Within a week of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, researchers interviewed 3,245 people about where they were and key details regarding the events of that fateful day. The researchers followed up with the participants after increments of 11, 35, and 119 months.
As the participants recalled the details about their memories from 9-11, many of the specifics had changed from their original accounts. Nonetheless, people remained confident their recollections were accurate–even after 10 years. Some even disputed the authenticity of their original answers, preserved in their own handwriting. However, the sudden “flashbulb memory” that forever froze the events of 9-11 in the minds of the respondents proved unreliable regarding many of the details in their accounts.1
Based on the recent discoveries in the research of memory, some have begun to question the memories of the individuals who passed on “Jesus stories” to others over the many decades following Jesus’s life. How can we trust the individuals who wrote the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), accurately remembered the foundational claims of Christianity, without slowly distorting them?
Are the Gospels a Distorted Memory-History?
In Jesus Before the Gospel, Bart Ehrman postulates that based upon recent studies on the brain, and the reliability of people’s memories, there are some serious questions regarding the reliability of the four New Testament Gospels. Ehrman says, “…Oral traditions change as they are told and retold from one person to another. They change every time they are told. If what we have in the Gospels are not eyewitness reports, but accounts IN circulation, not just for weeks or months, but for years and decades, then almost certainly they were changed.”2
Ehrman does not imply some great conspiracy on the part of the early Christians. He is simply saying that regardless of how sincere the disciples were in their effort to record their memories about Jesus, memories are unreliable.
In my view, the early Christian Gospels are so much more than historical sources. They are memories of early Christians about the one they considered to be the most important person ever to walk the planet. Yes, these memories can be recognized as distorted when seen from the perspective of historical reality. But—at least for me—that doesn’t rob them of their value. It simply makes them memories. All memories are distorted.3Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus Before the Gospels
Two claims are being made. The first claim is that the Gospels should not be interpreted as an accurate Historical Narrative of Jesus’s life, teaching, death, and resurrection. Ehrman is arguing the Gospels should be viewed as a distorted Memory-History rather than a Narrative-History. Secondly, he is claiming the Gospels do not record the actual Eyewitness Testimonies of the disciples, rather they contain only Distorted Memories. These distorted memories may be valuable, but they are unquestionably unreliable as a narrative of the historical Jesus.
However, it would be wise to apply some skepticism about Ehrman’s skepticism? As C.S. Lewis insightfully expressed, “Everywhere, except in theology, there has been a vigorous growth of skepticism about skepticism itself.”4 As a Textual Critic by training, Ehrman’s views on memory should be weighed against experts in the fields of the science of memory.
Can One’s Memories be Reliable?
Many factors can affect one’s memory and their ability to accurately recall and retell what happened. The psychologist John Robinson has shown that the modern understanding of memory tends to oversimplify the “distinction between objective fact and subjective experience.”5 For example, a person may struggle to accurately recall the peripheral details of what they wore or the order of what exactly they did after learning about the terrorist attacks on 9-11. The subjective details of their experience that day may be fuzzy, but the objective fact of what happened on 9-11 will always be clearly and accurately seared upon their memories.
There are many memories about one’s life—especially events and experiences that have significant meaning attached to them—that are forever etched in one’s mind. An event or experience of great significance becomes more stable in a person’s mind as its meaning becomes clearer. When a person experiences a significant or traumatic event, their mind needs time to process the relevant details and meaning of what they experienced. The result is that their memory becomes more stable, not less, regarding the objective facts.
Robinson lists 4 aspects of meaning that influence the stability of one’s memory: (1) The multiplicity of potential meanings: Different people tend to interpret the intentions and motives of others in differing ways. In the 4 eyewitness accounts of the Gospel, we find objective facts are preserved consistently, while they may each differ on their emphasis of individual responses, motives, or meaning.6
(2) Deferred meaning: A person’s initial interpretations of an event will be limited. With some time to understand and interpret an event, the meaning will expand and increase.
(3) Changing meaning: Robinson explains, “The meaning of any experience can change over time. New information or an altered perspective can prompt us to reinterpret specific experiences or entire segments of our personal history.”7(Bauckham 339). When Jesus told his disciples that following him would involve taking up their own cross, they could not have possibly understood Jesus would soon be crucified. After Jesus’ death and resurrection, they would have had a fuller understanding of the cost and reward of Jesus’ invitation.
(4) Negotiating meaning: One’s social context can shape how significant events are remembered and understood.8 After his ascension, Jesus’s followers would have reflected upon his teaching and ministry, illuminated by their experience of the cross and resurrection. As the resurrected Jesus did for the disciples who met him on the road to Emmaus, He “interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.”9 The whole Old Testament would have needed to be reinterpreted.
Memories Can Grow More Stable
As the disciples analyzed all that Jesus said and did, the memories of the disciples would have grown more stable, as they reflected on the meaning. Over the decades the disciples were proclaiming their eyewitness testimonies, their recall would have gained clarity. Bauckham explains, “As a general rule, frequent rehearsal would have the effect of preserving an eyewitness’s story very much as he or she first remembered and reported it.”10
Our memories stabilize as we seek to understand the meaning of significant events. The traumatic and life altering events of Jesus’s ministry and passion would have been deeply etched into the minds of the Apostles. As the eye witnesses repeatedly shared their stories of Jesus over the decades following his ascension, the repetition would have served to further solidify and deepen the accuracy of the disciples’ message.
The accuracy of what they had seen and heard gave them confidence and boldness to share the message of good news (the Gospel). However, the eye witness testimonies temporally preserved in their oral accounts would need to be permanently preserved. This is what led to the written account of the four Gospel, along with the rest of the New Testament Canon.
1 Malcolm Gladwell, Free Brian Williams, Revisionist History: Episode 25, June 26, 2018.
2 Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus Before the Gospels, (New York: Harper, 2016) 226.
3 Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus Before the Gospels, 291.
4 C.S. Lewis, Fern-Seed and Elephants).
5 Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017) 346.
6 Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, 339.
7 Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, 339.
8 Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, 339.
9 The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, Luke 24:27.
10 Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, 346.