How does the memory research of Elizabeth Loftus on eyewitness testimony
affect the credibility of NT documents?
[Created 6/22/97] [Note: May 7, 2002--see also the piece
on nonconscious memory influences on miracle stories, at mq9.html]
Someone recently sent me this comment from one of the discussion
streams on the net:
Evangelical apologists like McDowell are notorious for assuming
that eyewitness reports -- esp. those allegedly found in the New Testament
-- must either be truthful or based upon lies. Yet anyone familiar with
ongoing, experimental research in psychology on the nature of eyewitness
testimony knows that an honest observer can be sincerely wrong. Reflecting
on a case in which a Catholic priest had been falsely convicted of armed
robbery on the basis of eyewitness testimony -- only later to be acquitted
thanks to a confession by the actual criminal -- renown psychologist Elizabeth
Loftus writes, "Implicit in the acceptance of this testimony as solid evidence
is the assumption that the human mind is a precise recorder and storer
of events. Unfortunately it is not.... To be mistaken about details is
not the result of a bad memory, but of the normal functioning of human
memory. As we have seen, human remembering does not work like a videotape
recorder or a movie camera." As D.F. Hall points out, "[N]ew, misleading
information is not only added to memory, it actually alters the content
of what the subject is able to remember." The upshot is that even honest
eyewitnesses who try to be objective may in fact remember misinformation.
I am not sure what in these paragraphs is 'new news' to anyone, nor how
relevant Loftus' work is to the NT reliability issue, but the issue has
certainly come up a bit recently...so let's have a look.
The results of experimental research on the nature of eyewitness
testimony are especially important when considering the more extravagant
empirical claims of the New Testament, yet McDowell makes things easy for
himself by assuming that eyewitness testimony should be taken at face value.
Factors like the retention interval (how much time was there between the
incident and the witness' recollection of that incident?), focus (what
captured the attention of the witness?), and especially post-event information
(what post-event information could have supplemented the witness' memory?)
and unconscious transference (confusing a person seen in one situation
with a person actually seen in another situation) are, so far as I know,
never addressed by McDowell in any of his writings; yet these are precisely
the issues which he needs to deal with if we are to accept as factual the
'eyewitness reports' given in the New Testament and elsewhere.
My approach here is to:
Make some brief observations on the above passage.
Make some framework remarks about 'eyewitness testimony' and the NT
Make a few comments about the nature and applicability of her work, relative
to our study.
Go through Loftus' book Eyewitness Testimony [Harvard: 1979,1996]
chapter by chapter.
Make some observations from memory research studies in the Learning model
(as opposed to the Witness model)
Summarize the issues/contributions to 'apologetic' work re: the eyewitness
issue and NT credibility.
Throughout the piece I will try to apply this to the gospel accounts
(without being TOO detailed and extensive!), to assess relevance to the
question at hand--"to what extent is the credibility of the NT modified
by these studies?"
Some brief observations on the above passage:
Some framework remarks about 'eyewitness testimony' and the NT.
It is obvious to all that 'honest observers can be wrong'. I am not sure
why this would be controversial--the main line of attack (and the most
naively powerful one) of the philosophical skeptic is to start with the
question "have you ever been wrong before?" or "have you ever been wrong
about a memory before?". The possibility that I COULD be wrong in the future,
and the actuality that I HAVE BEEN wrong in the future, however, does not
have any logical connection to WHETHER I am wrong now. [There are factors
that would SUGGEST that I might be wrong now, such as frequency of false
memories, pathological brain conditions, wishful thinking, etc.]
As we will see in how
the courts are using (and how Loftus recommends we use) expert testimony
as to how "honest observers can be wrong", the Courts do not count these
research findings as EVIDENCE of a mistaken identification, but as 'education'
to help a jury DECIDE if an identification is reliable. The Loftus research
material on various types of memory distortions [hereafter designated as
"loftux"] is admitted to the court for 'educational' purposes, and NOT
to 'prejudice' the jury about a specific identification.
It should be obvious to all that memory is NOT a videotape, even though
it seems to function that way on occasions. It does have a core reliability
(or we could never even DETECT memory problems!!), that works at least
"51% accurately over an average of 51% of the time" or better. Memory is
actually more robust that videotape, in that experiences are storied with
a much wider range of sense data (e.g. smell, touch) and with affective
response data (i.e. "I remember feeling sick at that scene in 'Captain
Kangaroo meets Godzilla'" or "Derek was pulling my ears during the credits
of 'Lassie IX: the Final Battle;").
[There is some data, however, that DOES INDICATE that memory functions
as comprehensively as a 'videotape'--albeit semantically coded. The studies
of Wilder Penfield in the 40's (noted and dismissed by Loftus at ET:115-117)
and the arguments of M.B. Arnold (Memory and the Brain, Erlbaum:1984)
more recently bear on this. But our point here is simply to grant this
for practical reasons. In any event, the NT documents are literary creations
and as such are selective in the material presented--unlike a videotape.]
It should be obvious to most, that memories CAN get 'corrupted' or 'modified.'
Most of us have had the experience of remembering rooms when we were kids
to have been much BIGGER than we see them as adults. But, by the same token,
some memories can be reinforced and made resistant to change, so this remains
only a possibility until something actually 'works on' the memory.
I cannot imagine anyone (especially 'evangelical apologists'!) who would
accept all eyewitness testimony 'at face value'. We routinely assess the
'credibility' of the witness (generally) and the 'reliability' of the report/identification
(specifically) when confronted with this issue. The credibility of the
witness has always been a strong argument in favor of the apologist. The
two facts of: (1) the vast majority of 'testable' claims in the NT have
proven to the accurate--well beyond the 50% 'guessing' chance--and (2)
the variation in the accounts 'appearing to be' multiple eyewitness accounts
of the events themselves lends the normal credibility associated with eyewitness
[We shall see later that these two facts: (1) credibility of an
eyewitness and (2) any corroborating data are the two strongest legal points
from which to make a judicial decision.]
I would HOPE that it is obvious to everyone that 'extravagant claims' are
critically dependent on the credibility of the witness, and the factors
we will look at below in loftux. I don't believe very many miracles stories
at all, and most of the ones I DO accept are in the Bible--which I have
confidence in for OTHER reasons!
The four factors mentioned in the posting above are discussed (with all
the others) below. The four mentioned in the post, however, can be summarized
[There are several other factors that we will examine as we go through
the chapter, as well.]
Retention: the time between the perceiving of an event and the time
of retrieval of the memory of that event. For example, Peter was told
that he would betray Christ in the early evening; several hours later he
"remembered" Christ's prophesy (Mt 26.75). There is an overnite case in
Mark ll.21, a several days interval in Luke 24.8, and a couple of years
(?) in Acts 11.16. Many of the events in Christ's life, in training the
disciples, however, are essentially cases of 'immediate retrieval'. The
disciples discuss the parables, or he teaches them to the disciples again
in private. Jesus appears resurrected and forces them to 'retrieve that
memory' the numerous times He appears to them over the next 40 days or
Focus: what the person pays attention to in a scene. In loftux, this is
narrowed to 'weapon focus'--the large share of attention a gun or knife
gets in a crime. We obviously do not have much of this in the case of the
Gospels. In the case of Jesus, most of the non-weapon focus is 'controlled'
by Him. He, as teacher, set the 'focus agenda' and steered most of the
experiences and interpretations himself. In a very real sense, though,
He and His mission were the focus.
