On Memory and Transmission

For two weeks in row, the Unbelievable? radio program of Premier Christianity featured a debate between Richard Bauckham and Bart Ehrman. Both men are world renowned scholars and the debate was very informative. Central to the discussion was whether or not the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses. Bauckham argued in favor of the idea that they were, in fact, written by eyewitnesses while Ehrman, unsurprisingly, argued that they were not. What I found most interesting in these two debates was the emphasis on human memory.

Ehrman holds the position that the primitive church in the region of Judea would have been largely, if not entirely, illiterate. He also believes that the human memory cannot be relied upon to convey information accurately. Now, I should make it clear that Ehrman is no knucklehead, and he comes to debates with a wealth of information. He mentions scores of psychological studies, and references scholars regarding the literacy rate in first-century Jerusalem.

Bauckham is no slouch in these matters either, and he also speaks of psychological studies and various scholars that support his conclusions. Still, I wish he would have done a better job of arguing with Ehrman. So, let me throw in my two cents from the cheap seats several days after the actual radio broadcast.

1. Can human memory be trusted? This is a good question, and there is a lot of evidence that shows the human memory is definitely fallible. However, researchers often focus on things that I would say are removed from the individuals being studied. So, one of the studies spoke of a person seeing the space shuttle exploding on television, and another of various silly tasks given to college students on a campus.

These are interesting studies, but do they really prove the point? I say they don’t. To begin, the person on the street will have a very different emotional investment in the memory of the space shuttle disaster than someone who worked on the project. And, there is seemingly no emotional investment in being asked to do oddball tasks on a college campus. The apostles saw a close personal acquaintance die a horrifying death and then return to life three days later. This is a far different emotional experience than what is found in the research mentioned in the radio show.

2. Does memory have to be perfect to be trustworthy? Nope. Since people love to point out the fallibility of eyewitness testimony in a court of law, we can talk about this for a moment. Let us say that three eyewitnesses are called to the stand in a murder trial. The first witness says that he saw a man get shot by an assailant in a blue sports car, and that after the shooting took place the paramedics arrived within ten minutes. The second witness says that he saw a man get shot by an assailant driving a blue pick-up truck, and that the paramedics showed up within five minutes. The third witness says that he saw a man get shot by an assailant in a green SUV, and that the paramedics arrived within fifteen minutes of the shooting.

Now, are any of these witnesses trustworthy, and can we learn anything at all from their testimony? I think the answer is a qualified yes to both questions. We must ask what our expectations are for their memories, and if those expectations are reasonable. Do we expect people to accurately remember the make, model, and color of cars that they see throughout the day? I think not. Their inability to recall minute details only means that they are not trustworthy regarding those particular items. However, they can still be reliable on larger details. Now, turning to the question of whether or not we can learn something from the testimony of these three witnesses, I think it is clear that we can. In this case, we learn that a man was shot by an assailant in a vehicle, and that paramedics arrived within fifteen minutes.

3. We do not need to abandon God when we argue with skeptics. I have never understood the tendency of believers to toss aside God when engaging those who are hostile to our faith. I have immense respect for rational argumentation, but if that is all you have when engaging in dialogue with a skeptic, then the discussion is no different than if two atheists were debating the merits of religion. The Bible teaches us that God was at work in the inspiration, transmission, and preservation of the Scriptures (John 14:26; 2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Pet. 1:20-21).

Some may argue that this is cheating somehow, or intellectually lazy, but I do not see that as being the case. If I claim that there is a God in heaven that has the capability to act in this world, then I am under no obligation to argue for that God apart from that God. In other words, when we make arguments for God, there is no reason to leave Him out of the discussion.

Whew… This has gone on for quite some time now, and I think it is time to stop. So long for now : )


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