Memory in real life

In the wake of the SBL session on Memory and the Historical Jesus, a number of people have been posting about this issue, including Chris Keith – with a number of people including Jens Schröter getting involved on the Jesus Blog, and Michael Kok and others here and here. Unfortunately, the Jesus Blog comments have currently disappeared. I hope they can get them back again, because there were some really interesting contributions in them.

I am proposing to do some posts over the next little while to try to draw some links between psychological memory research and the work being done in the area of social memory. This first is more to set the scene than to address the links.

The question at issue in the SBL session seems to have been whether or not we can access the historical Jesus through the gospels, but I think that it is probably better to ask how much about the historical Jesus we can know through the gospels, assuming we are prepared to accept that there was an historical Jesus. As I believe I have said elsewhere, Robert McIver’s book Memory, Jesus, and the Synoptic Gospels (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2011) provides the best coverage on the psychological literature about memory as it applies to the gospels that I have so far read, but I don’t agree with the conclusions he draws. If you want a shorter version or can’t get hold of the book, my article:  “How Accurate are Eyewitnesses? Bauckham and the Eyewitnesses in the Light of Psychological Research.” (JBL 129, no. 1 (2010): 177-97) and his response: “Eyewitnesses as Guarantors of the Accuracy of the Gospel Traditions in the Light of Psychological Research.” (JBL 131, no. 3 (2012): 529-46), are a good place to start.

McIver picks up on some research done in Canada which indicates that about 80% of what eyewitnesses remember of an event is accurate and says 80% is a lot  so we can be confident that the gospels are pretty reliable at the level of gist. He also cites research that indicates that when eyewitness testimony is inaccurate, the mistakes are things that are likely to have happened, rather than wild fabrications. I suppose this is helpful when confronted with people who suggest that the miracle stories are wild fabrications, but not if what you are looking for is a way to track Jesus’ actual words. It seems to me, though, that far more of the controversies within the church stem from people wanting to treat particular parts of the gospels as Jesus’ actual words and having problems with what appear to be accounts of the same events that vary on the level of fine detail than come from arguments about whether or not he really performed miracles.

If we have to accept that not every word is accurate, we want to be able to tell which bits are most likely to be inaccurate. The problem is that in order to be able to predict that, we need to have a very good knowledge not only of the social and cultural conditions at the time, but also quite a lot about the interests and life experience of the authors, and we just don’t have that knowledge.

Very few of us have eidetic, or photographic, memory. We tend to concentrate on the things that interest us or are important to us, and other details tend to be forgotten, but when we want to tell someone else about our experiences, if the telling of the story needs particular details in order to hang together well,  our minds will helpfully fill in lost ones with things that we know from past experience are likely to have happened. This isn’t a conscious action and it certainly isn’t an attempt to mislead the hearer and usually it’s harmless and undetectable because it’s only filling in tiny gaps with what the person telling the story’s unconscious thinks are irrelevant details – whether something happened on a Monday or a Tuesday, what coloured clothing they were wearing etc.

As memory fails with age, we are likely to substitute more details from what psychologists call schemas – information about what we normally do in particular situations. Things like our normal Monday routine, the route we normally take to the shops etc provide us with schemas. When something goes wrong with our neural processes, the gaps get bigger and the substitutions from schemas more pronounced until they become abnormal and the medical profession call them confabulations. Since my mother had her second stroke, there are significant gaps her memory and she often confabulates. My brothers and I can frequently pick up the confabulations faster than can the staff in the aged care facility where she lives, because when she tells them things that might conceivably have happened in the life of someone of her age and life experience they can only take them on face value. My brothers and I often know either that what she is describing simply didn’t happen or happened in an entirely different context. She isn’t trying to deceive anyone. She genuinely believes what she is telling us and it is believable. It’s just not true.

My brothers and I have special knowledge of my mother’s interests, experience and circumstances which make it much easier for us to separate truth from confabulation in our mother’s stories. The facility staff don’t. When it comes to the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, readers in the twenty-first century don’t even have the same level of ‘insider knowledge’ as the facility staff do of my mother. Our chances of being able to work out which believable details of the gospel accounts are accurate and which are not are very, very slim, even when we are pretty sure that some of them simply cannot be correct.