Post-event information: this concerns information that the person acquires
AFTER the event has been perceived. This information can alter the 'original'
memory in many ways. Post-event information (PEI) that is supplied can
get 'smuggled into' the original memory so that the person believes that
PEI was actually experienced as part of the original event. The
PEI could be true data (but it becomes 'remembered' data rather
than 'believed') or false data. For example, theoretically, Jesus
could have told the disciples about something that happened to them earlier
(but which they did not ACTUALLY remember), and under this principle, that
data would be incorporated into their memories as a memory--not
simply as a 'belief' about the past. The fact itself, when retold by them,
would be a true fact; but they would be wrong in believing it to be a memory.
This introduces a subtlety into the issue, because the gospels do
not actually assert that all of the data contained in them are memories
of the individual author. Instead, they assert that the facts are accurate,
and in some cases, experienced by the authors (e.g. Matthew's call or John
at the last supper). There is no statement, for example, that the writers
remembered all the material themselves--without use of sources. (Of course,
Luke specifically researched his material, including eyewitness materials
from others 1.1-4.) So, this principle will need to be looked at carefully
as to applicability. In fact, one of the main 'carriers' of post-event
information--discussion among witnesses--may be one of the stronger reasons
to give the finished literary accounts high credibility.
It should be noted that eyewitness testimony was the preferred method of
historical verification in antiquity. This is amply confirmed from ancient
writers--personal visual knowledge, i.e. eyewitness evidence (autopsia)
was thought the most reliable historical source. (Herodotus 2.99; Polybius
12.27.1-6; 20.12.8; Lucian History 47)
Eyewitness testimony today is still accorded the highest status. And, in
spite of significant misunderstandings about it by the public (ET:171-177),
it is certainly considered preferred by the courts as very, very important
The issue in eyewitness testimony is NOT whether or not it is useful, but
how reliable it is. It is not a matter of "is it 100% reliable or
none?"; but rather "to what extent is it reliable?" It is interesting that
even Loftus is opposed to barring unreliable testimony from the courtroom.
Outright exclusion of unreliable testimony and requirement
of corroboration are not ideal solutions because they take the decision
out of the hands of the jury and might prevent the conviction of many who
are truly guilty.
The Supreme Court (in the USA) for example, has repeatedly upheld this
type of data and in 1977 (Manson vs. Brathwaite, ET:185-186) stated
that "reliability is the linchpin" in terms of admissibility of such evidence.
What claims does the NT make about eyewitness testimony?
Not a lot, actually. Although there are many, many references to
the legal use of eyewitness testimony (e.g. the Mosaic requirement
of two witnesses, the trials of Jesus), the NT itself only makes a couple
of references to it in regards to the content and/or production
of the gospels:
Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things
that have been fulfilled among us, 2 just as they were handed down to us
by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the
word. 3 Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything
from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account
for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 so that you may know the certainty
of the things you have been taught. (luke 1.1ff)
So, the claims of the NT relative to eyewitness testimony is rather general
and rather broad. The apostolic circle, esp. the leadership of Peter and
John, claims to be witnesses of the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth.
This is a broad range, but the apostolic claims above can be listed as:
The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony
is true. He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that
you also may believe. (John 19.35)
This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote
them down. We know that his testimony is true. (John 21.24)
We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about
the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses
of his majesty. (2 Pet 1.16)
Therefore it is necessary to choose one of the men who have been
with us the whole time the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, 22
beginning from John's baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from
us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection."
God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of
the fact. (Acts 2.32)
You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead.
We are witnesses of this. (Act 3.15)
The God of our fathers raised Jesus from the dead -- whom you had
killed by hanging him on a tree. 31 God exalted him to his own right hand
as Prince and Savior that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins
to Israel. 32 We are witnesses of these things... (Acts 5.30f)
You know what has happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee
after the baptism that John preached -- 38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth
with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing
all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him. 39
"We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and
in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree, 40 but God
raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. 41
He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already
chosen -- by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.
The people of Jerusalem and their rulers did not recognize Jesus,
yet in condemning him they fulfilled the words of the prophets that are
read every Sabbath. 28 Though they found no proper ground for a death sentence,
they asked Pilate to have him executed. 29 When they had carried out all
that was written about him, they took him down from the tree and laid him
in a tomb. 30 But God raised him from the dead, 31 and for many days
he was seen by those who had traveled with him from Galilee to Jerusalem.
They are now his witnesses to our people. (Acts 13.27)
And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so
is your faith. 15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses
about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from
the dead. (I Cor 15.15f).
To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness
of Christ's sufferings (I Peter 5.1)
"the things that have been fulfilled among us"
"it" (the blood and water pouring from the pierced side of Christ on the
"these things" (the things narrated in the gospel of John)
"the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ"
"his resurrection" (with some 'backward reference' to the life of Christ
since the baptism of John)
"the fact" (that God raised Jesus from the dead)
"you killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead"
"these things" (death by crucifixion, resurrection, exaltation)
"everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem" (includes
'doing good and healing')
Although most of these references point to the Passion narratives (and
the distribution of material in the Gospels reflects this emphasis), it
can be seen that the life and public ministry of Jesus is not excluded
from these claims--especially the reference at the end of John. We can
see then that Luke and John are rather explicit in their appeal to eyewitness
testimony, and the preaching of Peter (that is generally understood to
be the basis for the gospel of Mark) makes consistent appeal to eyewitness
Now, when we look at the traditions of the early Christian writers
about the gospels, they are virtually unanimous about the 'traditional'
In the case of Matthew and John, the vast majority of the material described
would have been seen by the authors as full participants and agents
in the events. They would not have been 'bystanders' who simply witnessed
very brief scenes. In the case of Mark, the stories would have come from
a similar, full-participant source (i.e. Peter).
the Gospel of Matthew was written by the apostle Matthew/Levi, and hence
much of the material in his gospel would have been eyewitness testimony,
plus supplemental material would likely have come from eyewitness testimony
from OTHER members of the apostolic circle.
The Gospel of Mark was traditionally ascribed to John Mark who 'wrote down'
the speeches/sermons of Peter. With Peter's emphasis on 'witness', it is
likely that the entire gospel was supposed to be understood as an apostolic
The Gospel of Luke does NOT purport to be an eyewitness account itself,
but rather to be a careful and well-researched history. It uses eyewitness
material, but states that it attempts to be 'critical' and insure accuracy.
John makes explicit claim to being an eyewitness to much of the material,
but would also be dependent on supplemental material at times (i.e. the
conversation of the Samaritan woman inside the city in John 4).
In the case of Luke, the large amount of 'shared story' with the gospels
of Matthew and Mark, would have a similar character, but Luke apparently
supplemented the material from other members of the apostolic circle and
Judean religious (e.g. Anna), giving rise to what is called 'lukan redactions'
The Birth and pre-Baptist narratives are a special case. They were recorded
in Matthew and Luke, and the source of this data would easily have been
Mary and the younger brothers of Jesus (e.g James). Mary and Jesus' brothers
were in the room at Pentecost (Acts 1.14ff), and Mary probably was associated
with the apostles until her death (John 19.27). This would have been an
eyewitness account as well; again, by major participants in the events.
So, although the content of the gospels are easily associated
with eyewitness testimony, the actual authors of the gospels do not often
make claims to that effect.
But let's consider how the Christian 'apologist' uses the eyewitness
issue. In my own writings, I use the phenomena of the accounts (e.g.
replete with detail, different details noticed, differences in data selected
for presentation, non-salient details present) to argue for eyewitness
'status' of the accounts embedded in the gospels (not the gospels themselves,
but the various sub-units or blocks of material). The establishment of
eyewitness 'status' of much of this material does several things for the
apologist: (1) it gives the content of the material the higher credibility
often associated with eyewitness testimony; (2) it bridges the time-gap
between the events themselves and the earliest existent mss. (now somewhere
around 85ad); (3) it makes sense of the non-uniform character of the accounts--the
legitimacy of the 'harmonization' enterprise; (4) it differentiates between
these narratives and the un-witnessed myths/"heroes" of antiquity; and
(5) it precludes the 'fraud' accusation by pegging the accuracy of the
resultant documents to the integrity of the earliest, a-political church
(admittedly better than the post-Constantine church).
