Eric Eve on Memory, Orality and the Synoptic Problem

The latest (ie September 2015) edition of Early Christianity looks at on Jesus and Memory: The Memory Approach in Current Jesus Research. My thanks to Chris Keith for pointing it out on the Jesus Blog. I plan to read most, if not all, of the articles in it but started with Eric Eve’s offering, Memory, Orality and the Synoptic Problem (pp 311-333). If you are at all interested in the issues of memory and orality as they relate to the Synoptic problem, I would thoroughly recommend this paper.

Not surprisingly, given the paper’s title, Eve begins by talking about memory (pp 312-317), providing a brief overview of the field and, in particular, the notion of schemata and the role of narrative forms in circulation in a person’s culture in shaping how s/he narrates an event. He then draws attention to the fact that ancient authors tended to memorize sacred texts and then cite them from memory rather than checking written versions of their references. He suggests that

Where both redaction criticism and Synoptic problem studies have traditionally envisaged later Evangelists editing their sources, it might thus be better to think in terms of the later Evangelists reworking their source in memory, with lesser or greater fidelity to the source material dependent on a number of factors. …[This] suggests a model of scribal composition that is as distinct from oral performance as it is from literary production in a print culture. (p 317)

I think that this is a very helpful distinction.

He next moves on to orality (pp 317-323), where he begins by critiquing the ‘distressing vagueness’ (p 317) with which the term ‘oral tradition’ is often used in biblical scholarship to mean anything communicated orally, which ‘has allowed scholars to use “oral tradition” as a kind of wildcard to play in default of any other explanation that fits their preferred theory.’ (pp 317-18)

He then outlines Vansina’s distinction between oral tradition, which is material that is passed down in relatively stable form over a number of generations, or which persists for a number of generations; and oral history – the personal reminiscences of eyewitnesses to an event or those who have heard eyewitnesses more or less first hand. He suggests that not everything that the gospel authors heard by word of mouth was oral tradition in this restricted sense, and while I don’t actually find Vansina’s terms particularly intuitive, I agree that the distinction is significant.

The next point is, I think, very important. He argues that only genuine oral tradition can provide substantial help in explaining synoptic relations because in order to account for detailed similarities or differences in wording between synoptic parallels, the oral material needs to have been stable enough to influence the author’s wording, and to have reached each author in much the same form. This is only possible if the material is oral tradition of the kind that is relatively stable at the level of wording not just gist, rather than oral history (p 319). He appears to be suggesting that while we have evidence that the people of Jesus’ time could learn vast blocks of text by heart, we have no evidence that they did so as a matter of course.

He then moves on to psychologist David Rubin’s fascinating work (Memory in Oral Traditions: The Cognitive Psychology of Epic, Ballads, and Counting-Out Rhymes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995) on how some oral traditions become remarkably stable over time and introduces Rubin’s ideas of serial cueing and the use of multiple constraints to preserve text. Cueing happens when someone performs a song or poem and ‘each line or unit prompts the memory of what comes next.’ (p 321) Eve illustrates this concept using Rubin’s example of the counting-out rhyme Eenie, Meenie, Miney, Mo.  The use of catchwords that is suggested to order GThom is another example of cueing. Rubin suggests that as well as the use of schemata, overall plot structure and vivid imagery to help hearers to remember at the deeper levels of meaning and gist, but that ‘surface features’ such as rhyme, rhythm, alliteration, assonance and melody can also be retained in memory. (p 322)

The third section of the paper looks at agreements and disagreements in the Synoptic tradition (pp 323-327). Eve argues that if Rubin is correct about the role of multiple constraints in oral tradition, then surface linguistic characteristics may well survive together with deeper or schema-related characteristics like gist and imagery and be equally important in stablizing the tradition. Thus the assumption of people like Kenneth Bailey, James Dunn and Rafael Rodríguez that oral tradition primarily preserves gist ‘may not always apply in the case of more poetic or aphoristic material’  (p 323) because the wording may be part of what is necessary to enable the oral text to survive as a piece of memorable tradition. He also recognises that not all of the Synoptic material will work in this way since some (like the Good Samaritan) relies primarily on the imagery and unexpected twists to make it memorable. He also notes that putting material into writing changes the constraints on the author with regard to memorability.

