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.
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 purposesShe 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 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.
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.
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.