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Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Psychological Factors Influencing Eyewitness Testimony--Part Two

In a prior post, I began a discussion the psychological factors influencing eyewitness testimony. The point of the discussion is to counter the claims of Christian apologists who argue that since the reports contained in the gospels were either directly from eyewitnesses (or from those who interviewed eyewitnesses) and that since some eyewitnesses would have been alive still when the gospels were written, then the accuracy of the gospels is guaranteed. To be clear, I am not arguing that eyewitness testimony is always wrong but I am arguing that eyewitness testimony is not always reliable as the apologists would lead one to believe.

The recent book by Richard Bauckham, Professor of NT Studies at St. Andrews University in Scotland, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony makes a strong claim that the gospels should be seen as reliable due to the influence of the eyewitness testimony contained therein. An article by Judith Redman, ("How Accurate Are Eyewitnesses? Bauckham and the Eyewitnesses in the Light of Psychological Research"), appearing in the most recent issue of the Journal of Biblical Literature (Spring 2010: 177-97) challenges Bauckham's thesis.

To recap, she indicates that psychological studies show that: Remembering involves a three-stage process of acquisition (encoding), retention (storage), and retrieval. Changes in content can be introduced at all of these stages, and there are significant numbers of different factors that can cause these changes.

In the last post, I dealt with the first step, the acquisition or encoding process, today I want to look at the other two steps and then draw conclusions relative to the alleged eyewitness testimony in the gospels.

Redman writes:
Losses of, and changes in, memory come about in part through what happens during the passage of time. As time passes, details and even whole events may disappear from the memories of eyewitnesses. In addition, the way a witness thinks about an event over time can affect the way s/he recalls it. A witness's thoughts tend to bend in a direction that would be advantageous to her/his purposes
She continues:
. . . a significant amount of what affects memories during storage and retrieval is a function of the individual as part of a community. Eyewitnesses can be provided with information after the event (postevent information) from a variety of sources. This may reinforce their memories, but it may also alter them and even cause things that did not take place to become incorporated into a memory. Talking to other people who also witnessed the event may change how each individual recalls it, and people are not very accurate in their ability to remember whether it is something they experienced or something they were told about. There is also evidence that many people do not remember previously held attitudes or beliefs when they come to a new position. All these factors make postevent information a common source of alteration of eyewitness testimony, especially given the likelihood that the oral tradition about Jesus originated as groups of people touched by his ministry talked to each other about it.

In addition, most people, most of the time, are not concerned about preserving an accurate record of what happened in their past. Memories help people to make sense of the world and of themselves, and the stories they tell tend to focus on what happened to them and what that event meant to them. In fact, one purpose of reconstructing autobiographical information, as is done in eyewitness testimony, may be to construct and reconstruct the story we wish to be known because it justifies our being, our culture, our way of life. This is done at a subconscious rather than a conscious level--eyewitnesses do not consciously develop an account that fits how they wish to be known.
In light of these facts, even if the stories in the gospels originated with actual eyewitnesses and some of these eyewitnesses were alive when the gospels were written, it does not guarantee the accuracy of the gospels. Psychologists have clearly shown that there are too many variables along the way where the memories can be distorted. At this point, I can hear some apologists saying, "But wait a minute, you are forgetting about how accurately oral traditions were passed down in oral societies and especially among the Jews." Redman also addresses this issue.
Hence, the assumption that Bauckham makes about the accuracy of oral transmission needs to be nuanced in view of the kind of material that is found in the Gospels. In addition, Bauckham fails to take into consideration in his work that inaccuracies can, and almost inevitably will, arise in eyewitness testimony before it becomes valuable community tradition that is seen to be in need of preservation. If Scripture is to be believed, most of the people who witnessed Jesus' teaching, especially those close to him, were not skilled oral tradents but ordinary members of first-century society with varying abilities to remember and retell their experiences. Although they were doubtless accustomed to using memory rather than written notes to retain information, and thus their memories were likely to be more efficient than those of twenty-first-century literate people, they are unlikely to have had the training and experience required for the high levels of accuracy produced by the storytellers observed by Parry, Lord, and others.
What Redman points out is that 1) certain types of material, such as poetry, is more easily and accurately memorized verbatim than other types of material; 2) inaccuracies can creep in even before the material reaches the stage to be passed down as official oral tradition; and 3) individuals need to be trained in the art of memorizing and passing along oral tradition and there is no indication that any of Jesus' original disciples were.