Eve contends that ‘the degree of variation or similarity between parallel versions is not of itself an automatic index of whether the relation between them is oral or literary’ (p 325). Lack of verbatim agreement is not necessarily due to oral tradition, while close verbal agreement between strikingly formulated sayings or memorable poetry need not be the result of text-based copying, because oral tradition can  stabilize this kind of material quite well. Close verbal agreement between prose narratives which lack the surface features of memorable oral tradition would, however, strongly suggest some form of literary relationship. He also argues that “oral tradition” does not provide a good explanation for minor agreements between Matthew and Luke against Mark.

Finally, he addresses the issue of oral tradition and alternating primitivity (pp 327-331) ie the notion that sometimes the more primitive form of the tradition appears in Matthew and sometimes in Luke. He suggests that ‘being shorter does not necessarily make something more primitive, especially in oral tradition’ where extra words may in fact be an aid to memory. This lines up with Frederic Bartlett’s research which showed that successive tellings of stories tended to strip unnecessary detail. After analysing the Beatitudes and the Lord’s prayer, he states that

‘there is simply no way of distinguishing a written deposit of a genuine oral tradition from a good literary imitation of one by a writer steeped in the tradition in question. Formal linguistic features might persuade us that a particular passage could never have been genuine oral tradition, but they can never demonstrate that it must have been one (pp 231-2).’

I very much agree with Eve about the fact that we can’t be nearly as certain about the trajectories through which parallel material in the early Christian writings travelled to the Synoptics, and I find the ideas he outlines intriguing. His theory about the possibility of something closer to original wording being preserved in work that is poetic or aphoristic seems right, but I am not sure if this gets us very much further with respect to the Synoptic material, since very little of it is poetic and most of the sayings recorded are probably too long to be considered aphorisms. I would be very interested to see an extension of this work that indicates which pieces of text he considers to belong to this category.

Rodríguez on oral tradition and our understanding of the gospels

I am currently reading in Rafael Rodríguez’s Structuring early Christian memory (London: T & T Clark, 2009). I don’t intend to write a formal review because I really am trying to complete a chapter of my thesis and make a good start on the next in the next week and a half, and much of the book has little relevance to these two chapters. I am, however, enthusiastic about his section on oral transmission – the fourth chapter, entitled ‘Performance, Structure, Meaning and Text’. I also found the previous chapter on social memory useful and interesting, but that’s not what I want to reflect on.

Rafael reminds us that the oral traditions on which the written gospels are based were not verbatim reproductions of previous performances and that the written gospels are neither verbatim dictations of an oral performance of the Jesus tradition nor notes to enable the reproduction of a verbatim re-performance. He says:

When we approach the gospels as primarily related to that hypothetical, abstract construct (the Jesus tradition) and conceive their interrelationships not as editions or redactions of one another but as interdependent, embodied expressions of that abstract tradition, we effect a critical paradigmatic shift that challenges both the methods and the results of previous analyses. The written gospel traditions are not ‘formally bounded, complete items’ (John Miles Foley, 1995. The Singer of Tales in Performance. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.: xi); they refer to and incorporate the abstract Jesus tradition they instantiate, and they must be read accordingly. The gospels do not refer primarily or exclusively to other ‘formally bounded, complete items’, that is, to other written gospels or sources.

