Memory, Jesus, and the Synoptic Gospels

Robert K. McIver Society of Biblical Literature, Atlanta, GA August 1, 2011
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Few historical Jesus scholars doubt the importance of the oral culture of Jesus’ earliest followers. Yet few investigate the nature of eyewitness testimony, memory, or collective memory. McIver presents the latest research on personal and collective memory, and he applies it to the oral stage prior to the composition of the Gospels. Even though eyewitnesses may forget a large amount of their testimony, McIver concludes that the type of events recorded in the Gospels would have been memorable. A “personal event memory,” a memory that involves a specific event and has emotional significance, can last much longer than an arbitrary list of facts.

McIver argues that all memories are transient. Most forgotten details are lost within three years of the event. Memories that last five years, however, are usually retained for fifteen more. This type of memory corruption usually occurs in a pattern. One may create a false memory by filling in where details have been forgotten or by allowing present circumstances to influence how the past is recalled. Yet these memory errors tend to cohere with established details of the memory. Though errors threaten the accuracy of the details that surround the event, an eyewitness can still recall the gist of the memory. In spite of frailties, people can remember about eighty percent of the details of a personal event memory.

McIver relies on James D. G. Dunn’s model of oral transmission. Within five years of the events an oral community would combine personal reminiscences into a collective memory, a memory that the community has agreed upon. Dunn argues that the Evangelists would have relied more on the communal memory of the early church than on eyewitnesses testimony. McIver concedes that the needs of the church, and later the Evangelists, would have formed these memories. Based on collective memory research, however, it is doubtful that the community would have invented a story to meet a need. The communities exercised influence on the memories through emphasis, but never invention. McIver argues that the collective memory of the earliest church would have stabilized the Jesus traditions, whether they were written or oral.

McIver’s work provides helpful analysis for the history of the Gospel traditions. He concludes that the nature of the events promotes accuracy and stability. Two aspects stand out. First, a difficulty for this type of study is bridging the distance between current literary culture and the first-century oral culture. Many of the memory studies that McIver notes involve situations that are nothing like the early church. McIver himself makes this observation. However, these tests show how remarkable memory is, as well as its limits; they challenge assumptions that many have made about memory. Second, McIver follows James D. G. Dunn’s model of collective memory, which emphasizes the role of the community for the tradition over that of eyewitness testimony. Any conclusion on the role of the eyewitness testimony for the written Gospels remains speculative. McIver himself points out that readers are not now in a position to sort out traditions that came from eyewitness testimony and those that come from a collective memory. Nonetheless, if the Evangelists had access to the eyewitnesses, they would have consulted them.

These issues do not take away from McIver’s overall thesis. McIver provides important research for historical Jesus studies. Since the advent of form criticism, critics have called into question the stability of oral transmission and have overplayed the unreliability of eyewitness memory. McIver’s work provides a helpful corrective to this skeptical approach. Even though memory is transient, an eyewitness can report the gist of an event with a fair amount of accuracy.

—Benjamin I. Simpson

October 1, 2013
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Oct-Dec 2013 vol. 170 no. 4 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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