Evangelical apologists like McDowell are notorious for assuming that eyewitness reports -- esp. those allegedly found in the New Testament -- must either be truthful or based upon lies. Yet anyone familiar with ongoing, experimental research in psychology on the nature of eyewitness testimony knows that an honest observer can be sincerely wrong. Reflecting on a case in which a Catholic priest had been falsely convicted of armed robbery on the basis of eyewitness testimony -- only later to be acquitted thanks to a confession by the actual criminal -- renown psychologist Elizabeth Loftus writes, "Implicit in the acceptance of this testimony as solid evidence is the assumption that the human mind is a precise recorder and storer of events. Unfortunately it is not.... To be mistaken about details is not the result of a bad memory, but of the normal functioning of human memory. As we have seen, human remembering does not work like a videotape recorder or a movie camera." As D.F. Hall points out, "[N]ew, misleading information is not only added to memory, it actually alters the content of what the subject is able to remember." The upshot is that even honest eyewitnesses who try to be objective may in fact remember misinformation.I am not sure what in these paragraphs is 'new news' to anyone, nor how relevant Loftus' work is to the NT reliability issue, but the issue has certainly come up a bit recently...so let's have a look.
The results of experimental research on the nature of eyewitness testimony are especially important when considering the more extravagant empirical claims of the New Testament, yet McDowell makes things easy for himself by assuming that eyewitness testimony should be taken at face value. Factors like the retention interval (how much time was there between the incident and the witness' recollection of that incident?), focus (what captured the attention of the witness?), and especially post-event information (what post-event information could have supplemented the witness' memory?) and unconscious transference (confusing a person seen in one situation with a person actually seen in another situation) are, so far as I know, never addressed by McDowell in any of his writings; yet these are precisely the issues which he needs to deal with if we are to accept as factual the 'eyewitness reports' given in the New Testament and elsewhere.
My approach here is to:
Throughout the piece I will try to apply this to the gospel accounts
(without being TOO detailed and extensive!), to assess relevance to the
question at hand--"to what extent is the credibility of the NT modified
by these studies?"
If you do a little research on how the courts are using (and how Loftus recommends we use) expert testimony as to how "honest observers can be wrong", the Courts do not count these research findings as EVIDENCE of a mistaken identification, but as 'education' to help a jury DECIDE if an identification is reliable. The Loftus research material on various types of memory distortions [hereafter designated as "loftux"] is admitted to the court for 'educational' purposes, and NOT to 'prejudice' the jury about a specific identification.
[There is some data, however, that DOES INDICATE that memory functions as comprehensively as a 'videotape'--albeit semantically coded. The studies of Wilder Penfield in the 40's (noted and dismissed by Loftus at ET:115-117) and the arguments of M.B. Arnold (Memory and the Brain, Erlbaum:1984) more recently bear on this. But our point here is simply to grant this for practical reasons. In any event, the NT documents are literary creations and as such are selective in the material presented--unlike a videotape.]
[We shall see later that these two facts: (1) credibility of an eyewitness and (2) any corroborating data are the two strongest legal points from which to make a judicial decision.]
This introduces a subtlety into the issue, because the gospels do
not actually assert that all of the data contained in them are memories
of the individual author. Instead, they assert that the facts are accurate,
and in some cases, experienced by the authors (e.g. Matthew's call or John
at the last supper). There is no statement, for example, that the writers
remembered all the material themselves--without use of sources. (Of course,
Luke specifically researched his material, including eyewitness materials
from others 1.1-4.) So, this principle will need to be looked at carefully
as to applicability. In fact, one of the main 'carriers' of post-event
information--discussion among witnesses--may be one of the stronger reasons
to give the finished literary accounts high credibility.
Eyewitness testimony today is still accorded the highest status. And, in spite of significant misunderstandings about it by the public (ET:171-177), it is certainly considered preferred by the courts as very, very important evidence.
The issue in eyewitness testimony is NOT whether or not it is useful, but how reliable it is. It is not a matter of "is it 100% reliable or none?"; but rather "to what extent is it reliable?" It is interesting that even Loftus is opposed to barring unreliable testimony from the courtroom. So ET:191:
Outright exclusion of unreliable testimony and requirement of corroboration are not ideal solutions because they take the decision out of the hands of the jury and might prevent the conviction of many who are truly guilty.The Supreme Court (in the USA) for example, has repeatedly upheld this type of data and in 1977 (Manson vs. Brathwaite, ET:185-186) stated that "reliability is the linchpin" in terms of admissibility of such evidence.
>Not a lot, actually. Although there are many, many references to the legal use of eyewitness testimony (e.g. the Mosaic requirement of two witnesses, the trials of Jesus), the NT itself only makes a couple of references to it in regards to the content and/or production of the gospels:
Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, 2 just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. 3 Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught. (luke 1.1ff)So, the claims of the NT relative to eyewitness testimony is rather general and rather broad. The apostolic circle, esp. the leadership of Peter and John, claims to be witnesses of the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. This is a broad range, but the apostolic claims above can be listed as:
The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true. He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe. (John 19.35)
This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true. (John 21.24)
We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. (2 Pet 1.16)
Therefore it is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, 22 beginning from John's baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection." (Acts 1.21)
God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact. (Acts 2.32)
You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this. (Act 3.15)
The God of our fathers raised Jesus from the dead -- whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. 31 God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel. 32 We are witnesses of these things... (Acts 5.30f)
You know what has happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached -- 38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him. 39 "We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree, 40 but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. 41 He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen -- by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. (Acts 10.37ff)
The people of Jerusalem and their rulers did not recognize Jesus, yet in condemning him they fulfilled the words of the prophets that are read every Sabbath. 28 Though they found no proper ground for a death sentence, they asked Pilate to have him executed. 29 When they had carried out all that was written about him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb. 30 But God raised him from the dead, 31 and for many days he was seen by those who had traveled with him from Galilee to Jerusalem. They are now his witnesses to our people. (Acts 13.27)
And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. (I Cor 15.15f).
