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.

Christians and Biblical Scholarship

It matters how you understand God

No, I don’t mean how (if at all) you think God communicates with human beings. Rather, I mean that how you understand God to work in the world has a significant effect on how you do Biblical Studies. I am about to try to articulate coherently something that’s been wandering around in the back of my mind for a while, so I hope it makes sense. And perhaps I should warn you at this stage that the example I use in this post deals with material that some people might find upsetting because of their own personal experience.

A few days ago, a friend of mine sent me a copy of the updated edition of her book about how she coped with her grief at the tragic death of her 21 year old son. It’s now ten years since he died and the new section talks, amongst other things, about her communication with other Christians who have found the book helpful.

She writes very well but the way she copes with the family tragedy requires a view of how God works in the world that I just don’t share. She sees her son’s death as the result of being hit by a car whilst on a family holiday in Canada as part of God’s sovereign plan for his life. In other words, her world/faith view says that God has a quite detailed plan for each person and that this plan includes taking her son up to heaven after a relatively short life.

It works for her and for many other Christians, but not for me (and others like me), because I cannot see how you can insert human free will into this kind of understanding. I see God as offering a more general game plan for human beings as a whole and allowing us to choose how closely we follow it. I see something like stepping out in front of a car because you were looking the wrong way in a country where the traffic drives on the other side of the road as human error, not part of a divine plan. Where God comes in is in helping us to deal with the effects of human action, not in determining the human action. I don’t plan to go into detail about this issue because this is not a blog on Christian theology and I have no intention of debating the rights and wrongs of particular theological perspectives here, nor of trying to suggest that someone else’s experience of God is wrong.

What, though, does this have to do with Biblical Studies?  Well, it seems to me that how Christians view and analyse biblical texts depends on what they think about how God acts in human history. It depends on whether they think that Jesus came to earth with a detailed plan of action or with general guidelines that enabled him to function in the situations in which he found himself, and on how much they think that God is involved in the events of everyday life.

If Jesus had a detailed plan of action, and God is involved in the minutiae of everyday life, then the areas that are open for discussion in the biblical texts are fairly limited. Which of the multitude of early manuscripts available to us represent the best witness to the original text is certainly one. Arising from this, what constitutes the received text is another. Other than that, the focus must be on translation and interpretation. Research on the effects of oral transmission, eyewitness testimony and memory is meaningless because God’s intervention has ensured that what was transmitted and remembered is accurate. Understanding the copying process and the errors arising from it would help to evaluate the manuscript tradition, but because God is in control, the possible thought processes or belief systesm of redactors is irrelevant.

If Jesus had guidelines and God intervenes to provide support when things go wrong rather than to affect what happens, much more is up for grabs. There is worth in tracing back the processes of redaction, oral transmission etc because it helps to explain how the text came into being and what it might originally have said. It is possible to suggest that what happened during Jesus’ encounter with the Cananite/Syrophonecian woman was that Jesus became aware that his ministry was not just to the Jews, something he had not understood until then, that he wasn’t just being rude and offensive to test whether she, as an outsider, had enough faith to be worthy of becoming an insider. It is possible to ask “Did God really say that, or is this an adjustment that’s been made later to fit a particular understanding of what was happening at the time?”

The fundamental issue for biblical interpretation by Christians is, I suppose, how we understand the notion that Scripture is “inspired by God”. People who prefer to speak about this as “God-breathed” and understand that it therefore has a guarantee of accuracy are going to read the first part of my forthcoming JBL article on pyschological research on eyewitness testimony and memory and say “yes, but what does that have to do with the Bible?” and disregard my conclusions. Those who think that it means more that God nudged people to write down in their own words how they experienced God in action in their lives are going to find it quite interesting, even if they don’t agree with my conclusions.

Those in one group are not going to be convinced by the arguments of those in the other about meaning and interpretation unless they change their fundamental understanding of how God works. This is not to say that we should keep saying what we believe because there are some people who hear the arguments from the other perspective and say “Ah, finally this makes sense … now, how do you get to that point?” For the majority, however, the answer to the question “But can’t you see that this makes more sense” is “no, no, I can’t because it doesn’t” and trying to convince them with logic at the level of the current point in question is a waste of everyone’s time. I don’t know about yours, but my time is too precious to waste on this kind of venture.

