If we can’t trust memory, we can’t trust anything. As Bauckham says, “trust in the word of others is fundamental to the very idea of serious cognitive activity.”
One of the major points of the book is that those instructing us in the traditions constantly acknowledged the sources of their traditions. To us, this may not mean much, since we can’t question the original sources who told the stories, but it meant everything to the community, who could approach the sources and question them. He points out that communities were only the recipients of oral traditions, not the transmitters. Whenever the stories were told, it was always by one person, and recording it guaranteed its permanence.
One of the reasons Bauckham gives for the Gospels being written was to continue the accessibility of the story and teachings of Jesus once the original sources were dead. If the Gospels were written in their lifetime, they could check its credibility before it cemented the story forever.
In a community so large and interconnected, with specific authorities of an experience, it can actually be very difficult to reshape a collective memory. You have a set of people who recall the events from being there, who continually rehearse it, and multiple crowds who continually hear it. They would be alerted to changes, especially if they cared passionately about the story.
For his book, Bauckham even researched the science behind memory, which I find impressive, as did our friend we studied with. Our author found that when an event is profoundly significant and its retelling is rehearsed, memory tends to be very reliable. Types of memories that stand out include births (like the birth of Christ), marriages (wedding at Canaa), deaths (Christ, etc.), holidays (Passover), injuries/illnesses (and healing), education (like the teachings/sermons) and family memories (like John).
“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.” We agreed. Our skeptic friend? They said they’d rather look at some other opinions on the subject before agreeing with the conclusion.
In the next post we talk about the Jesus of testimony, specifically, and then wrap up on Friday with our conclusion.