The Jesus Blog: The SBL Memory and Historical Jesus Session–Chris Keith

There are definitely times when living on the other side of the world to the US is a pain. I don’t actually want to live in the US, Canada is too cold and my Spanish is too poor to live in Mexico, but once again I am wishing that attending the Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting didn’t involve at least 24 hours in transit each way and at least $4,500 outlay. At least I get to read other people’s blogs about it. Chris Keith has recently posted a piece about The SBL Memory and Historical Jesus Session, which I would have loved to have attended. The post has a number of extended comments which raise some fascinating questions. Well worth the visit.

Fellowship for Biblical Studies Inaugural Conference

Earlier this year, I attended a seminar in Melbourne at which Richard Burrdige was one of the speakers. I found out that there is a Fellowship for Biblical Studies operating and I joined just in time to offer a paper for their inaugural conference and have it accepted.

Sean Winter has posted the program on his blog, so I won’t bother. I am a little awed to discover that all the papers are going to be presented in plenary, since I am used to being part of a parallel program where people have some opportunity to choose what they want to hear. At least, however, I will only be presenting to biblical scholars, even if some of them focus on the Hebrew Scriptures. At UNE school seminars, I get to present to historians, classicists, philosophers, archaeologists and people from peace studies and international studies so I spend about half of my presentation sketching in the background.

Here’s the abstract:

Matthew, Luke and Thomas all tell stories about a man who lost one of his hundred sheep and left the other ninety-nine to go and look for it. They start out with the same basic details, but the significance they give to the sheep and to the happy ending are different in each gospel. This paper will explore the similarities and differences between the three lost sheep stories and examine their implications for our understanding of the relationship between sheep and shepherd and the relationship between the three. In doing so, it will try to take seriously the effects of oral transmission and human memory as well as scribal redaction on the extant versions of the text.

I’ve been enjoying doing the research for this – it is helping me to think about how to integrate my work on memory and eyewitness testimony better into my thesis/dissertation. In the process, I have been interested to note how much tighter the referencing conventions have become in the last thirty or forty years. Jacques Ménard’s 1975 commentary on Saying 107 owes a huge amount to that of Wolfgang Schrage (1964) – in a significant part of the comment he has done virtually nothing other than translate Schrage’s words from German into French – yet there is very minimal acknowledgement. Even a first year undergrad would get a very stern warning about plagiarism nowadays, but I assume from the fact that the book is published by Brill that this was considered fair dealing back then!

Relationship between Thomas and the Synoptics

In the comments Mike K says:

I take it you view Thomas as largely independent of the Synoptics so that there similarities and differences may be explained as a result of different processes of oral transmission from the original eyewitnesses? I was just reading Andrew Gregory’s “The Reception of Luke and Acts in the Period before Ireneaus” and he is very cautious about accepting any literary dependence as demonstrable unless it meets Koester’s criteria of whether the redaction is present, but he too finds evidence of Lukan redaction in the Greek fragments of Thomas (so difficult to blame on later scribal harmonization in the Coptic version). So I was wondering if you think it may be possible that whoever put together this compilation of sayings in the 2nd century was familiar with the Synoptics in some way, yet perhaps many of the sayings still reached the author independently from oral tradition?

This is too big to answer in the comments, so I am bringing it up to a post of its own.

I don’t know that I want to be that definite, but that’s certainly the way I am leaning, yes. As a person of faith, I believe that Jesus really existed, that there were many eyewitnesses to the various parts of his ministry and that they shared their stories of their encounters with Jesus with friends, family, colleagues. I would also like to believe that the early Christians were, in general, people of good will and integrity who told others what they genuinely believed to be true and accurate accounts of what they saw, heard and experienced, rather than deliberately reshaping material to convince others to their way of thinking. A lot of the redaction criticism theory sounds too cold and calculating to me: author X took author Y’s version and edited it so that it fitted in with his theology sounds like a very deliberate thing to me.