Objectivity and interpretation of texts

I started writing this post several days ago in response to Christopher Skinner’s interesting post on his PEJE IESOUS blog. It’s part of a conversation with April DeConick about perspectives – here and here.  In his post, he talks about the fact that we all bring biases and presuppositions to our interpretation of texts so that it is impossible to be totally objective in our interpretations. Wade Greiner, April’s husband, has a post that suggests that while everyone has biases, not all biases are equal. Since then, April has added two more posts. The first,  entitled “Choosing your method” outlines her operating principles and is particularly helpful.  The second expresses her frustration at the way the medium allows for misinterpretation. Skinner has posted twice more on the general subject.  James McGrath also has a helpful post. I have previously touched on this issue, but want to explore it further, looking at a different way of thinking about it that I find helpful.

The reader response theory of literary criticism tries to take the differing perspectives of different readers/interpreters seriously, although it is open to serious abuse if taken too far. In part, it sees readers of a text as belonging to particular “interpretive communities” (a term which I think was coined by Stanley Fish), which influence the way in which they interpret particular texts. I think that another way of saying this is that the interpretive community to which one belongs influences the questions one asks of the text and the assumptions one makes about the text. Most of us belong to multiple interpretive communities, which sometimes results in interesting approaches to texts.

When I look at texts from early Christianity for the purposes of my doctoral studies, I ask different questions of them to those that I ask when I am preparing to preach or lead Bible study.  For my doctoral work which I do primarily as part of the interpretive community of academic scholars of studies in religion, I ask “what does this tell me about early Christian communities – how they lived, what they believed, etc?” If I were working on something different I might also be asking  “what does this tell me about the historical Jesus?”, but whatever I ask, I am using the historical-critical method as an end in itself and if I don’t use it properly, I’m in big trouble.

When I am preparing to preach or lead Bible study,  which I do primarily as part of the interpretive community of  Christian biblical scholars, I ask “what does this tell me about how early Christians related to/understood God?” and “what does this tell me about how I should live as a faithful Christian in the twenty-first century?” I have to be aware of the historical context in order to answer  the preaching/teaching questions or I could come up with some very weird answers, so I still have to use the historical-critical method properly.  Knowing the historical context is not the purpose of my questioning, though, it’s a stepping stone to developing a credible theology.

As a practising Christian, I am aware that I make different assumptions about GosThom to the ones I make about the Synoptics, even when I am not wearing my “minister” hat. I am getting better and better at catching myself at it, though. Although I don’t actually believe that there are questions one may not ask about those texts that the church calls Scripture,  I know that there are some questions that it just doesn’t occur to me to ask because I “know” the answers so well. Atheist scholars have different blind spots as a result of belonging to that particular interpretive community. For example, I think they are prone to writing off the unusual as superstition more quickly than is always warranted. James Crossley and Mike Bird’s How Did Christianity Begin?, which I have reviewed, provides a good illustration about the differing assumptions that an atheist and Christian scholar might bring to the texts of early Christianity.

Feminist scholars, womanist scholars, people of colour etc all bring different foundational assumptions to the text from their interpretive communities. I don’t see that there is anything preventing people from all these interpretive communities from doing good historical-critical work or good theology as long as they are aware that they are bringing these biases.

I don’t see that belonging to a confessional interpretive community necessarily prevents one from doing good historical-critical work, either. It depends on the particular confessional community. Things become problematic when the interpreters come from confessional interpretive communities that make strong faith claims such as “God dictated every word of Scripture, so it cannot contradict itself” – which requires some incredible gymnastics of the text  or “The Spirit speaks to me and tells me how to interpret Scripture in today’s world” – which may result in interpretations that have no real basis in the text in its context.

I think I need to finish here in the interests of getting this posted before this topic becomes totally passe. 🙂

A quote to consider

I didn’t want to call this “quote of the day” lest someone think that if they come back tomorrow and the next day there will be two others, but it is certainly the quote that sprang out at me from today’s reading.

The modern reader, critic, and yes, even the person of faith, must remember that the authors of the four canonical Gospels never asked us to read them, to treasure them, or to treat them as scripture (Patterson, Stephen. “Can You Trust a Gospel? A Review of Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 6, no. 2 (2008): 194-210.)

Not, of course, an original thought. In fact, Andrew Lloyd Webber came at the idea from a different angle when he wrote in the lyrics of “The Last Supper” from Jesus Christ Superstar:

Always hoped that I’d be an apostle.
Knew that I would make it if I tried.
Then when we retire, we can write the Gospels,
So they’ll still talk about us when we’ve died.