So, my apologetic use of this could be weakened by a couple of tactics:
One could argue that the phenomena of the texts DO NOT indicate 'eyewitness'
character (e.g. that the historical details are so confused (not just one
or two problems) as to be indicative of 'bad fiction').
One could argue that 'eyewitness' status does NOT give the narratives any
higher credibility than other types of writing (e.g. fables, 3rd-hand anecdotes).
One could argue that OTHER competing documents had the same level of 'eyewitness'
credibility as the NT (e.g. miracles of Dionysius).
Options One and Three are generally not argued (although occasionally
one complains about Mark's bad geography). The question that started this
(above) is obviously going after Option Two.
Now, for such a tactic to succeed any discrediting information about
ET (eyewitness testimony) must be about the kinds of ET that occur in
the NT. For example, if a research study showed that people could not
adequately distinguish between clown faces, seen only underwater, while
wearing 3-D glasses, this would have virtually no relevance for the NT
situation. This issue will become critical as we look at the specific research
in loftux. Which leads to our next topic...
A few comments about the nature and applicability of her work, relative
to our study.
Loftus gives a concise statement of the situation under study at
"In the typical eyewitness situation, or even the typical memory
experiment, a subject is presented with information once; his memory or
recollection is tested at a later time, perhaps on several occasions."
Let me summarize the major discontinuities between Loftus work and the
NT situation up-front:
The above factors should already convince us of the irrelevance of Loftus'
work (however fascinating and incisive) to the question of NT eyewitness
credibility. The differences between the two situations is simply too fundamental:
exposure time, exposure goal, data poverty of the experience, deliberate
manipulation and deception, media-poverty, absence of feedback/corrective
mechanisms, the basic nature of the experiences themselves.
The time of exposure is RADICALLY different. In the situations described/studied
by Loftus, the amount of time the test subject actually EXPERIENCED/SAW
the material to be remembered was minuscule compared the the exposure of
the NT writers.
Of the research studies described in ET (with duration times given
in the text), the exposures ranged from a HIGH of 11 minutes to a LOW of
one-tenth of a second! [The times were: 11m, 7m, 5m, 3m (2x), 2m (2x),
1.5m, 1m, 42s (3x), 34s, 32s, 12s, 10s, 8s, 5s, 4s (2x), 2s, 0.1s.] This
is not even remotely analogous to men and women who grew up in Galilee
or Judea, who lived with Jesus for 3-years, who participated in the major
events of his life. A quick look at a list of the events in Christ's life
shows that the events recorded had duration times measured in hours and
days. Faulty memory performance from people who see a 1 minute video of
an accident simply have no bearing on the NT situation! The research results
(although fascinating) are simply irrelevant to our issue.
Most of the work done in the ET book is concerned with identification of
a suspect in a legal context. As such it deals often with 'person recognition',
and a whole chapter is devoted to the special problems associated with
it. It should be obvious that this bears no relationship to the NT situation
Most of the studies also involved VERY small amounts of given information,
with, correspondingly huge gaps in the 'given'. Exposure times were not
only small, but the information content often was limited to small pieces
of literature (e.g. 150 words, 750 words) or small groups of slides (e.g.
30). Many of the studies focused on showing that people tended to 'fill
in the gaps' in their memory with guessing and implicit clues from later
questioners. This is obviously irrelevant to NT studies. We have the opposite
problem in NT studies: we have an overabundance of data of experience (i.e.
three years of day-to-day contact with Jesus), but only a subset of it
gets recorded in the accounts!
The vast majority of the studies involve the use of deliberate deception
and manipulation on the part of the researchers. The procedure is often
characterized in terms of 'minimal exposure (time) to minimal information
(huge gaps), followed by misleading information'. The misleading information
came through the use of questions, word-choices, pictures, etc., all from
implicitly authoritative sources (the researchers). These studies are then
used to show that memory is not 'videotape'; since it can be manipulated
by clever and subtle agents, then it is less trustworthy than is perhaps
Here we have some relevance. Although we don't have the situation
of a deliberate manipulator, the possibility exists that the same 'misleading'
clues might be present from other sources (e.g. innocent listeners, hostile
polemical opponents). The vast majority of the conclusions would not apply,
since the subtlety levels are so pronounced, but there may be some overlap
with our case.
The experimental exposures are very sensation-deprived. In other words,
the experience is generally confined to one media type--literature, visual,
auditory. Rarely do they have the redundant, self-correcting, and reinforcing
sensation-streams that would be associated with sitting on a Galilean hillside
on a hot day listening to the Sermon on the Mount. The restricted scope
of the experimental experiences is, again, radically different than the
data-rich experiences of living, travelling, and interacting with the Master.
There are no 'feedback' loops in Loftus' studies. There are no methods
by which incorrect memories are detected and eliminated by the subject.
The common experiences we all have of realizing that a memory is mistaken--by
correction/learning/further data/repeated experiences--demonstrate that
this is an important component of the trustworthiness of our real-world
memory. This kinds of feedback mechanisms are NOT present at all in Loftus,
but would have been extremely prevalent in the case of the NT.
The gospels are largely group or
collaborative works. This means that the problem of multiple witnesses
discussing a common experience--which in memory issues can create 'false'
memories in some of the witnesses--actually reduces the likelihood of the
group publishing false data. A feedback/corrective loop--of the
highest possible rigor actually--exists in the case of the written output
of the group. So, the absence of this consideration in Loftus--although
not a methodological flaw in her research goal--makes it tenuous at best
to apply to the case of the gospel authors.
Finally, there is the issue of the Teacher. In Loftus' studies, the subjects
are basically operating alone--they have no coaches (except misleading
ones!). In the gospels accounts, the disciples have a very active and consistent
teacher--Jesus. The paradigm for their experiences is NOT that of a victim
in a crime, nor of a witness to an accident (the vast majority of loftux
research situations), but that of student of a rabbi. Teaching is directed
experience--not isolated events without clues. The models are thus
radically different in this core aspect as well.
Loftus' book Eyewitness Testimony [Harvard: 1979,1996] chapter
Chapter One: Mistaken Identity
This chapter simply frames the question with an example, and raises
the basic question. "How is it that a witness can get a poor glimpse, have
little confidence in his future ability to make an accurate identification,
and yet ultimately make a positive identification?...is it possible that
the reliability of eyewitness testimony is systematically overestimated
by the courts?...eyewitness testimony is not always reliable." (page 6-7).
This quote certainly suggests the limitation of scope I mentioned above
("a poor glimpse"), and yet in stating that ET is not "always" reliable,
still affirms the general reliability of ET.
Chapter Two: The Impact of ET.
This chapter documents how important jurors and the courts consider
ET. It is accorded such high status--in spite of the limitations she will
show later. It is indicative, I might comment, that we depend on our community-nature
so much for the vast majority of information we get (e.g. parents, teachers,
reference materials), that it is fundamentally expected that ET
would be basically and generally trustworthy.
Chapter Three: Perceiving Events.
Here we get into the meat...ET delineates the three phases/stages of
memory: acquisition, retention, retrieval (p.21). The acquisition of the
memory ("perceiving") is the first stage, and the accuracy of what is stored
depends on both EVENT factors and WITNESS factors.
So the Event Factors are generally irrelvant to our question, with the
possible exception of one that SUPPORTS the credibility of the accounts--the
"Detail Salience" factor.