To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ's sufferings (I Peter 5.1)
Although most of these references point to the Passion narratives (and the distribution of material in the Gospels reflects this emphasis), it can be seen that the life and public ministry of Jesus is not excluded from these claims--especially the reference at the end of John. We can see then that Luke and John are rather explicit in their appeal to eyewitness testimony, and the preaching of Peter (that is generally understood to be the basis for the gospel of Mark) makes consistent appeal to eyewitness testimony.
Now, when we look at the traditions of the early Christian writers about the gospels, they are virtually unanimous about the 'traditional' authorship claims:
the Gospel of Matthew was written by the apostle Matthew/Levi, and hence much of the material in his gospel would have been eyewitness testimony, plus supplemental material would likely have come from eyewitness testimony from OTHER members of the apostolic circle.
The Gospel of Mark was traditionally ascribed to John Mark who 'wrote down' the speeches/sermons of Peter. With Peter's emphasis on 'witness', it is likely that the entire gospel was supposed to be understood as an apostolic 'eyewitness' testimony.
The Gospel of Luke does NOT purport to be an eyewitness account itself, but rather to be a careful and well-researched history. It uses eyewitness material, but states that it attempts to be 'critical' and insure accuracy.
John makes explicit claim to being an eyewitness to much of the material, but would also be dependent on supplemental material at times (i.e. the conversation of the Samaritan woman inside the city in John 4).
In the case of Luke, the large amount of 'shared story' with the gospels of Matthew and Mark, would have a similar character, but Luke apparently supplemented the material from other members of the apostolic circle and Judean religious (e.g. Anna), giving rise to what is called 'lukan redactions' or distinctives.
The Birth and pre-Baptist narratives are a special case. They were recorded in Matthew and Luke, and the source of this data would easily have been Mary and the younger brothers of Jesus (e.g James). Mary and Jesus' brothers were in the room at Pentecost (Acts 1.14ff), and Mary probably was associated with the apostles until her death (John 19.27). This would have been an eyewitness account as well; again, by major participants in the events.
So, although the content of the gospels are easily associated with eyewitness testimony, the actual authors of the gospels do not often make claims to that effect.
But let's consider how the Christian 'apologist' uses the eyewitness issue. In my own writings, I use the phenomena of the accounts (e.g. replete with detail, different details noticed, differences in data selected for presentation, non-salient details present) to argue for eyewitness 'status' of the accounts embedded in the gospels (not the gospels themselves, but the various sub-units or blocks of material). The establishment of eyewitness 'status' of much of this material does several things for the apologist: (1) it gives the content of the material the higher credibility often associated with eyewitness testimony; (2) it bridges the time-gap between the events themselves and the earliest existent mss. (now somewhere around 85ad); (3) it makes sense of the non-uniform character of the accounts--the legitimacy of the 'harmonization' enterprise; (4) it differentiates between these narratives and the un-witnessed myths/"heroes" of antiquity; and (5) it precludes the 'fraud' accusation by pegging the accuracy of the resultant documents to the integrity of the earliest, a-political church (admittedly better than the post-Constantine church).
So, my apologetic use of this could be weakened by a couple of tactics:
Options One and Three are generally not argued (although occasionally one complains about Mark's bad geography). The question that started this (above) is obviously going after Option Two.
Now, for such a tactic to succeed any discrediting information about
ET (eyewitness testimony) must be about the kinds of ET that occur in
the NT. For example, if a research study showed that people could not
adequately distinguish between clown faces, seen only underwater, while
wearing 3-D glasses, this would have virtually no relevance for the NT
situation. This issue will become critical as we look at the specific research
in loftux. Which leads to our next topic...
Loftus gives a concise statement of the situation under study at ET:86:
"In the typical eyewitness situation, or even the typical memory experiment, a subject is presented with information once; his memory or recollection is tested at a later time, perhaps on several occasions."Let me summarize the major discontinuities between Loftus work and the NT situation up-front:
The time of exposure is RADICALLY different. In the situations described/studied by Loftus, the amount of time the test subject actually EXPERIENCED/SAW the material to be remembered was minuscule compared the the exposure of the NT writers.
Of the research studies described in ET (with duration times given in the text), the exposures ranged from a HIGH of 11 minutes to a LOW of one-tenth of a second! [The times were: 11m, 7m, 5m, 3m (2x), 2m (2x), 1.5m, 1m, 42s (3x), 34s, 32s, 12s, 10s, 8s, 5s, 4s (2x), 2s, 0.1s.] This is not even remotely analogous to men and women who grew up in Galilee or Judea, who lived with Jesus for 3-years, who participated in the major events of his life. A quick look at a list of the events in Christ's life shows that the events recorded had duration times measured in hours and days. Faulty memory performance from people who see a 1 minute video of an accident simply have no bearing on the NT situation! The research results (although fascinating) are simply irrelevant to our issue.