I wonder, sometimes, at what some of we Christians do with the Biblical texts and the burdens we place on them that their authors never envisaged them having to carry. If had they known that over the ensuing centuries scholars would argue over minute sections of their writings and about the significance of articles and prepositions, I wonder if they would have had the courage to put anything in writing in the first place! Even if God was inspiring them.

The Parable of the Weeds in the Wheat (Matt 13:24-30)

At last, a use for my degree in Agricultural Science, and in particular for those hours spent in Crop Botany and Weed Science lectures and pracs, which seemed to have minimal value for an Animal Husbandry major!!

I lead a weekly Bible Study group on campus, and we have agreed to look at the gospel readings from the lectionary, but seeing in the two weeks not long past, many of the parables of the Kingdom that I am studying for my doctorate have appeared, I decided that I would indulge myself a little and spend a few weeks looking at them in a bit more detail. Last Friday we looked at the Parable of the Weeds in the Wheat (or the Wheat and the Tares).

It’s interesting to read commentators on this. They inform me that another name for tares is darnel (and some Bible translations actually say “darnel”) and many of them say that darnel is virtually indistinguishable from wheat until ears form, so you can’t tell which is a wheat plant and which is a darnel plant until they start to form seed. In fact, darnel is a form of bearded rye grass and its leaves are significantly finer than those of wheat, with far less obvious veins in them, so the experienced farmer (any and Ag Sci student who has any hope of passing Weed Science) knows quite a bit sooner than when the heads start to form which plants are wheat and which are darnel.

Once heads form, though, even the most inexperienced person can tell the difference. The seeds of darnel are poisonous, so they can’t be combined with wheat grain and must be disposed of before the grain is threshed from the plants. The problem with weeding a field of wheat is that in order to get a high yield, the farmer needs to plant seeds quite close together, so by the time it’s easy to see which plants are crop and which are weeds, the roots are so closely intertwined that pulling up the weeds means that crop plants are pulled up with them.

In the context of this parable, the people who come to the owner of the field are called “slaves”, not skilled farm workers. The parable says that they come to their master offering to pull up the weeds that have infested the crop only when the seed has begun to set. The owner of the field is a farmer. He would have been aware for some time that there are weeds in his crop and he had already formed his game plan for dealing with them. He did not need the slaves to point out that there were weeds in the crop and it is clear that his priorities for the darnel plants are different to those of the slaves. It is only the seeds of the darnel that are poisonous, so leaving them there is no a problem as long as the seeds don’t get mixed up with the wheat seeds when they are being threshed.  Since he does not have access to a combine harvester with its inability to discriminate between wheat and darnel, he is content to leave the painstaking task of separating the wheat from the darnel until the time of the harvest when there’s less chance of losing good seed along with the bad.

In other words, I think that in its Matthean form, this parable is suggesting that God is not actually looking for church members or church leaders to be throwing other church members or leaders out on the basis of their judgement that said people are “weeds” in God’s Realm.  That, in fact, we don’t have the requisite skills to do this without throwing out “wheat” as well, so maybe we should just get on with being “wheat” ourselves and let God worry about who’s in and out.

I haven’t done any work on the Thomasine version of the parable and it’s not on my agenda for a while yet, but I had previously accepted the commentators’ analysis of the Matthean version, which makes me wonder what I was doing during the Year of Matthew when I was the parish minister in the wheat-growing area of western Victoria.  Maybe that was when I was on maternity leave!

On keeping and open mind…

…and being suspicious

The other day, one of our international students asked if he could come and talk to me about sending his daughter to the preschool that is part of the local Presbyterian Ladies College. I had no idea why he wanted to talk to me about this, but said to come on over.

He has a Muslim name, but he offered to shake my hand, which is not normal for Muslim men when they meet a woman. He comes from India, and almost all our Indian students are Hindu or Sikh. He wanted to send his daughter to a Christian school, so he could also have been Christian. I decided that, rather than try to put him in a box, I had better just listen and find out where he fitted.

It turns out that his name was my best clue – he is actually Muslim, but wants to send his daughter to a school where she will be taught moral values that are similar to those of his own faith tradition. He wanted to talk to someone who is familiar with the local school system and one of his colleagues (another Muslim student) speaks very highly of me, so he chose me.

I try to use the same method when I am approaching my texts. When they present me with a number of contradictory clues to how I might understand them, I try to keep an open mind as I dig deeper, rather than jumping to conclusions that may cause me to treat it inappropriately because I’ve been blinded by my assumptions to other information.

