Baker Academic

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 5)

The fourth chapter of Bart Ehrman's Jesus before the Gospels is entitled, "Distorted Memories and the Death of Jesus" (pp. 131–77). Readers will benefit from remembering that Ehrman uses the term distorted memories to refer to "incorrect recollections" (p. 302 n.3); a "distorted"—or "false"; Ehrman uses the terms synonymously—memory "involves a memory that is wrong" (p. 19). This chapter, then, focuses on "memories" of events from Jesus' arrest, trial, and execution that never happened.

Ehrman begins by reviewing the history of the study of how well (i.e., how accurately) individuals remember (pp. 131–48). Of course, the discussion emphasizes how and when memory fails; the "sins of memory" are much more interesting than mundane accounts of memory working just fine. Ehrman briefly describes Hermann Ebbinghaus's (1850–1909) early work on memory and forgetting (Ebbinghaus discovered that forgetting happens fairly quickly and at predictable rates that can be mapped onto a statistical curve) as well as Frederic Bartlett's experimental work on memory and his conclusion that memories are not recalled so much as they are constructed. Perhaps the greatest difference between Ebbinghaus's and Bartlett's experiments, as Ehrman presents them, is that Ebbinghaus "wanted to study memory in a pure form" (p. 132), so he tested his memory of random, "three-letter nonsense syllabus, such as DAX, GUF, and NOK" (p. 132). Unlike Ebbinghaus, Bartlett attempted to student "how we recall things we personally experience" rather than memorizing nonsense. Ehrman's summary of Bartlett's findings is worth citing at length:
When most of us try to conceptualize what it means to remember something that happens to us, we probably have some kind of vague notion that it's like taking a picture with your I-phone. You snap a picture of the moment with your brain, and it's back there somewhere tucked away until you retrieve it. . . . The brain doesn't work like that. Instead, when we experience something, bits and pieces of its memory are storied [sic] in different parts of the brain. Later, when we try to retrieve the memory, these bits and pieces are reassembled. (p. 134)
It is indeed a commonplace in memory studies today that the brain does not store snapshots of the past, to be recalled in ways that mimic replaying a video. Memory doesn't "replay" the past but rather reconstructs the past. This is not so much the "reassembly" of images whose parts—"bits and pieces of its memory"—are stored in "different parts of the brain" (pace Ehrman). Instead, our memories draw upon multiple resources and not simply upon the realia of past experiences in order to reconstruct a sense of what happened. This "drawing upon multiple resources" is a feature of every act of remembering; no memory is free of the dynamics of [re]construction. In this sense, every memory is a distortion of past experience; there is no account of the past that reproduces the past in the present.

Ehrman's use of distortion as an antonym for "accurate" or "true" memories, therefore, is unhelpful. Images of the past are transmitted to and actualized in the present through the very distortions that Ehrman treats as corruptions (even inventions) of the past an account claims to remember. This is more than semantic quibbling over the term distortion. This gets us to the heart of the question of how memory works to connect past and present. We can explore this question in reference to Ehrman's work. After summarizing Ulric Neisser's analysis of John Dean's memory of and testimony about conversations during the Watergate cover-up, Ehrman offers the following challenge:
In this instance we are talking about an extraordinarily intelligent and educated man with a fine memory, trying to recall conversations from nine months before. What would happen if we were dealing with more ordinary people with average memories, trying to recall what someone said maybe two years ago? Or twenty? Or forty? Try it for yourself: pick a conversation that you had two years ago with someone—a teacher, a pastor, a boss. Do you remember it word for word? (pp. 146–47)
The answer, of course, is no. John Dean struggled to recall any of the facts of conversations in September 1972 and March 1973 in his testimony just a few months later, in June 1973; we simply lack any real basis for assuming that "more ordinary people with average memories" would do better after spans of years.

