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.