Of course, with text, I can’t just ask a direct question to settle my dilemma, so I need to find or develop some criteria for choosing between the contradictory clues. Listening to what others say about it is often helpful, but working out which others to pay attention to is sometimes challenging. As I said on the Gospel of Thomas email list (perhaps a little more forcefully than is really tactful 🙂 ), I am at least as interested in the reasons given for opinions as I am in who is giving the opinion. Of course, there are some people whose opinions I respect more readily than others and I started thinking what criteria I use when I evaluate the opinions of others. Here’s my working list:

  • does the person who is expressing the opinion have a track record in the particular area? if so, what is it like?
  • does the opinion being offered take the text seriously ie
    • does it look at the whole text rather than just picking up a few keywords and running with them?
    • does it look at the text in its context, rather than treating it in isolation?
  • does the person expressing the opinion make explicit his/her underlying assumptions about the text? eg is s/he assuming it is Christian, gnostic, early, late etc?
  • does the opinion being offered provide evidence from the text itself and/or from other sources or at least reasons to back up the opinion or does it just rely on the audience’s willingness to trust the authority of the person expressing the opinion?
  • where relevant, does the opinion being expressed make sense in other contexts? eg if the interpretation being offered relies on a particular translation of one or two key words, does this interpretation make sense in similar contexts? If not, does the author acknowledge this and provide a justification of using this particular meaning in this particular context?

There may be more, but I can’t think of any just at the moment. You may have some you’d like to add.

So, I’ve come to the conclusion that good textual interpretation is about finding the right balance between keeping an open mind about what is being said – both by the text and its interpreters – and being suspicious. You don’t knock back an idea just because it’s new, but you don’t accept ideas uncritically just because they’re new, either. And you treat tradition in the same way. You don’t accept someone’s opinion just because they have a big name in the field; you certainly don’t accept someone’s opinion just because they have a big name in a related field; but at the same time, you recognise that people don’t normally become big names for no reason. 🙂

Expository Preaching

There is an interesting discussion on Tim Bulkely’s Sansblogue about preaching. In it, one of the people who has posted comments talks about the need for expository preaching – preaching based on the text – rather than simply using the text selectively to back up personal opinions.

While I agree that it is good to base one’s sermons on a biblical text, I think there are a range of ways of doing this, and some of them are more valid than others. I am reminded of some sermons and talks at Christian conventions that I’ve attended, where the preacher/speaker takes the text serious in minute detail. He (it is always he) takes a few words from the text and expands on them, telling us how important a particular adjective or adverb is to how the text applies to the lives of the audience. When I was in my late teens and early twenties, I used to find this fascinating and be quite awestruck by the depth of the speaker’s biblical understanding.

Looking back, though, this kind of speaker was rarely looking at the Greek/Hebrew text for his source, so he was basing his exposition on English synonyms and grammatical structure, which is quite often problematic. In addition, the more I look at oral transmission and the psychological literature on eyewitness testimony, the more convinced I become of the invalidity of this kind of text work. What people remember about an event they’ve witness can be so skewed by a range of factors that attributing some divine importance to one or two particular words is simply not on, unless you subscribe to the “divine secretary” theory of inspiration of Scripture (ie that the writers of the biblical texts simply took dictation from God).

I believe that we need to look at the big picture – the themes that are consistent throughout scripture – not the fine detail, for our understanding about authentic Christian lifestyles. Fine detail analysis of text is essential to ensure that we have the big picture right, but the fine detail analysis needs to be of the texts in their original languages as far as possible, and in the context in which they were written.

However, a day or three ago, Chris Tilling’s Quote for the Day over on Chrisendom was from Andrew Perriman and it reminded me of another problem with expository preaching. Perriman talks about the fact that the Bible is not a modern text and was not written to address modern circumstances and therefore should be strange and irrelevant, not immediately accessible to the modern reader/hearer. I’m not sure that I agree with the “should” but it often is and I think that one of the problems of the person who has grown up with or has extensive experience of Christianity from within the church is that they simply don’t realise just how inaccessible the Bible is to the modern reader without a church background. In your average church service, there simply isn’t the time to spend providing the background to help the congregation understand why you are saying that the big picture is what it is – at least in the churches I attend where people start fidgetting after about 15 minutes and cannot be guaranteed to come week after week so they will get all the parts of a series.

A preacher who is trying to work from the text is therefore left with no option but the “trust me – I’m ordained/have studied theology” line, and generally most members of most congregations do trust the preacher not to be making stuff up from thin air, which is quite a sobering thought, really. I mean, how many “biblical facts” have you believed for years on the basis that some preacher years ago said they were true only to find that they actually are not? Preaching is actually quite scarey if you stop to think about it for too long!