Most of the studies also involved VERY small amounts of given information, with, correspondingly huge gaps in the 'given'. Exposure times were not only small, but the information content often was limited to small pieces of literature (e.g. 150 words, 750 words) or small groups of slides (e.g. 30). Many of the studies focused on showing that people tended to 'fill in the gaps' in their memory with guessing and implicit clues from later questioners. This is obviously irrelevant to NT studies. We have the opposite problem in NT studies: we have an overabundance of data of experience (i.e. three years of day-to-day contact with Jesus), but only a subset of it gets recorded in the accounts!
The vast majority of the studies involve the use of deliberate deception and manipulation on the part of the researchers. The procedure is often characterized in terms of 'minimal exposure (time) to minimal information (huge gaps), followed by misleading information'. The misleading information came through the use of questions, word-choices, pictures, etc., all from implicitly authoritative sources (the researchers). These studies are then used to show that memory is not 'videotape'; since it can be manipulated by clever and subtle agents, then it is less trustworthy than is perhaps thought.
Here we have some relevance. Although we don't have the situation of a deliberate manipulator, the possibility exists that the same 'misleading' clues might be present from other sources (e.g. innocent listeners, hostile polemical opponents). The vast majority of the conclusions would not apply, since the subtlety levels are so pronounced, but there may be some overlap with our case.
The experimental exposures are very sensation-deprived. In other words, the experience is generally confined to one media type--literature, visual, auditory. Rarely do they have the redundant, self-correcting, and reinforcing sensation-streams that would be associated with sitting on a Galilean hillside on a hot day listening to the Sermon on the Mount. The restricted scope of the experimental experiences is, again, radically different than the data-rich experiences of living, travelling, and interacting with the Master.
The gospels are largely group or collaborative works. This means that the problem of multiple witnesses discussing a common experience--which in memory issues can create 'false' memories in some of the witnesses--actually reduces the likelihood of the group publishing false data. A feedback/corrective loop--of the highest possible rigor actually--exists in the case of the written output of the group. So, the absence of this consideration in Loftus--although not a methodological flaw in her research goal--makes it tenuous at best to apply to the case of the gospel authors.
Chapter One: Mistaken Identity
This chapter simply frames the question with an example, and raises the basic question. "How is it that a witness can get a poor glimpse, have little confidence in his future ability to make an accurate identification, and yet ultimately make a positive identification?...is it possible that the reliability of eyewitness testimony is systematically overestimated by the courts?...eyewitness testimony is not always reliable." (page 6-7). This quote certainly suggests the limitation of scope I mentioned above ("a poor glimpse"), and yet in stating that ET is not "always" reliable, still affirms the general reliability of ET.
Chapter Two: The Impact of ET.
This chapter documents how important jurors and the courts consider ET. It is accorded such high status--in spite of the limitations she will show later. It is indicative, I might comment, that we depend on our community-nature so much for the vast majority of information we get (e.g. parents, teachers, reference materials), that it is fundamentally expected that ET would be basically and generally trustworthy.
Chapter Three: Perceiving Events.
Here we get into the meat...ET delineates the three phases/stages of memory: acquisition, retention, retrieval (p.21). The acquisition of the memory ("perceiving") is the first stage, and the accuracy of what is stored depends on both EVENT factors and WITNESS factors.
Frequency. ET points out that this is so obvious that no studies are done on it. It is "commonsense" (p. 24) that the more times you experience something (e.g. the face of Jesus, Galilee, His often repeated sayings and teachings) the more accurate your memory is. This would also support the NT credibility (generally) even of repeated-miracles (e.g. healings, feedings).
Detail Salience. This principle simply says that people have better recall about important elements of the experience, as opposed to inconsequential or 'background' data. [The ET study was 2 minutes of exposure.] Strangely enough, the principle she sets forth on page 27 (citing Gardner):
"The extraordinary, colorful, novel, unusual, and interesting scenes attract our attention and hold our interest, both attention and interest being important aids to memory. The opposite of this principle is inversely true--routine, commonplace and insignificant circumstances are rarely remembered as specific incidents."actually supports the memory accuracy of the miracles! In other words, first-hand eyewitnesses to the miracles of Jesus, the colorful parables, the confrontational images, their consistent 'astonishment' and the powerful words of the Teacher (cf. the guards in John 7.45ff: Finally the temple guards went back to the chief priests and Pharisees, who asked them, "Why didn't you bring him in?" 46 "No one ever spoke the way this man does," the guards declared. ) are MORE likely to accurately remember them! What a strange place for support of the accuracy of these accounts!
[Notice, however, that this factor does not support or obligate us to believe the vast amount of 'miraculous' stories of the ancient demigods, since these stories are normally not couched in "history-looking", eyewitness-looking, feedback-system-looking accounts. ]
Violence of an Event. Researchers do not know why, but the violence of an event sometimes decreases retention (p31). (The current theory is that it is related to stress and attention-dilution.) Wheras this is obviously very relevant to criminal situations, we have limited cases of violence (of the sudden sort) in the gospels. We have some fiery words thrown about between Jesus and the Pharisees, we have one violent action in the Garden of Gethsemane, we have the 'slow violence' of the beheading of John the Baptist and the Crucifixion of the Lord, but nothing that would compare to the studies of ET.