I think that the level of verbatim correspondence between some parts of the Synoptics are long enough for us to be pretty sure either that one version was copied from the other or that there was some common source with which both authors were familiar. If what scholars beginning with Gerhardsson suggest is correct, it may well be that this source was oral material learned verbatim, rather than necessarily a written copy but I suspect that alterations were made because the version that was available did not line up with the author’s memory of the event (or the account that s/he had heard from an(other) eyewitness), rather than something more deliberate. How we understand an event andwhat we remember of an event are strongly shaped by what we believe about the world, so our memories do tend to line up with our beliefs and therefore theologies but mostly this shaping is unconscious. McIver summarises the evidence here quite well (see my review of his Memory, Jesus and the Synoptic Gospels) although I don’t agree with the conclusions he draws about what it means for reliability.

Another possible explanation, however, of how there are different versions of what appears to be the same story in circulation is that Jesus actually told basically the same story several times with slightly different details because he was telling them to a different audience in different settings. In other words, it is possible that the reason that Matthew, Mark and Luke have parallel stories in different settings is not that they wrote their gospels to achieve particular theological purposes that worked best if they put them in different orders, combinations and settings and but because Jesus actually used them in different orders, combinations and settings and the ones that fitted best with a particular eyewitness’s theological emphasis were the ones that were remembered by that person. Quite a few of the changes that we see that are named as ‘redaction’ could equally be the result of people retelling a story in their own words and it doesn’t matter whether the story is one they have read somewhere or one they have heard somewhere. My article  “How Accurate Are Eyewitnesses? Bauckham and the Eyewitnesses in the Light of Psychological Research.” Journal of Biblical Literature 129, no. 1 (2010): 177-97 summarises the literature on both eyewitness testimony and human memory.

So, in short, yes, I think what you suggest is possible, Mike, but because we are working with Greek text of the Synoptics and largely Coptic text of Thomas and some of the Greek text we do have puts the sayings in a different order to the Coptic text, I don’t think we canbe at all certain about which of the various theories is correct. I think that on the basis of the evidence we have, it is perfectly possible that Thomas was written in total isolation from the Synoptics, on the basis of teaching that he learned verbatim from Jesus. That he used the sayings he used because they were the ones that he remembered best over the years because they were the ones that helped him to make sense of his world and his life.  I think it is exceedingly unlikely that the author picked up texts of the Synoptics, selected his/her favourite bits, changed them so that they would produce the spin he wanted and made up a whole pile of other stuff so that he could convince a group of gullible people of the veracity of his/her particular theological system (whatever that is). What we need in order to make a more definitive statement about which of the various theories of composition is most likely is an early copy of a full Greek text. Even then, however, if you accept that Jesus tried to get his disciples to learn his sayings verbatim, you don’t need to have a theory of textual dependence even with really significant verbatim sections.

Gathercole on the composition of Thomas (6)

I have finally finished the book and propose to deal with the remaining 8 chapters in one post. The other option would be to look at each chapter in detail and that would take too long.

Chapter 6  is entitled Thomas and the Synoptics: A Method for Assessing Influence and proposes 6 stages in a method for assessing the influence of the Synoptics on Thomas. Gathercole outlines it as follows:

  1. Influence from the Synotpics on Thomas will be evident where Thomas reproduces redactional material.
  2. Where there is influence, taking the direction of that influence to be Synoptics –> Thomas (rather than Thomas –> Synoptics) can be justified on various grounds.
  3. The influence from the Synoptics can only reliably be seen in Thomas’s reception of Matthean and Lukan redaction of Mark.
  4. The sample of Thomas sayings to be analysed is thus restricted to places where there are parallels with Mark and at least one of the other Synoptics.
  5. Various options are discussed for how influence might take place, including combinations of oral and literary factors.
  6. Finally, the quesiton is raised of when in Thomas‘s compositional and transmission history any influence of the Synoptics might have been exerted (p 145).

