From The Archives: Matthew Accuracy

In their book on Rumor Psychology Nicholas DiFonzo and Prashant Bordia mention the concept of “Matthew Accuracy”. Deriving its name from the principle in the Gospel of Matthew that “to the one who has more will be given, but from the one who does not have even the little he has will be taken away”, Matthew Accuracy denotes the tendency of truthful rumors to become more truthful, while false rumors tend to become more false (pp.152-4).

If it could be confirmed that this same tendency applies in cultures more closely related to that in which the Gospels were written, I wonder whether this principle might not be useful to historians evaluating the developing Gospel tradition. In essence, might it be arguable that those sayings and stories that tend to become increasingly fantastic and to develop in predictable ways according to the tendencies of the tradition are less likely to be historically accurate, while those that either persist in their essential details or accumulate additional details that seem historically plausible and/or defy the tendencies of the developing tradition are more likely to be historically accurate? I am not suggesting that this is an entirely new idea, but it might be possible, on the basis of research into the psychology of rumor, to turn what may have been a “hunch” for historians up until now into a solid working principle with strong theoretical underpinnings.

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  • Country Parson

    It seems plausible. I think I would first like to read Rumor Psychology and compare what the authors have to say to the abundance of political rumors that enveloped the recent presidential campaign.

  • Matt Kelley

    Yes, but is historical plausibility or accuracy really the point of the gospels? Aren't they first and foremost a theological treatise on who Jesus is for those who follow him and the church that claims his name?"History" as we understand it today is a modern concept, so I'm very hesitant to apply those standards to ancient documents that have very different agendas.

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  • James F. McGrath

    Matt, your point is a good one. One major issue that confronts us is the disconnect between what many of us would like to know and with what degree of certainty, and ancient sources that may not even have been writing the sort of history conducive to providing us with that kind of certainty.Learning to live with uncertainty – that seems to be the key to grappling with the really hard questions, whether in religion or science, philosophy or theology or history…