WITNESS factors in perception:
Expectations. This factor relates to the reality that what we expect to see can influence what we actually think we saw. ET uses the example of a hunting accident, in which some mistake a friend for a deer and shoot him, hearing his cries for help as 'deer cries' (p.36). Loftus discusses 4 types of expectations:
Cultural stereotypes. Examples given in the text had to do with racial stereotypes and familiarity-steretypes (e.g. Red Cross trucks carry medical supplies, not explosives). [The study in ET had a subject exposed briefly to an ambiguous picture. They then called someone and related the picture to them, who in turn repeated it to another. This telephone-game experiment involved seven subjects, with no subsequent view of the picture, and no correction/feedback in the chain.] I cannot think of a situation in which cultural stereotypes would have been operative in the gospels--largely due to Jesus' destruction of many of these! His use of women, Samaritans, non-Judaic locations, etc. would have had quite a shock value on the disciples' cultural expectations. Any 'wishful thinking' influences were dealt with rather quickly by Jesus (cf. Matt 20.20ff!).
From Past Experience. This is simply the basic principle of uniformity of nature. What has happened in the past, will happen in the future, so our memory of something can be 'corrected' by our expectations along these lines. As relates to the NT, I cannot help but note the radical discontinuities in the disciples' experiences under the leadership and tutelage of Jesus! For example, their messianic expectations were completely blown-away (Mt 16.10f); their expectations to avoid Jerusalem were shocked (John 11.16), and their belief in imminent judgment on the Romans (Acts 1.6) and 'sinners' was frustrated (Luke 9.54).
Personal Prejudices. The example give in ET was of two opposing teams' understanding of events within a football game, especially in the "value laded" terms (e.g. unnecessary, malicious). Now, in the case of the NT, one could see how these might be an issue, for we know that Galileans and Pharisees did not 'get along' well. But, since most of these are subjective aspects of memory (e.g. the other person's intentions or attitudes), the incidences of situations in the NT in which these MIGHT be operative, are fortunately corroborated by real detail, sayings, and events in the narrative. For example, when the gospel writers describe the opposition of some of the Jewish leadership, it is not stated as simply an attitude (which could have been due to this factor), but it is related to 'tangibles' such as decisions to cast out of the synagogue, public fear of the populace about talking about Jesus in their presence, the deal with Judas, or the mob-persuasion tactics. In other words, the history itself can be used to 'check the allegations' in this case.
Temporary Biases. [The first ET study was of ten items, each displayed for one-tenth of a second to observers.] This principle concerns the fact that we resolve ambiguity on the basis of expectations, in the absence of other data (p.43f). These are situation-specific expectations. [The second study was a 7 minute video clip.] This is another case of situations involving too-little data. The studies had large amounts of uncertainty and ambiguity involved--a situation that would not have been the case in the evangelists' experiences of the scenes in Jesus' ministry. Not only did he frequently explain things to his disciples (resolving ambiguity, cf. 'sower' in Mark 4.34: But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything. ), but he set their expectations in advance (cf. 'he began to teach them that he would die..' Mt 16.21ff).
Perceptual Activity. This concerns what all a person 'does' when they 'scan' a scene. [The ET experiment had people make 'judgments' about a face. Some were to judge 'simple' attributes such as sex or age; some were to judge 'deep' attributes such as honesty or character. Those who made 'deeper' assessments tended to have better performance in remembering the face later.] Strangely enough, this factor actually indicates that more people would recognize Jesus because the populace (and the disciples) were trying to make the 'deepest possible' decision about him--was He God's messiah?! In the Jewish world of the time, there would be fewer questions of such importance, urgency, and depth! This principle would argue that more people would remember Jesus (at least his face) than not, and this principle might generalize to His message as well--as they tried to judge it as 'being from God or from man'.
Having pre-knowledge about an up-coming event. This factor says that having some knowledge of what is ABOUT to happen, or of the seriousness of it, can affect the memory performance. For example, pre-knowing that something about to happen is 'serious' INCREASES the accuracy of memory (p.50). [The ET study involved only a few seconds of exposure to a thief. ] The study results were summarized by Loftus (p50):
"Thus, these investigators have found that the perceived seriousness of a crime--in this case advance knowledge of the value of a stolen item--can be a significant determinant of accuracy in eyewitness identification."In the case of the gospel writers, this has limited value since it is dealing with identification/recognition of a person, and, as usual, the data-poverty of the experiment reduces its utility to NT issues. However, if pre-knowledge of the seriousness/value of an object DOES increase accuracy (in general), then the perceived/expected "national salvation of the Jews"--embodied in the person of the Messiah--would make most of the events in the ministry of Jesus into 'serious' events for His disciples as observers. This factor might actually enhance the credibility of their testimony..
In this chapter, Loftus describes the many and/or subtle changes that can 'happen' to a memory between the experience and later recall of that experience (p52-53): "The time between a complex experience and a witness's recollection of that experience is a crucial period. Both the length of this retention interval and the events that take place during it affect a witness's testimony."
ET then discusses these two factors: (1) retention interval; and (2) post-event information from experiences.