Exposure time. ET points out that 'longer events' and longer exposure to
an event demonstrably improves accuracy (p. 23). For our purposes, this
would ENHANCE the credibility of the NT, since the events described in
the gospels were generally "long" events (relative to the brief exposure
times in the experiments), with long exposure times for the disciples.
[ET studies cited were 10 seconds and 32 seconds in exposure duration.]
Frequency. ET points out that this is so obvious that no studies are done
on it. It is "commonsense" (p. 24) that the more times you experience something
(e.g. the face of Jesus, Galilee, His often repeated sayings and teachings)
the more accurate your memory is. This would also support the NT credibility
(generally) even of repeated-miracles (e.g. healings, feedings).
Detail Salience. This principle simply says that people have better recall
about important elements of the experience, as opposed to inconsequential
or 'background' data. [The ET study was 2 minutes of exposure.] Strangely
enough, the principle she sets forth on page 27 (citing Gardner):
"The extraordinary, colorful, novel, unusual, and interesting
scenes attract our attention and hold our interest, both attention and
interest being important aids to memory. The opposite of this principle
is inversely true--routine, commonplace and insignificant circumstances
are rarely remembered as specific incidents."
actually supports the memory accuracy of the miracles! In other
words, first-hand eyewitnesses to the miracles of Jesus, the colorful parables,
the confrontational images, their consistent 'astonishment' and the powerful
words of the Teacher (cf. the guards in John 7.45ff: Finally the temple
guards went back to the chief priests and Pharisees, who asked them, "Why
didn't you bring him in?" 46 "No one ever spoke the way this man does,"
the guards declared. ) are MORE likely to accurately remember them!
What a strange place for support of the accuracy of these accounts!
[Notice, however, that this factor does not support or obligate us to
believe the vast amount of 'miraculous' stories of the ancient demigods,
since these stories are normally not couched in "history-looking", eyewitness-looking,
feedback-system-looking accounts. ]
Type of Fact. Some aspects of memory are consistently 'off', and the ones
she mentions are in the category of quantitative measurement. [The ET studies
were for 34s and 42s.] Consistent mistakes about the height of an individual
(in inches), or of vehicle speed (in mph) is described (p. 27f). This would
have no relevance, since we don't have precise attempts at measurement
in the gospel accounts. We have Zaccheus as a "wee little man" , or John
outrunning Peter to the tomb, but few references that could be considered
attempts at precision.
Violence of an Event. Researchers do not know why, but the violence of
an event sometimes decreases retention (p31). (The current theory is that
it is related to stress and attention-dilution.) Wheras this is obviously
very relevant to criminal situations, we have limited cases of violence
(of the sudden sort) in the gospels. We have some fiery words thrown about
between Jesus and the Pharisees, we have one violent action in the Garden
of Gethsemane, we have the 'slow violence' of the beheading of John the
Baptist and the Crucifixion of the Lord, but nothing that would compare
to the studies of ET.
WITNESS factors in perception:
Chapter Four: Retaining Information in Memory
Stress. This factor is the principle that stress dilutes our ability to
'pay attention' to what is going on around us. Stress, however, has been
shown to be a little like a 'bell curve': as stress in a situation increases,
so too does our attention to detail--up to a point, after which our ability
to pay attention decreases thereafter. [The studies mentioned were (a)
mice after electrical shock--surely similar to the gospel authors(!); and
(b) 4 second exposure for humans.] A special case of this is called 'weapon
focus' in which the observer fixates on the weapon, and misses other background
variables (p. 35). This principle is generally irrelevant to NT--since
there would be very few situations in which stress would have have been
so high as to affect their PERCEPTUAL ABILITY. But, there would be a number
of situations in which stress would have been heightened--with perhaps
an increase in attention. For example, the confrontation with the Pharisees
or the Garden Scene. (The stress/discouragement between the death and resurrection
period conceivably COULD be an issue in perceiving the Risen Jesus, but
the factors of familiarity and frequency of exposure discussed below pretty
well preclude this.)
Expectations. This factor relates to the reality that what we expect
to see can influence what we actually think we saw. ET uses
the example of a hunting accident, in which some mistake a friend for a
deer and shoot him, hearing his cries for help as 'deer cries' (p.36).
Loftus discusses 4 types of expectations:
Overall, the expectations of the disciples' were some of the MAJOR "TARGETS"
of Jesus! He was constantly trying to get them to 'open their eyes' and
'judge rightly'. In each of these areas, we have deliberate counter-measures
by the Master Teacher to reduce/eliminate this issue.
Cultural stereotypes. Examples given in the text had to do with racial
stereotypes and familiarity-steretypes (e.g. Red Cross trucks carry medical
supplies, not explosives). [The study in ET had a subject exposed briefly
to an ambiguous picture. They then called someone and related the picture
to them, who in turn repeated it to another. This telephone-game experiment
involved seven subjects, with no subsequent view of the picture, and no
correction/feedback in the chain.] I cannot think of a situation in which
cultural stereotypes would have been operative in the gospels--largely
due to Jesus' destruction of many of these! His use of women, Samaritans,
non-Judaic locations, etc. would have had quite a shock value on the disciples'
cultural expectations. Any 'wishful thinking' influences were dealt with
rather quickly by Jesus (cf. Matt 20.20ff!).
From Past Experience. This is simply the basic principle of uniformity
of nature. What has happened in the past, will happen in the future, so
our memory of something can be 'corrected' by our expectations along these
lines. As relates to the NT, I cannot help but note the radical discontinuities
in the disciples' experiences under the leadership and tutelage of Jesus!
For example, their messianic expectations were completely blown-away (Mt
16.10f); their expectations to avoid Jerusalem were shocked (John 11.16),
and their belief in imminent judgment on the Romans (Acts 1.6) and 'sinners'
was frustrated (Luke 9.54).
Personal Prejudices. The example give in ET was of two opposing teams'
understanding of events within a football game, especially in the "value
laded" terms (e.g. unnecessary, malicious). Now, in the case of the NT,
one could see how these might be an issue, for we know that Galileans and
Pharisees did not 'get along' well. But, since most of these are subjective
aspects of memory (e.g. the other person's intentions or attitudes), the
incidences of situations in the NT in which these MIGHT be operative, are
fortunately corroborated by real detail, sayings, and events in the narrative.
For example, when the gospel writers describe the opposition of some of
the Jewish leadership, it is not stated as simply an attitude (which could
have been due to this factor), but it is related to 'tangibles' such as
decisions to cast out of the synagogue, public fear of the populace about
talking about Jesus in their presence, the deal with Judas, or the mob-persuasion
tactics. In other words, the history itself can be used to 'check the allegations'
in this case.
Temporary Biases. [The first ET study was of ten items, each displayed
for one-tenth of a second to observers.] This principle concerns the fact
that we resolve ambiguity on the basis of expectations, in the absence
of other data (p.43f). These are situation-specific expectations. [The
second study was a 7 minute video clip.] This is another case of situations
involving too-little data. The studies had large amounts of uncertainty
and ambiguity involved--a situation that would not have been the case in
the evangelists' experiences of the scenes in Jesus' ministry. Not only
did he frequently explain things to his disciples (resolving ambiguity,
cf. 'sower' in Mark 4.34: But when he was alone with his own disciples,
he explained everything. ), but he set their expectations in advance
(cf. 'he began to teach them that he would die..' Mt 16.21ff).
Perceptual Activity. This concerns what all a person 'does' when they 'scan'
a scene. [The ET experiment had people make 'judgments' about a face. Some
were to judge 'simple' attributes such as sex or age; some were to judge
'deep' attributes such as honesty or character. Those who made 'deeper'
assessments tended to have better performance in remembering the face later.]
Strangely enough, this factor actually indicates that more people would
recognize Jesus because the populace (and the disciples) were trying to
make the 'deepest possible' decision about him--was He God's messiah?!
