Some memories may indeed be immune to the usual diminution over time, memories for example of a strongly emotive sort– say for example, the day of your wedding, or in the case of the Gospels, the day you were healed by Jesus. The technical literature calls this personal event memories, and the question becomes as to whether we have some of these sorts of memories in the Gospels, memories more immune to transience or the ravages of time.
These deeply imprinted memories are sometimes called ‘flash bulb’ memories, and refer to events characterized by surprise, an even producing deep emotions, and of deep consequence. I will give you a personal example of such a memory. I was a patrol guard at Northwood Elementary school, out early from class to watch the kids safely across the street. On this given November day, all seemed normal and humdrum, until Mrs. Dot Easter, a good friend of my mothers drove into the entrance of the school hollering ‘the President has been shot, the President has been shot’. Suddenly, we were all called back into the school, sent to our homerooms, and we watched with rapt attention the developments in Dallas Texas on the day J.F.K. was shot and killed. I will certainly never forget that day. As it turned it, it was a doubly eventful day for me, as it was also the day that someone else died who would become of great consequence to me in my faith pilgrimage— C.S. Lewis. This flash bulb memory, though the wattage is dialed down a bit now, is still vividly etched in my mind almost 50 years later. What I have just described is a textbook example of a flashbulb memory which regularly includes the elements where you heard the news, who told it to you, what the news was, and the immediate aftermath as it affected both you, and others close to you. One of the reasons for calling this memory flashbulb is because one has a picture in one’s minds eye of what one saw on that occasion. In other words there is a vivid visual memory, even if you were not present right where the traumatic event happened, as was the case for me. I was in High Point, N.C. Kennedy was killed in Dallas. What I most remember is the shock of hearing the news, not the watching of the TV reports thereafter. One thing psychologists regularly remark on about flashbulb memories is the level of ongoing and continued confidence the witness has about what they saw and heard at the occasion. It is interesting as well that verbal and narrative memory seems to be in one brain system, and emotional and sensory information in another. For example, the reason children cannot remember things from before age 3, generally speaking, is because they do not have the vocabulary for narrative memory retention, which helps put things together so they can be remembered. There is perhaps an especial likelihood that personal event memories that directly changed the eyewitness’s own life (say the conversion of Saul of Tarsus) would remain especially vivid to the person in question, perhaps more than the memory of something that happened to someone else which one witnessed. On these sorts of personal memory criteria, we would expect, for example that Peter’s memory of his threefold denial of Jesus, and then the threefold restoration by Jesus (John 21).
Two factors affecting memory without doubt are suggestibility and bias. The former term refers to the propensity of a person to be influenced by the power of suggestion in how they remember something, perhaps particularly if the suggester is in fact someone the person trusts and knows. One of the interesting results of such studies is that while verbatim recall of something that was said seems to be in one memory system in the brain, gist recall of the meaning of what was said seems to be in another.
When one is dealing with a collectivist culture such as was the situation in early Christianity where there is high group memory, the possibility of influence or suggestibility can be high and can lead to false memories. On the other hand, group memory also provides a buffer against such an outcome, because unless all the group was under the influence of someone’s false suggestion (see e.g. the worries about false teachers in house churches in the NT) one person being misled by another is not such a big deal, since there is a natural corrective in the rest of the group who experienced something.
One of the side benefits of reading McIver’s book, is that in the first 94 pages you are going to learn a lot about the human brain, memory, and how the brain processes data. One interesting fact is the following: “The brain has many domain specific representational areas connected in a quasi-hierarchial fashion. There are an estimated 500-1000 specialized processing regions…A complex process, such as visual processing, occurs in over thirty distinguishable processing regions” of the brain (p. 76 n. 13 quoting Hill and Schneider). There is even a separate memory subsystem for recognizing faces. Even language ability is distributed in several subsystems. There is more we don’t know about the brain than we do know. For example we don’t know how an experience activates the various sub-systems when a memory is being formed, nor how they retrieve it collectively later. Remembering is a project of rebuilding the memory using several portions of the brain. This explains for example how a person could remember an event or a name, without remembering the place of the event, or the face of the person bearing the name, or vice versa. All memories are reconstruction projects. The brain does not work like the rewinding and replaying of a video tape. The general conclusion of chapters 2-4 of this study is that generally speaking memory has a ‘first order faithfulness’ in accurately recalling something from the past. Sometimes just the gist of something can be recalled, sometimes in a personal memory, or if something has been taught in a memorizable form, much more can be recalled. There is absolutely nothing in these memory studies that could justify the conclusions of Crossan or the Jesus Seminar about how unreliable the memory of eyewitnesses tends to be as a generalization, nor is there anything in these studies that suggests that oral memory (i.e. memory not based on some learned written source) somehow cannot be quite reliable over a period of some decades. The basic flaw of Bultmanian form criticism was assuming that the Gospel tradition developed in analogous ways to how Balkan folklore developed. We now know this to be false. The Gospel traditions developed over time like sacred traditions did in early Judaism, which is to say conservatively on the whole. We will say more on this later in this series.