[The ET study involved an exposure time of 42 seconds. A different study had a 'single exposure' (of unknown, but brief duration) and the subjects were tested at 2 hours, 3 days, 1 week, 4 months and one year! (at 4 months they still had 57% recall!).]
Although the exposure events in these studies are very, very data-poor, there may be some value in asking the question of the NT narrative data--how long from "experience" to "preaching" . Granted, the collaborate nature of the literary production would have had the many checks and balances implicit in a minimum of eleven, long-term eyewitnesses, but what WOULD the retention interval for a single individual have been?
Let's consider several sets of material:
The retention interval here is measured in minutes, hours, and days. The disciples 'discussed' His sayings among themselves routinely (cf. Matt 16.7-8; Mark 9.10; Luke 24.15). They were actually called on to preach His message at least twice during the ministry of Jesus: the sending of the Twelve (Matt 10 ) and the sending of the Seventy (Luke 10). [On the other hand, there is a very strong possibility that Matthew took shorthand notes during some of the sermons. This is known to have been easy for the former tax-collector, and known to be the practice of rabbinical students. Use of recorded media, of course, takes the entire discussion out of the realms of 'memory' research altogether.]
It must also be remembered here [assuming we can do it quickly and without significant memory distortion ;>) ] that the gospels rarely attempt to reproduce the exact wording of Jesus. Rather, they give us the exact "voice" of Jesus. [Scholarship distinguishes between the ipsissima verba (the exact same words) and the ipsissima vox (the exact same saying or voice). Many of the exact words (probably in Aramaic) are 'recoverable' in the 'vox' by careful reverse translation from the NT Greek into a Galilean version of Western Aramaic. For detail on method and examples, see J. Jeremias, New Testament Theology, Scribners:1971, pp. 1-29.] Ancient writers, like their modern counterparts, used paraphrase, summary, re-ordering of original speeches--within the constraints of fidelity to meaning [see BLOM for a full discussion of the options available].
The more "spectacular" of these were discussed by all audiences (disciples, populace, enemies) so recall would have been immediate, or days at the latest. Stories, of course, would have circulated outside the disciples' circles--perhaps leading to distortion--in oral form, but the disciples themselves had the feedback mechanism present among them.
Even the more 'mundane' of tasks recounted by the gospels were charged with spiritual significance by Jesus. So, the anointing of His feet by the woman (luke 7.36) is charged with meaning in the confrontation with the Pharisee host, and the small gift of the widow (Mark 12.42ff) is 'turned on its head' by Jesus before his disciples.
The exact 'travelogue' of the various trips Jesus made are not given in chronological sequence (or at least not stated as such by the authors). Individual segments would have been more memorable than others, especially the ones into 'gentile' lands (e.g. area around Tyre, the Decapolis, or cities in Philip's territory). Since many (if not most) of these individual segment descriptions are 'embedded' in the narrative of some related significant event (e.g. the Syro-Phonecian woman in Mark 7.24ff), they would share the memory-accuracy associated with THOSE events.
This section of material is of course the most vivid and detailed of all the gospel material. This material is almost immediately recalled (e.g. the discussion on the way to Emmaus in Luke 24.13ff), is actually discussed as it is occurring (e.g. the questions in the Upper Room accounts), is explained by the Risen Jesus over the 40 days between the Cross and the Ascension (cf. Luke 24.44ff; ), and is immediately preached at Pentecost by Peter and the group. They begin declaring Jesus to be 'mighty in word and deed' and the proclamation begins...
There is also strong scholarly support for Rudolph Pesch's prodigious work arguing that the pre-Marcan Passion Narrative had to have been 'formalized' in the Jerusalem church no later than 37 AD [GAG:109]. This would have pushed the actual development of the material even closer to its occurrence in 33-34ad. This would necessitate immediate recall and consistent rehearsal, which is indeed what history records of the earliest church activity in Acts.
This is also the very core of the apostolic preaching, and was the
subject of immediate recall and interpretation after the event. Jesus literally
taught them during this period (Acts 1.3): After his suffering, he showed
himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive.
He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom
of God. . The apostolic preaching forty days after the first Easter
was centered on the fact that "God raised Jesus from the dead". Retention
was again immediate, frequent, and widespread. Also note that the resurrection
appearances were never private--they were always to groups (with the awesome
and endearing exception of Mary Magdalene), which would have created feedback/control/correction
Post-Event Information (PEI)--from others.
Loftus discusses here a number of ways in which our original memories can be distorted through the influence of PEI.
This very probably happened in the post-event discussions of the disciples--deliberately. As they would discuss among themselves what Jesus meant by some statement (e.g. Mark 8.15), or who Jesus must 'be' after some miracle (e.g. Matt 8.23ff), no doubt their BELIEFS about the event would have been enhanced. They may have believed that they experienced the 'additional' material, but it is quite irrelevant to our study here. The gospel writers are putting forth what happened--not claiming that they are ONLY relying on personal experience. Far from being a reason to question the accuracy of the accounts, the shared experiences of the disciples, as a corrective, would have added much more accuracy and reliability to the literary product, than they MIGHT have confused an author about whether the recounted detail was strictly a memory or a believed-fact (irrespective of source). In this case, composite belief/knowledge about an event is what matters--NOT composite 'memories'.