In the Jewish world of the time, there would be fewer questions of such
importance, urgency, and depth! This principle would argue that more people
would remember Jesus (at least his face) than not, and this principle might
generalize to His message as well--as they tried to judge it as 'being
from God or from man'.
Having pre-knowledge about an up-coming event. This factor says that having
some knowledge of what is ABOUT to happen, or of the seriousness of it,
can affect the memory performance. For example, pre-knowing that something
about to happen is 'serious' INCREASES the accuracy of memory (p.50). [The
ET study involved only a few seconds of exposure to a thief. ] The study
results were summarized by Loftus (p50):
"Thus, these investigators have found that the perceived seriousness
of a crime--in this case advance knowledge of the value of a stolen item--can
be a significant determinant of accuracy in eyewitness identification."
In the case of the gospel writers, this has limited value since it is dealing
with identification/recognition of a person, and, as usual, the
data-poverty of the experiment reduces its utility to NT issues. However,
if pre-knowledge of the seriousness/value of an object DOES increase accuracy
(in general), then the perceived/expected "national salvation of the Jews"--embodied
in the person of the Messiah--would make most of the events in the ministry
of Jesus into 'serious' events for His disciples as observers. This factor
might actually enhance the credibility of their testimony..
In this chapter, Loftus describes the many and/or subtle changes that
can 'happen' to a memory between the experience and later recall of that
experience (p52-53): "The time between a complex experience and a witness's
recollection of that experience is a crucial period. Both the length of
this retention interval and the events that take place during it affect
a witness's testimony."
ET then discusses these two factors: (1) retention interval; and (2)
post-event information from experiences.
Retention Interval. "It is by now a well-established fact that people are
less accurate and complete in their eyewitness accounts after a long retention
interval than a short one." (p.53).
[The ET study involved an exposure time of 42 seconds. A different
study had a 'single exposure' (of unknown, but brief duration) and the
subjects were tested at 2 hours, 3 days, 1 week, 4 months and one year!
(at 4 months they still had 57% recall!).]
Although the exposure events in these studies are very, very data-poor,
there may be some value in asking the question of the NT narrative data--how
long from "experience" to "preaching" . Granted, the collaborate nature
of the literary production would have had the many checks and balances
implicit in a minimum of eleven, long-term eyewitnesses, but what WOULD
the retention interval for a single individual have been?
Let's consider several sets of material:
So the retention interval does not appear to be a significant issue for
Post-Event Information (PEI)--from others.
The public words and message of Jesus.
The retention interval here is measured in minutes, hours, and days.
The disciples 'discussed' His sayings among themselves routinely (cf. Matt
16.7-8; Mark 9.10; Luke 24.15). They were actually called on to preach
His message at least twice during the ministry of Jesus: the sending of
the Twelve (Matt 10 ) and the sending of the Seventy (Luke 10). [On the
other hand, there is a very strong possibility that Matthew took shorthand
notes during some of the sermons. This is known to have been easy for the
former tax-collector, and known to be the practice of rabbinical students.
Use of recorded media, of course, takes the entire discussion out of the
realms of 'memory' research altogether.]
It must also be remembered here [assuming we can do it quickly and without
significant memory distortion ;>) ] that the gospels rarely attempt to
reproduce the exact wording of Jesus. Rather, they give us the exact
"voice" of Jesus. [Scholarship distinguishes between the ipsissima
verba (the exact same words) and the ipsissima vox (the exact
same saying or voice). Many of the exact words (probably in Aramaic) are
'recoverable' in the 'vox' by careful reverse translation from the NT Greek
into a Galilean version of Western Aramaic. For detail on method and examples,
see J. Jeremias, New Testament Theology, Scribners:1971, pp. 1-29.]
Ancient writers, like their modern counterparts, used paraphrase, summary,
re-ordering of original speeches--within the constraints of fidelity to
meaning [see BLOM for a full discussion of the options available].
The miracles and movements of Jesus.
The more "spectacular" of these were discussed by all audiences
(disciples, populace, enemies) so recall would have been immediate, or
days at the latest. Stories, of course, would have circulated outside the
disciples' circles--perhaps leading to distortion--in oral form, but the
disciples themselves had the feedback mechanism present among them.
Even the more 'mundane' of tasks recounted by the gospels were charged
with spiritual significance by Jesus. So, the anointing of His feet by
the woman (luke 7.36) is charged with meaning in the confrontation with
the Pharisee host, and the small gift of the widow (Mark 12.42ff) is 'turned
on its head' by Jesus before his disciples.
The exact 'travelogue' of the various trips Jesus made are not given
in chronological sequence (or at least not stated as such by the authors).
Individual segments would have been more memorable than others, especially
the ones into 'gentile' lands (e.g. area around Tyre, the Decapolis, or
cities in Philip's territory). Since many (if not most) of these individual
segment descriptions are 'embedded' in the narrative of some related significant
event (e.g. the Syro-Phonecian woman in Mark 7.24ff), they would share
the memory-accuracy associated with THOSE events.
The Passion Narrative.
This section of material is of course the most vivid and detailed
of all the gospel material. This material is almost immediately recalled
(e.g. the discussion on the way to Emmaus in Luke 24.13ff), is actually
discussed as it is occurring (e.g. the questions in the Upper Room
accounts), is explained by the Risen Jesus over the 40 days between the
Cross and the Ascension (cf. Luke 24.44ff; ), and is immediately preached
at Pentecost by Peter and the group. They begin declaring Jesus to be 'mighty
in word and deed' and the proclamation begins...
There is also strong scholarly support for Rudolph Pesch's prodigious
work arguing that the pre-Marcan Passion Narrative had to have been 'formalized'
in the Jerusalem church no later than 37 AD [GAG:109].
This would have pushed the actual development of the material even closer
to its occurrence in 33-34ad. This would necessitate immediate recall and
consistent rehearsal, which is indeed what history records of the earliest
church activity in Acts.
The Resurrection Accounts.
This is also the very core of the apostolic preaching, and was the
subject of immediate recall and interpretation after the event. Jesus literally
taught them during this period (Acts 1.3): After his suffering, he showed
himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive.
He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom
of God. . The apostolic preaching forty days after the first Easter
was centered on the fact that "God raised Jesus from the dead". Retention
was again immediate, frequent, and widespread. Also note that the resurrection
appearances were never private--they were always to groups (with the awesome
and endearing exception of Mary Magdalene), which would have created feedback/control/correction
Loftus discusses here a number of ways in which our original memories
can be distorted through the influence of PEI.
Post-Event Information (PEI)--from the witness' own thoughts.
Enhancing memory. [The ET study was a one-minute film of a 4 second accident.]
This comes up in legal cases where multiple witnesses 'discuss the event'
before police arrive. In this setting, comments made by one witness can
turn into 'memories' of another witness who had not noticed that detail.
The issue is not whether the detail is true or not; only whether it is
thought to be a 'memory'. So ET:56: "Thus, by simply mentioning an existing
object, it is possible to increase the likelihood that it will be recalled
This very probably happened in the post-event discussions of the
disciples--deliberately. As they would discuss among themselves what Jesus
meant by some statement (e.g. Mark 8.15), or who Jesus must 'be' after
some miracle (e.g. Matt 8.23ff), no doubt their BELIEFS about the event
would have been enhanced. They may have believed that they experienced
the 'additional' material, but it is quite irrelevant to our study here.
The gospel writers are putting forth what happened--not claiming that they
are ONLY relying on personal experience. Far from being a reason to
question the accuracy of the accounts, the shared experiences of the disciples,
as a corrective, would have added much more accuracy and reliability
to the literary product, than they MIGHT have confused an author
about whether the recounted detail was strictly a memory or a believed-fact
(irrespective of source). In this case, composite belief/knowledge
about an event is what matters--NOT composite 'memories'.
