I am reading through Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eye Witnesses.
He has a long chapter about memory. His position is that the gospels are much more based on eyewitness testimony than critics have credited. They are not anonymous documents of long developing collective memory. They are documents based on specific memories of individuals.
But how reliable is memory over time? He goes into psychological studies of memory. One of two alternative views is that memory is a copy of events. That is, memory is like replaying saved video footage that copies what happened. The other alternative is that memory is reconstructive. In this view, our minds put our memories together based on a little bit of what happened and a lot of filling in the blanks.
These are not cut and dried alternatives. Some of both go on. We do reconstruct memories. But there is usually also a bedrock of actual recalled events.
If an event is unique or unusual, we will likely remember it better. If an event is of consequence for our community (JFK’s assassination or 9/11) it is likely to lodge itself more firmly in our memory. If we are emotionally involved in an event, it will make us more likely to remember it. On the other hand, personal memories often become confused in regard to dates and chronology even when they are otherwise accurate.
This was interesting because it has become recently more apparent to me how complex the issues around memory are. In the last few years my family has dealt with some trauma: my dad’s dementia and death, what seemed like a sudden outbreak of cancer in several family members, and some other things particular to certain individuals. One family member has just lost a huge chunk of memory related to all this. He kept a diary during part of the time. He is using that and other people’s recollections to try to recover memories. In spite of that, he does not actually remember months and months of events. PTSD, we think.
What do we really remember? And what do we reconstruct based on other people’s memories and records like diaries and photographs?
Bauckham cites some studies that memories often take the form of anecdotes. We reinforce anecdotes by rehearsing them repeatedly. They become part of the lore of our family or community. Personal memory and collective memory merge in retold anecdotes. Yet, the anecdote is usually the primary memory of one individual. As a pastor I saw this many times when I interviewed a family in preparation for a funeral. There were anecdotes about the deceased that had become a part of the collective memory of the family.
Bauckham sees no need for the form critic’s assumption that the anecdotes about the ministry of Jesus in the gospels had to be stories that developed and built over time and with use in the church. Rather, such anecdotes would have become fixed at an early stage and then rehearsed or performed in that fixed form until written down.
Much of this seems likely, especially about the vivid anecdotes in Mark’s gospel. But Bauckham’s case here is pretty modest. Sometimes eyewitness testimony is unreliable. Sometimes people reconstruct memories with a prejudicial agenda that distorts the memory. People even have false memories. Bauckham acknowledges all this. But he argues that for most part in daily life, memory is remarkably reliable. Memory success is the norm.