This is a prime case of where the Teacher/Learning model is more appropriate than the Observer/Victim model. Jesus did not leave such composite beliefs to chance; He was ALWAYS confronting them with their questions and statements, forcing them to abandon false views and adopt correct perspectives (cf. Mark 9.33ff; Luke 9.52ff), and trying to get them to reflect on their memories correctly. Compare Matt 6.5ff:
When they went across the lake, the disciples forgot to take bread. 6 "Be careful," Jesus said to them. "Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees." 7 They discussed this among themselves and said, "It is because we didn't bring any bread." 8 Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked, "You of little faith, why are you talking among yourselves about having no bread? 9 Do you still not understand?Notice also that the group belief about an event was supposed to be modified by the individual contributors to the discussion, and that these contributors would have been relying on their memory at the beginning of the conversation. This means that PEI would not be operative as an issue at the end of this point. The discussion of the various 'memories' would have resulted in a composite belief about the event, which each contributor would have taken away with him or her. In all probability, they were likely able to distinguish between THEIR contribution to the composite-view and the views of the others, at least for the details that stood out most in their minds originally.
11 How is it you don't understand that I was not talking to you about bread? But be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees." 12 Then they understood that he was not telling them to guard against the yeast used in bread, but against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.
Compromise Memories. This is where data that contradicts the original event, when seen LATER, causes the subject to 'change' or in some cases 'blend' the incompatible sets of data. [The ET studies were (1) a 3 minute film followed by misleading information; and (2) 30 slides of 3 seconds each, followed by misleading information.] This is a case of 'interference', in which a credible source (the researcher) gives misleading information via questionnaire or other clues. In the case of the NT authors, not only is it unclear where 'contradictory data' would COME FROM, but there simply is no other source with credibility as high or higher than their own experiences or Jesus! In fact, the presence of opposing data SEEMED to strengthen their position (a phenomena we will see later is supported by Loftus).
It should also be mentioned that this is a different situation than when the apostles had to 'translate' the Person of Jesus into foreign theological frameworks. That process is a translation process--not a memory issue.
It should also be remarked here that the vast majority of details that are 'distorted' in these studies are very, very minor ones (e.g. color, distance, age), and in the case of the NT these kinds of salient details are the very details that we have outside historical and/or archeological confirmation of!
"The results indicated that salient or central items were recalled with significantly greater accuracy and were much more difficult to alter with misleading information than were peripheral items...This strongly suggests that the gospel narratives--replete with 'salience' but often lacking the minutia that historians desire--would have been resistant to alteration during the early days of the apostles.
"Thus we can conclude that it is harder to mislead a witness about important, salient, or central aspects of an event than about peripheral ones."
Timing of Post-Event-Info (PEI). [ET study was 30 slides of 3 seconds each with misleading information (above).] This factor highlights the fact that misleading information is most effective when the original memory has been given a chance to fade/weaken (p. 66). The implications for our study is negligible. In the case of the apostles, they would have begun reinforcing their memories through repetition (a memory strengthening technique) long before any inconsistent data would have been strong enough to make a dent. In other words, as time went on, the memories got stronger not weaker, rendering this factor of negligible force for our situation.
[By the way, the study also pointed out that if the PEI were consistent with the original, then memory performance is actually enhanced--a situation that would have occurred within the apostolic band (p.66).]
"One Year Later". [This was a study involving students who read a 750-word description of a scene, were subsequently shown a misleading postcard picture, and then tested for accuracy at times of 3-4 days, a month later, and a year later!--talk about data-poor! (p.68+) And, "surprise, surprise"--their inaccuracy was much higher at one year!] This retention interval is way out of line for out NT situation, as we noted above.
Subjective Recollections can change. [The ET study was a 3 minute videotape, plus misleading questions, then recall one week later, for subjective responses to the videotape (p.70-71)] This factor shows that ambiguous data plus a value-laden 'leading the witness' questionnaire can influence the subjective elements ascribed to the scene (e.g. violent vs. peaceful). It is not at all clear to me that this has much relevance either. Jesus NEVER left anything 'un-interpreted' for His disciples--He was constantly trying to get them to see all the dimensions of the situation--both His own sayings (e.g. Mark 4.33f: "With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. 34 He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything. " ; cf. also Mark 4.10; 7.17-23; Mt 13.36; 15.15) as well as the circumstances (John 4.31ff: "Meanwhile his disciples urged him, "Rabbi, eat something." 32 But he said to them, "I have food to eat that you know nothing about." 33 Then his disciples said to each other, "Could someone have brought him food?" 34 "My food," said Jesus, "is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work. 35 Do you not say, `Four months more and then the harvest'? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. ").
Nonverbal Influences. This is just a special 'media' of misleading information. As such it is subject to the limitations of applicability noted above. [One of the two ET studies discussed concerned the non-verbal clues human lab researchers gave to rats. Those rats that were handled 'more positively' (presumably non-verbally) had better performance than those who weren't--another clear case of direct overlap with the gospel writers!!!]
Investigations by Police and Attorneys. This is simply a special case of misleading information through (inappropriate) interrogation techniques (p. 74-77). Apart from the situation of the apostles' being questioned by the Council in Acts 4--in which THE APOSTLES did most of the speaking(!)--this would not apply to the gospel writers. [It is absolutely critical to Loftus' purpose of the book however.]
