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Comparing Apples to Oranges Without Even Knowing it

This morning I read this article trying to diminish the strength for the evidence of Christianity by attacking the eyewitnesses at its core.

To begin with, Mr. Pulliam, the blogger, says, “even if the gospels do record eyewitness testimony, that is no guarantee of their accuracy.”   Responding to a book on the subject, Mr. Pulliam says, “Bauckham maintains that the gospels are reliable history because the accounts contained in them are either from eyewitness testimonies or very close to eyewitness testimonies.”

If Bauckham really presents his argument in this fashion it will be the first that I’ve heard it that way.  I would think that it is pretty foolish to infer that simply because the gospels are (or are derived from) eyewitness testimonies that makes them reliable.   That would be pretty dumb.  Eyewitness testimony needs to be checked out, just like we need to check out the information that comes to us by any other epistemological method.

Who has suggested otherwise?  Bauckham?  On Mr. Pulliam’s telling… but given the weakness of eyewitness testimony which Mr. Pulliam putatively has proven-  Mr. Pulliam’s recounting of Bauckham’s position cannot be simply trusted since this recounting is, of course, eyewitness testimony:  Mr. Pulliam’s.

Bauckham may be guilty of the charge, I don’t know.  However, the self-evident fact is that of course eyewitness testimony would need to be checked out, and rather than address this important aspect, Mr. Pulliam appears to be blind to it, launching (another) attack on ‘eyewitness testimony.’

Mr. Pulliam supports his attack on eyewitness recounting by recounting as an eyewitness conclusions from two studies regarding memory and recall.  One concerns people’s recollection of the 9-11 event.  The other was the recollection of students of the Challenger disaster.  This latter one makes the point nicely.  Mr. Pulliam quotes Robert Burton:

Within one day of the space shuttle Challenger explosion, Ulric Niesser, a psychologist studying “flashbulb” memories, asked his class of 106 students to write down exactly how they’d heard about the explosion, where they were, what they’d been doing, and how they felt. Two and half years later they were again interviewed. Twenty-five percent of the students’ subsequent accounts were strikingly different than their original journal entries. More than half the people had lesser degrees of error, and less than ten percent had all the details correct

Robert Burton continues,

The most unnerving was one student’s comment, “That’s my handwriting, but that’s not what happened”.

But I have evidence that that is not what the student actually said.  From this recount by Neisser (the author of the Challenger study), the student actually said,

Yes, that’s my handwriting – but I still remember it this other way!

Interesting, no?  An atheist debunking eyewitness testimony relied on an author debunking eyewitness testimony who didn’t accurately transmit a quote!  And what a difference!  The first quote smacks of stubbornness and is unnerving.  The second smacks of bemusement and not much else.

I am not hereby trying to do what these folks were doing, debunking eyewitness testimony!  I’m just saying that you’ve got to check it out!  Amazingly, you even have to check out what atheists, scientists, psychologists, and scholars say!

But we still aren’t to the apples and oranges.

What I was interested to learn was who these students recalling the Challenger disaster really were.  Except that they were students at Emory, I have no idea.

Question:  would you trust the eyewitness accounts of college students more or less than you would trust the eyewitness accounts of grade schoolers?  Burton didn’t clarify, which is why I tried to narrow it down.  I think it is obvious that the age, maturity, and training of these students will impact our analysis.  It would be comparing apples (memory recollection of grade schoolers) to oranges (memory recollection of college students) otherwise, and therefore unsound.

Now, would you be more willing to trust the eyewitness accounts of college students that were studying to be physical education teachers or college students who were studying to be police detectives?  Or court stenographers?

It would again be comparing apples to oranges to think that having studied the memory recollection of your average college student you can extrapolate that finding to those who are actually trained to recollect more accurately.  No?

Now, this idea that we can extrapolate from what we know about how people generally recall events today to how we think people recalled events in 1st century Palestine is a whopping example of comparing apples to oranges, and one that is filled with irony.

Ours is the TV age.  Ours is the age of the five second sound bite and the ten second commercial.  Ours is the age of Twitter.  Ours is the age when most of the readers of this blog post would have stopped reading ten paragraphs ago.   Ours is the age when you can quickly and easily commit recollections to print, which is lucky because all in all, we are a society of scatterbrains.

