In Jesus before the Gospels, Bart Ehrman cites numerous psychological studies demonstrating the unreliability of memory. As I read many of the research articles he cited, it occurred to me that the degree of reliability (or unreliability) in such memory studies is directly related to the specificity of the questions asked. The more eyewitness studies deal with minutia, the more unreliable memory will be seen to be.
For example, consider the case of the Jamar Clark shooting in Minnesota. Eyewitnesses differed on whether Clark was handcuffed in front, in back, on one hand or whether he was handcuffed at all. But none of the eyewitnesses (to my knowledge) disputed the central story: Clark beat up his girlfriend who called 911. She was treated in an ambulance while he was outside yelling. The police came and a struggle ensued resulting in Clark being shot and killed by one of the officers. Eyewitnesses differ on the details but agreed on the gist of the story.
Similarly, although scholars often delight in pointing out minor discrepancies in the stories regarding Jesus’ crucifixion, virtually all Jesus scholars (even the most critical) would acknowledge as historical fact that Jesus was tried by Jewish authorities and handed over to Pontius Pilate who had Jesus beaten and crucified. Most, I think, would even affirm that Jesus’ tomb was later found empty by some women and that early Christians came to believe that he had risen from the dead!
In the numerous research articles I read on memory, virtually all of the researchers seemed interested in demonstrating how terribly unreliable memory is. And yet each of the researchers cited by Ehrman presumably remembered where and how to eat breakfast, where and how to get to work, who their coworkers and colleagues were, how to communicate with them, how to operate their computers and word processing programs, where and when to eat lunch, how to get home, and the many, many minor cultural conventions necessary to understand daily interactions and to avoid offending others.
There are thousands and thousands of things we remember accurately every day, including things from our past. When we start failing to remember these things we get tested for various forms of dementia! But in spite of the fact that Ehrman gives two or three statements affirming the reliability of “gist memory,” the bulk of his book—and the research he cites—focuses on the times when memory fails leading to the impression that the Gospels are terribly unreliable (I’ll leave it to those who know him personally to conclude whether this impression was intentional or not).
Many recent studies on the historical Jesus have shown that we actually can know quite a bit about Jesus as a person of history and that we have good reason to believe that the Gospels are quite reliable.
In future posts I will get down into the weeds of some of the memory studies Ehrman cites in his book.