One of the people who has been commenting around the blogosphere on posts about eyewitness testimony, human memory etc seems to have got the idea (without having read the relevant material) that some of us in the twenty-first century think that the people of first century Palestine were not as intelligent as us because they could not read. This is certainly not what I have been saying and not what any other scholar I’ve read has been saying, but I thought I might try to clarify, just for the blogosphere record.
I use written notes to remind me of things. I have an electronic diary that pops up little reminders that I am supposed to be on the other side of campus in 15 minutes, or at an appointment down town in half an hour, so I don’t have to keep my appointments for the day in my head. I have a shopping list on the fridge at home which I take with me when I go to the shops, so I don’t have to remember what I need to buy. Even if I forget to take the note off the fridge, I can often phone home from the supermarket and compare the contents of my shopping trolley with what a family member reads off to me from the list. My memory is therefore not especially well trained because it doesn’t have to be.
Nearly thirty years ago, when “talking text” was in its infancy, I had a friend who was blind. His memory was much better trained than mine because carrying notes around was more difficult for him. Notes written in Braille were much bigger and on much thicker, stiffer paper and producing them in the first place required access to a Brailler, which was much more awkward to carry around than a pen and scraps of blank paper and putting his list back into the Brailler to add things was not an easy task. In addition, if he put something down, he had to remember where he had left it because he couldn’t just look around to see where it was. He was also much better at recognising people by their voices than I was. Colours were not meaningful concepts for him, so he only remembered them if he needed to. He knew the colour of his check-in baggage so he could describe it to the airport person who was collecting it for him when he flew anywhere alone, but could not choose appropriate colours for graphs in PowerPoint presentations when he started doing presentations at international conferences. He had trained himself to use the information available to him in ways that made it easiest for him to function, just as I had. We had different information available, so we functioned differently.
I am therefore very much aware that we cannot assume that just because a hundred western undergraduate students in the twenty-first century can only remember X% of whatever they heard a week ago, illiterate people in first century Palestine would only have remembered X% of what they heard. I am quite sure that they would have remembered significantly more than X%, so I don’t think that we can directly transfer statistics from contemporary research on human memory back to the early Christians ie the quantitative parts of the research.
I do think, however, that we can transfer research about the factors that affect what people remember and forget, ie the qualitative parts of the research. For example, no matter how well trained someone’s memory is, s/he will still only remember the things s/he notices, and they will be the things that s/he finds interesting or considers important. The ways in which memory slips over time will still apply, although the rate of slippage will almost certainly be faster in the twenty-first century than in the first.
As you can see, this has absolutely nothing to do with any assessment of anyone’s intelligence.