We have no training in remembering detail.  Information washes over us and if anything is truly important (and we are trained to think this way, ie, police detectives), we write it down right away so we don’t forget it.

But just because we are like this doesn’t mean that people walking around in first century Palestine were like that.  Indeed, there are good reasons to think they weren’t like that at all.

Let us start with one obvious difference:  information was passed primarily orally.  This was the way it was done, but one should not think of rabble rousing, hard drinking college students doing the receiving of the orally transmitted message.  We have too many crutches to rely on that those in the past simply did not.

If anyone was conditioned to recall correctly what was heard and seen it was the Jews of first century Palestine.  They committed long portions of the Scriptures to memory- out of necessity.  Gutenberg hadn’t yet invented his press.  Moreover, the Jews believed they were memorizing the very Word of God- which for the same reason they tried to transmit as accurately as possible when they made copies of it.

The first Christians, and the writers of the gospels, were Jews such as these.  They were people immersed in an oral culture who had been conditioned to pay close attention to words that were spoken.  On top of that, their oral culture had at its center a set of documents that they believed were the very Word of God:  yet another reason for the Jews to pay special attention to what they were hearing.

To think that we can extend what we learn from memory studies of people today, the Era of the Short Attention Span, to the people of the pre-Gutenberg Era, is comparing apples to oranges… and is a fatal flaw.

Since it is impossible to go back in time and conduct actual studies of the first century Jews and first Christians there are only two basic routes you can go.  First of all, study the memory recollection of societies relying on oral tradition today, preferably those who believe that they are regularly passing along the actual words of God.  But secondly, and most importantly in any case, you’ve got to check them out.

That is to say, even if I have shown that the first century Jews should be considered more credible in their ‘eyewitnessing skilz’ than today’s media-saturated college kids, it would still be necessary to check out the actual testimony.

We could maybe even dispense with all this talk about the validity and quality of eyewitness testimony completely and just go right to the heart:  does it check out?

(PS, also remember that the gospels can be read in a day but Jesus preached to the masses for about three years.  He probably delivered the same message once or twice or twenty times, no?  Those who were with him the most, the disciples, would have heard a lot of stuff over and over again.  This repetition would also help in memory recollection.  Wouldn’t it?)



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  1. Anthony,

    Glad to see you read my post today. I fail to see a lot of difference in the quote you refer to from the student remembering the Challenger episode. It sounds about as close as some of the parallels in the gospel stories, closer actually.

    As for the oral tradition appeal, I deal with that in the next post. Suffice it to say that the way 3rd century disciples of prominent rabbis memorized their master’s words verbatim is a far cry from what we see in the gospels. Also, Jan Vansina who is probably the leading modern authority on the passing of oral tradition in contemporary primitive societies does not share your enthusiasm for precision and accuracy. See (here.

    Thanks again for reading.

    • Anthony on April 21, 2010 at 10:23 am

    Hi Ken,

    I think there is a difference, but the real point was that there was a difference at all. You have to admit that there is at least some irony there. At any rate, I’m not sure how you can have it both ways. If these two quotes are close enough to count without causing you to lose any sleep then minor discrepancies in the Gospels shouldn’t bother you either. Moreover, at least with the Gospels you have the possible explanation that there were in fact different events covering more or less the same material, whereas in this case there was only one event. Ie, in the Gospels it is possible that each eyewitness did in fact accurately recount what was said. In the case with Burton’s recounting of the Challenger study, we know that at least one of the wordings cannot be completely accurate.

    In regards to your comments about oral tradition, I think you still are not addressing my contention that your post compares apples to oranges. I only gave a cursory overview of the direction an apples to apples comparison would be made and did not venture to offer any enthusiasm about ‘precision and accuracy’ of the first century Jews. I only said that it would be different, and that this must be taken into account, and at any rate, the testimony would still have to be checked out.

    The post that you linked to did not actually address my points. It only re-iterated your contention that eyewitness testimony is not trustworthy. I will grant at least that you went out and got someone talking about oral traditions, but there again there wasn’t much to it. Your post provides no examples from actual oral transmission of history, and no mention at all of what that might look like specifically in first century palestine with a culture of people as devoted to the view that they were receiving the very words of God.

