Memory in real life (2)

Picking up from where I left off yesterday, I’d like to look at how we remember time.  As I said in my response to Mike Kok’s post, Steen F Larsen, Charles P Thompson, and Tia Hansen. “Time in Autobiographical Memory,” Pages 129-56 in Remembering Our Past: Studies in Autobiographical Memory (Ed. David C Rubin. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999) point out that we remember some aspects of time more easily than others. The time at which something happened is usually remembered fairly reliably because people use what are called ‘temporal cyclic schemas’ to place an event at a particular time of day, day of the week or season of the year. If we don’t have something concrete to anchor it, though, we can often displace in longitudinal time. [Challenge: can you use the phrase ‘temporal cyclic schema(s)’ in a believable context on your blog this week? Link back here if you can – although unlike the Jesus Blog, I can’t offer a prize.]

For example, we  might be sure that something happened on a Monday, because it happened right after we got back from the Step class at the gym and we go to Step on Mondays. We can’t remember which Monday, because every Monday is pretty much the same, but it was a while ago, although not too long ago, so probably about four weeks. When we’re telling someone the story, if when in time is really only to add colour and interest, we will probably say ‘four weeks ago’ without bothering to check. Then, when we  look at our diary, we discover that either it wasn’t a Monday or it wasn’t four weeks ago because Monday four weeks ago we were out of town at a seminar. So at that point, some of us will riffle frantically through our diaries  or try to find some other piece of external evidence to pinpoint more exactly when it happened while others will use a process of logic:

“I know it must have been Monday because it was after Step, so it can’t have been four weeks ago – so it must have been five weeks or three weeks, but it was hot, so it wasn’t five weeks ago because that was the week when we had the cold snap. Oh, hang on, I’m sure it was four weeks ago, because it was in the same week that I gave that guest lecture and that was definitely on the tenth – Oh, I remember! Because I ate so much at the conference I decided that I needed the exercise so I went to the Step class on Wednesday that week…”

If you are trying to remember something at a distance of quite a few years and you aren’t in the habit of keeping a detailed diary, you may no longer have access to all the clues you need to place the event accurately. You probably won’t remember which week it was that had the cold snap, for instance, so you will retell the story in the time-frame that makes most sense to you – which will probably place it on a Monday.

In the current discussion about memory, one of the targeted issues is the fact that Mark has the clearing of the temple at the end of Jesus’ ministry and John has it at the beginning. Most scholars agree that it is highly unlikely that it happened more than once, so which is correct? Most people are more inclined to accept Mark’s version as accurate because his is the earlier gospel, and many attribute the earlier timing in John as the result of a deliberate decision by the author to move it to a place that better fits his particular theology. This is the equivalent of suggesting that John said to himself “I know Jesus really cleared the temple just before he died, but I think I will move it to the beginning of my gospel because it will help my readers to understand Jesus’ role in salvation history better if I put it up the front. Oh, and I’ll finish off by saying that everything that’s written in it is true.” Really?? I find it very difficult to believe that people of integrity who genuinely believed in Jesus as messiah/saviour would function like this and I do like to believe that the biblical authors were people of integrity.

Psychological research, however, indicates that time (ie season) of the year is reasonably easy to remember, but the exact year is not. John and Mark both agree that the occasion was a visit to the temple for Passover, just not which Passover. It is quite believable that Jesus went to Jerusalem for more than one Passover, and it is quite possible that only one visit to the temple at Passover was eventful – the one where he cleared the temple court of merchants. At a distance of a decade or more from the event, most of the mental time markers for the event would have disappeared, leaving the people telling the story with the difficult task of situating this important event in their narrative. As both social memory theorists and psychological memory researchers attest, remembering is about helping us to make sense of the world in which we live and for Mark, it clearly made sense that the temple cleansing would have happened at the end of Jesus’ ministry, whereas for John, it made sense at the beginning, so that’s the way they remembered it.