We thus find ourselves reading our texts not primarily in reference to other extant texts, which have a concrete, tangible existence, but in reference to a hypothetical construct: the abstract, untextualizable Jesus tradition. (p 90)

If we do this:

we begin to perceive the problem inherent in the scholarship that establishes one expression of the Jesus tradition (e. g., Mark or Q) as the standard against which other expressions are read simply on the basis that Mark or Q is the ‘earliest’ gospel or is ‘closest to the historical Jesus’…The texts of the gospels … for all their similarities and differences, reference the same traditional corpus, though in different ways, for different purposes, and, often, to different ends. (p 91)

This makes a great deal of sense to me. It is quite clear that there are sections of the synoptics where the level of verbatim correspondence indicates that there is a textual relationship between the two/three texts, but the fact that an author clearly had access to a written version of another gospel does not necessarily mean that he decided to alter the sections where it is different simply for his own theological purposes. Rather, it might well have differed from the version of the oral tradition with which he (and his community) was (were) familiar so that he felt the need to correct it – and this leads to the reception of the texts.

Rafael says:

New Testament research needs to broaden its focus from the texts’ composition to consider the texts’ reception. Both the evangelists and their audiences would have been familiar with and participants in oral performances of the Jesus tradition. Once the texts of the gospels were committed to writing, is it really likely that those texts represented radical departures from the oral tradition that preceded and continued to develop alongside them? We cannot presume that our texts preserve records of single performances, such that ‘gospel composition’ becomes transcription; still less can we continue to presume that our gospels are the ‘Markan’, ‘Matthean’, or ‘Lukan’ version of the tradition. Rather, our texts were written in the context of oral performances of the Jesus tradition and would have been received by their audiences as performances that, though transformed into written texts, preserved extra-textual references to the Jesus tradition as a whole. (pp 97-7)

In other words, a written text that was provided to a community that knew the oral tradition would not have been well received if its author tried to do a radical reshaping of the tradition, although they were highly unlikely to have objected to somewhat different wording of the stories as long as the punchline was correct.

In looking at the issue of reception, Rafael talks about the fact that the audiences of the oral transmission were familiar with the contexts in which the stories were told – something that is potentially lost once the text is written down and sent away. He suggests that the beginnings of the gospels might well provide cues to the context and how the author intended it to be read (ie in which ‘performance area’ it belonged), picking up on work by Loveday Alexander in this area (see pp 107-9). This certainly makes sense to me, and is the approach I am taking to the Thomas sayings. I think that the fact that the author tells us at the beginning that these are secret sayings and that anyone who finds the meaning of them will not taste death affects how the sayings are read.

One section, however, interests me because I see it differently. Early in the chapter, Rafael says:

Kelber emphasizes performance as the moment of composition: ‘transmission and composition converge in oral performance. Although the speaker used traditional materials, she or he was composing while speaking . . . The idea was not to reproduce what was said previously, but to (re)compose so as to affect the present circumstance.’ (Kelber 1995 ‘Jesus and Tradition: Words in Time, Words in Space’. Orality and Textuality in Early Christian Literature. Semeia 65. Ed J. Dewey. Atlanta: Scholars Press: 150, citing Lord 1960 The Singer of Tales. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press: 5, 101; emphasis added). But why does Kelber oppose ‘reproduc[ing] what was said previously’ with ‘affect[ing] the present’? This opposition is not only unnecessary, it jars against Kelber’s helpful recognition of ‘traditional materials’ in oral performance. (p 83)

To me, Kelber’s statement makes a great deal of sense in terms of what I know of the art of story-telling and also some of the psychological research on human memory and story-telling.  When skilled story-tellers tell a story, they take their outline and recast it in ways that they think will be most effective to achieve the effect the want to evoke from their current audience. They do not tell stories just because they can, but to achieve a particular effect or result. In other words, they tell stories to affect the present circumstance of their hearers. The desired effect might be as simple as to lift the mood of the audience by making them laugh, but it is more likely to be to promote thought about a particular issue as well. They will modify their language and choose which details to emphasize and which to minimize on the basis of the likely interests of the current audience. When I preach on one of the farming parables in a rural setting, I will often re-tell the parable with some added invitations to the audience to picture themselves in the situation, so I will encourage the grain farmers to think about the contrast between their use of huge headers and combine harvesters in contrast to the hand sowing and reaping practised in Jesus’ times; and I will talk in detail about the likely species of weed in the parable of the man who sowed good seed. I think that this is probably the kind of affecting of the present circumstance that Kelber had in mind and I don’t see it as jarring against his recognition of traditional materials in oral performance.

