Sunday, July 11, 2010


One liberal cliché is that we can’t trust NT history because the books were written decades after the fact. There are, however, some basic problems with this objection:

i) It overlooks the factor of inspiration.

ii) There’s a cottage industry of deconversion testimonies, in which an apostate recounts his journey from faith to infidelity, frequently beginning with an account of his religious upbringing in childhood and adolescence. And, depending on the age of the apostate, he is recounting events and conversations which took place decades after the fact.

iii) The liberal cliché doesn’t comport with human experience. To take just two examples, out of many:

Ten years ago I [Roger Ebert] was the emcee of my high school class reunion. This year I sat and watched. It was better this way. As I'd walked into the room I realized I knew almost everyone on first sight...We went to Urbana High School between 1956 and 1960...I am beginning to realize most of our memories are still in there somewhere, needing only a nudge to awaken. Here was a girl who appeared with me in a class play. She recalled that I had a monologue just before she was to walk onstage and kiss me--which, she said, was mortifying because she was shy. I hadn't thought about that play once in all these years, but now into my mind came the memorized monologue. From where? From where everything still is.

In the year 1990 I [Martin Hengel] can still remember, sometimes very accurately, the portentous events of the years 1933–45 [in Germany], which I experienced between the ages of six and eighteen, and I know a good deal more from eye-witness reports. Can we completely deny Luke the use of such old reminiscences by eyewitnesses, even if he has reshaped them in a literary way to suit his bias?

Martin Hengel, The Pre-Christian Paul (Fortress 1991), 65.


  1. Our modern experience warps our understanding of memory, but not entirely. We are bombarded with such extreme information today where extraordinary events are hardly memorable. News at the speed of light has a relatively short shelf life.

    Most of human history, however, has had a certain homogeneity of daily experience. Extraordinary events were few and far between and accounts of such things were told and retold to the extent that a collective memory, not just of one person, would have been formed.

    To give you an example, I have a cousin who always has a recent account to tell of herself. Most people run from her, but I have learned that if I let her tell her story, which typically takes 15-20 minutes, she leaves me alone on her own. If interrupted, she can come back and tell her story picking up exactly where she left off. She will pursue others to tell as well and I have overheard snippets that were nearly word-for-word what she told me.

    Now she's one example, but we all know people who have stories from their past to tell who often repeat those stories, not seeming to realizing that they have told them before. Some people I know I can say the right thing and predict nearly word-for-word the story they will tell in response. I could repeat their stories if I wanted to.

    It is speculated that Mark was written first because much if his material is repeated word-for-word in Matthew and Luke. I say that this is not necessarily a good indicator. The famous "Q" source could very well have been the early Church's collective memory of such exceptional accounts having been repeated by the Apostles as the most exceptional accounts of their day concerning this amazing man, Jesus, who attracted crowds of thousands. (I only want to know how he managed to preach to them all at once without the aid of a sound amplification system.) I've sat amazed at the capacity for people to remember the stats of countless athletes decades after they played. Jesus was just one person to remember anything about.

    So I'm not surprised at all that they could remember these things accurately a few decades after they took place. Inspiration, yes, but not a huge miracle of memory.

  2. Another factor: if the apostles were so dedicated to following Jesus with everything they had, then it would only make sense that events which had such tremendous significance in their life would be easily remembered by them. Would you forget what happened the day one of your parents died, or the most romantic weekend spent with your spouse? Let alone when you're convinced someone is God incarnate and in his words are eternal life.