Even so, Ehrman's presentation of Neisser's findings (which are readily available online and take only minutes to read) is highly problematic. Here is Ehrman's quote of Neisser:
Comparison with the transcript shows that hardly a word of Dean's account is true. Nixon did not say any of the things attributed to him here. . . . Nor had Dean himself said the things he later describes himself as saying. . . . His account is plausible but entirely incorrect. . . . Dean cannot be said to have reported the "gist" of the opening remarks; no count of idea units or comparison of structure would produce a score much above zero. (p. 145; citing Neisser; see p. 107 in the essay linked above)
Later, Ehrman provides another lengthy quote:
It is clear that Dean's account of the opening of the September 15 conversation is wrong both as to the words used and their gist. Moreover, cross-examination did not reveal his errors as clearly as one might have hoped. . . . Dean came across as a man who has a good memory for gist with an occasional literal word stuck in, like a raisin in a pudding. He was not such a man. (p. 146; citing Neisser; see p. 110 in the essay linked above)
One would be forgiven for thinking that Neisser's article finds Dean's testimony fundamentally flawed, that Neisser found it impossible to know anything about the historical Richard Nixon and the events of the Watergate break-in and the ensuing cover-up. Neisser made no such finding. Nearly immediately after the first quote (from p. 107, above), Neisser writes, "Because the real conversation is just as incriminating as the one Dean described, it seems unlikely that he was remembering one thing and saying another" (p. 108; my emphasis). And again, nearly immediately after the second quote (from p. 110, above, with the memorable simile: "like a raisin in a pudding"), even in the same paragraph as that quote, Neisser writes:
[Dean's] testimony had much truth in it, but not at the level of "gist." It was true at a deeper level. Nixon was the kind of man Dean described, he had the knowledge Dean attributed to him, there was a cover-up. Dean remembered all of that; he just didn't recall the actual conversation he was testifying about. (p. 110)
In fact, Neisser goes further:
We are hardly surprised to find that memory is constructive, or that confident witnesses may be wrong. . . . I believe, however, that John Dean's testimony can do more than remind us of [previous memory research, including Bartlett]. For one thing, his constructed memories were not altogether wrong. On the contrary, there is a sense in which he was altogether right; a level at which he was telling the truth about the Nixon White House. (pp. 113–14)
No one reading Ehrman's chapter before reading Neisser's essay would have anticipated this conclusion. Ehrman's selection of quotes has fundamentally altered the point Neisser himself says he is trying to make: that "what seems to be a remembered episode actually represents a repeated series of events, and thus reflects a genuinely existing state of affairs" (my emphasis; from the Abstract).

The biggest problem with Ehrman's distortion of Neisser's research, however, is that it obscures the value precisely of memory's distortions. Dean's testimony conveyed the truth about Richard Nixon, not despite its distortions but precisely through them. As Ehrman rightly notes, Dean did not remember the gist of conversations about which he offered sworn testimony. As Ehrman wrongly ignores, Dean did recall "the common characteristics of a whole series of events" (114). More than this, Neisser recognizes that one of the influences affecting Deans congressional testimony was his preparation beforehand and his likely rehearsal afterwards of details of a conversation, and his testimony about this conversation (on 21 March 1973) reflected the memory of "a set of repeated experiences, a sequence of related events that the single recollection merely typifies or represents" (p. 114; see also p. 111). Neisser calls this repisodic memory (rather than episodic memory), in which "what seems to be an episode actually represents a repetition" (p. 114; original italics).

Come back to Ehrman's original challenge: "pick a conversation that you had two years ago with someone—a teacher, a pastor, a boss. Do you remember it word for word?" (pp. 146–47). Suddenly the challenge is very different. The question is no longer, Can you remember the details of a conversation from two (or twenty, or forty) years ago—the words that were spoken, the appearance of the speaker, the condition of the conversation? Now the question is, Can you recall the broader realities of a conversation from two years ago—the character of the person with whom you were speaking, the kind of give-and-take you might have had with them, and the tenor of a typical conversation? Moreover, imagine that this particular conversation is not one picked merely at random; the conversation you want to remember is one you've remembered repeatedly, before multiple audiences, in multiple circumstances.

Ehrman raises but does not discuss the example of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5–7 (see p. 147). After a declarative sentence informing readers that the Sermon "was recorded about fifty years after [Jesus] would have delivered" it, the paragraph consists of a series of six rhetorical questions. Ehrman's final two questions: "Or did he say something sort of like that on some other occasion—any occasion at all? Which is the gist and which is the detail?" (In an endnote, Ehrman signals that he will return to this example in Chapter 5; see pp. 195–202.) The implication is clear: Neisser's study reveals that none of us are actually able to recall the details of conversations even only months afterward, and so we ought not suppose Jesus said any of the words Matthew records in his famous Sermon.

