Eyewitness Testimony and Psychology

Update 21 April

My article “How Accurate are Eyewitnesses? Bauckham and the Eyewitnesses in the Light of Psychological Research” appears in the latest edition of Journal of Biblical Literature 129 (2010) 177-197. April DeConick mentions it in a very flattering way on her blog, the paper version arrived in my mailbox a week or more ago and today I received an email saying that is is now available for free to SBL members at the JBL website.

Richard Bauckham suggests in his 2006 book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, that we can be significantly more confident than form critics suggest about the historicity of the gospel accounts of Jesus life and ministy. In response, I examine the psychological literature on eyewitness testimony and human memory, asking:

  • What light does psychological research shed on the extent to which information obtained from eyewitness accounts could be considered to be accurate information about the historical Jesus?
  • What consequences does this have for the way biblical scholarship might treat eyewitness accounts?

I was just about ready to submit the article for publication when the JSHJ and JSNT issues with critiques of the book and Bauckham’s responses to them were published, so it also takes into account the comments and Bauckham’s somewhat more nuanced expression of his position. I was relieved to discover when I read them that no-one had written “my” article. 🙂 I’m not going to put my conclusions up here because justifying them would take more space than one can reasonably put in a blog post and I’d rather have people critique what I actually wrote than what they think I might have written.

The article began as a paper for SBL Auckland in 2008. I ended up reading 80-90 papers and books to get my head around the psychological literature. An early version of the review of the psychological literature was read by one of the psychologists at UNE who has done significant work in eyewitness testimony and a near-to-final draft was read by a psychologist at University of Otago, so I’m confident that I haven’t done anything outrageous with the psychological evidence. I’ve found it very useful background for my doctoral research and also for the teaching on biblical criticism I have been doing  for the Earliest Christianity unit in my School over the past few weeks.

Like April, I am very pleased to see it in print at last and I’m grateful for her support and that of my two doctoral supervisors (advisers) Profs Lynda Garland (UNE) and Majella Franzmann (Otago) and my family during the production period.

26 thoughts on “Eyewitness Testimony and Psychology

  1. According to Hans Dieter Betz the reason for our lack of knowledge about Jesus in the writings of the NT is of a hermeneutical sort – authoral intent, not the issue of human memory limitations.
    The Gentile Christian authors of the Gospels transmitted to us only that part of the teaching of Jesus that they themselves understood, they handed on only that which they were able to tanslate into the thought categories of Gentile Christianity, and which they thought worthy of transmission”. (Essays on the Sermon on the Mount by Hans Dieter Betz),

  2. You are right, Ed. Everything hinges on authorial intent. Each must be read independent and with an eye toward their intention. These were competent men (and woman?) every bit as intelligent as we.

  3. Ed, if you’ve represented Hans Dieter Betz accurately, then I’m afraid I disagree with him.

    There are a number of things that limit our ability to obtain demonstrably accurate historical information about Jesus from the writings of the New Testament. Jesus’ teachings and the accounts of his actions were initially filtered through the human memories of his hearers and the people who handed them down orally before they were written down. This filtration process began within hours of their hearing or seeing Jesus. They were also filtered by the ability of whoever translated them from their Aramaic originals into Greek and the limititations imposed by translation; the cultural limitations of the authors of the gospels to understand the implications of Jesus’ teachings and actions in his own culture; any decisions by the authors of the gospels to change the way that the tradition was handed down to them to make a better story, or to support a particular theological pespective; the changes that came about during the written transmission of the texts during the times which mean that the Greek texts that we work from are our best informed guess at what the original texts might have said; and the problems we have in understanding the intent of those texts when they are writting in a language that none of us speaks as our first language and which were written in a different culture and a different time.

    The relative importance of each of these varies according to the particular piece of text that is being looked at, but I think that to say that there is only one factor that limits our ability to obtain accurate information about the historical Jesus is more than a little naive.

  4. Judy, My position might be somewhat clearified by my Sat.03 Apr.2010 Comment which was not listed as one
    of the 9 Comments. The Coment read: This is to reproduce a Comment I made on April DeConick’s Blog: Eyewitness Testimony.
    I will respond later.