Criteria of Authenticity

I have been doing some reading around the Criteria of Authenticity for sayings of the Historical Jesus and find that I am now confused. It appears that, despite the fact that scholars talk about The Criteria of Authenticity as though they were an agreed list, they aren’t.

A quick search of the web came up with:

Robert H. Stein, “The ‘Criteria’ for Authenticity,” R.T. France & David Wenham, eds., Gospel Perspectives, Vol. 1, Studies of History and Tradition in the Four Gospels. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1980. pp.225-263.
He has

  1. The criterion of multiple attestation on the cross-section approach
  2. The criterion of multiple forms
  3. The criterion of Aramaic linguistic phenomena
  4. The criterion of Palestinian environmental phenomena
  5. The criteria of the tendencies of the developing tradition
  6. The criterion of dissimilarity on discontinuity
  7. The criterion of modification by Jewish Christianity
  8. The criterion of divergent patterns from the redaction
  9. The criterion of environmental contradiction
  10. The criterion of contradiction of authentic sayings
  11. The criterion of coherence (or consistency)

Stanley E. Porter, The Criteria for Authenticity in Historical-Jesus Research: Previous Discussion and New Proposals. JSNTSup 191. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000.

If Richard Vinson’s review of this for JBL is accurate (and it seems to be from what I can see of the book on Google books), Porter suggests that there have been five criteria but thinks there should be three more.

  1. dissimilarity
  2. coherence
  3. multiple attestation
  4. least distinctiveness
  5. Aramaic background plus
  6. Greek language
  7. Greek textual variance
  8. discourse features

John Kloppenborg has an article on his website where he lists one preliminary criterion, five primary criteria and three secondary ones.

The preliminary one is being very suspicious of anything that lines up too closely with the evangelist’s particular theological leanings. This is followed by:

  1. dissimiliarity
  2. embarassment
  3. multiple attestation
  4. coherence
  5. historical plausibility plus
  6. Palestinian environmental phenomena or Aramaism
  7. stylistic criterion
  8. plausible tradition history

Michael Kok has gone with Kloppenborg’s first five criteria.

All this rather surprised me, because I was expecting to find the criteria used by the Jesus Seminar in voting on the gospel sayings. The book that outlines the process and presents the findings is Funk, Robert Walter, Roy W. Hoover, and Jesus Seminar. The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus: New Translation and Commentary. New York, Toronto: Macmillan; Maxwell Macmillan Canada; Maxwell Macmillan International, 1993 and it doesn’t have a neat list of criteria. When you look at pp 16-34, they looked at and for:

The rules of written evidence

  1. Clustering and contexting
  2. Revision and commentary
  3. False attribution
  4. Difficult sayings
  5. Christianizing Jesus

The rules of oral evidence

  1. Orality and memory
  2. The storyteller’s license
  3. Distinctive discourse
  4. The laconic sage

FWIW, my summary of the Funk etal criteria can be found at Jesus_semnar_criteria (because I can’t type accurately and changing the file name now is just too hard). It seems, however, that there is no official set of criteria – or have I missed something?

Memory and the historical Jesus – part 4 (Thomas)


Apart from what I have already said here, here and here about the 2013 SBL Memory and the Historical Jesus session, I am also interested in what we might make of the Gospel of Thomas in the light of Rafael’s point about the importance of context although this is moving away from the historical Jesus to the early Jesus movement. Rafael (in his paper, at least) is interested in the importance of context for the work of contemporary historians in accessing the historical Jesus, but it has another important function – that of controlling the possible interpretations.