On one level, this is true. In the twentieth century Jesus scholarship was busy trying to recover the ipsissima verba Jesu, the "very words" that Jesus spoke. Neisser's study warns us of the possibility—even the likelihood—that Jesus didn't say a single word in Matthew 5–7, not even
ἀγαπᾶτε τοὺς ἐχθροὺς ὑμῶν ("Love your enemies"; Matt. 5.44), words even the Jesus Seminar prints in red ("Jesus undoubtedly said this or something very like it"). However, Neisser's study also suggests we should be looking for something else: not the very words of Jesus nor even the gist of what he said, but something true on a deeper (or perhaps "broader") level. Neisser's study, if it's appropriate to apply to Matthew's Sermon (a connection Ehrman himself suggested), raises the possibility that what Matthew says "is essentially correct, even though it is not literally faithful to any one occasion. He [Neisser is referring to John Dean; we are referring to the First Evangelist] is not remembering the 'gist' of a single episode by itself, but the common characteristics of a whole series of events" (Neisser, p. 114). In other words: Yes, Matthew's Sermon on the Mount is a distorted memory, but this distortion is the vehicle that puts us in touch with the Jesus of history; it is not a later interpretation that obscures the historical Jesus and so must first be peeled away.

The rest of the chapter is a surprisingly simplistic discussion of traditional historical Jesus methodology. Ehrman offers two ways to "uncover a distorted recollection of Jesus's life": (i) identifying conflicting accounts in the sources and (ii) simple implausibility (p. 151). Ehrman discusses Jesus' trial before Pilate from both of these angles, and then he examines five additional scenes from the Gospels' accounts of Jesus' final week (the Triumphal Entry, the Cleansing of the Temple, swords in the Garden of Gethsemane, the Barabbas episode, and the rending of the Temple veil), all of which fail one or both of Ehrman's two signs of distorted memory. However, since Ehrman assumes that distorted memory equals false memory, Ehrman is unable even to ask—let alone begin to answer—whether these distorted memories (if we may grant that designation for the sake of discussion) were "right about what had really been going on" even if they were "wrong . . . in terms of isolated episodes" (Neisser, p. 114). In other words, Ehrman misses what's really interesting about memory studies and never goes any further than repeating what he was already saying about Jesus and the Gospels before he took up and read memory research.

Continue to watch this space.

Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 1)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 2)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 3)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 4)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 5)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 6)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 7)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 8)


  1. Do you really want to say that distortions in memories put us in better touch with the truth?

    What if so many individual memories are distorted, And often in the same way (by say hope, ideology, master or "grand narratives", cultural biases), that finally the accumulation of the many details--the overall impression--also errs?

    1. Thank you, Anonymous.

      I would not say that distortions—all of them— put us in better touch with the truth. I would, however, say that the truth of an event or a figure in history is itself a distortion and is communicated through distortions (selections, emphases, juxtapositions, and other interpretive maneuvers) that highlight what a person thinks is appropriate in order to perceive and convey the truth of that event or figure.

      Some distortions obscure (e.g., Nixon's attempts to cover-up his awareness of and involvement in the events of the Watergate break-in). But other distortions focus (e.g., Dean's recollections of conversations with Nixon, recollections which turned out to be largely erroneous of the details but which accurately expressed "the truth" of the Nixon Whitehouse in September 1972 and March 1973).

      So, in the case of the Sermon on the Mount, if we were able to verify somehow the exact words—assuming there were any—that Jesus spoke when he went up on the mountain, sat down, and began to teach, we would likely find significant differences between those words (which presumably weren't even in Greek!!) and the words Matthew records. But Matthew isn't claiming to provide a transcript of Jesus' teachings; he is presenting an image of Jesus teaching. And that distortion, Matthew would have us believe (whether or not we actually do) puts us in touch with the truth of Jesus' message.

  2. Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

    Raphael, you wrote: "He [Neisser is referring to John Dean; we are referring to the First Evangelist] is not remembering the 'gist' of a single episode by itself, but the common characteristics of a whole series of events" (Neisser, p. 114).