Update: Thanks to Pat McCullough of kata ta biblia for explaining how to get a direct link to the Sansblogue post. 🙂

DeConick’s “Thirteenth Apostle”

As some will be aware, I was working at Rice University when April DeConick’s new book The Thirteenth Apostle was in the final stages of preparation. I proofread the main body of the text and one or two of the appendices that April was preparing. I was impressed enough to want my own copy of the final book, even though Gospel of Judas isn’t my particular area of specialty, because it contains a very good overview of Gnosticism and a number of other useful features as well as the commentary on the text of the Gospel.

I looked at the Coptic text of the relevant passages and read her arguments for her interpretation of the text through very carefully and they make sense to me. I’m eagerly awaiting the arrival of my own copy – it’s due within the next few days – and plan to write a review once I’ve finished writing the conference paper that’s been hanging over my head for the last several weeks. In the meantime, you might like to look at the review on the Baptist Press website that also includes a report of an interview between April and Gregory Tomlin. My only criticism of it is that it lists the Gospel of Thomas as a Gnostic text and I don’t agree with this! You might also like to read what she has to say about her translation and about the problems that scholars are having in gaining access to the facsimiles of the text.

Update 9 Nov

My copy has arrived and I am very surprised.  I really thought I was going to get a paperback, but it’s hardcover.  I cannot believe that I paid $13.57 US for a hardcover new release book!  Of course, the postage and handling were almost as much as the book itself, but it’s still amazingly reasonably priced, especially given the very favourable exchange rate at the moment.  The last DeConick book I bought cost waaaaaaay more. 🙂

Wisdom from the past

I was recently taken by something that R McLean Wilson wrote in his very early Studies in the Gospel of Thomas (A R Mowbray and Co, London, 1960). He introduces his consideration of the Gnostic element in Thomas by saying:

In the study of an ancient document much depends upon the pre-suppositions with which we begin, on the questions with which we approach the examination of the text.(p 14)

He goes on to say that if you concentrate on details and isolate passages from one another, while you may produce useful information, you may also miss the “range and sweep” of the document. General impressions acquired by looking at the text as a whole, however, may be misleading if not combined with a detailed examination. As Wilson so rightly states, if you start with the assumption that Thomas is dependent on the Synoptics, you can find evidence for dependence, and if you start with the assumption that it’s independent, many of the same things will provide evidence for that, so your initial assumptions are important.

I think Wilson’s comment is sound advice for all studies of ancient text. The challenge is to approach texts with a reasonably open mind and to look at the problematic elements and ask “What sorts of things might cause/explain this? Which of these is most likely and why? What are the minimum conditions that need to apply in order for explanation A to be true? And explanation B? And C, if there is a C? If it doesn’t fulfill either/any of the minimum conditions, what have I missed?”

I try to use this methodology on all occasions and hope that I am usually successful. 🙂

Totally off topic – what kind of hermeneutic?

On Friday, a very miserable young man found his way to my office, referred by one of the counsellors.

Can somebody please tell me how supposedly good Christian parents can disown and cut off all contact with their kind, caring, socially concerned, articulate, intelligent and generally pleasant son just because he happens to be gay? Just exactly what hermeneutical principle does one have to use to get this kind of understanding of Christian teaching?

I can understand how they’d be unhappy, I can understand (although I wouldn’t necessarily agree with their exegesis) why they might think he was not living an appropriate lifestyle for a Christian but . . . “you no longer exist for us”???? Where is the good news for this young man in their behaviour? Where is the modelling of the love and grace of God?

I find helping young people like him to see a different way of understanding God emotionally draining because they have been treated so badly by people who say that they serve a loving God. Of course, it’s far less emotionally draining than burying the ones who decide that living is all too much for them. Why can’t people learn to hold up interpretations of small bits of the Bible against the whole and ask “Did God really say that??”

Update 23 July:

I just discovered that WordPress has a tag called “hermeneutics” and that this post got linked to it. On this page, I found a post by Jay Guin called Interpreting the Bible: Big rocks go in first . In it, he says:

Find the great, overriding principles of the Bible, and never, ever vary from them.

The great, overriding principles are those that the Bible says are the great, overriding principles. The love of God, the gospel, our call to love others, and so forth.

I don’t know anything much about Guin, so we may disagree about what the great overriding principles of the Bible are, but clearly we agree about methodology!! 🙂