Robert McIver – Memory, Jesus and the Synoptic Gospels

Last year, SBL published Robert McIver’s book Memory, Jesus and the Synoptic Gospels. I ordered it immediately but it sat on my shelf for several months before I had time to look at it. McIver is a fellow Australian and I met him at the SBL international conference in Auckland, New Zealand in 2008.  He has published two papers on oral and written transmission and the gospels with his colleague Marie Carroll* which I found useful in writing my JBL article on eyewitness testimony, so I was interested to see what he had to say.

The book provides a quite comprehensive coverage of the psychological research on eyewitness testimony and human memory, which makes it an excellent resource for anyone who is interested in an overiew of the field. I found the chapter on personal event memories particularly helpful. It draws attention to the work of David Pillemer in Momentous Events, Vivid Memories (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998) which extends the classic work of Brown and Kulik on ‘flash bulb memories’ to memories of momentous events in general – something I had not come across before.

The book has limitations, however. First, I would question McIver’s decision to limit his discussion of the problems of human memory in Daniel Schacter’s The Seven Sins of Memory (Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001) to transience, suggestibility and bias. I think that both misattribution and absent-mindedness can also have significant impact on eyewitness memories of events in some of the circumstances in which the gospels came into being.

Second, and far more importantly, I do not understand how he has moved from the evidence he has provided to the conclusion he draws. He provides careful evidence that eyewitness memory is not at all good at producing verbatim reproductions of what was said; that people often see and remember what they expect or want to see and remember; that there is a rapid deterioration of memory at the level of detail in the first hours, days and weeks after an event and it is not until about five years out that the rate of forgetting slows almost to a stop; that people fill gaps in their memories with material that is likely to have happened, given their knowledge of the people and circumstances involved so that ‘what is recorded in the Gospels is highly likely to be consistent (emphasis McIver’s) with what actually happened’ (p 156); and that while about 80% of what is remembered by eyewitnesses is accurate we have no way of determining which 20% in inaccurate.  He notes that apophthegemata and aphorisms are more likely to be remembered almost verbatim or not at all than are extended narratives and argues that parables, as coherent stories with a punch line, are ideal for accurate transmission, but the overall picture he provides is the reliability of reproduction is at the level of gist and overview rather than verbatim repetition and fine detail.

He also argues with Birger Gerhardsson et al that Jesus is likely to have trained his followers to remember his teachings in the same way that rabbis trained their disciples. This is really the only way that one could be confident that the words put into Jesus’ mouth by the authors of the gospels are the words Jesus spoke. The evidence from psychological research points to gist-only levels of accuracy.

McIver finishes by saying:

So it can be concluded that, like most products of human memory and despite all the frailties of such memory, the Gospels should be considered to be generally reliable. If the evidence presented thus far may be relied on, then  –  at least for the apophthegmata, the parables and the aphorisms – the burden of proof should lie with those who wish to claim that a saying found in the Gospels in not from Jesus or that an incident reported about him did not happen, not with those who assume its authenticity. Human memory is a remarkable facility, and the traditions found in the synoptic Gospels may be considered to be a product of its effectiveness. (p 187)

Unfortunately, incidents are not apophthegmata, parables or aphorisms, and the evidence provided by the psychological research is not, at least in my opinion, nearly strong enough to make this confident a statement about events, regardless of what you may or may not believe about Jesus as rabbi. While a careful reading of the book makes it clear that McIver is not saying “see, see, we can prove that we have Jesus’ actual words and blow-by-blow, accurate accounts of his actions”, I think he significantly overstates his case and I will not be at all surprised if others use the book in this way.  I think what the book does is rather to provide some helpful understandings of how the variations between the gospels have arisen – due to the frailties of human memory rather than a deliberate attempt on the part of the authors to push their particular theological barrow at the expense of accuracy.

* McIver, Robert K. and Marie Carroll ‘Experiments to Develop Criteria for Determining the Existence of Written Sources, and Their Potential Implications for the Synoptic Problem’, Journal of Biblical Literature, 121 (4) (2002), pp. 667-687; and McIver, Robert K. and Marie Carroll, ‘Distinguishing Characteristics of Orally Transmitted Material When Compared to Material Transmitted by Literary Means’, Applied Cognitive Psychology, 18 (9) (2004), pp. 1251-1269.


5 thoughts on “Robert McIver – Memory, Jesus and the Synoptic Gospels

  1. Thanks for this post. I wanted to pass on to you that Dr. Paul Foster gave a talk at our graduate seminars at Sheffield University and positively referenced your work in responding to some of the perhaps over-confident claims about social memory or oral tradition in some recent scholarship.

    • Thanks for this Mike. In the course of writing a chapter for a forthcoming book on Characterisation in John’s gospel, I’ve read quite a few papers that Richard Bauckham has written on eyewitness testimony since ‘Jesus and the Eyewitnesses’ was published, and he is, in my opinion, significantly more nuanced in the claims he makes about the results of his research, but people seem just to be reading the book.

      I think that people of faith can say that they are confident that the gospel witness is reliable, but this is a faith claim, not something that is empirically provable, no matter how much we would like it to be.

  2. Pingback: Relationship between Thomas and the Synoptics « Judy’s research blog

  3. Pingback: Judy Redman on Memory, Oral Tradition and Jesus « Euangelion Kata Markon

  4. Pingback: The onus/burden of proof « Judy’s research blog

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