Jesus and the Eyewitnesses – Part 7

I’m all the way to Chapters 12 and 13. It’s still maintaining the edge-of-your-seat interest (as much as can be expected from an academic book) despite the earlier slow part in the middle.

The theme of these chapters relates to memory and its reliability. After outlining some theories of memories and the relative stability and variability of the human memory, Bauckham touches on some of the relevant literature with respect to false memories. This would, obviously, be very important with respect to the reliability of the Gospels; to what extent may the Gospel stories be false memories – events that a person is convinced happened, but did not, as a matter of fact. Bauckham observes, “… memories for unusual events are least likely to be false memories. Memorable events stick with us; it is with the ordinary and the everyday that our memories may sometimes deceive us.” (page 329)

Bauckham explores some of the research that psychologists in the field of memory studies have done. Not surprisingly, human memory is never perfect but the questions we should be concerned with include:

  1. What kinds of events are more likely to be remembered?
  2. What kinds of details about events are more likely to be remembered?

Bauckham lists some of the results of studies in the field and compares those results to the events with respect to the life of Jesus. Were the events of Jesus’ life unusual? Check! Were the eyewitnesses personally invested in the events? Check. Were the stories of the events repeated so as to further ingrain the memory in their recollection. Check. The lists go on. He summarizes his comparison of the memories about Jesus with the literature about memory formation, “We may conclude that the memories of eyewitnesses of the history of Jesus score highly by the criteria for likely reliability that have been established by the psychological study of recollective memory.” (page 346)

Those who might wish to challenge the trustworthiness of the Gospels due to the frailty of human memory face another challenge, it seems to me. The psychological studies that Bauckham refers to with respect to the limits of reliability of human memory are not focused on human memory of “spiritual” events. On the contrary, human memory can fail us with respect to any event, spiritual or otherwise. If one wants to doubt the Gospels because of the possibility that human memory can fail then it seems one needs to doubt significantly more than just the Gospels. Much of human history could fall under a shadow of hyper-skepticism. Indeed, given the fact that human memory is most reliable with respect to unusual events one could even argue that if it cannot be trusted to accurately recall details about something as remarkable as the resurrection then we should be even more reluctant to accept eyewitness testimony about more mundane events like national histories, political figures and the like. Indeed broad strokes of human history fall by the way side given that excessive criteria.

Overall these two chapters were informative and useful, though in the context of the entire book it seems to me they were more a matter of sweeping out the corners of criticism than adding, directly, to his thesis. A worthwhile sweeping, unquestionably, but I haven’t much to comment on beyond the general observation that human memory ain’t that bad on the whole. With respect to the events surrounding Jesus’ life, death and resurrection we have good reason to believe human memory would have been operating at pretty near 100% efficiency. Kudos to Bauckham for taking the time to explore why this is the case.

Next he turns his attention to John and ends the last few chapters of the book on that subject. Should be interesting!


About Paul Buller

Just some guy with a variety of eccentric interests.
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