    Moreover, the fatal flaw in your response and overall perspective is that in all of your attempts to show how eyewitness testimony is weak, you only admit my central point which is that such material, like all material, needs to be checked out! One can only know that a particular testimony is flawed if you have found it deficient at some point! Thus your whole argument demonstrates what all juries already know: an eyewitness’s credibility hinges in how well it can be tested and then how well it survives such tests.

    PS, you do realize that virtually everything you think you know comes to you by eyewitness testimony? I don’t suppose you were there to split the atom, but I bet you believe it still happened.

  2. Anthony,

    I am not saying that eyewitness testimony is always wrong. I am saying that its not automatically right as many apologists assume in their arguments. I agree that eyewitness testimony needs to be checked out. I think eyewitnesses need to be cross-examined whenever possible and as detectives do, separate the witnesses and get each one’s story before they have a chance to collaborate. This is the best way to try to get to what actually happened. Underlying motivations need to be discerned if possible. All of these elements are important but none of them is possible as it relates to the gospels or the NT. That is the problem. Thus, when apologists say: “Oh well we can trust the details of the gospels because it is based on eyewitness testimony and enough eyewitnesses would have been alive when the gospels were written to challenge or correct any errors, is in my opinion off-base.

    • Anthony on April 21, 2010 at 12:14 pm

    Hi Ken,

    I can’t agree with you in your assessment about what you think ‘many apologists assume.’ I can’t say that I’ve ever heard an apologist submit eyewitness testimony as valid simply because it is eyewitness testimony. I can imagine an apologist saying that Christianity can be distinguished from other religions because of the eyewitness nature of it, but the whole point of saying that is that it can be checked out.

    I’d be happy if you could provide some real life examples of apologists engaging in the assumption you are referring to, since I have never seen it happen. It certainly isn’t my approach. I don’t recall Habermas taking that approach. I haven’t read Bauckham to know if your description of his view is valid, but since he was at the center of your post, a few quotes from him seems like a good start.

    I completely disagree that the NT and the gospels cannot be tested. Many atheists believe they have been tested and they have failed those tests. Many atheists think they have figured out exactly what the underlying motivations of the gospel writers were. The idea that the gospels can’t be scrutinized at this level seems absurd to me since that seems to be the atheistic MO for dismissing the Bible.

    Now, granting that epistemologically speaking, dividing people up ‘before they have a chance to collaborate’ is a useful test, but come now, Ken, let’s be realistic. No historical record of any sort comes to us like that. Even if we concede that this is the ‘best’ way it doesn’t follow that other ways are unsatisfactory and cannot yield good information.

    I think you misunderstand the argument that apologists are making. The fact that their testimony was circulating with no evidence of rebuttal does not make their testimony true, but it certainly adds credibility, just as if a prosecutor puts up an eyewitness putting a man at the scene of the crime finds this eyewitness’s testimony increase in credibility if the defense attorney cannot produce a rebuttal witness. It would be silly to say that this proves the initial testimony was true. It would be equally silly to ignore such a thing.

    In my experience, apologists do not make the argument you are suggesting. Rather, they offer a cumulative argument for why the testimony is valid and do not suggest that any one thing proves the testimony must be believed. Also in my experience they seem to be very quick to point out that the testimony should be checked out. It is our contention that it checks out very nicely.

    My own faith journey was transformed from hyper-skepticism of the NT the day I realized that I was holding the Bible to an unreasonable standard: “Guilty until proven innocent” and “It must be proved beyond ANY doubt.” We put people to death using the standards, “Innocent until proven guilty” and “proved beyond a REASONABLE doubt.” In my view, if we think these standards are sufficient for sentencing to death, they are probably pretty good standards in the world we find ourselves in- that is, the real world- and it was a little silly of me to hold a standard for the Bible that was well off the charts of any standard for anything else.

    Are you doing the same thing?

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Anthony Horvath. Anthony Horvath said: shld we assume that just b/c modern eyewitnesses don't remember details well that 1st century Jews didn't? http://bit.ly/aHjIq8 […]

  2. […] Comparing Apples to Oranges Without Even Knowing it | Athanatos … […]

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