Monday, March 05, 2007

Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses - Part 22

Click here for the (continually updated) series outline

Chapter 13. Eyewitness Memory

Even if Bauckham’s argument concerning the eyewitnesses thus far is correct, can the memories of these witnesses be trusted given the fallible nature of human memory? This chapter is a first attempt to relate the findings of modern psychological study to the gospel traditions in a systematic way.

He examines so-called ‘recollective memory’ for this would correspond most closely with the Gospel narratives (assuming they are based on eyewitness testimony). To do this he first details the theoretical debate concerning the nature of memory, namely whether it is a (re)construction or copy of the original experience. Bauckham’s major point, to which he will return, is that while memory has ‘reconstructive’ and interpretive elements, this needs to be kept in tension with the point that this doesn’t necessarily entail inaccuracy. Furthermore, some things are remembered better than others; not all things are remembered equally well in the same way. Additionally, and drawing on the work of F.C. Bartlett, while the entire remembering and retrieval process involves selection and interpretation in light of (socially shaped) mental models or schemata, this should not be understood to imply that this mechanism impedes the minds access to what really happened. However, it is clear that memories become formulated as meaningful stories and are so ‘as the conjunction of information and meaning, and as the interaction of past and present’ (338). Once again, this is not to dissolve the past into the need for meaning in the present independent of the past, but it is to insist that ‘memory intends to speak of the past and is engaged in a search for truth. This is what differentiates memory from imagination’ (341).

All of this is then related to the Gospel data, such that Bauckham can claim (it is worth citing at greater length):

‘The eyewitnesses who remembered the events of the history of Jesus were remembering inherently very memorable events ... and their memories would have been reinforced and stabilized by frequent rehearsal, beginning soon after the event ... [and] central features of the memory, those that constituted its meaning for those who witnessed and attested it, are likely to have been preserved reliably. We may conclude that the memories of eyewitnesses of the history of Jesus score highly by the criteria for likely reliability that have been established by the psychological study of recollective memory.’ (346).
Dennis Nineham has influentially argued that the form critics have demonstrated that ‘the forms in which the Gospel traditions are cast were the result of a long process of development in community use’ (347). The material from psychological studies overviewed in the first part of this chapter enable Bauckham to complete a devastating critique of Nineham’s pro-‘form critical’ argument, and he points the way forward to a needed area of research in relation to the Gospel forms in association with notions of schemata and cross-cultural story scripts (another potential idea for those seeking a doctoral research topic!).

Again based upon the discussion in the first part of the chapter, Bauckham briefly analyses the potential significance of John Robinson’s category of ‘deferred meaning’ as a significant concept for understanding how the Gospel traditions were later remembered in light of the death and resurrection of Jesus (cf., e.g. John 12:14-16). However, he notes that ‘it is remarkable how little subsequent interpretation many Synoptic narratives have received’ (353), especially the stories of Jesus’ healings and exorcisms. To be remembered is that Bauckham earlier argued that the Jesus traditions were largely circulated as ‘isolated’ traditions, i.e. independent of a particular communal use. This leads to an astonishing line of argumentation:

‘The relatively small extent to which the stories have been affected by post-resurrection interpretation has to be explained by the probability that it was the stories in the fairly fixed form already given them by the eyewitnesses during Jesus’ ministry that survived the revolution in understanding consequent on the cross and the resurrection. The eyewitnesses were still around. They remained the authoritative source of their traditions. And the impact of the past itself, along with a conviction that the past history of Jesus mattered as past event, gave stability to their memories long after the crucial theological developments that took place in the earliest Christian circles’ (355, italics mine).
The previous citation in particular had me rather excited, and it makes a bundle load of sense. Not only does Bauckham’s argument make use of modern psychological studies in human memory, but he also manages to make good sense of the actual Gospel evidence. One wonders what else could be said in relation to the effectiveness of recall had the matter of deliberate mnemonic techniques been explored in more depth.

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