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  • Eyewitnesses as Guarantors of the Accuracy of the Gospel Traditions in the Light of Psychological Research
  • Robert K. McIver

The attention of NT scholarship has been directed by Judith Redman to an important set of data relevant to the ongoing debate concerning the role eyewitnesses may have played in the formation of the gospel traditions. Her recent article “How Accurate Are Eyewitnesses? Bauckham and the Eyewitnesses in the Light of Psychological Research,”1 highlights a range of experimental data that lead her to a generally negative view of the historical reliability of any eyewitness memories incorporated into the Gospels. As evidence to support her view, she points out that psychological research has identified many factors that can change eyewitnesses’ memory of an event. She notes that (i) facets of another individual’s report may be unconsciously incorporated into eyewitnesses’ memory of that event; (ii) witnesses tend to avoid conflicting with reports from others and usually choose a culturally appropriate version of the event; (iii) post-event information can influence what elements of an event are retained in memory; (iv) eyewitnesses guess some elements of their report, and over time these guesses become treated as part of the original memory; (v) errors become frozen into memories; and, most important, (vi) while group memories are more stable than individual memories, group memories incorporate from a very early time the mistakes made by individual eyewitnesses; and furthermore, (vii) these group memories will be further shaped by theological considerations within the community. These and other considerations led Redman to conclude, “The continued presence in Christian communities of eyewitnesses to Jesus’ ministry until the time when these events were recorded is a [End Page 529] guarantee only of the community’s agreed version, not of the exact details of the event itself.”2 Her overall view of what can be known of Jesus and his teachings appears to be quite negative. She says, “In other words, it seems likely that the answer to the question How much can we reliably know about the Jesus of history from the Gospels in the light of Bauckham’s work? is still ‘not much.’”3

That Redman brings to the attention of NT scholarship the largely overlooked body of research investigating eyewitness reliability is very much to be welcomed. Forming an evaluation of the historical reliability of the eyewitness basis of the gospel traditions on empirical evidence gives such evaluations a credibility they would not otherwise have. There are, however, a number of aspects of the psychological research into human memory that, when taken into account, may provide a more positive view of the accuracy of eyewitness reports and their potential contribution to the Jesus traditions in the Gospels than that reached by Redman.

At the heart of Redman’s concerns about the accuracy of eyewitness reports is the observation that human memories incorporate errors of fact in memories of events. Indeed, the existence of such errors is not only well documented, but there have been extensive experimental studies into the conditions that induce memory errors and the types of errors that can be induced.

I. Experimental Procedures for Generating Errors in the Memories of Individuals

One procedure commonly used to generate false memories is the so-called Deese, Roediger, and McDermott False Memory Procedure (DRM). In 1995, Henry Roediger III and Kathleen McDermott reported that lists of fifteen words, each of which was related to one word that is absent from the list, were able to be used in experimental conditions to produce a significant number of memory errors. For example, the words “bed, rest, awake, tired, dream, wake, snooze, blanket, doze, slumber, snore, nap, peace, yawn, drowsy,” are all strongly associated with the word “sleep.”4 The words on this list may be presented one after another on a computer [End Page 530] screen to an experimental participant, after which the participant is asked to reproduce as many words from the list as have been remembered. If the word “sleep” is included in the response, then a “memory error” is considered to have occurred.

The DRM procedure fits well with the requirements of a psychology lab: the procedure can be automated through computer presentation of the lists...


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pp. 529-546
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