In an interesting study, Daniel Schacter has identified The Seven Sins of Memory. They are as follows: 1) transience; 2) absent-mindedness; 3) blocking; 4) misattribution; 5) suggestibility; 6) bias, and 7) persistence. By transcience what Schacter means is that most things that we see or hear are quickly forgotten. The glimpse of the cemetery on the right as I am speeding along to the seminary to teach at 7:30 in the morning is not a cherished or preserved memory, it is simply a fleeting piece of data, quickly left behind as the mind hurtles forward to more important things seen or heard.
Yet still, some things, even some trivial things form long lasting data in the brain, for example, I remember my first junior high basketball game in 1966 where I didn’t realize at first I was: 1) either supposed to bring a jock, or 2) just keep wearing my underwear when I donned my basketball shorts, and so I put on the latter without either of the former. Fortunately for me, my mistake dawned on me before I went out on the court wearing nothing but my loose new purple Eagles uniform and an awkward embarrassed smile. In general, the brain sorts out the transient and the significant, but sometimes the insignificant is strange enough or embarrassing enough to be remembered over a very long time. That incident happened to me 45 years ago, and yet I remember it as if it were yesterday. I mention this, because probably at most there was a 40 year gap between the events of Jesus’ life and the writing of our earliest Gospel– Mark.
It is interesting that when eyewitnesses have testified in court cases, the surveys show that they tend to be accurate even about details 80% of the time, unless they are deliberately trying to deceive. And the thing about lying is consistency. It is very difficult to maintain consistency of all surrounding facts, ideas, events, timeline once one interjects a lie into the mix. I would suggest this is because reality is truth-biased, or better said, reality has a truth structure to it. It only fully makes sense and consistently so when the truth is told about it.
Unfortunately for us, most memory studies study what are called forgetting curves over very short periods of time, not say the 35-40 year period between the death of Jesus and the writing of the first Gospel. Very little of what is learned about forgetting curves on the very short term basis helps us with the issue of what could have been remembered over so long a period of time.
One of the interesting things scientists have learned about the brain is it has memory subsystems. For example, some people are definitely better at remembering names, or numbers, or dates, than others. Some people are inherently better at math or with words, and so on. Oddly, some people who are excellent at remembering faces are bad with names. Some people are more visual remembers, some more aural.
One of the few studies of memory that deals with enough longevity of memory to be relevant to Gospel studies is discussed by McIver beginning on p. 35ff. It is the Bahrick study of people who learned Spanish in high school or college but then didn’t go on to use it thereafter. The study even extends to 50 years out from the original learning. The study involved a good large sample, 773 persons, of whom 146 were studying Spanish at the time the experiment was run, and the rest had studied Spanish between one and 50 years earlier (a separate control group of 40 people who had never studied Spanish was also used). What this and other studies showed is that in the first 3-6 years the normal forgetting curve, or memory decay happened, but thereafter for the next 20 or more years, what remained of the memory was in ‘permastore’ and could be recalled— for example the phrase ‘Hablo Espanol’ or more appropriate to this time of year ‘Felix Navidad’?? which I learned in Grade 3, is still stuck in my brain, even though I have not really used or spoken Spanish since the third grade (which sadly was back in 1961). Not surprisingly Bahrick discovered that the better the initial learning, the less memory decay affected what was retained. Time references proved to be the weakest aspect of long term memory in such studies of what is called episodic memory. On the other end of the spectrum was memory of things seen like faces, which in many such tests seem to be remembered over very long periods of time without much memory decay. It is interesting then that we have no physical description of Jesus at all— in our four Gospels.