Yes, one of the markers used to situate the event in memory is likely to have been the theology of the two authors, but it is quite possible that they situated the event in longitudinal time at a subconscious level. It is by no means necessary to posit a deliberate redaction on the part of one of the authors. If John had access to Mark, he may have believed that he was correcting Mark’s faulty memory. It is also possible that the actual event happened in the middle of Jesus’ ministry and both authors remembered the timing incorrectly, because there respective timings made more sense of their particular understandings of Jesus’ role in salvation history. 🙂

On the other issue that Mike raises, the date of Jesus’ death, I am feeling somewhat perplexed. John 19: 31 says that Jesus was crucified (with others) on the Day of Preparation so Pilate ordered that the legs of those being crucified be broken to hasten their deaths; Luke 23: 54 says that Joseph of Arimathea took Jesus’ body on the Day of Preparation; Mark 15:  42-43 says Joseph of Arimathea took Jesus’ body on the Day of Preparation and Matthew 27: 62 says that the Jewish authorities want to Pilate the next day (after Jesus died), that is after the Day of Preparation. It therefore seems to me that all four gospels have Jesus dying on the same day. What am I missing?

It would be somewhat more difficult (although by no means impossible) to argue that psychological theory explains Jewish authors remembering a different day at this time, although for a Gentile author the whole Jewish Shabbat/Passover thing might not have made nearly as much impact and he (or she) could more easily have placed an event around that time of year wrongly.

11 thoughts on “Memory in real life (2)

  1. Pingback: The Aftermath of “the Blow Up in Baltimore” | NEAR EMMAUS

  2. Pingback: Judy Redman on Memory | Euangelion Kata Markon

  3. Thanks Judy, these posts have been really helpful. About the date of Jesus death, they both occur on the same day before the Sabbath but in John 19:14, 31 this is on the 14th of Nisan on the day of Preparation, while Mark 14:12 has the disciples inquire to Jesus about where to eat the Passover on the first day of Leavened Bread when the Passover Lambs are sacrificed so Jesus dies on the 15th of Nisan. However, there have been different attempts to harmonize them, while it has led other scholars to further debate whether the last supper was a Passover meal (cf. Maurice Casey) or not (cf. John Meier). Perhaps memory theory would account for this in the same way – Jesus last meal and death was remembered in relation to the timing of the Passover and interpreted with a Passover typology (Christ as Paschal Lamb), but there were divergent memories about the exact date?

  4. As to John and Mark on the “cleansing” incident, why not also this?: Neither “John” nor “Mark” were remembering directly something they were “at” or near to, as they may have been unborn, too young, or not in the area (any of which are fairly likely). Anyway, whether they were alive at the time or talked to direct observers or not, what if John, as a literary craftsman, knew that Mark, similarly, had used his craft to create a plausible story as part of filling in those desired details you mentioned in the previous post? That, whether or not some kind of “cleansing” incident took place, the point was to both create good drama (compelling reading) and to make a theological point around what WAS historical fact: Jesus was crucified as having opposed and/or offended likely some combination of Jewish establishment and Roman security apparatus?

    Incidentally, particularly in Mark, the Temple incident IS more than incidental in the story of what led to Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. The Synoptics (all, if I recall) relate what may be a significant side point — that an insurrection (no doubt very recent) was the reason Barabbas and 2 “lestai” (“thieves” or “bandits”), at least, were imprisoned in connection with it, and at least one murder had occurred. These were rebellious times and a Temple disturbance of the nature that Mark describes, particularly… extensive in size and at least a good portion of one day (not a few-minute symbolic table-overturning as in the popular modern mind)… is not likely to have been “let go” by the Temple guards and/or the Roman garrison overlooking the Temple area. So, if the entire last few days in Jerusalem occurred AT ALL as described in the Synoptics, then the Temple incident was more than a detail… it represented the core of Jesus’ mission and message and was directly tied to his death. THAT is not something John could/would have misplaced in time because of a personal memory failure, seems to me! (However, not a real problem under the above explanation, or something similar… not expecting his readers to expect historical accounting)

  5. Howard, you raise a good point, which I need to think carefully about, *but* memory is a very strange thing. Bauckham cites the story of Rossini’s account of his attempt to see Beethoven (Jesus & the Eyewitnesses p 320). As a young man, Rossini went to see Beethoven and early in his career, he tells of a very frustrating encounter – the older man wasn’t all that keen to see him, and because Beethoven did not speak Italian and Rossini didn’t speak German, they actually couldn’t communicate in any significant way. Towards the end of his career, however, Rossini tells how Beethoven praised and encouraged him and told him that ‘The Barber of Seville’ was one of the greatest comic pieces of all time (or something similar – I don’t have the source in front of me at the moment). This either means that Rossini was not very clever in an attempt to hoodwink his audience, because checking earlier records to see what was really said was quite possible, *or* that he genuinely believed that his later account really was what happened. Having lived for years with someone who had the most amazing ability to ‘remember’ the exact opposite of what all other witnesses to/participants in an event remembered because that’s what she wanted reality to be, I am very inclined to believe the latter. Like you, I am not particularly convinced that the authors of the gospels, especially John, were actual eyewitnesses to the events they wrote about. I think it is quite clear that the synoptic accounts of the clearing of the temple are based on a shared source, probably a literary one rather than an oral one (don’t have the Greek text in front of me to check exact wording correspondence or I might be more sure), but I haven’t done enough reading in the area to want to come down in favour of any theory about how that happened. John’s account is, apart from its placement in the gospel, sufficiently different in other ways to make it fairly likely that it wasn’t via the same pathway as the authors of the Synoptics got theirs.