On the basis of point 4, Gathercole only looks at 20 sayings – those that have a parallel in both Mark and at least one of Matthew or Luke.

Having amplified the six points, he then applies the method in chapters 7 & 8, Matthew in the Gospel of Thomas and Luke and the Gospel of Thomas. In doing this, he picks up Elaine Pagels’ suggestion that GTh 13.3 (where Jesus asks the disciples what they think he is and Matthew answers that he is a wise philosopher) is a reference to the content of Matthew’s gospel, although he rejects the notion that Peter’s comment about Jesus being like a righteous angel does not need to be a reference to either Mark or Gospel of Peter, because Peter is an unsurprising interlocuter, whereas Matthew is not. The notion that GTh 13.3 is a reference to Matthew’s gospel appears to be a key piece of evidence because he mentions it quite frequently. On the basis of his methodology, 11 of the 20 sayings are examples of Thomas‘s reception of Matthean or Lukan redaction of Mark.

Section II ends with chapter 9, The Composition of the Gospel of Thomas, in which Gathercole surveys the previous chapters and concludes that:

attempts to exclude the influence of the Synoptics from the Gospel of Thomas are unsuccessful. There is in Thomas what one might term ‘significant’ influence indentifiable from Matthew and Luke. The influence is significant not because the redactional elements … which appear in Thomas are remarkably extensive in any particular places, but rather because these redactional traces appear in eleven out of twenty sayings in which they might be identified ( p 223).

He notes that it is not possible to know by what method this influence was exerted – whether it was oral, literary or “secondary orality”, but it is clear from the foregoing and succeeding parts of the book that his definite preference is that it is literary influence.

I find his arguments significantly less convincing than he does, especially for literary influence. He continually uses words such as ‘significant’ and ‘striking’ for extremely short strings of correspondence, similar wording that is not the same and the occasional shared use of an unusual word. Research on human memory has demonstrated that even members of highly writing-dependent cultures can reproduce strings of 15 words or more verbatim from memory and people living in oral and verbomotor cultures can do significantly better than this, so strings of 6-7 words, even with one of 13, are not convincing evidence of literary influence. While it is, of course, possible that the author of Thomas was familiar with written versions of both Matthew and Luke but chose to change the wording to suit his own ends, the evidence provided is not enough to rule out: oral transmission; a common source, either oral or written; or transmission of traditions that sprang from two different eyewitnesses to Jesus’ teaching. Gathercole dismisses the first two of these and does not address the third. Indeed, it appears that he has done very little reading in the area of oral transmission and none at all in human memory and eyewitness testimony. The latter two are, at least in my opinion, very important given that we hold that the gospels are, in general, eyewitness accounts of the life and teaching of Jesus which were transmitted orally in Christian communities for several decades before they were recorded in written form.

Part III looks at Thomas and other early Christian literature. Chapter 10 examines two passages in Romans and one in 1 Corinthians and concludes that Paul influences Thomas.  Chapter 11 looks at the phrase ‘the world is not worthy’ in the Epistle to the Hebrews and GTh 56, 80 and 111 and concludes that Thomas was influenced by the Epistle to the Hebrews. It seems to me that the argument he provides and dismisses for the expression simply being a pre-existing multilingual Jewish expression is stronger. Chapter 12 is entitled A note on the “two wys” tradition and GTh 25 and in it he concludes that Thomas should be included in the group of texts influenced by a hypothetical re-existing “two ways” source.

In summary, Gathercole finds that Thomas was originally written in Greek, is dependent on both Luke and Matthew as well as some of the Pauline corpus and the Epistle to the Hebrews (and probably other sources as well). Gathercole makes it clear that he is not arguing that the author of Thomas sat down with the texts of the Synoptics, Paul and Hebrews in front of him and copied and pasted as he saw fit, but it is also clear that he prefers the notion that there is literary rather than oral dependence of Thomas on the Synoptics. What this actually means, though, is rather unclear. The book would have benefitted from a careful definition of dependence (as would most works addressing this issue). Sometimes he suggests that this might be as vague as once having heard them read and remembering them, at other times, the reader gets the impression that he thinks that the author may have read them. In the latter chapters, he tends to use ‘influence’ rather than dependence, and this seems to be a better way of talking about what he is claiming. I think that  he succeeds in making it obvious that we simply do not have sufficient evidence to be able to be dogmatic about any theory of  composition of Thomas and that theories about source, dating, original language etc are all intertwined, but I do not find his arguments for his position nearly as compelling as he does.