This is a prime case of where the Teacher/Learning model is more appropriate
than the Observer/Victim model. Jesus did not leave such composite beliefs
to chance; He was ALWAYS confronting them with their questions and statements,
forcing them to abandon false views and adopt correct perspectives (cf.
Mark 9.33ff; Luke 9.52ff), and trying to get them to reflect on their memories
correctly. Compare Matt 6.5ff:
When they went across the lake, the disciples forgot to
take bread. 6 "Be careful," Jesus said to them. "Be on your guard against
the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees." 7 They discussed this among
themselves and said, "It is because we didn't bring any bread." 8 Aware
of their discussion, Jesus asked, "You of little faith, why are you talking
among yourselves about having no bread? 9 Do you still not understand? 11
How is it you don't understand that I was not talking to you about bread?
But be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees."
12 Then they understood that he was not telling them to guard against the
yeast used in bread, but against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.
Notice also that the group belief about an event was supposed
to be modified by the individual contributors to the discussion, and
that these contributors would have been relying on their memory at the
beginning of the conversation. This means that PEI would not be operative
as an issue at the end of this point. The discussion of the various 'memories'
would have resulted in a composite belief about the event, which each contributor
would have taken away with him or her. In all probability, they were likely
able to distinguish between THEIR contribution to the composite-view and
the views of the others, at least for the details that stood out most in
their minds originally.
Compromise Memories. This is where data that contradicts the original
event, when seen LATER, causes the subject to 'change' or in some cases
'blend' the incompatible sets of data. [The ET studies were (1) a 3 minute
film followed by misleading information; and (2) 30 slides of 3 seconds
each, followed by misleading information.] This is a case of 'interference',
in which a credible source (the researcher) gives misleading information
via questionnaire or other clues. In the case of the NT authors, not only
is it unclear where 'contradictory data' would COME FROM, but there simply
is no other source with credibility as high or higher than their own experiences
or Jesus! In fact, the presence of opposing data SEEMED to strengthen their
position (a phenomena we will see later is supported by Loftus).
It should also be mentioned that this is a different situation than
when the apostles had to 'translate' the Person
of Jesus into foreign theological frameworks. That process is a translation
process--not a memory issue.
Introducing Non-existent Objects. This is similar to the above but where
compromise is impossible. [The ET study has the 30 slides again, and forces
the subject to decide between a real stop-sign and a misleading yield-sign.]
Again, here we have deliberate misleading through contradictory data--a
situation of limited relevance to the evangelists.
It should also be remarked here that the vast majority of details
that are 'distorted' in these studies are very, very minor ones (e.g. color,
distance, age), and in the case of the NT these kinds of salient details
are the very details that we have outside historical and/or archeological
Central versus Peripheral Details. This issue has to do with to what extent
misleading PEI can alter salient details versus the peripheral ones.
[The ET study was 3 video clips, totaling 11 minutes, followed by misleading
information.] The results are surprisingly supportive of the gospel accounts,
which are often criticized for containing 'only' salient details! So, ET:63:
"The results indicated that salient or central items were recalled
with significantly greater accuracy and were much more difficult to alter
with misleading information than were peripheral items...
This strongly suggests that the gospel narratives--replete with 'salience'
but often lacking the minutia that historians desire--would have been resistant
to alteration during the early days of the apostles.
"Thus we can conclude that it is harder to mislead a witness about important,
salient, or central aspects of an event than about peripheral ones."
Timing of Post-Event-Info (PEI). [ET study was 30 slides of 3 seconds each
with misleading information (above).] This factor highlights the fact that
misleading information is most effective when the original memory has been
given a chance to fade/weaken (p. 66). The implications for our study is
negligible. In the case of the apostles, they would have begun reinforcing
their memories through repetition (a memory strengthening technique) long
before any inconsistent data would have been strong enough to make a dent.
In other words, as time went on, the memories got stronger not weaker,
rendering this factor of negligible force for our situation.
[By the way, the study also pointed out that if the PEI were consistent
with the original, then memory performance is actually enhanced--a
situation that would have occurred within the apostolic band (p.66).]
"One Year Later". [This was a study involving students who read a 750-word
description of a scene, were subsequently shown a misleading postcard picture,
and then tested for accuracy at times of 3-4 days, a month later, and a
year later!--talk about data-poor! (p.68+) And, "surprise, surprise"--their
inaccuracy was much higher at one year!] This retention interval is way
out of line for out NT situation, as we noted above.
Subjective Recollections can change. [The ET study was a 3 minute videotape,
plus misleading questions, then recall one week later, for subjective responses
to the videotape (p.70-71)] This factor shows that ambiguous data plus
a value-laden 'leading the witness' questionnaire can influence the subjective
elements ascribed to the scene (e.g. violent vs. peaceful). It is not at
all clear to me that this has much relevance either. Jesus NEVER left anything
'un-interpreted' for His disciples--He was constantly trying to get them
to see all the dimensions of the situation--both His own sayings (e.g.
Mark 4.33f: "With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them,
as much as they could understand. 34 He did not say anything to them without
using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained
everything. " ; cf. also Mark 4.10; 7.17-23; Mt 13.36; 15.15) as well
as the circumstances (John 4.31ff: "Meanwhile his disciples urged him,
"Rabbi, eat something." 32 But he said to them, "I have food to eat that
you know nothing about." 33 Then his disciples said to each other, "Could
someone have brought him food?" 34 "My food," said Jesus, "is to do the
will of him who sent me and to finish his work. 35 Do you not say, `Four
months more and then the harvest'? I tell you, open your eyes and look
at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. ").
Nonverbal Influences. This is just a special 'media' of misleading information.
As such it is subject to the limitations of applicability noted above.
[One of the two ET studies discussed concerned the non-verbal clues human
lab researchers gave to rats. Those rats that were handled 'more positively'
(presumably non-verbally) had better performance than those who weren't--another
clear case of direct overlap with the gospel writers!!!]
Investigations by Police and Attorneys. This is simply a special case of
misleading information through (inappropriate) interrogation techniques
(p. 74-77). Apart from the situation of the apostles' being questioned
by the Council in Acts 4--in which THE APOSTLES did most of the speaking(!)--this
would not apply to the gospel writers. [It is absolutely critical to Loftus'
purpose of the book however.]
This concerns known ways in which a witness's intervening thoughts
about the event, can alter the original memory. Loftus points out that
"the witness's own internal thoughts, wishes, and desires intruded during
the (retention) interval" (p.80). ET discusses three of these ways.
This chapter had tremendous relevance to the legal system, but only limited
relevance to the apostolic situation. Most of the factors actually SUPPORTED
the reliability of the gospel writers (e.g. short retention intervals,
PEI as a corrective in the literary production, stubbornness of salient
details, freezing effects).
Labeling. This is where a 'label' is supplied to a phenomenon (e.g. color)
during the retention interval and this label subsequently causes a 'shift'
in the content of the memory. I am not sure how this would apply to NT
situations. [The ET studies dealt with 2-dimensional shapes and colors].
Guessing. This is where the subject 'fills in the gaps' in a memory with
guesses (p. 82-83). [The ET study was of 25 slides for two seconds each,
total time of 1 minute.] The conclusion of the studies: "The subjects who
were asked to guess about the color of the (non-existent) stationwagon
were more likely to think they had seen such a vehicle when asked later
on...Control subjects who had not guessed about the stationwagon were less
likely to think they had seen one." (p. 83) Notice that this actually involves
misleading information as well, and the data-poor situation that contrasts
with the events narrated in the gospels. I have maintained above that 'filling
in the gaps' of a belief-scene is desirable from PEI, and is different
than filling in the gaps of a memory-scene. In the case of a collaborative
literary responsibility, and tons of corrective data, any 'incorrect guessing'
would have been shot down quickly!