  5. I repeat a Comment made on Sat. April 3 which I inadvertedly placed on the wrong blog. Thanks Judy for pointig this out.

    This is to reproduce a comment I made on April DeConick’s Blg: Eyewitness Testimony.

    “We now know not only that none of the OT writings is prophetic witness to Jesus but that none of the writings of the NT is apostolic witness to Jesus as the early church itself understood apostolicity – all of them (NT)depend on sources earlier than themselves, and hence are not the original and originating witness that the early church mistook them to be – one is forced to decide for a traditional NT canon one can no longer justify by the early church’s own criterion of apostolicity or for this same criterion of canonicity that allows one to justify only a nontraditional canon. All approprite “Christian” faithand witness are and must be apostolic – one believes and bears witness with the apostles, solely on the basis of their prior faith and witness – the witness of the apostles is still reghtly taken to be the real “Christian” norm, even if we today need to locate this norm not in the writings of the NT but in the earliest stratum of “Christian” witness (which is pre-Christian and pre-Gospels) ascessible to us given our methods of historical analysis and reconstruction – the first step one must take in using Scripture as a theological authority is historical rather thanhermeneutical – Spcifically that is the step of reconstructing the history of tradition, of which the first three Gospels are the documentation, so as thereby to identify the earliest stratum in this tradition, which is the real “Christian” norm by which Scripture has whatever authority it has. The procedures required to execute it are identical with those long since worked out in the quest for the historical Jesus, with the single, if crucial, difference that in this case (given our present historical methods and knowledge) there is no need to make any dubious inferences about Jesus himself, once the earliest stratum of witness has been reconstructed, one may be quite confident of finding what we today can rightly take to be the apostolic witness and hence the proper canon for judging the appropriatness of all “Christian” witness and theology”. (The article Faith and Freedom by Schubert M. Ogden,online)

    On nomenclature: The term Christian is anachronistic. It was first applied to the Paul and Barnabus mission after 65 CE, it was neverapplied to the Jerusalem Jesus Movement. Thus the labels Christian Origins, Jewish Christianity, Earliest Christianity are misnonmers. Meaningful origins of the Jesus tradition took place in the apostolic period 30 CE – 65 CE, before Christianity and before the Gospels. For such a reconstruction of the Jesus tradition see Comments April 12 – April 17 to April DeConick’s blog: My decision about the Jesus Project. It just might be of interest.

  6. Dale Allison is doing research on the exact same topic for his BIG book on the historical Jesus due out next year I think. Please contact him!

    Is there a single first-person source for Jesus’ resurrection aside from Paul saying in 1 Cor. “Jesus appeared to me?” That seems to be it for first person sources. Pretty brief and well, doubtful.

    Note also the growing number of words allegedly spoken by the resurrected Jesus over time with the story’s retelling:



    It must be said however, that many will remain unconvinced by the alternative model of a “Formal Controlled Tradition” that Bauckham proposes in this book. It may be true that the literary features of mark show a closer connection with the testimony of Peter than is commonly assumed. But the evidence fails to sustain Bauckham’s hypothesis of a fixed body of Jesus tradition formulated by the Twelve in Jerusalem and mediated directly to the author of Mark through the apostolic preaching of Peter. Without accepting Bauckham’s dubious claim that Peter’s appearance at the beginning and end of Mark represents a literary device for identifying the work’s authoritative witness, it is very difficult to affirm the other alleged indication of the author’s reliance on Peter’s testimony, which are ambiguous at best. Equally questionable are the historical conclusions Backham draws from Paul’s Letters about the formal transmission of Jesus traditions. The level of institutionalization thus ascribed to the Jesus movement in the earliest stages of its development strains credibility. Likewise, Bauckham’s hypothesis about the Beloved Disciple as the eyewitness author of the Fourth Gospel will not convince many. Often resting on unproven assumptions, the argument frequently invokes highly conjectural explanations of textual evidence that are not easily affirmed. For examples, most will find fanciful the attempt to account for the infrequency and obscurity of references to the Beloved Disciples by appealing to the author’s need to establish his credibility as a perceptive disciple before disclosing his identity as the actual author of the Gospel. Even if we were to accept as probable many of the conclusions Bauckham draws from the Gospels, there still remains a larger question that weakens the argument of the book. If it is true that the Evangelists attached such importance to eyewitness testimony, then why are indications of this not more obvious and explicit? In response, Bauckham claims that ancient readers would have expected the Gospels to have eyewitness sources and so would have been alert to the subtle indications provided by the text. This explanation ascribes to the Evangelists and their readers a full measure of literary sophistication and an informed familiarity with the canons of Greco-Roman historiography. But this seems to far exceed what we can claim to know about the first eyewitnesses and those who listened to their testimony.