    I get this and accept the truth of it, but I also think that there are other aspects to memory. For example, at age 17, 55 years ago, I was sitting in a Western Civilizations class as a freshman in college. The professor made reference to the people of Israel crossing through the "Reed Sea." That one statement, and my wrestling with it, including having lunch with the professor, changed my approach to the Bible forever. I could point to other such moments in my life, as I'm sure we all could, as well. So I tend to think that individual memory moments can have tremendous impact as well as 'the common characteristics of a series.'

    I'm also thinking that there could have been such individual moments 'alive' even at the time of Mark's writing. Crossan, and others, have estimated the average 1st century life span in Palestine to be in the late 20's, but the normal statistical curve predicts that some would grow to a much older age. So whether it was Mark or Jesus who said that "some standing here" would not taste death until the kingdom arrived (9:1, 14:62), a few, say who were age 15 in 30 C.E., could in 85 C.E. still have a largely accurate single impactful memory.

    Of course, I can no longer "prove" my college freshman memory with paperwork, but in my last post, I did have paperwork to show a 20 year old memory accurate for its gist.

  3. Rafael, it's not clear to me from the above how memory conveys something "essentially correct" in a way that is reliably useful to the historian.

    I see a problem in trying to learn from Dean’s testimony about memory and history. It seems to me that the example of Dean is atypical; not only do we have a recording of what Dean said to compare to what Dean said he said but it also turns out that Dean was “essentially correct” in the way that remains essential to us today: Nixon was guilty. A more instructive example might be that of the watchmaker who repaired Lincoln’s pocket watch on the eve of the Civil War, and later claimed to have inscribed a message inside the watch hoping that the war would end slavery. When the Smithsonian opened Lincoln’s watch years later, they found that the watchmaker’s inscription expressed the hope that Lincoln would succeed in reunifying the country. Did the watchmaker’s story contain an “essential truth”? Yes. But it might not be the truth essential to you or me at any given moment … nor might we have been able to identify this essential truth from the watchmaker’s story if we didn’t also have access to Lincoln’s watch.

    The example of Lincoln’s watch identifies (for me) an essential problem that’s not readily apparent from the example of Dean’s testimony. It is a problem in direction of reasoning. We can (a) look at Lincoln’s watch and understand what was true in the watchmaker’s testimony. But we can’t with the same confidence (b) look at the watchmaker’s testimony and know what was inscribed in Lincoln’s watch. Isn’t it the case that the scholar of ancient history is almost always engaged in a (b) exercise, a (b) direction of reasoning (that is, unless the scholar is exclusively interested in reception history)? If so, then in what way can you say that the Gospels put us in touch with the Jesus of history? In the sense that this Jesus is the “cause” (or a part of the cause) that resulted in the “effect” of the Gospels? In the sense that the Gospels most likely contain an essential truth, or in the sense that we can identify this truth with any degree of confidence? On this point, isn’t Ehrman essentially right, that it falls to the historian to identify these essential truths, using the tricks of the trade?

  4. Larry makes some good points. The research around individual memory suggests that (except perhaps when we are witnesses in trials) we remember things in order to help us to understand who we are in relation to the world around us. And we only remember things that interest or surprise us or for some other reason stick in our minds. Over time our memories tend to bend in ways that are more harmonious with our images of who we are or who we want to be. My reading and thinking suggests that this means that some memories will 'slip' more over time than others. Richard Bauckham cites two examples in "Jesus and the Eyewitnesses" that illustrate this. One is of a man who as a ten-year-old was fascinated by an account of the rotting corpse of a fisherman washed up on a local beach that was reported in the reported in the paper and was still able to recall the details with significant accuracy some seventy years later because, as a small boy, he was fascinated by the gruesome details. The other is of Rossini who made an attempt to visit Beethoven when Rossini was a young musician. When he initially told the story, he talked about the frustration of their not being able to communicate because of the language barrier, but decades later he told of Beethoven praising and encouraging him. OTOH, apparently when I was a child, I was fascinated by a sex scandal that unfolded in the papers and read everything I could about it. My parents and grandmother were horrified, but decided not to make a 'thing' of it in the hope that I would lose interest. This seems to have worked because I have no personal memory of it as an adult, although I have no reason to believe that my mother made the story up when she told me about it. I suspect that Dean had little interest in his conversation with Nixon, so it slipped out of his mind but he was asked about it soon enough that not eveything had gone - or that the conversation made him uncomfortable enough that his mind was busily re-casting the memory.

