Working on the subject of oral tradition has further exposed me to the fascinating field of psychology of memory. Not only is our memory of stories we’ve heard fallible, but our own memories of our own experiences are plagued by the same issues. And so even if Richard Bauckham is right about the importance of the ongoing presence of eyewitnesses in the earliest Christian community, this doesn’t serve as a magic wand that will suddenly allow historians to presume the accuracy of sources.
On the one hand, the existence of eyewitnesses who know the truth does not always prevent false rumors from circulating and being widely believed. On the other hand, even eyewitnesses do not therefore automatically remember accurately or preserve details.
This came to mind as I read a piece on the New Humanist blog about Neale Donald Walsch, a BeliefNet blogger who explained his plagiarism in terms of a story he read being internalized and remembered as his own experience. Now, it must be emphasized that I have no particular reason to think this isn’t merely an excuse. Indeed, Walsch seems to acknowledge that not only the gist of the story but the exact wording is the same, which is not compatible with his having heard or read the story a decade earlier and mistaken the story for a memory of his own experience. Precise extensive verbatim agreement wording indicates literary dependence, whether through direct copying from a written text, or through deliberate memorization of a written text. Nevertheless, the phenomenon of “cryptomnesia”, of mistakenly treating something one has heard as a memory of one’s own experience, is a documented psychological phenomenon.
Historical study deals with probabilities. There is never absolute certainty, even when we have eyewitness testimony. Imagine what the debates would be like if all those participating used appropriate qualifiers reflecting this uncertainty.