Bauckham, Richard. “Chapter 13, Eyewitness Memory.” Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony.” Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2006, pp. 319-357.
In this chapter, Bauckham observes that psychological studies of memory have been very common, but that New Testament scholars have not made significant attempts to apply the data uncovered to biblical transmission (Bauckham 2006, 320). He sets up his analysis by providing an example of unreliable eyewitness testimony and one of very accurate testimony given of an event over seventy years earlier (Bauckham 2006, 320-323). The example of accurate testimony is identified by psychologists as “recollective memory” (Bauckham 2006, 321). Bauckham considers the narratives in the Gospels to fit generally into the same category of memory.
One of the challenges in studies of recollective memory is determining “whether a particular recollective memory is a copy of the original experience or a reconstruction of the original experience” (Bauckham 2006, 325). A copied memory would tend to be impervious to change, while a reconstructed one will be more fluid. Bauckham classes the false memories, in which we remember something that never happened, as coming from the reconstructive process (Bauckham 2006, 325). However, the situation becomes more complex when we realize that in memories as a copy of the original event, there is still an element of re-assembly to express the memory. There must be room for some variation in expressing memories (Bauckham 2006, 327). Memories may be distorted through substitution of similar details or through importation of details which did not occur (Bauckham 2006, 328).
It is important to consider how reliable recollective memory actually is. Bauckham observes that some memories are recollected much better than others. Bauckham summarizes several categories of memories which are very likely to be recalled correctly. In brief, if we would donsider it memorable, it probably fits into one of these categories (Bauckham 2006, 331-334).
Central to recollection is the interpretive structure we use. “We are already structuring events, selecting and ordering, seeking coherence and meaning, when we experience and perceive the events, but even more so when we recall and recount them” (Bauckham 2006, 335). There seems to be a process in recollection of preserving details in a manner consistent with our overall understanding of the situation. Recollection bears with it an element of communication, with oneself and possibly with others. Therefore, the memories are arranged according to a sensible framework (Bauckham 2006, 337).
An essential element in the authority of eyewitness testimony in antiquity was the witnesses’ interpretation of the events. The participant understanding of thesituation was important because the eyewitness would grasp its importance. Bauckham notes that memory specialists consider meaning to be an important element instability or change of recollections (Bauckham 2006, 339)
The timing of events is also important to memory. “Those who recall the past really do intend to recall the past, not to create it to suit present needs and purposes. At the same time memories are recalled in order to be put to use in the present” (Bauckham 2006, 30). The current relevance and the past context of the memory are both important.
The Gospel accounts, as Bauckham observes, fit many of the criteria we would identify in regard to highly accurate memories (Bauckham 2006, 341). The events are unusual, often unique. They are full of distinctive features. Many are of great consequence (Bauckham 2006, 342). The eyewitnesses were personally involved in the events. There are relatively few vivid or irrelevant details. This could serve to prevent elaboration of the narratives. The point of view may shift between that of a participant and that of an observer. This is consistent with the pattern of recollective memory (Bauckham 2006, 344). As we might expect, dating and chronology are not entirely precise. It is also possible, across the different Gospel accounts, to tell the difference between essential and inessential details (Bauckham 2006, 344-315). Finally, the accounts would certainly have been told and re-told. The rehearsal would stabilize the narrative quickly (Bauckham 2006, 345). Bauckham therefore concludes that the eyewitness testimony which led to the composition of the Gospels was very likely to be reliable (Bauckham 2006, 346).
Bauckham ocnsiders the mental frameworks used in construction of narratives, observing that form criticism assumed there would be no presence or involvement of eyewitness testimony after the very earliest time period (Bauckham 2006, 347). The Conclusion made by form critics was that the very elements expected by memory experts are present due to the absence of eyewitness accounts (Bauckham 2006, 348). In fact, the narrative style is entirely consistent with repeated story telling based on actual events, without intermediary written accounts.
Bauckham returns to the idea of fact and meaning, observing that recollected memories such as those in the Gospels, are linked with meanings. In the case of the Gospels, those meanings are fulfilled in the passion and resurrection narratives (Bauckham 2006, 352). The Gospel accounts make numerous statements about the disciples’ lack of understanding and their later realization of the importance of events (Bauckham 2006, 352). Bauckham finds it surprising that the Gospels have relatively little interpretive explanation. The interpretation was likely present, but in the preaching which accompanied the telling of the Gospel. Bauckham suggests, though not very specifically, that the absence of interpretations speaks against form criticism and its developmental view of narratives (Bauckham 2006, 354).