We are all familiar with public figures, especially politicians, who insist that their comments have been quoted out of context and that they didn’t mean what they are quoted as having said at all. Sometimes this is even true. Sometimes quoting something out of context can sometimes make it possible to interpret it in exactly the opposite meaning to that which it had originally, and decontextualising can often enable a range of quite odd interpretations, as well as those intended by the speaker (or writer). Rafael reminds us that the interpretation given in the text explains why the words were remembered, but it does more than this – it also explains how the writer wants them to be remembered and understood. I wonder what it says about the intent of the author of  GTh, given that copies of it were still being made in the fourth century, so it clearly wasn’t considered to have been superseded by the narrative gospels.

Thomas begins his text with the statement that whoever finds the meaning of the secret sayings of Jesus which were recorded by Judas Didymos Thomas will not taste death, and in it the most complex context provided is “the disciples asked Jesus X and he replied…”. This contrasts with the Synoptics which almost invariably provide contexts that limit potential meanings and in some cases also provide the authorised interpretation (the parable of the sower springs immediately to mind). Given that about half of the so-called ‘secret’ sayings bear a significant resemblance to sayings of Jesus reported in one or more of the Synoptics, it is difficult to know exactly what the author meant by their being ‘secret’ unless GTh really did predate Mark or Q (assuming Q existed). What is quite clear is that he is not giving the reader any clues about the meanings. Any reader who wishes not to taste death needs to do some hard yards to find their correct interpretation.

If you subscribe to the theory that GTh is a Gnostic text (and many people don’t) then only the Gnostic elite have the ability to find the meaning.  If is not Gnostic, perhaps the Thomas community might have been allowing room for the guidance of the Holy Spirit to help those who genuinely wanted/deserved eternal life to find the correct meaning of the sayings – although the role of the Holy Spirit does not feature significantly in GTh.

Verbatim memory

In addition, having been quite pessimistic about our ability to prove the authenticity of any Jesus tradition or to have the actual words of Jesus, both here and on Michael Kok’s blog, I want to note a counter-argument. Anyone who has read to a small, preliterate child will recognise the speed with which they are able to learn by heart the text of a favourite book. Any attempt to alter the words or skip pages is met with loud protests and some will also offer to ‘read’ the book to you, sitting down and leafing through the pages, turning at the right time whilst reciting the words for you. I suspect that some of Jesus’ teachings were produced often enough so the disciples who travelled around with him got to know them pretty much by heart. I still think that the time-lapse between when Jesus taught and the gospels were written down, combined with the vagaries of both individual and social memory mitigates against our being able to prove that the gospels contain Jesus’ actual words, but I don’t think that what we have is necessarily a long way removed from them.

Memory and the Historical Jesus (SBL session recording) – part 1

It’s Christmas Day and I finally have time to finish off a post that I started nearly a week ago.  It seems appropriate that on the day when Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus I should reflect on what we actually know about him.

A little over a week ago, I was pleased to be able to listen to an audio recording of the Memory Studies in Historical Jesus Research session at SBL 2013, thanks to Anthony Le Donne over at the Jesus Blog (and, I assume, to the participants who gave permission for it to be put on line).  The presentations were/are:

  1. Chris Keith – “The Past Approaching and Approaching the Past: The Contribution of Memory Studies to Historical Jesus Research”
  2. Zeba Crook – “Memory Distortion and the Historical Jesus”
  3. Rafael Rodríguez – “An Uneasy Concord: Memory and History in Contemporary Jesus Research”
  4. Paul Foster – “Memory: Help or Hindrance in Historical Jesus Research?”

This session has been referred to as the ‘blow-up in Baltimore‘ – a name coined by Tyler Stewart – and the question and answer session at the end was certainly lively, although not quite as lively I expected of something described as a ‘blowup’. A problem with the audio of the Q&A was that it was not always easy to tell which of the participants was speaking (almost certainly because James Crossley, the chair of the session, didn’t realise he was moderating for audio-recording). While Chris Keith’s southern accent and Paul Foster’s very British tones are quite distinctive, Rafael Rodríguez and Zeba Crook are somewhat more difficult to tell apart in the heat of discussion – at least I found them so (North Americans need to note that Australians and New Zealanders find it incredible that you can’t tell our accents apart, too). Unfortunately, I can’t see a way of articulating my reactions in a reasonable number of words for one post, so I have split it into two, with my comments on Chris and Zeba’s presentations here and on Rafael and Paul’s in part 2.