This concerns known ways in which a witness's intervening thoughts about the event, can alter the original memory. Loftus points out that "the witness's own internal thoughts, wishes, and desires intruded during the (retention) interval" (p.80). ET discusses three of these ways.
Guessing. This is where the subject 'fills in the gaps' in a memory with guesses (p. 82-83). [The ET study was of 25 slides for two seconds each, total time of 1 minute.] The conclusion of the studies: "The subjects who were asked to guess about the color of the (non-existent) stationwagon were more likely to think they had seen such a vehicle when asked later on...Control subjects who had not guessed about the stationwagon were less likely to think they had seen one." (p. 83) Notice that this actually involves misleading information as well, and the data-poor situation that contrasts with the events narrated in the gospels. I have maintained above that 'filling in the gaps' of a belief-scene is desirable from PEI, and is different than filling in the gaps of a memory-scene. In the case of a collaborative literary responsibility, and tons of corrective data, any 'incorrect guessing' would have been shot down quickly!
Freezing Effects. This is an important factor that bears on our theme somewhat. The principle is that once a memory is reported/recalled, it assumes greater permanence, resisting subsequent modification by PEI. If the first 'report' is accurate, we have greater permanence of the accurate narrative; if the first 'report' is inaccurate, we have greater permanence of the inaccurate narrative. [The ET study was a 150 word prose passage, after which students had to give a series of paraphrases/reports. (p. 85).] The strange thing about this result was that the first 'copy' of the original made by the students was often inaccurate, but all subsequent copies bore an amazing correspondence to the FIRST copy. "[A]ny one version bore a much greater resemblance to its immediate predecessor than either one of them bore to the original material. If only correct information persisted, this would be a fine result..." (p.85).
This has a rather interesting implication for gospel studies. It
is well-known that oral transmission in Semitic cultures was very reliable,
and this tends to support that. The fact that traveling singers and prophets
could reproduce substantial works with very minimal variation over time
makes perfect sense in light of this factor. And, in the case of the gospel
stories, which would have had their first 'copy' made either during the
life of Jesus (and under His training) or immediately after the ascension
(and under the corporate oversight of a homogenous group), the implication
is very supportive of the permanence of accurate reports! In other words,
when you combine the various factors which would have contributed to the
accurate retelling the FIRST TIME, with this factor that strongly supports
subsequent fidelity to the FIRST "Copy" (i.e. the first 'retelling'), you
get a situation in which high confidence in the accuracy of the early apostolic
teaching is warranted!
Chapter Five: Retrieving Information from Memory
Overall, this chapter will have little relevance to our NT situation, since the question in the chapter deals with various types of interrogation. The situation is one of a semi-passive witness, under questioning by the authorities (e.g. police, attorneys, judges). The NT situation, of course, is radically different: you either have preachers proclaiming the information, or writers authoring documents with the help of others, and/or under the oversight of others.
Loftus discusses a number of issues under this topic:
Type of Retrieval. This concerned what types of questions are used to elicit retrieval/recall. Free narrative reports ("what did you see?") produced the most accurate, but the least complete, recall. [Notice how similar this would be to preaching and even the gospel literature. They are both very incomplete--relative to all the possible material--but quite accurate, to the best of our ability to verify detail.] Controlled narrative questions ("give us a description of what the assailant was wearing") produce less accurate, but more complete recall, and specific questions ("was the man wearing a green shirt?") was the most complete, but least accurate of the 'extraction' techniques. [The three ET studies were 5 mins, 2 mins, and 1min in exposure times.] For the gospel writers this is, again, very supportive. They would have 'lead with' the first type (e.g. the preaching in Acts), and then likely have gotten specific questions from an audience. This is the sequence that Loftus recommends for legal use of ET (p. 92-93).
Question Wording. This is the 'leading question' issue that the courts have long recognized as being a problem (p. 97). It has no relevance to the gospel writers' "unsolicited preaching" situation.
Who is asking the question? This factor explores memory performance under situations in which the questioner is either (1) of high status; or (2) is 'nice' in attitude. The status of the questioner produced more complete responses (without any improvement in accuracy) and the variation between 'hostile/likable' produced no effect whatsoever. [The ET study was a 42 second film.] Since the gospel dox were not done under questioning, this again is of negligible relevance. It is worth noting as a minor point that the hostile audiences that the apostles spoke to would not have affected their memory performance under this factor.
Confidence. This is a fascinating issue. People tend to assume higher accuracy from witnesses who are more confident of their recollections, and the data--with exceptions and qualifications--supports this position. After surveying the various studies, Loftus summarizes this thus (p. 101):
"To reiterate, although there are many studies showing that the more confident a person is in a response, the greater the likelihood that the response is accurate, some studies have shown no relationship at all between confidence and accuracy. In fact, there are even conditions under which the opposite relation exists between confidence and accuracy..." (emphasis mine)Notice that ET basically admits that confidence normally is associated with accuracy ("many" versus "some" versus "even conditions under which"). The "conditions under which" that Loftus refers to occur in studies in which misleading information was delivered at the most vulnerable time possible in the retention interval (p.101)! When you couple this basic principle with the observation that the apostles spoke with 'great boldness' and conviction/confidence (cf. Acts 4.39; 2.29; 9.28), you get an indication of greater accuracy.
Knew-it-all-along-Effect. This is related to PEI, as well as the gap-filling, which we have already discussed above.
