Human memory is episodic, and so are the Gospels. Personal event memories are especially that way, and they have distinctive features. They are intense memories of very specific events, and short periods of time, fully of sensory data and often irrelevant minor details, and often they do not have a larger narrative context, are not anchored by a timeline or even a description of geographical location. McIver calls such memories granular, relating specific moments and incidents. Here are his criteria for evaluating whether we have personal eyewitness memories in the Synoptics—
1) it consists of a narrative of events, places, people
2) these narratives tend to be vague on place and time
3) they are usually self-contained narratives only loosely connected to the larger narrative context
4) the narratives tend to describe an event that took place over a short period of time
5) the narratives are full of sensory data and often irrelevant details.
Now these criteria are described as necessary but not sufficient to tag something as a personal memory. The point is, their absence strongly suggests the narrative in question is not from an eyewitness. McIver then proceeds to demonstrate, using texts like Lk. 6.1-5 and 6.6-11 how all of the above criteria are met by stories like that. He notes the very vague or general time references used to link Synoptic stories— ‘now after that’, ‘at that time’, ‘the same day’, ‘immediately’, ‘in those days’. What we see in the Gospels is not the boiling up of stories from tiny little shards of info, as Bultmann and other form critics thought, but rather the compacting of information into rhetorical chreiae and other short narrative forms.
Interestingly, McIver gives us an estimate of how many persons would have witnessed some part or a large part of the ministry of Jesus. Besides the 12 who will have witnessed most of it, McIver suggests some 60,000 people at least will have witnessed some of it, especially some of the last week of Jesus’ ministry. So there would have tended to be more witnesses when Jesus was in Jerusalem, far less, say when he was in Nazareth. Besides disciple memories, there would be memories of family members, especially Mary and James, who both participated in the early church after the Easter events. Then there would have been crowds, persons healed, adversaries, Roman officials, passersby and so on. One should not overlooked the named female disciples as well (Lk. 8.1-3— it was unusual to name women in early Judaism in such traditions), especially since they were last at the cross, first at the empty tomb, and first to see the risen Lord. You don’t make up women being the first eyewitnesses of crucial events for your religion in that sort of strongly patriarchal culture where a woman’s witness was considered suspect. They are mentioned because they were really there and really saw various crucial events in both Galilee and Judea.
McIver rightly argues that already during the ministry of Jesus individual memories and eyewitness accounts would have been being incorporated into the body of teachings that the disciples would disseminate before and after Easter. In an important conclusion McIver stresses (p. 128):
“The strong social cohesion known to exist in first century Mediterranean groups, and visible in the book of Acts, undoubtedly led to a strong collective memory of the teachings and deeds of the one central to the existence of the groups: Jesus. That eyewitness accounts both contributed to this process and ensured that the traditions did not stray too far from the realities of the memories of Jesus can be taken for granted. So, it is hard to gainsay the observation that there was considerable eyewitness input in the early formation of traditions about Jesus.”
But was there a double input by the eyewitnesses— both at the beginning of the formation of the tradition, and again at the juncture when the Gospels were written? Luke tells us that the latter is true, and the nature of the Synoptic traditions intimates the former was true. This is hardly surprising since all the earliest tradents were Jews, used to Jewish ways of education and preserving of sacred traditions. McIver argues that the Gospels seem to have all been written outside of Jerusalem (and he adds probably outside of Galilee as well), so this meant that folk like Luke would likely need to travel to encounter the eyewitnesses and hear their stories. McIver thus concludes that eyewitnesses had more to do with the genesis of the tradition than with its being put into writing in a Gospel. This of course is not what Papias suggests about Matthew and Mark and John.
Considerable time is spent in this chapter on demonstrating the nature of Chreiae and how they were formed, and how we find them in the Gospels. The thing about the short narratives called chreiae that worked their way to an appropriate climax— such as a memorable saying or deed of the person in question, is that chreiae involved narrative and sayings together in one pericope. If the Gospels were the product of chreiae formation, the sayings material would often not be separate from the narrative material, despite theories about Q. But this is not to say there would not also have been sayings collections as well. The point is, the narrative which leads to an aphoristic saying like ‘it is more difficult for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God than….’ is that it never existed in isolation from a narrative context. The form critical notion that narratives were dreamed up to provide a setting for sayings by Gospel writers or others is demonstrably false based on what we know about how eyewitness memory works— namely it is harder to remember exactly what was said than what actually happened. It also does not comport with how tradition formation of words and deeds tended to happen in early Judaism.
McIver in this chapter shows the parallels in parallel accounts and also examines the ways in which they vary from one another. Providing some very useful data on p. 138 about such parallels. Firstly, there are some 20 Synoptic parallel stories which have a long sequence of verbatim likeness. The longest of these is Mt.10.16-25/Mk. 13.3-3 where we have 31 words in a row in the Greek that are the same. After this there are parallels that have 29,28,and 26 words in common in a row, and there are four examples of parallels with 24 words in common in a row. These examples are however exceptional since the median or average number of words in common in a row (verbatim) is seven when it comes to Gospel parallel accounts. Overall, when we examine the triple tradition we find 53% common vocabulary and stretches of 10 words in a row in common. The tables on pp. 136-41 should be examined to study similarities and differences. It is important to note that the pithy sayings, most easily memorized, that tend to end Chreiae in the Synoptics like ‘man was not made for the sabbath but rather….’
tend to show the longest sequences of verbatim parallels of all the Gospel materials. These sayings were both most easily remembered, and most easily memorized, which was likely Jesus’ intent.
Any account of the Synoptic Gospels which pretends to have broad explanatory power must account for both the similarities and the differences in parallel accounts. In my view, and McIver’s, these accounts do indeed bear the marks of personal memory and eyewitness testimony. The differences can largely be accounted for by the editorial agendas of the differing Gospel writers.