Freezing Effects. This is an important factor that bears on our theme somewhat.
The principle is that once a memory is reported/recalled, it assumes
greater permanence, resisting subsequent modification by PEI. If the
first 'report' is accurate, we have greater permanence of the accurate
narrative; if the first 'report' is inaccurate, we have greater permanence
of the inaccurate narrative. [The ET study was a 150 word prose passage,
after which students had to give a series of paraphrases/reports. (p. 85).]
The strange thing about this result was that the first 'copy' of the original
made by the students was often inaccurate, but all subsequent copies bore
an amazing correspondence to the FIRST copy. "[A]ny one version bore a
much greater resemblance to its immediate predecessor than either one of
them bore to the original material. If only correct information persisted,
this would be a fine result..." (p.85).
This has a rather interesting implication for gospel studies. It
is well-known that oral transmission in Semitic cultures was very reliable,
and this tends to support that. The fact that traveling singers and prophets
could reproduce substantial works with very minimal variation over time
makes perfect sense in light of this factor. And, in the case of the gospel
stories, which would have had their first 'copy' made either during the
life of Jesus (and under His training) or immediately after the ascension
(and under the corporate oversight of a homogenous group), the implication
is very supportive of the permanence of accurate reports! In other words,
when you combine the various factors which would have contributed to the
accurate retelling the FIRST TIME, with this factor that strongly supports
subsequent fidelity to the FIRST "Copy" (i.e. the first 'retelling'), you
get a situation in which high confidence in the accuracy of the early apostolic
teaching is warranted!
Chapter Five: Retrieving Information from Memory
Overall, this chapter will have little relevance to our NT situation,
since the question in the chapter deals with various types of interrogation.
The situation is one of a semi-passive witness, under questioning by the
authorities (e.g. police, attorneys, judges). The NT situation, of course,
is radically different: you either have preachers proclaiming the information,
or writers authoring documents with the help of others, and/or under the
oversight of others. Loftus discusses a number of issues under this topic:
Retrieval Environment. [The ET study had an exposure time of 5 seconds.]
This principle basically demonstrates that memory retrieval is most accurate
if done in an identical/similar setting in which it was learned (p.89-90).
Interestingly, this would actually support gospel reliability, since sources
used by the gospel authors would have all originated in basically the same
settings as the events (i.e. Galilee, Judea, Jerusalem). Preaching on the
Mount (of the Sermon on the Mount) for example, would have aided memory,
under this principle.
Type of Retrieval. This concerned what types of questions are used to elicit
retrieval/recall. Free narrative reports ("what did you see?") produced
the most accurate, but the least complete, recall. [Notice how similar
this would be to preaching and even the gospel literature. They are both
very incomplete--relative to all the possible material--but quite accurate,
to the best of our ability to verify detail.] Controlled narrative questions
("give us a description of what the assailant was wearing") produce less
accurate, but more complete recall, and specific questions ("was the man
wearing a green shirt?") was the most complete, but least accurate of the
'extraction' techniques. [The three ET studies were 5 mins, 2 mins, and
1min in exposure times.] For the gospel writers this is, again, very supportive.
They would have 'lead with' the first type (e.g. the preaching in Acts),
and then likely have gotten specific questions from an audience. This is
the sequence that Loftus recommends for legal use of ET (p. 92-93).
Question Wording. This is the 'leading question' issue that the courts
have long recognized as being a problem (p. 97). It has no relevance to
the gospel writers' "unsolicited preaching" situation.
Who is asking the question? This factor explores memory performance under
situations in which the questioner is either (1) of high status; or (2)
is 'nice' in attitude. The status of the questioner produced more complete
responses (without any improvement in accuracy) and the variation between
'hostile/likable' produced no effect whatsoever. [The ET study was a 42
second film.] Since the gospel dox were not done under questioning, this
again is of negligible relevance. It is worth noting as a minor point that
the hostile audiences that the apostles spoke to would not have affected
their memory performance under this factor.
Confidence. This is a fascinating issue. People tend to assume higher accuracy
from witnesses who are more confident of their recollections, and the data--with
exceptions and qualifications--supports this position. After surveying
the various studies, Loftus summarizes this thus (p. 101):
"To reiterate, although there are many studies showing
that the more confident a person is in a response, the greater the likelihood
that the response is accurate, some studies have shown no relationship
at all between confidence and accuracy. In fact, there are even conditions
under which the opposite relation exists between confidence and accuracy..."
Notice that ET basically admits that confidence normally is associated
with accuracy ("many" versus "some" versus "even conditions under which").
The "conditions under which" that Loftus refers to occur in studies in
which misleading information was delivered at the most vulnerable time
possible in the retention interval (p.101)! When you couple this basic
principle with the observation that the apostles spoke with 'great boldness'
and conviction/confidence (cf. Acts 4.39; 2.29; 9.28), you get an indication
of greater accuracy.
Knew-it-all-along-Effect. This is related to PEI, as well as the gap-filling,
which we have already discussed above.
Hypnosis and Recall. This is clearly not relevant to the gospel situations.
Thus we see that these interrogation issues are largely irrelevant
to our gospel question, with some of the factors (i.e. retrieval environment,
type of retrieval, confidence) actually enhancing the credibility of the
gospel writers' memory.
Chapter Six: Theoretical Issues
In this chapter, Dr. Loftus explores the two competing models of memory.
Most of it is too theoretical for our purpose, but there are two observations/conclusions
she notes that might bear upon our situation:
Chapter Seven: Recognizing People
"What happens when a witness receives some information that is blatantly
contradictory to what was actually seen? An experiment I conducted indicates
that witnesses will reject such information; furthermore, an attempt to
introduce it can increase the likelihood that the witness will resist any
misleading suggestions about other items that would ordinarily not be particularly
immune to suggestion." (p.124).
The implication for the apostolic group is obvious: if someone tried
to smuggle in some really bogus data, it would be rejected outright, and
the source of that bogus data would lose the ability to smuggle in less-blatant
"Further, subjects were better able to resist a suggestion about an item
if they had initially been accurate on that item than if they had not"
The implication for the apostolic group is: if their preaching were
accurate the first time, then attempts (unconscious or conscious) to mislead
them about that content would be much less affective.
This chapter concerns the issue of recognizing faces, and discusses
three specific problems: cross-racial identification (p.137f), unconscious
transference (p.142ff), and photobook/line-ups (p.144f). [The three ET
studies involved 12 seconds, 2 seconds, or 'brief exposure to a person'.]
This chapter has no relevance to gospel studies--the only possible personal
identification is that of the Risen Christ, in which none of the above
Chapter Eight: Individual differences in Eyewitness ability
Although it might seem that this chapter is similar to the discussion
of 'Witness Factors', it is more closely related to longer-term factors.
Some of these factors could be seen to bear on the question of NT reliability.
ET discusses four factors: general anxiety, sex, age, training.
In this chapter, we saw two specific factors that DO enhance the credibility
of the gospel writers: (1) the issue of "interest" in a topic; and (2)
the "advanced notice" of what is to be experienced.
General anxiety. This is related to the stress/focus issue we noted earlier.
[The ET study was 24 slides long.] Probably not an issue, and might be
supportive of NT reliability.
Sex. Sex itself has no apparent bearing on memory, but interest
does. Loftus cites one researcher (p.159) who concluded that people "are
more readily influenced to the extent that they lack information about
a topic or regard it as trivial and unimportant."
