I have referred, on several occasions, to the work of Richard Bauckham on Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. In that book Bauckham sets out a range of evidence in support of his view that the four Gospels are based very largely on the testimony of eyewitnesses, and therefore should be regarded as having a high index of historical reliability.
Writing in the 2nd edition of the Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (art. ‘Historicisms and Historiography’), J. Green distances himself from Bauckham’s conclusions, suggesting that the Gospel writers, in common with other ancient historians, were not much interested in recording ‘what really happened’.
Reading Green’s article led me to a paper by J.C.S. Redman – “How Accurate Are Eyewitnesses? Bauckham and the Eyewitnesses in the Light of Psychological Research,” JBL 129 (2010) 177–97.
- facets of another individual’s report may be unconsciously incorporated into eyewitnesses’ memory of that event;
- witnesses tend to avoid conflicting with reports from others and usually choose a culturally appropriate version of the event;
- post-event information can influence what elements of an event are retained in memory;
- eyewitnesses guess some elements of their report, and over time these guesses become treated as part of the original memory;
- errors become frozen into memories; and, most important,
- while group memories are more stable than individual memories, group memories incorporate from a very early time the mistakes made by individual eyewitnesses; and furthermore,
- these group memories will be further shaped by theological considerations within the community.
Redman concludes, “The continued presence in Christian communities of eyewitnesses to Jesus’ ministry until the time when these events were recorded is a guarantee only of the community’s agreed version, not of the exact details of the event itself.”
“In other words,” says Redman, “it seems likely that the answer to the question How much can we reliably know about the Jesus of history from the Gospels in the light of Bauckham’s work? is still ‘not much.’”
In his book, Memory, Jesus, and the Synoptic Gospels. Atlanta: SBL, 2011, McIver reviews the relevant psychological research and finds the scepticism of Redman to be largely unwarranted.
McIver himself, however, also reviews the relevant psychological literature. He finds that the accuracy of eyewitness memory is most likely to be affected by three factors: transience (the tendency to forget things over time), suggestibility (which may lead to the introduction of false memories into one’s account of the past), and bias (memories can be affected by later knowledge, by a desire to make oneself look good, or by generic memories and opinions).
McIver thinks that the following criteria would suggest a relatively high index of confidence in the historical accuracy of a piece of written material: if (a) it consists of narratives of events, places, and people; (b) these narratives are particularly vague with respect to time and often with respect to place; (c) the narratives usually lack further narrative context; (d) the narratives usually describe events that took place over a short time period; and (e) the narratives can be full of sensory information and often contain irrelevant details.
McIvers’ discussion suggests that Redman’s view is too sceptical, and that Bauckham is nearer the mark.
See also this article by Kyle R. Hughes.