In an Appendix Robert McIver has assembled some very interesting raw data. In this post we will deal with it first, and then with the conclusions to his study. Some of these conclusions will come as something of shock to some of our readers. For example, McIver assembles the raw data from studies of the relevant period’s skeletal remains. Average age at death of women— about 34 years of age. Average age at death of men— about 36 years of age. Of course one has to take into account the high infant mortality, but even factoring that in, when one studies those who survived infancy, the average only goes up to about 46 years of age. Of course many folks lived longer than that. My point however would be, that when Jesus died at 30, not a lot of people would see that as all that unusual in that era. It was the nature of his death, a violent death by crucifixion, that was remarkable and remarked on frequently, even by Roman officials (see the famous remark of Tacitus, the Roman historian).
In one of the more valuable studies McIver examines, in a study of infants, if you take 100,000 infants only 48,968 would live to the age of five in that world, which is to say, about half of them. Only 671 of that 100,000 would live to the age of 80, which is less than one percent (see pp. 194-95). If we ask why it was so common for women in Jesus’ world to have so many children, it was in part because of the high mortality rate of infants. The evidence in regard to Galilee is that the population of that region grew a great deal between 50 B.C. and 50 A.D. despite violence in the region, epidemics of malaria, dysentery, and other fatal diseases. For this to be possible, women had to have given birth to between six to nine children on average since there is no evidence of any large resettlements of peoples in Galilee in this period. If we take Jesus’ mother as an example, the evidence suggests that besides Jesus, she had four other boys and at least 2-3 girls, for a total of seven or eight. There was nothing exceptional about this. We should not assume that people are living much longer lives today than in antiquity because of better medicine and the like. The truth is, that the ancients who survived infancy, lived close to as long as most people do in our world today. The proportion of older people is growing in America for example due to lower fertility rates. There are just more old people, as the younger generations are having less and less children (see the study on p. 199).
McIver’s interest in such studies is because he wants to figure out how many potential eyewitnesses there were of Jesus and his life. He isolates three groups— the residents of Capernaum where Jesus had a base, the crowds, and those who were in Jerusalem during Jesus’ final week of life. Archaeologists say the population of Capernaum would have been between 1,000 and 1,700 in Jesus’ day. I find this too low a number, not least because recent digs at Migdal just up the coast involve estimates of some 40,000 people living near Migdal. It can however be assumed that in a small village like Capernaum, probably all the adults had heard or heard of Jesus. Crowd numbers could have been up to 6,000 or more counting women or children, but in fact children would not have the memories to become reliable witnesses to what Jesus said and did in most cases. In the case of Jesus’ last week of life we are talking about many more witnesses. If the basic population of Jerusalem was 50,000 normally, even on a conservative estimate, it is possible that over 60,000 people heard Jesus teach or saw him act at some juncture during that last week. Of the 60,000 some18-20,000 would still be alive after 30 years, and over a 1,000 after 60 years. McIver then suggests that by the time Matthew’s Gospel was written, perhaps as few as 9-10 eyewitnesses would still be alive in Capernaum. But of course he assuming Matthew only had long term oral memories to rely on, which is unlikely. The point in any case is the same one Bauckham makes in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. The number of actual eyewitnesses by the time the Gospels were written was getting smaller and smaller, and probably is one reason why they were written when they were— the dying out of the first witnesses.
The basic conclusions of McIver which I would commend are as follows: 1) it appears that the Synoptic tradition reflects personal memories and the teaching traditions should be seen as based on rather carefully controlled oral (and I would add some written) traditions; 2) the essential elements of collective memories are resistant to change and so we may expect a high degree of reliability when it comes to their gist memory; 3) Jesus enhanced the chances of his teachings being retained in memory by using memorable and memorizable forms of teaching, chiefly wisdom forms of teachings– parables, aphorisms, riddles, proverbs and the like. 4) the old form critical assumptions about Gospel traditions should be abandoned as they are true neither to early Jewish ways of handling traditions nor true to what we know about human memory. Eyewitnesses have been shown to testify 80% accurately even when it comes to details, in multiple studies. There is no reason to assume the ancients had poorer memories than we do. 5) there are strict limits of what can be introduced into collective memories of a figure like Jesus. Very rarely does one find information unrelated to actual words or deeds of the person in question; 6) further, collective memory involves lots of people in this case. There is a self-corrective element to it. What one remembers poorly or wrongly, three others may remember accurately. 7) “While the collective memories of Jesus would be shaped by such things as present circumstances of the groups of early Christians in which they flourished, they could not have been changed into something that was inconsistent with who Jesus was, what he said, and what he did. Radical change that is inconsistent with reality is almost never found in collective memories. Nor should one expect to find such change in the narrative portions of the Gospels.” (pp. 186-87). 8) the pedagogy of the day involving repetition and memorization fostered the remembering of Jesus and his words and deeds; so 9) it is the inauthenticity of a teaching of Jesus, not it’s authenticity that must be demonstrated by those who choose to see the tradition as significantly unreliable. The burden of proof must lie on those who tend to doubt the authenticity of the majority of the Jesus tradition.