Hypnosis and Recall. This is clearly not relevant to the gospel situations.
Thus we see that these interrogation issues are largely irrelevant to our gospel question, with some of the factors (i.e. retrieval environment, type of retrieval, confidence) actually enhancing the credibility of the gospel writers' memory.
Chapter Six: Theoretical Issues
In this chapter, Dr. Loftus explores the two competing models of memory. Most of it is too theoretical for our purpose, but there are two observations/conclusions she notes that might bear upon our situation:
The implication for the apostolic group is obvious: if someone tried to smuggle in some really bogus data, it would be rejected outright, and the source of that bogus data would lose the ability to smuggle in less-blatant aberrations.
The implication for the apostolic group is: if their preaching were
accurate the first time, then attempts (unconscious or conscious) to mislead
them about that content would be much less affective.
This chapter concerns the issue of recognizing faces, and discusses three specific problems: cross-racial identification (p.137f), unconscious transference (p.142ff), and photobook/line-ups (p.144f). [The three ET studies involved 12 seconds, 2 seconds, or 'brief exposure to a person'.] This chapter has no relevance to gospel studies--the only possible personal identification is that of the Risen Christ, in which none of the above factors play.
Chapter Eight: Individual differences in Eyewitness ability
Although it might seem that this chapter is similar to the discussion of 'Witness Factors', it is more closely related to longer-term factors. Some of these factors could be seen to bear on the question of NT reliability. ET discusses four factors: general anxiety, sex, age, training.
Sex. Sex itself has no apparent bearing on memory, but interest does. Loftus cites one researcher (p.159) who concluded that people "are more readily influenced to the extent that they lack information about a topic or regard it as trivial and unimportant."
The fact that people's memory can be modified when there are huge gaps in the exposure data ("they lack information about a topic") we have discussed above. The comment about ease of influence being positively correlated with an attitude of disinterest, however, is fascinating, especially when you reword it: "the permanence of a memory is directly related to the interest in the topic/subject of that memory". This would imply that if the gospel writers were INTERESTED in the life and words of Jesus, then their memories would be less likely to be distorted through the various factors under discussion! If they considered the person of Jesus of Nazareth, and His 'words of eternal life' (cf. John 6.68f: "Simon Peter answered him, 'Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69 We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.'" ) to be important enough to forsake all (Luke 18.28), then this principle suggests that their memories would have been less subject to distortion.
Training (or advance warning). [The ET study exposure was for 8 seconds.] ET demonstrated that 'recognition training' had no effect on facial recognition accuracy (p.168), but that telling subjects what they were ABOUT to witness made substantial improvement in accuracy (p. 164-165). The closest situation to this I can find in the gospels is a VERY significant one, one in which Jesus told the disciples "what they were about to see". Notice the progression:
"From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. " (Matthew 16.21).This pre-instruction would, under this factor, tend to make the apostles' memories of the Passion events and Resurrection events more accurate than ordinary memories.
"When they came together in Galilee, he said to them, "The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. 23 They will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised to life." (Matthew 17.22f)
Now as Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside and said to them, 18 "We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death 19 and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!" (Matthew 20.17)
When Jesus had finished saying all these things, he said to his disciples, 2 "As you know, the Passover is two days away -- and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified." (Matthew 26.2)
Chapter Nine: Common beliefs about Eyewitness Accounts.
This is simply a survey of popular opinion on the issues of the book. As such, it is interesting, but irrelevant to our study here.
Chapter Ten: The Eyewitness and the Legal System
In this chapter Loftus surveys the history of the legal views toward these issues of eyewitness reliability. The net of the history part of the chapter (written in 1979 before the new preface of 1996) is that the legal system had reversed its stand in 1977:
"Thus, although the Supreme Court once provided some constitutional safeguards to help protect against faulty convictions, it later dismantled this protection." (ET:186)She then examines four possible options as correctives to the problems:
What I find interesting is one of the statements in this chapter (p.191):
"Outright exclusion of unreliable testimony and requirement of corroboration are not ideal solutions because they take the decision out of the hands of the jury and might prevent the conviction of many who are truly guilty."In the case of the NT, this would argue that the NT documents:
[Her final chapter is an actual trial case, not relevant to our study.]
I have commented above on several occasions that the loftux lacks a great deal of relevance to NT issues, due to a number of factors. One of those I mentioned was the difference between a passive 'Witness' or 'brief bystander' model and a directed, teaching-context Learning model. I would like here to simply highlight some conclusions of memory research in the "Learning" model. [Taken from Your Memory: How it works and How to Improve it, by Professor Kenneth Higbee, Marlowe: 1996 (2nd Ed.)].
Dr. Higbee actually cites Loftus' research (though not ET). His chapters 4 and 5 are concerned with "How to Remember Anything" type of tactics. I want simply to summarize these (without analyzing the studies he cites), and make a brief comment about how they can be found in the teaching of Jesus.
One can easily see from this list that under the Learning/Teacher model,
the disciples were in situations and under instruction that would have
optimized their ability to remember the words and deeds of their Lord.
[Author's note: This book is somewhat dated at this point. I have a more recent and complete summary book on order--Mistaken Identification: The Eyewitness, Psychology, and the Law, by Cutler and Penrod (Cambridge UP:1995). If it contains any additional or more relevant data, I will update this piece at my earliest opportunity.]