Psychological studies have shown that we’re not fully reliable witnesses. Our brains can be tricked–by ourselves or by others. Witnesses to an accident or crime, for example, can lead themselves (or be led by others) to remember details that were never there.
If that’s so–if we are untrustworthy witnesses–what does that mean for the Biblical witness? Our faith is decidedly historic. If the events of the Bible didn’t happen, then there is no Church and no Christianity. Should we not believe the Biblical witnesses, because we know that witnesses can be fooled?
Not at all. First, if we take this to the extreme and say that BIblical witnesses cannot be trusted, we must likewise reject all similar historical testimony. We have to say, then, that no memories can produce trustworthy history. This discounts most all historical accounts: anything not written as-it-happened. We’d have to reject everything from venerable ancient histories to Grandpop’s war stories. It seems obvious that we need a more generous interpretation, or we lose nearly all history.
We could consider different options. Do we accept only history with multiple attestations? Only with corroboration from an unaffiliated source? Do we accept everything that archaeology can support? Only things that fit the existing narrative for that time and place?
For our purposes here, let’s change perspective. Yes, it seems easy to produce false memories unintentionally. If two people witnessed the same event, they may both produce some false details. It is unlikely, though, that they’d produce the same false details. Imagine two people describing a car accident. They may both get details wrong — say, the number of passengers. But would they both describe the same extra passenger: the same person with the same clothes and hair color and height? No, that would suggest that either the person was real or the people were being intentionally influenced by someone familiar with this psychological trick (something unknown until modern times).
What does this mean? It means that false memory production supports the accuracy of the Biblical story. It is to be expected that historical accounts will have some small discrepancies and that each account will have different discrepancies. This fits with our current understanding of how memory works, which was unknown in Biblical times.
If we read multiple accounts and they match perfectly, that almost requires that we assume collusion. At best, the authors put their heads together to get their stories straight; at worst, they collectively fabricated a story. If we read multiple accounts–like we do in the Gospels–and they have slight discrepancies–like they do in the Gospels–that fits perfectly well with our modern understanding of memory. Without other evidence of fabrication, we can assume that, broadly, the accounts are recordings of real events.
The small discrepancies in Biblical accounts not only do not discount the stories but they support them. They read just as they should if they were real memories being written down by distinct witnesses (or from interviews with distinct witnesses). False memory production supports the reality of the Biblical narrative.
Copyright 2016, Joe Wetterling
Image courtesy: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Andrea_Mantegna_017.jpg