  6. Judy, thanks for the detailed and gracious reply. I suspect my approach is more from a “higher critical” perspective than is yours. I am a former and long-time Evangelical and one who has (I think) worked through most of the frustration/aggravation of feeling “led astray” on a number of levels, much of them oriented around the view and treatment of “the Bible and history” (for lack of a good summary term). Then that as tied to supposed divine authority via unique revelation, etc. I remain a lover of history AND of spirituality, and now ID as a “progressive” Christian. So scholars of Evangelical or “orthodox” affiliation/belief I understand fairly well (as to their “paradigm(s)”) and still “check in with” fairly regularly though I’m more a serious reader of those with either a bit different kind of faith or “none” (i.e., agnostic and mainly historical, such as Ehrman)… they use a paradigm often called “higher critical”, which is probably as flexible or variable as is “Evangelical”.

    It’s important to know that I thoughtfully and deliberately try to study as a “faith-filled” scientist/historian. In the vein of many “Process” people, I will neither uncritically accept all claims/interpretations of supposed “supernatural” (esp. miracle) events, even in the Bible, NOR will I discount/disallow them as impossible or diminish the significance of the “speaker’s” interpretation. I have come to believe I have to presume at least some such reports do represent something “beyond” the material and totally “natural” (meaning unconnected to higher design or guidance that we may never be able to figure out fully). That’s partly from personal experiences and more from taking seriously and seeking to interpret others’ experiences (e.g. conversions, NDE’s, “paranormal” abilities, scientific level evidences for reincarnation, etc.).

    This “stance” or point of perspective basically exists within a describable paradigm, fleshed out pretty heavily in the “process philosophy/theology” model. All that to say that Jesus is of course right in the middle of this all, for people exposed to the Bible and/or a Christian tradition and perspective. And knowing what to make of him and, even more significantly in my view, what to make of the experiences and thoughts of Paul, first (as the earliest identifiable, traceable writer) and then particularly the Gospel/Acts writers. I think it’s abundantly evident that they quickly added onto and modified what were probably the core emphases of Jesus (via Q and the Synoptics mainly). What that was, and why and how they did it is both fascinating AND important to have at least some idea of in order for it to guide a “reasonable” and functional kind of Christian faith, in my view. So, to me, we have to wed together what was remembered (accurately or not) very soon after Jesus’ death with whatever we can ascertain of how new sects (yes, more than one or two) were developing interpretations of Jesus’ life and death AND, in the process, re-interpreting Hebrew Scripture and applying both to a very fluid and trauma-filled social/political/religious situation in which they lived.

  7. Pingback: Memory in real life (3) | Judy's research blog

  8. So the author of John couldn’t remember that the Passover where Jesus cleared out the Temple was the Passover where Jesus died?

    Surely that would be the Passover which stuck in the mind?

    I suppose if the Gospel of John was written in the 90’s AD , the author may have had trouble remembering what happened 60 years earlier.

  9. Steven, yes – the time gap can do interesting things to memory. Anyone who had been old enough to be with Jesus in the 30s would have been in his 80s at least by then and quite capable of remembering things in ways that suited his particular theological bent rather than the way they actually happened. The point I am trying to make is not that the author didn’t alter reality, but that it could be explained as an unconscious rather than a conscious alteration. See the Rossini story in my reply to Howard – a few decades on Rossini managed to ‘remember’ a conversation that never happened because that fitted better with how he wanted to see himself. My mother managed to ‘remember’ only a couple of years down the track that she played exactly the opposite role in a family situation to the one she actually played (as remembered by every other family member who was involved) because it fitted better with her understanding of herself. I never met Rossini, but either my mother is a far better actor than we would give her credit for or she genuinely believed what she was telling us and the psychology research documents this kind of thing happening in other situations, too.

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