I found myself agreeing with some of the things that each of them said (or the things I understood them to be saying, anyway) and disagreeing with others. One of the things I found consistently interesting is that they, and I, all seem to be coming to very similar conclusions about the nature of the gospel materials, even if what we think we should do about it is different. I think that what we have is the beginnings of triangulation, which is good.

[Alan Bryman (‎) offers the following definition of the use of triangulation in social science research: “Triangulation refers to the use of more than one approach to the investigation of a research question in order to enhance confidence in the ensuing findings. Since much social research is founded on the use of a single research method and as such may suffer from limitations associated with that method or from the specific application of it, triangulation offers the prospect of enhanced confidence.”]

I found Chris’s survey of the field of Social Memory Theory (SMT) very helpful, and would recommend listening to the recording of his inaugural lecture (“Social Memory Theory and the Gospels – the first ten years”) for further information, although the video part is less than stimulating. :-) I agreed with him when he called into question the criteria of authenticity and said that memory doesn’t preserve the past in a way that means that you can separate past actions from their interpretations, but that historians can nevertheless make a reasonable guess at the past. I kind of agreed with him when he said that SMT makes a definite contribution to historiography, but that its contribution is to how we use the material we have to reach our conclusions.  Maybe I abbreviated what he said in the notes I took, but I think that what SMT does is to help us to understand what kind of material we actually have and it is this which informs (or should inform) how we can and can’t use it in reaching conclusions about history.

Zeba provided a quick tour of the psychological research on memory, noted that most groups want to keep a positive image of themselves and therefore tend to manipulate their memories for the purpose of collective self-deception, and that some of the ways that memory distorts the past are less severe than others. He listed them in order of severity. I agreed with all of this. I am not so sure about his conclusion that this leaves us with a New No Quest (for the historical Jesus), which we might perhaps replace with a quest for the remembered Jesus. The quest for the historical Jesus is no more hopeless than is the quest for the historical Julius Caesar or the quest for any other historical personage (Richard Burridge, What are the Gospels?: a comparison with Graeco-Roman biography. 2d ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004 provides comparisons between the gospels and bioi of other historical personages of the time), yet historians do not appear to be giving up on them. The difference is in what we want to do with the information we find out about the historical Jesus and the historical Julius Caesar – no-one today is trying to base their lifestyle on the sayings of Caesar and even the Romans who considered their emperors to be divine had a very different relationship to them to the one that Christians have to Jesus.

If you read the psychological literature, while it is possible to get people to ‘remember’ things that simply didn’t happen, if they are wholly fictitious events as opposed to merely altered details,  there needs to be a deliberate attempt and some significant work on the part of some external agent to create a false memory. Thus, if we are prepared to accept that the early Christians were people of integrity who had had genuine encounters with Jesus, it is less likely that we have total fabrications than that we have distortions. Again, this helps us to understand that we don’t have empirically verifiable facts, but what we have is arguably no less reliable than any other historical evidence from that period or any other period before less ephemeral records are available. the broad brushstrokes of the gospel stories are highly likely to be accurate, but the details less so.

Now read on.

Memory in real life (3)

So far, I have been talking about individual memory, but in this post, I’d like to address two things that affect how groups remember things. One is culture and the other is authority.

Cultures can be (very roughly) described as independent or interdependent. Many western cultures (eg the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada) are generally independent – they value separateness, autonomy and self-sufficiency and consider the individual to be at least as important as  the group. Many eastern cultures (eg China, Japan, and parts of the m\Middle East) tend to be interdependent – they emphasize connectedness, social context and harmony and value the group more highly than any individual in it.