    –Dean Bechard of the Pontifico Instituto Biblico, Rome–final paragraph of his review of Richard Bauckham’s, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Review published in Biblica, v.90, fasc.1, 2009, p. 126-129.

  8. Judy, I’m here through your link included in your comment on April DeConick’s blog. She writes that she’s glad your article is finally in print (in JBL). I’m an SBL member, but I don’t subscribe to the print version of JBL, so I’ll read your article online when it’s available. I think eyewitness testimony is very important for questions of truth where events of the past are concerned and psychology can certainly throw light on the evaluation of all sorts of testimony. With the NT, we don’t know for sure how much eyewitness reporting is being transmitted to readers. There are many critical questions to be answered, which is what form critics and Richard Bauckham and historians try to do, but no answers seem to be definitive. I try to stay informed on the issues, so my reading of the NT will not be colored by dogmatic concerns alone. The NT is a very important collection of writings! In any case, you have quite an ample blog here and I look forward to checking out your posts on sundry topics. I wish you well in your PHD quest (it seems you’ll have it soon) and in your church ministry and in your life in Australia. (I’m an American; New Jersey.) I also enjoy GosTh (my favorite saying is #42).

  9. What possible evidence seems to point to some new data beyond a straight forward reading of the writings of the NT which may bear on originating knowledge of the HJ?

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  11. On the authority of indisputably three of our top longeststanding critical historical scholars, this is to make the claim that the Semon on the Mount (Matthew 5:3-7:27) constitutes our most certain apostolic source for understanding the real Jesus of history – an alternative souce to the writings of the New Testament, the letters of Paul, the Gospels and the later New Testament writings (with the exception of the Leter of James). (See Essays on the Sermon on the Mount by Hans Dieter Betz and his Commentary on the Sermon, the two online articles: The Real Jesus of the Sayings Gospel Q by James M. Robinson and Faith and Freedom by Schubert M. Ogden).

  12. Pingback: Women in biblical studies – a strange coincidence « Judy’s research blog

  13. Judy,

    I very much look forward to reading your article. While I have not formally critiqued Bauckham’s work, I have blogged about the problems with eyewitness testimony based largely on the research of Elizabeth Loftus. I assume you incorporated some of her research into your article?

  14. Judy,

    I have read the article and I think its outstanding! Good work. I have made two blog posts about it today. Please let me know if I have in anyway misuderstood or misrepresented you.


  15. That was April 28. A day or two later Expository Times published my article ‘Eyewitnesses’ in the Light of ‘Servants of the Word’. Yes, Judy, Bauckham draws on some complex theoretical and research areas. I ddn’t want to follow him there because from my reading of Luke’s preface over the last decade or two I felt he was underrating something of a literary character, in particular, the meaning of ‘autoptai’. Even Bauckham confesses that ‘eyewitnesses’ is a misleading term to use in translation – but he fires off on this range nonetheless.

    Basically, I say Luke never entertained any such concept or resource as ‘eyewitnesses’ of Jesus’ career. Have a read. (If you haven’t got a theological library, you’ll have to pay SAGE publications to access the online ExpTimes.)

    – John N Collins

  16. Thanks, John. Pay Sage? I don’t think so – I’m calling in a favour from a friend. 🙂 My theological library only has paper copies and I access it from a distance (7 hours’ drive).

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