Gathercole on the composition of Thomas (5)

Chapter 5 is entitled Responses to Arguments for Independence and contains a discussion of the weaknesses that Gathercole perceives in the arguments for Thomas being independent of the Synoptics. I find a number of the things he says in it puzzling or surprising and often wish that he had provided examples to back up his statements.

In the introduction, Gathercole notes that while the previous four chapters can stand alone, their findings also have three significant implications for how we understand the relationship between Thomas and the Synoptics. The first two are straightforward and simply summaries of what has gone before:

  • a putative early Aramaic Thomas would make a relationship between it and the Synoptics unlikely, but a Greek original makes a relationship between the four more likely.
  • if it were possible to demonstrate that Thomas and the Synoptics contained divergent translations from Aramaic originals, independence would be more likely, but the conclusions drawn in chapters 2 and 3  suggest that the case is not particularly compelling.

The third surprised me.

  • He says that the discussion in chapter 4 of the similarities bettween the Greek and Coptic texts “showed that the content of Thomas was reasonably stable across the century or two separating the Greek fragments and the Coptic version. The implications of this point for our discussion are traced further in ensuing chapters (p 129).” Perhaps I have not read chapter 4 thoroughly enough, but I have been unable to find any statement about the stability of the content until this point in the book. It is therefore not clear to me exactly how he feels that he has demonstrated this.

Gathercole also indicates that:

these chapters will not argue for anything like total dependence upon the Synoptics, as if all the author or editor of Thomas knew was Mark, Matthew and Luke and nothing else (I am not aware of any scholar who has argued for that position.) Clearly Thomas is – on any reckoning – at least partially independent of the Synoptics, as it is virtually incredible that the editor of Thomas invented all the material not paralleled with the Synoptics. The presence both of non-Synoptic but Synoptic-like material in Thomas and of other quite different sayings clearly points towards partial independence, but neither of these can be regarded as indicating the independence of what is paralleled in the Synoptics (pp 129-130). [underlining added]

I am not sure what it is that Gathercole is trying to convey in the underlined sentence.  Clearly, those sayings in Thomas which do not appear in any of the Synoptics cannot possibly be held to be dependent on them, but the source of any non-parallel material is irrelevant.  FWIW, if you hold that the extra material is not authentic Jesus tradition, then the most likely explanation is that the editor and/or his/her community did, in fact, invent it. If you hold that it has the possibility of being authentic Jesus tradition then it must ultimately stem back to some alternative eyewitness source – and John 21:25 certainly suggests that there is plenty of authentic Jesus material that has not appeared in the canonical gospels.

Having said this, Gathercole then identifies four main areas of argument in favour of Thomas being independent and addresses each in turn. I am using his own headings:

  1. Do the differences in order imply the independence of Thomas and the Synoptics? He makes four ponts. He first raises the question of why Thomas would break up and re-order Matthew, which he says is essentially a non-problem, arising from the highly scribal mentality of the early Thomas scholarship. “When this scribal mentality is abandoned, however, the objection ceases to have any force (p 131).” With this comment, he moves on to the next issue, but the situation is by no means as clear cut as he suggests. While it is true that in cultures where material is transmitted orally rather than in written form, the preservation of text in exact verbatim form is not as high a priority as it is in a scribal culture, one of the features of oral transmission is grouping items ways that make them easy to memory. Deliberately dragging a nice, neat, easy to remember section such as Matthew 13 apart is counter-intuitive, unless you wish to accept an explanation such as Perrin’s Syriac catchwords as providing a new way of remembering such a large body of material. His second counter is to quote Tuckett: ‘someone somewhere must have changed or created either the synoptic order or GTh’s order to produce the other (probably with a number of stages in between’ (“The Gospel of Thomas: Evidence for Jesus?”, NTT 52 (1998) 23-24). This is, of course, only true if one is dependent on the other. Given the lack of verbatim agreement and, in some cases, significant differences even in the gist of the parallels, another possibility is that the two come from different eyewitness accounts of different events in Jesus’ teaching where he used slightly different versions of stories in somewhat different order. His third is to remind us that Wilson identified several cases where adjacent sayings in Thomas ‘are also juxtaposed in the Synoptics” (p 131) and asks if this is purely accidentally. It almost certainly isn’t, but if what we have is accounts from different eyewitnesses recounting the same events, it would be expected that there would be overlap as well as difference. Fourthly he draws attention to the difference in genre and suggests that in a collection of sayings, one might expect the order not to be as important as it is in something that is clearly narrative. While this is true, it goes against his earlier argument that Thomas and the Synoptics are of the same genre. Most of these points would benefit from the provision of an example to illustrate how he reaches his conclusions, rather than just a bare statement of what he holds to be fact but which appears to me to be open to question.
  2. Do form-critical factors suggest the priority of Thomas‘s versions? This section looks at the various form-critical ‘rules’ used to indicate that one piece of text is older/earlier than another and demonstrates  that some contradict one another and they are by no means as watertight as their supporters suggest. While I agree with what he says in most of this section, his cases would be stronger with the use of examples. As it stands, much of his argument consists simply of quoting the opinions of other scholars and, as usual, he has ignored the evidence from oral transmission and human memory, which this time would support his case.
  3. If Thomas is dependent on the Synoptics, why is there no extensive verbatim correspondence? Here, we are promised a discussion of individual sayings in later chapters, shown again the longest example of correspondence between Greek texts and told that by adopting the correspondence between the Synoptics as the ‘norm’ scholars who favour the independence argument are placing the burden of proof artificially high. Again, the psychological literature on eyewitness testimony and human memory would suggest that this is not the case.
  4. Does the absence or insignificance of Thomas’s appropriation of redactional feature in the Synoptics show that there is no literary relationship? Gathercole obviously argues that it doesn’t, because he has made it very clear that he is convinced that there is a literary relationship between them. He indicates that he will deal with these issues more fully in the next three chapters but in the meantimes makes a number of remarks. I find the points he makes less than obvious without concrete examples. At this point, all I feel that he does successfully is to indicate that there is sufficient evidence of potential redaction so that we cannot rule out the possibility of literary relationship. This hardly needs stating, given the debate in scholarly circles over the past 50 or so years.

In view of my comments above and in previous posts, I am afraid I cannot agree with the first sentence of the conclusion to this chapter “In sum, there is not really a single argument for the thoroughgoing independence of Thomas which has any force (p 143).” He promises that in the following chapters he will demonstrate “that there is actually good reason to suspect the opposite, namely that Matthew and Luke do influence Thomas (p 144).” I hope that this involves more than simple citations of the opinions of others.

To this point, the book has very much the feel of a text for which the author has been given a strict word/page limit which only allows a sketch of the material being presented. It is a relatively slim volume, but this is clearly the result of the nice paper on which I commented in the first post. There are 270 pages of text, plus introduction and indices, and I notice that many of the thicker paperbacks on my shelves have fewer pages than this.

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.

Consequences of multiple tellings of stories

Ben Byerly and Mark Goodacre have made comments on this post which have caused me to give some more thought to how the tradition might have been effected by the extreme likelihood that Jesus told at least some of his stories more than once. I think there are two issues.

1. Development of separate tracks

Mark, I think I can see two ways in which Jesus’ telling the same stories more than once might result in separate tracks of the tradition, but that might depend on exactly what you mean by that. And please note that this is a might, rather than a must. I am very much saying that when faced with parallels that have significant differences, these are options to explain how it came about. Much more work needs to be done on individual passages to decide which option or options are most likely.