When a group of eyewitnesses get together to talk about an event, it is almost inevitable that there will be times when two people will have conflicting memories of the same aspect of the event.  Groups from independent cultures tend to have a relatively low tolerance for this situation (often termed incongruity/cognitive dissonance in the psychological literature) and are likely to want to work out which of the two people is right.  They will employ a range of strategies to determine this including taking a vote to see which version the majority of the group agrees with. Indeed, it’s quite likely that the second person will begin his or her version with the words “No, you’re wrong – it was like this.” While we in the west regard it as a bit awkward if this causes a robust discussion in which both sides insist that their version is the correct one, we are much more interested in finding out “what really happened” than in group harmony, so if the group splits into two camps and members of the other side don’t actually talk to us again, we see that as their problem not ours.

Groups from interdependent cultures will try to maintain harmony within the group, so they will work towards a compromise, even if the compromise position cannot possibly be the truth because no-one (initially) remembers it happening in that way. They often have a higher tolerance for incongruity/cognitive dissonance – and the fact that the early church was quite happy to accept the four gospels as canon suggests that they were like this. Tatian was possibly an exception, although the Diatessaron may simply have been a different way of allowing all versions of the Jesus story to be heard. I am not sure how long ago parts of western Christianity started to try to explain how there really is no contradiction between the gospels, but it does not appear to have been an issue for the church of the fourth century. (References for the effect of culture on dealing with differences in memory of events include: Jennifer L. Aaker and Jaideep Sengupta, “Additivity versus Attenuation: The Role of Culture in the Resolution of Information Incongruity,” Journal of Consumer Psychology 9 (2000): 67–82; Jennifer L. Aaker, “Accessibility or Diagnosticity? Disentangling the Influence of Culture on Persuasion Processes and Attitudes,” Journal of Consumer Research 26 (2000): 340; Sheena S. Iyengar and Mark R. Lepper, “Rethinking the Value of Choice: A Cultural Perspective on Intrinsic Motivation,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 76 (1999): 349–66; Michael W. Morris and Kaiping Peng, “Culture and Cause: American and Chinese Attributions for Social and Physical Events,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 67 (1994): 949–71.)

The other thing that has a significant effect on both recall and group processes is the relative authority of the people involved. There is significant evidence that the perceived authority of the person asking questions about an event will have an effect on how eyewitnesses answer questions. I am very frustrated that I can’t find the relevant references for this, but in general if someone with higher authority asks the questions, people will try harder to remember things and be more inclined to guess. Over time, the guessing is remembered more and more confidently (see, for example Hastie, Reid, Robert Landsman, and Elizabeth F Loftus. “Eyewitness Testimony: The Dangers of Guessing.” Jurimetrics Journal 19, no. 1 (1978): 1-8 and Schacter, Daniel L. The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001: 115-117). And, although I don’t have references to back this up, I also suspect that the perceived relative authority of group members will affect how much notice is taken of their accounts of events. In strongly hierarchical societies, I suspect that it it both more likely that the more senior members of the group are given the opportunity to speak first and that there is significant unease about saying something that would make these people look as though they had made a mistake.  This is certainly the case with the international students that I work with, and makes it challenging for them to operate in tutorial groups where they find it very difficult to question anything said by the lecturer or tutor.

Since it is well documented that ageing tends to have a negative effect on the memory and age is one of the criteria for authority and respect in eastern cultures, we have the possibility that the most flawed memory of the story is the one that the group accepts as accurate or is the most influential in forming the version that the group accepts and passes on. Given that there were quite a few eyewitnesses to many of the events in Jesus’ public ministry, it is highly likely that a range of different “agreed versions” of what he said and did were in circulation fairly soon after each event as different small groups talked together about their experiences.


A couple of  references about the effect of the authority or credibility of the questioner are James Marshall, Law and Psychology in Conflict (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1965), 41–63; Loftus, Eyewitness Testimony, 98; Gerald Echterhoff, William Hirst, and Walter Hussy, “How Eyewitnesses Resist Misinformation: Social Postwarnings and the Monitoring of Memory Characteristics,” Memory & Cognition 33 (2005): 770–82.

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.