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.

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.

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.

SBL Auckland

I’m looking forward to going to Auckland for this year’s SBL International Conference. As well as presenting my own paper, I’m looking forward to hearing quite a number of others, to being able to catch up with friends and colleagues whom I don’t see very often and to find out a bit more about Maori culture. The conference begins with a Powhiri (welcome ceremony) at the Marae at Auckland University and I am booked on the Tamaki Hikoi guided tour which introduces Maori culture. When I was in Christchurch last year on my way home from Texas, I was able to get a tiny taste of Maori culture and am really interested to hear more. It is particularly interesting that there are significant similarities between Maori art and the art of the Canadian First Nations people in British Columbia.

I have found the research that I’ve been doing for my paper really fascinating, if slightly “off topic” for my thesis. The topic is “Eyewitness Testimony in Psychological Research: Some Consequences for Richard Bauckham’s Work.” The work I’m referring to is, of course, his Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (Eerdmans, 2006). If you’re interested, you can read the abstract on the SBL conference website.  I didn’t realise just how huge the corpus of psychological eyewitness/memory literature is until I started reading.  You could read until the cows come home and still not be on top of every aspect!

It’s interesting that there is so little cross-pollination between the disciplines.  There are books on memory in oral traditions, on memory and retelling of stories, how culture affects memory, things that psychologists take for granted about eyewitness accounts (or autobiographical/recollective memory) that just don’t appear in the literature of biblical studies.

I know – so many books to read, so little time, but still…

Easter Reflections

If we go by the secular calendar, this time last year, I was making final preparations to fly to Houston to spend five weeks at Rice University with April DeConick. If we go by the church calendar, this time last year, I had been in Houston five days and attended Maundy Thursday and Good Friday worship at the Rice Catholic Student Centre with my wonderful hosts, Judy and David Schubert.

I reflected on this as I sat in the Good Friday service in my home church this morning. There, I was surrounded by people I knew, even though my husband was home nursing a cold. The liturgy, although not actually predictable, was familiar, as was the venue. In Houston, I had been among strangers and the liturgy was in some aspects probably more predictable than the Uniting Church one and in others quite alien. Kissing the crucifix is not a part of the Uniting Church Good Friday ritual! :-)

Christmas is a part of the church calendar that stays the same each year and fits quite nicely into the secular calendar of “Christian” countries. Although the story of Jesus birth is a bit odd, it doesn’t cause major problems for the average secular member of society.

Easter moves around – doesn’t fit neatly into the secular calendar at all. This year it is so early that the uni isn’t starting the mid-semester non-teaching period with Easter as it usually does – we’re just having four days off and then it’s business as usual for several more weeks before the break. The Easter message is also much more difficult for those who don’t practise Christianity to deal with. An interesting parallel, I think.

As our pastor led us in an affirmation of faith based on 1 Cor 1: 18-25 (the foolishness to the Gentiles and scandal to the Jews bit) and talked about the coming celebration of the resurrection, I thought about the Gospel of Thomas. If ⲡⲉⲩⲁⲅⲅⲉⲗⲓⲟⲛ ⲡⲕⲁⲧⲁ ⲑⲱⲙⲁⲥ (ie the gospel according to Thomas) is an early title for the text, the Thomas community must surely have had a very different theology of what constitutes ‘good news’ to that of the more orthodox Christian communities of the time.

A gospel that doesn’t contain an account of the (crucifixion and) resurrection must consider some other thing than Christ’s triumph over the power of death to be the important part of the gospel message, because the resurrection doesn’t get a guernsey in Thomas. It has, however, been extremely important in the understanding of “mainstream” Christians for nearly two thousand years, if the creeds of the early church are anything to go on.

Deciding exactly what was the heart of the gospel for Thomas Christians is beyond me at the moment. Maybe I’ll think about it later, but just at the moment I am trying to get to the end of my reading on eyewitness testimony in the psychological literature.

A little later

Bother.  Now I’m confused.  On Good Friday last year, I went with David to a marvellous, justice-focussed Stations of the Cross in the Exxon Plaza in downtown Houston, followed by a lunch at a restaurant on the way home.  That wasn’t an alien liturgy.  I’ve done Stations many times before, beginning at Theological Hall (seminary).  I know I went to a Maundy Thursday service at the Student Centre, but I’m pretty sure I went to a Good Friday one, as well.  Maybe in the evening?  Or maybe not?

I do know that on Easter Day, I was very pleased to be at a United Methodist service at St Paul’s, also near Rice, with Judy’s brother and his wife.  The very large church was very, very full and the liturgy was in some ways very like a Catholic one, except that we didn’t kneel (Judy’s brother, who had grown up Catholic, commented on this).  In many other ways, though, it wasn’t and I felt much more at home.

However, my lack of clarity twelve months on about exactly what I did last Easter lines up very closely with the reading I’m doing about eyewitness memory.   I just checked the two emails I sent home on Good Friday and Easter Day and discovered that I did go to church at the Catholic Student Centre on Good Friday – in the evening.  The gist of my recollections was correct, but the detail was a bit fuzzy and without the emails, I really wouldn’t have been sure.  I was very much inclined to think that maybe we’d been offered the option of kissing the crucifix on Maundy Thursday, even though that didn’t make sense liturgically.

This is actually very interesting.  Might be useful for my Auckland SBL paper.