If one insists that Jesus' disciples would have been skilled in the techniques used by followers of other rabbis' in collecting and passing along tradition, then, according to Redman, due to the differences among the gospels, one would have to conclude one of three things has happened: they were far less successful students than the trainee rabbis; the authors of the Gospels did not receive their material from one of these trained disciples; or it has been significantly changed by the author of the Gospel (redacted) to fit the theological purposes of the Gospel. The gospels just do not reflect the carefulness and precision seen in the oral traditions passed along by students of other Jewish rabbis.

Another factor to consider, which Redman does not address, is that eyewitness testimony is most valuable when 1) the eyewitnesses can be cross-examined by the other side; 2) the eyewitnesses can be isolated and allowed to give their testimony without collaborating with other witnesses; and 3) the underlying motivations or possible ulterior motives of the eyewitnesses can be discerned. All three of these are considered very important in our modern courts of law. None of these items is possible with regard to the alleged eyewitnesses of Jesus life and ministry.

Therefore, what is one to make of Bauckam's thesis and of the claims of Christian apologists? I will let Redman answer:
Bauckham appears to take the position that if an eyewitness is deemed trustworthy, we should trust (that is, accept as accurate) his or her testimony in its entirety. This is at odds with psychological research, which shows that, although trustworthy witnesses would have no desire to deceive their audience, their particular interests, experiences, and personalities would result in testimonies that were more likely to be accurate at some points than at others. This is especially the case when we are presented with information from someone who is known to have a vested interest in or bias toward a particular position or outcome.If it is the only information we can access, we must rely on it, but we should certainly not trust it to the point where we accept it uncritically. We should still question those aspects of the testimonies of trustworthy witnesses that strike us as unusual. They are reliable in that they tell us what they believe to be true. This does not necessarily make it true.

In contrast, psychological research into eyewitness testimony makes it clear that Bauckham's work in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses does not provide strong evidence for the historical accuracy of the content of the Gospels. Although it is clear that transmission of stories in oral cultures is remarkably accurate once a community decides that something should be preserved and skilled oral tradents are entrusted with the task of preserving it, many of the inaccuracies in eyewitness memory come into being within hours, days, or weeks of the event being witnessed. Furthermore, these eyewitness accounts come from within a faith community formed around the subject of the stories, which adds a particular source of bias not present in other histories of the time.


  1. Hi Ken,

    I think this is a fair representation of what I have said. I would add, as I did in the article, that I think that the psych literature suggests that it is at least as likely that the differences in the gospel accounts are the result of changes in their particular religious communities as it is that they are deliberate alterations by the redactors. Also, my research doesn't say that the gospels must be inaccurate if/because they are eyewitness testimony, just that demonstrating that it contains eyewitness testimony doesn't provide the proof of accuracy that some Christians keep hoping for. :-)

  2. Judy,

    thanks for the comments and thanks for a great article!

  3. Really enjoying your latest posts Ken, thanks for the work. I haven't missed a post since you started blogging.

    Seems to me most apologists focus on quality transmission arguments then assert legends can't develop fast enough to corrupt the transmitted message. Seems many who don't accept the resurrection account are open to errors closer to the source as you're highlighting here.

    The argument in Loftus' WIBA book that all the witnesses would have been highly superstitious/credulous and poor investigators seems a very strong one to me. I think the combination of issues with human memory and perception when joined with the relative lack of scientific knowledge and critical thinking make a strong case together. It's the incredible things that were accepted as true and real that make a supernatural explanation even more unlikely. I don't seem to hear this credulous aspect focused on in debates, etc and am curious of your thoughts on the power of that approach.

    Curious also what you think about the arguments focused on the difference in Paul's belief that seems absent the physical Jesus and arguably a physical resurrection from the gospels and the gospels as a faith construction from a spiritual only belief not based on actual events (tangible physical experiences). These seem to go all the way to Bob Price's assertion that the gospels are entirely a Midrash retelling of OT motifs and Homer and might lack any real historical foundation.

