from the north coast 30,000 years or so ago. Later a record of a local myth saying the gods had brought them in and planted them from seed turned up. Its still current apparently. But you are probably aware of it.

            All that, and they could have just asked! Fascinating, all we’ve got is Beowulf and that’s a Scandinavian story. 🙂 That’s what we would love for the Jesus legend, something where cross contamination was almost as unlikely as the legend might appear, and you confirm something you hadn’t set out to prove in the first place, something that you were not even aware of.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Discover more from Vridar

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading