Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Precious memories

“People have different ideas about memory. I (Darrell) remember a discussion about memory I had in front of a packed house at Southern Methodist University with John Dominic Crossan, an articulate member of the Jesus Seminar, former professor of New Testament at DePaul University, and author of several significant and very popular books about Jesus. He told our curious audience the story of an experiment conducted at Emory University shortly after the Challenger disaster. In the experiment, campus freshmen were asked to describe where they were and what they were doing when the shuttle exploded. The same students were asked the same set of questions three years later. Afterward, the students were asked to compare their testimonies and choose the one they liked best. The study noted that most students preferred the description they gave three years after the event rather than the initial account they gave immediately after the event. His point in citing the study was to say that memory becomes distorted over time,” D. Book & D. Wallace, Dethroning Jesus (Nelson 2007), 2.

Bock proceeds to criticize this analogy. I agree with his criticisms, but rather than reproducing them here, which you can read for yourself if you buy the book (a modest and worthwhile investment), I’m going to mention a few objections of my own.

1.It’s very ironic that Crossan would use this example to illustrate the unreliability of memory, for he must rely on his own memory to use this example in the first place. He was not an eyewitness to this experiment. He was not one of the researchers or students who participated in this experiment.

It’s something he heard about or read about. Yet he has no doubt that he can trust his recollection to accurately recall the key details of the study in order to cite it in illustrating the unreliability of memory.

2.Moreover, his analogy is disanalogous. He is comparing a memory of a discrete event with the memory of people who were in Christ’s company for a sustained period of time.

It’s safe to say that Jesus often repeated himself. And his disciples would have questioned him in private after he made a public speech or got into a public debate. They would also have discussed his words and actions with one another. They went with him wherever he went.

So they enjoyed saturation coverage of what he said and did. Continuous reinforcement. That is hardly comparable to Crossan’s illustration.

3.Of course, someone might object to this line of reasoning. I’m assuming the traditional authorship of the NT. But that’s something which Crossan denies.

Indeed, he does. And for what reason? Because Crossan doesn’t really believe that human memory is all that unreliable.

To the contrary, the reason that a liberal like Crossan denies the traditional authorship and date of various NT documents is that if they really were written by apostles or companions of the apostles or half-siblings of Jesus, then they would be far more difficult to discount.

Crossan denies that Matthew wrote Matthew, John wrote John (or 1 John), Peter wrote 1 Peter, James wrote James, and Jude wrote Jude because, if they were written by folks who knew Jesus, it would be quite implausible to claim that they misremembered what he said and did.

Even if you bracket inspiration and assume—for the sake of argument—that their recollections were fallible, it is still unconvincing to claim that the Jesus they record for posterity is unrecognizable. No one with a normal memory has that bad a memory.

Even if they made a few mistakes in their recollection, these would be minor errors. Suppose someone asked you to write down what you remember about your parents when you were growing up. Yes, you might misplace where or when something happened. You might forget exactly how your mother or father worded something. But as far as the powers of recollection are concerned, your descriptions would accurately characterize your parents.

Where people wildly distort the record, it isn’t because they have a poor memory. It’s because they remember exactly what happened, and they want you, the reader (or listener), to have a different recollection of what happened.

Indeed, a liberal like Crossan has so much confidence in the reliability of human memory that he will not only deny the authorship of first-hand accounts, he will also denies the authorship of second-hand accounts like Mark or Luke—who rely, not on their own memory of events (for the most part), but on the memories of their informants.
For Crossan, even that is far too trustworthy.

4.Now, another stated reason that liberals like Crossan deny the historicity of the Gospels is because these are faith-statements. They are by authors who are writing to persuade.

But this, too, is unconvincing. That can’t be Crossan’s real reason. For if that were his real reason, he wouldn’t feel the need to deny traditional authorship. If that were his real reason, then he could admit that John wrote John, but then dismiss what he wrote on the grounds that John’s account is vitiated by his theological commitments.

Once again, Crossan, and other like-minded liberals, obviously abode way too much confidence in the memory of an apostle to dismiss the testimony of an apostle. The only way to impeach the credibility of the witness is to deny that the witness was, indeed, an eyewitness.

And, as I already noted, liberals do that, not only with the primary sources (e.g. Matthew, John), but with secondary sources as well (e.g. Mark, Luke). So, up to a point, they also believe in the reliability of memories transmitted from the primary source to the secondary source—which is why they are forced to deny the traditional authorship of both sources.

Needless to say, the OT comes in for the same treatment, and for the same reason. Liberals deny the traditional authorship (and dating) of the Old Testament because, if these books were penned by individuals who actually observed the events they were reporting, then it would be quite implausible to dismiss their recollections out of hand.

5.Incidentally, this is where hallucination theories also betray their insincerity. If you’re going to claim the NT documents which attest the Resurrection were written by individuals who did not have first or second-hand knowledge of the event, then why resort to mass hallucination? Why not say, for example that John did, in fact, write the Fourth Gospel, but his report of the Risen Lord was a delusive vision?

This upshot is that no one has more faith in human memory than a sceptical Bible critic. This is why he takes refuge in every hypothetical alternative, however fanciful, to avoid and evade tracing the record back to the memory of the reporter. Put another way, liberals like Crossan fear the memory of the NT writers. Fear the memory of the OT writers.

They are afraid that human memory is all too trustworthy, and so the only way to discredit the record is to reassign it to someone who was in no position to remember the events. Someone who didn’t see it for himself or hear it from someone who did.

1 comment:

  1. It would be more interesting to see a study on memory-over-a-time based on the memory of an incident that a 1st century Jew, Greek, or Roman had.

    The memory of a 20th century person may falter more over time since 20th century people don't rely on, and develop memory and oral transmission as much as the 1st century people did.

    This is just one possibility. Much more can be, and has been, said in response to the argument from memory entropy.