  1. The scenario that makes sense to me is that Jesus had a number of stories that he used to illustrate particular points. Since he was clearly a charismatic teacher, I think it’s reasonable to assume that he might have used different illustrations for the same point in different circumstances. For example, the parables of the pearl and the treasure as they appear in the Synoptic tradition are both about selling everything you have in order to get something (the Kingdom) which is of much higher value.  The pearl would appeal to merchants, whereas the treasure would appeal to farmers. He might well have used either or both in particular circumstances, depending on who was in his audience. As I suggest here, the fact that he was likely to have used stories in different combinations, again depending on his audience, is likely to result in their being remembered in different combinations by different people. This would include both people who only heard Jesus once or twice and those who travelled with him all the time, because different people find different things memorable. It is therefore quite possible that one of the disciples might remember one combination because of something that happened on a particular day that didn’t interest another disciple.
  2. Jesus may have told the same basic story but with a different twist to illustrate a somewhat different point- so perhaps Matt 23:25-26 and Luke 11: 39b-41 (the bit about washing the inside of the cup) might have been told differently by Jesus. Again, different disciples would potentially remember different versions because of their own particular interestes.

On the other hand, Jesus may have used common themes to illustrate different points – so that what on the surface appear to be parallels are actually different stories. I think that GosThom 8 (the parable of the wise angler) and Matt 13: 47-48 (the parable of the net) come into this category. I think that they are simply two of the various fishing  stories in circulation at the time that illustrate quite different points. In Thomas, Jesus is pointing out that once people have found the meaning of Jesus’ sayings it will be easy to distinguish from the wrong ones, whereas in Matthew, Jesus is talking about the fact that not everyone who is part of the church will necessarily make it into the Kingdom.

2. Consequences of frequent hearing

Ben’s comment that the disciples would probably have heard some of Jesus’ stories often enough to have known them really well opens up a new stream of thinking about what might constitute incontravertible evidence of textual rather than oral transmission, and of reliability of transmission. I’m sure we’ve all seen partners and children who have heard favourite stories told so often that they can repeat them more or less verbatim. Children in particular are inclined to do so in unison with their parent’s (boring) story. Perhaps, therefore, it doesn’t matter that the disciples were not trained oral tradents. The repetition may have made up for this, and may have enabled them to keep the Jesus tradition reliably in their minds for much longer than would make sense if they had only heard it once or twice?

Dr Who as a test case for human memory?

I am not sure whether I am just verbose, but I started to respond to comments by Mark (Goodacre) and James (McGrath) to this post and it got very long, so I’ve moved it again.

Mark said:

McIver and Carroll appear to assume that the writing-up of a short-term memory of a single text in some way correlates to the evangelists’ use of oral traditions. What McIver and Carroll are comparing are different kinds of use of single-fixed text, not the difference between oral tradition and written text.

Indeed. I think their statistics are useful, but they’re application has problems.

And James replied:

I’ve tried to think of a situation or experiment that might allow for testing of a scenario more like that in early Christianity. Maybe we should get some volunteers to agree to watch Doctor Who, and try to remember what the Doctor says – without DVRing it and watching it again!

I know that James’ suggestion is presented as humour, but I think it is also a serious suggestion? I agree that we need to find a more “early Christianity” scenario, but it really is challenging, partly because we’re not absolutely sure what we’re trying to recreate.

I think there is no argument that Jesus’ audience didn’t take notes about what he said. I think it would be safe to say that it is almost certain that Jesus’ audiences discussed what they’d heard with co-witnesses and/or people who hadn’t been present. The discussion would reinforce memory, but could also change it. Both these things could be replicated with Dr Who (or Lost) audiences and we could argue that telling them that they would be required to remember what the Doctor says would help to correct for the fact that they will have memories that are less well trained for this kind of thing than were those of the early Christians.

What we don’t know about the people present is whether they just developed ways of remembering things or whether they had specific memory training. Even if they didn’t have specific training, I think that modern participants might need some, although I don’t know what.