  4. Tony,

    thanks for the thoughtful comments. I think atheists need to emphasize in debates that the ancient worldview of first century people contained a belief that the supernatural was regularly engaged in the natural world. While there are still many superstitious people today, they are operating outside of the modern worldview not within it. This is a point that should not be missed.

    I tend to think that Paul adopted something of a hybrid approach--something in between the Greek immortality of the soul and the Jewish material body resurrection. He talks about a "spiritual body" and his language and description of the resurrection body is notoriously nebulous.

    As for Robert Price and those who believe that Jesus himself never existed? I can't accept that because I think it would be very difficult to explain the rapid rise and expansive reach of Christianity in the first century without some historical kernel.

  5. I've not yet read Bauckham's book, but does he say that there is eyewitness testimony to Jesus' miracles? How would you account for that, Ken (or others)? I mean, I can understand slightly mis-remembering what someone said or how he said it, but, when it comes to seeing a withered hand or a leper becoming healed, something tells me that such a memory would be accurate, since the event would be remarkable enough to leave an imprint on my mind.

    I want to address a few points here. Some may say that other cultures and religions have miracle stories too. Fine. How should we deal with those?

    Others may say that the ancients were superstitious, so all sorts of things would be seen as miracles by them. Still, a withered hand getting cured on the spot, or a leper being healed, would be quote a sight in even a modernist culture like ours.

    Something I hear from some atheists is that there's much about nature that we don't understand, so we can't rule out a naturalistic explanation for (say) people who claim to be healed from cancer. Is that how you would approach miracles, Ken (and others)? Or would you have another explanation?

  6. I just realized that I hadn't yet read Part 1. I'll get on that!

  7. Okay, the memories of the miracles would be "flashbulb memories." I agree that we don't remember everything that happens to us with complete accuracy. But something had to give rise to those "flashbulb memories" of Jesus' miracles, right? And it would have had to be unusual enough to get the attention of the people who remembered it. Otherwise, why would the flashbulb memory exist?

  8. James,

    You raise some good questions. First, I think that for some of these "miracle" events there was some kernal of historical truth. IOW, something unusual happened. Second, as the stories got passed along things got exagerrated. Third, I doubt seriously that anything that as dramatic as a withered hand or withered legs (as in Acts 3) was healed immediately and spontaneously. I think its more along the line of what we hear about today in many Charismatic circles. As these stories get passed along the anecdotes keep growing and expanding until you have something truly remarkable.

    Oncologists report the occasional spontaneous remission of cancer and they have some theories for it but that is not the same as a person covered with leprosy suddenly being healed and given brand new baby soft skin all over their body as some miracle reports have it. Nor is it like a person who had never walked in his life suddenly being healed and his previously atrophied legs now made like those of an Olympic pole vault champion (as in Acts 3). Or a person dead for 4 days like Lazarus coming out of the tomb. If I were to see something on that scale today, then I might be a believer.

  9. BTW, a book
    I read years ago by William Nolan, A Doctor in Search of a Miracle, was very interesting. This medical doctor took a year off from his practice to investigate the people who were supposedly healed in charismatic healing services. He concluded that there was not ONE case of a truly organic disease being healed.

    Also James Randi has a book on Faith Healers that I have not yet read but its on my list

  10. "I can't accept that because I think it would be very difficult to explain the rapid rise and expansive reach of Christianity in the first century without some historical kernel."

    Actually, I can - it's a compelling (if somewhat subversive) story, originating in a culture where the supernatural was expected to interact with the natural world, and where a lot of the distinctions we make and expect ("history should be factual", for example) didn't exist or weren't as clean-cut as they are now. Given the way urban legends spread even in modern culture, I don't have any trouble seeing how a new revision of an established religion could catch on the way Christianity did. Or, if the urban legend comparison is troubling, consider the relatively quick spread of Wicca (and the number of people who will insist that it really is a direct continuation of the "ancient ways").

    That's not to say that there wasn't any historical "kernel of truth", just that I don't think there has to be one.