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?)