The fact that people's memory can be modified when there are huge
gaps in the exposure data ("they lack information about a topic") we have
discussed above. The comment about ease of influence being positively correlated
with an attitude of disinterest, however, is fascinating, especially when
you reword it: "the permanence of a memory is directly related to the interest
in the topic/subject of that memory". This would imply that if the gospel
writers were INTERESTED in the life and words of Jesus, then their memories
would be less likely to be distorted through the various factors under
discussion! If they considered the person of Jesus of Nazareth, and His
'words of eternal life' (cf. John 6.68f: "Simon Peter answered him,
'Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69 We believe
and know that you are the Holy One of God.'" ) to be important enough
to forsake all (Luke 18.28), then this principle suggests that their memories
would have been less subject to distortion.
Age. This factor is only an issue in very young children and very old adults--neither
situation applies to the gospel writers.
Training (or advance warning). [The ET study exposure was for 8 seconds.]
ET demonstrated that 'recognition training' had no effect on facial recognition
accuracy (p.168), but that telling subjects what they were ABOUT to witness
made substantial improvement in accuracy (p. 164-165). The closest situation
to this I can find in the gospels is a VERY significant one, one in which
Jesus told the disciples "what they were about to see". Notice the progression:
"From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples
that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the
elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed
and on the third day be raised to life. " (Matthew 16.21).
This pre-instruction would, under this factor, tend to make the apostles'
memories of the Passion events and Resurrection events more accurate than
"When they came together in Galilee, he said to them, "The Son of
Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. 23 They will kill him,
and on the third day he will be raised to life." (Matthew 17.22f)
Now as Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples
aside and said to them, 18 "We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of
Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law.
They will condemn him to death 19 and will turn him over to the Gentiles
to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised
to life!" (Matthew 20.17)
When Jesus had finished saying all these things, he said to his disciples,
2 "As you know, the Passover is two days away -- and the Son of Man will
be handed over to be crucified." (Matthew 26.2)
Chapter Nine: Common beliefs about Eyewitness Accounts.
This is simply a survey of popular opinion on the issues of the book.
As such, it is interesting, but irrelevant to our study here.
Chapter Ten: The Eyewitness and the Legal System
In this chapter Loftus surveys the history of the legal views toward
these issues of eyewitness reliability. The net of the history part of
the chapter (written in 1979 before the new preface of 1996) is that the
legal system had reversed its stand in 1977:
"Thus, although the Supreme Court once provided some constitutional
safeguards to help protect against faulty convictions, it later dismantled
this protection." (ET:186)
She then examines four possible options as correctives to the problems:
Exclude unreliable eyewitness testimony (She rejects this option on p.187-188!).
Require corroborating evidence (hmmm, sorta like 'independent confirmation',
eh?...She rejects this option on p.188).
Instructions to the Jury (She rejects this on p.190).
Allow Expert Psychological Testimony (her choice).
What I find interesting is one of the statements in this chapter (p.191):
"Outright exclusion of unreliable testimony and requirement
of corroboration are not ideal solutions because they take the decision
out of the hands of the jury and might prevent the conviction of many who
are truly guilty."
In the case of the NT, this would argue that the NT documents:
should not be 'thrown out' by the skeptic upon finding some indication
EVEN IF deemed unreliable(!)--would not require 'independent confirmation'
before being taken VERY, VERY seriously!
[Her final chapter is an actual trial case, not relevant to our study.]
Some observations from memory research studies in the Learning model
(as opposed to the Witness model)
I have commented above on several occasions that the loftux lacks
a great deal of relevance to NT issues, due to a number of factors. One
of those I mentioned was the difference between a passive 'Witness' or
'brief bystander' model and a directed, teaching-context Learning model.
I would like here to simply highlight some conclusions of memory research
in the "Learning" model. [Taken from Your Memory: How it works and How
to Improve it, by Professor Kenneth Higbee, Marlowe: 1996 (2nd Ed.)].
Dr. Higbee actually cites Loftus' research (though not ET). His chapters
4 and 5 are concerned with "How to Remember Anything" type of tactics.
I want simply to summarize these (without analyzing the studies he cites),
and make a brief comment about how they can be found in the teaching of
Meaningfulness--organize the data somehow (p.46). He gives several tactics
to make the data more memorable:
Organization: The main technique Jesus used to organize His teaching was
through the use of pre-announcement. He would consistently tell them what
was going to happen next. He also used inversion quite a bit (e.g. 'the
greatest will be the least among you' and 'the poor will inherit the earth').
Association: Jesus consistently associated actions/attitudes of the people
to OT passages.
Visualization: Jesus was known for this high use of visual imagery (e.g.
sower, seed, coins, sheep)
Attention: (We have seen the importance of this in Loftus, above).
Repetition: As we noted above, Jesus repeatedly told His disciples of 'coming
events', and reminded them of past events and words (e.g. the feeding of
the crowds). He would have used the same or similar messages and words
to the different towns and villages he visited with them, so that they
would have been exposed to the core messages over and over and over.
Relaxation: This principle says that learning (not memory) is done best
in a relaxed atmosphere. This situation would have occurred when Jesus
was alone with the disciples, after ministry to the crowds.
Context: (This is the same principle we saw above-- making the learning
setting and the recall setting the same.)
Interest: (We have already noted the importance of this above.)
Feedback: (I have pointed the criticality of this out above, as well.)
Familiarity--the "more you know about a particular subject the easier it
is to learn new information about it" (p.47). In the case of the disciples--already
coming from a distinctly Jewish milieu--Jesus' words would have built upon
the great Jewish religion, and His person would have been recognized as
that of The Prophet (or at least, "a" prophet) [cf. Matt 16.13f; 21.11,
46; Mark 6.15; Luke 7.16; 13.33 et.al.]
Rhymes. Many of Jesus' sayings are in Semitic poetic form (cf. Jeremias,
New Testament Theology, above.)
Patterns. Jesus followed several of the standard rabbinical argument pattern-forms.
(There are numerous studies on Jesus' teaching methods, from both Jewish
and Christian circles. For a quick overview, see WWRJ, chapter four: "Jesus
One can easily see from this list that under the Learning/Teacher model,
the disciples were in situations and under instruction that would have
optimized their ability to remember the words and deeds of their Lord.
Summary: Issues/contributions to 'apologetic' work re: the eyewitness
issue and NT credibility.
I have to conclude, on the basis of my study, that it is simply incorrect
(or perhaps better, "misguided") to use Loftus' research as a reason to
reduce the credibility of the NT documents...In fact, if it is relevant
AT ALL, then it tends rather to enhance that credibility.
Most of the studies, information, and conclusions in the book are simply
inapplicable to the NT situation.
Most of the factors discussed that DO or MIGHT apply to the NT, support
its reliability for accuracy!
Unlike individual test subjects in these studies, gospel production was
a collaborative effort, with significant checks-and-balances on the factors
discussed by ET.
The gospel production goal was factually-based, composite belief--not uniform
The better model for the disciples as participants is that of learners,
not as bystanders or victims.
And actually, even with all the factors operative, the distortion amounts
in studies are very, very small. In a detailed study by Loftus and Zanni
("Eyewitness Testimony: The influence of the wording of a question", Bulletin
of the Psychonomic Society) using all the 'tampering devices', 85%
of the subjects were not misled even about extraneous details (p.86-88).
The presence of the powerful figure of Jesus of Nazareth--admitted by adherents
of MOST worldviews as an incredible leader and teacher--would have created
a learning environment radically different than simply memory experiments!
[Author's note: This book is somewhat dated at this point. I have
a more recent and complete summary book on order--Mistaken Identification:
The Eyewitness, Psychology, and the Law, by Cutler and Penrod (Cambridge
UP:1995). If it contains any additional or more relevant data, I will update
this piece at my earliest opportunity.]