    The problem with the gospel witness is that we have no way of knowing whether the material recorded is a memory made accurate by the fascination of the storytellers with the kinds of details they witnessed, or a memory that has been adjusted to make the person remembering it more comfortable, or something that they were re-creating from very vague details because someone else asked them about it. "Love your enemies" *could* be Jesus's actual words - something that was burned into the memory of the hearer because it was so surprising, but we have no way of knowing this for sure. People like Ehrman want to take the worst-case scenario as definitive. Others want to take the best-case scenario as definitive. I don't think either approach is really helpful, but we don't cope at all well with 'we really don't know' when it comes to Scripture. :-)

  5. As a general comment, I continue to be fascinated by the issue of "distortion" as NT studies comes to grip with memory theory. "Distortion" applies to historically accurate and historically inaccurate portrayals of the past alike. As Le Donne has argued at length, and he is here accurately representing the theory, this is not necessarily a problem (though it can be under certain circumstances) but the necessary precondition of portraying the past in the present at all. I'm becoming slowly convinced that some NT scholars have decided *what* memory is long before actually reading it or even about it, and are sometimes reacting to that preconceived notion. I have no idea whether this is the case with Bart, but it needs to be said that "distortion" is a jargon term in this discourse that, on its own, is neutral in terms of its implications for historical accuracy.

    1. Not all Historical investigators however, would accept the inevitability or neutrality of distortion. In a phenomenologicalistic account, that would be accepted: no one really knows what reality is or was really like; all we know are subjective opinions.

      However, most historians, say, are not of that philosophy. For many of them, as for much of science, physical and historical reality can be known with some high probability, in many cases. And therefore, we can separate accurate from inaccurate - distorted- accounts.

    2. Anonymous, thank you very much for illustrating perfectly the point that I just made, which is that people commenting on this issue aren't actually reading the literature before coming to conclusions about what "distortion" means *in this particular discourse.* The term, as a matter of fact, does not refer to "inaccurate" accounts. It refers to the process by which the past is rendered understandable to a person in the present. Also, affirming subjectivity does not entail an inability to come to conclusions about historical accuracy. That's a false choice.

    3. Christian MichaelMay 17, 2016 at 6:03 AM

      Perhaps LeDonnes alternative term 'refraction' is more apt: The conveyed image requires insertion of lenses to come into focus for the audience. As a result of the chosen lenses (e.g. cultural schemata) the image/memory may or may not resemble a faithful translation the original impetus.

    4. Le Donne's term "refraction" is precisely a replacement for "distortion."

    5. For various reasons, I'd use Le Donne's terminology here. Which will avoid a few problems that I see forming down the road.

  6. The Nessier article was very interesting, thanks for mentioning it.

    I'm wondering what 'gist' means to Nessier, and to you (Rafael) because I would have said that Dean does remember the gist of the conversations, with only a couple of bits of gist that he gets wrong. He rightly remembers that Nixon knows about the break-in and the coverup, and he was actually praised, Nixon seemed almost fixated on the blackmail money angle, and so on. To me that's more than the 'tenor' of the conversation, which would be more like 'people were pretty pleased' or something.

    Nessier's pointing out that psychology tends to study things that laboratory tests can be devised for is something I have pondered myself on more than one occasion. It seems like a big blind spot to me: most of the cognitive activities we're really interested in, it seems to me, are things that can't be so easily tested in a laboratory, including long-term memory about events that are actually important to us.

    I came across this idea when I did some reading about IQ a few years ago, and one researcher pointed out that IQ tests are over and done with in an hour or so, have all the material available to determine the answer, are unambiguous and clearly stated (if they are ambiguous this is deliberate and part of the test and often also clear), there's a clear right answer, they don't have any intrinsic interest, and they don't require a vast amount of specialist knowledge (in theory, of course, they require no specialist knowledge at all) or long-running investigations. And every interesting problem is almost the complete opposite of all of that!

    (to that list we could add 'cooperation with others'.)