What we can’t  easily replicate is Jesus’ effect on his hearers’ lives. Many of the people who heard him went because they thought he might have something helpful to say and it is almost certain that some of those who believed him changed how they thought and lived as a result. This would also have reinforced their memories in the longer term. Unfortunately, sane Dr Who fans are not likely to believe what he says and put it into practice in their lives. I’ve never seen Lost, but I suspect it is in the same category. Although I don’t have any evidence right at the moment, it seems logical that people are more likely to pay attention to (and therefore remember better) things that will affect their lives than to things that are just entertainment.

Maybe getting people who want to make a change in their lives for some reason to attend a talk given by a well-known expert and then tracking what they remembered might work better? As a long term member of a Human Research Ethics Committee, I am trying to work out how you might get ethics clearance for this kind of research, which would require some level of deception . . .

Speeches of Jesus (3) – human memory experiments

Again, I am  moving a comment up to a post of its own. Mark Goodacre says, referring to April DeConick, “Human Memory and the Sayings of Jesus” in Tom Thatcher (ed.), Jesus, the Voice and the Text: Beyond The Oral and Written Gospel (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2008): 135-80 and Robert K. McIver and Marie Carroll: “Experiments to Develop Criteria for Determining the Existence of Written Sources, and Their Potential Implications for the Synoptic Problem,” JBL 121 (2002): 667-87:

I am not persuaded that we should use the 15 or 16 word string criterion of McIver and Carroll. This is something derived from experiments on contemporary students that included some flawed methods and dubious inferences (some comments on McIver and Carroll are included in a post on DeConick’s similar experiments, http://ntweblog.blogspot.com/2008/12/contemporary-memory-experiments-and.html).

[For some reason that I don’t understand, if you click on the link above, it takes you to an error message saying this page doesn’t exist, whereas if you copy the link and paste it into your browser, it finds the post quite happily. This problem is now fixed.]

Mark, as I indicated in my comment on the previous post, I also have reservations about applying research on 20th and 21st century undergraduates directly and uncritically to 1st century Christians because their memories have been trained so differently. I also agree that the fact that the students in April’s research were given stories that are not culturally familiar will have had an effect on how well they remembered. I therefore don’t think that you can take the statistics in her results and apply them to the 1st century, but she doesn’t seem to be trying to do this in what she terms a pilot study. I think that the kinds of transformations are, however, relevant and would bear further investigation in a population that is more like 1st century Christians.

Although I am using a very small sample size (3) and anecdotal evidence, my friends who are blind have far better memories than do I or my sighted friends because it used to be hugely more difficult for them to keep and access written records than it was for people who could write on paper with pencils and carry the notes around with them. I suspect that PDAs and talking text is going to change this, but I think that blind people in their 40s and 50s and older would be a better example of how memory works than are younger undergrads.

Also, at the beginning of her article, she talks about the Parable of the Lottery Ticket, which she gives to her classes. This is a culturally congruent story and it would be very interesting to see the statistics on it. I have also used this parable in my own classes and bible studies, but I get the participants to re-tell it the same day and even when I warn them that they are going to be asked to re-tell it, I only ever get accurate gist, not accurate detail and not terribly long verbatim strings. Their memories really are not terribly impressive.

All this, I think, makes McIver and Carrol’s data potentially an underestimate of the length of verbatim string needed for reasonable certainty that there is a textual rather than an oral relationship between two texts. OTOH, it is also likely that Jesus’ audience was paying closer attention to him than my students or April’s students were paying to us. Neither April nor I are demonstrable miracle workers, after all! Possibly what we needed to do was to say “pay careful attention – the material I am about to present will be examined”. 🙂

At the same time, I don’t think we are dealing with the kind of material that lends itself to incontravertible proof of how it was transmitted. I think we can probably say, along with the originality software, that any verbatim string of 8 words or more that are not aphorisms or stock phrases has the possibility of being copied from a written text, but that we need a much longer string of verbatim correspondence to be able to say with any certainty that this is so. We then need to look at the string in context and analyse the kinds of changes that the material around it has undergone in order to be a bit more certain about our judgements.