Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Anthony Le Donne: Is Richard Bauckham guilty of a "philosophical assumption and methodological tendency" in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses?

In the comments of a recent blog post on, Anthony Le Donne - Assistant Professor of New Testament at United Theological Seminary - claimed that Richard Bauckham - in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses - is guilty of a "philosophical assumption and methodological tendency" in relation to eyewitnesses providing "very reliable source material". Connected to this is the claim that Luke "*must* ... have had access to some *very reliable* sources".

Le Donne's blog was actually focussing on a Bible Odyssey entry by Brent Landau titled 'Was Luke a Historian", in which the issues of eyewitnesses and reliable sources were discussed. I copy the key section in his blog post as background for understanding Le Donne's claim about Bauckham, together with my question in the comments, Le Donne's response, Bauckham's immediate response, and in conclusion brief reflections on Bauckham's relevant work.

Le Donne: "Luke may even have a reliable source that has conveyed the specific events mentioned in Luke 13:1-5. But why *must* Luke have had access to some *very reliable* sources? I think that Landau climbs out too far on this limb. Finally, why should we imagine - as Landau seems to - that eyewitnesses provide very reliable source material? ... There is a philosophical assumption and methodological tendency here that requires more conversation. So to my challenge: firsthand testimony is not necessarily better and sometimes much worse than secondary or tertiary works of reflection. This is true of 'quite minor events' and even more true of significant, life-changing events.

Mulder question: "Interesting Anthony. Do you think Richard Bauckham - in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses - is guilty of the 'philosophical assumption and methodological tendency' you highlighted in Landau?"

Le Donne response: "Yes. -anthony".

Bauckham's response: "What is routinely ignored in discussion of my Eyewitnesses book, is that in the chapter on the psychology of eyewitnesses memory I explained that eyewitness memory can be very unreliable, but for that reason I drew from a an extensive study of the psychological research literature conclusions about what sort of things are most likely to be remembered well and under what conditions eyewitness memory is likely to be reliable. Therefore my arguments are not refuted simply by general claims that eyewitness memory is often unreliable. It is one of many points at which my critics simply have not read my work adequately ..."


Having read Eyewitnesses myself, I was quite intrigued by Le Donne's "Yes" to my question. It didn't seem that Le Donne had the intention to qualify his answer until Bauckham himself joined the conversation. For what it's worth, I thought it helpful to highlight a couple of relevant sections in Bauckham's chapter on "Eyewitness Memory"(pp. 319-357).

In preparation for a discussion about a psychological approach to the memories of the eyewitnesses of Jesus, Bauckham presents two anecdotal instances that illustrate both how unreliable and how reliable eyewitness testimony in ordinary life can be. The second concerns an eighty-three-year-old man remembering accurate details of an event that happened more than seventy years previously. The first - relevant for our current discussion - concerns reminiscences of the pianist Rossini about his early meeting with Beethoven. Bauckham cites Jan Vansina who reflects on Rossini's reminiscences as a warning of how unreliable eyewitness testimony can be:

"The famous story of the reminiscences of Rossini about his early meeting with Beethoven may serve as a warning to the unwary. When first told, a few years after Beethoven's death, Rossini said that he went to to Beethoven's house, had great difficulty in being admitted, and in the end did not speak to the master whose command of Italian ... was insufficient. This last bit we may doubt - at least from this source. Towards the end of Rossini's life the story had become quite a tale. It involved the tortured master, in the throes of creation, receiving Rossini, advising him to continue his great work, and above all praising Il Barbiere di Siviglia as the greatest comic work ever written".

Bauckham argues that this example "illustrates how an eyewitness may himself reshape an autobiographical memory radically during the course of retelling the story over many years. The motive in this case is obvious. Rossini emerges as a thoroughly untrustworthy witness".

Later on, reflecting on Recollective Memory, Bauckham argues that the purpose for which the memory is recalled and communicated may strongly affect the construction of memory.

"Memories are not freely constructed. There are clearly constraints in the remembering process that account for the relative accuracy and the broad element of stability in memories recalled on different occasions ... If a person cannot recall sufficient accurate detail to reproduce an experience, the mind may fill in the gaps from its other stores of knowledge. The experience of one woman recalling her early memories is a nice illustration. She writes that one day she was reliving a memory of the Russian revolution of 1905, when she was five years old ... Her memory has misled her by supplying for this episodic memory information from a generic personal memory ... that was close to, but not the correct generic memory ... Another way in which the reconstructive process can be misled so that distorted memories occur is though misinformation acquired by persons about an event they remember. Such misinformation can be unconsciously adopted into their memory and become part of it. In extreme cases persons told about an event that allegedly happened to them can come to believe they actually remember it, even though the event never happened".

Against this background, it is indeed not the case that Bauckham is guilty of a philosophical assumption and methodological tendency which holds that eyewitnesses necessarily provide very reliable source material. In the section "The Reliability of Recollective Memory", Bauckham focuses on nine factors underlying the sort of memories that are more likely to be reliable:

(1) Unique or unusual events
(2) Salient or consequential events
(3) An event in which a person is emotionally involved
(4) Vivid imagery
(5) Irrelevant detail
(6) Point of view
(7) Dating
(8) Gist and detail
(9)Frequent rehearsal

Bauckham concludes by citing the results of two studies (cf. D.C. Rubin and M. Kozin; G. Cohen and D. Faulkner), illustrating how some of the nine factors determining memorability come together to promote and preserve memory of specific events:

"Rubin and Kozin asked a group of students to describe three of their clearest memories, and to rate them for national importance, personal importance, surprise, vividness, emotionality, and how often they discussed the event. The most commonly reported events concerned injuries or accidents, sports, and encounters with the opposite sex. Memories which were more vivid also received higher ratings for importance, surprise, and emotionality. Cohen and Faulkner also reported that memory vividness correlated significantly with emotions, importance, and the amount of rehearsal. In their study, the relative power of these factors shifted with the age of the person who was remembering. For younger people the amount of rehearsal was the most powerful factor. The vividness of their remote memories was preserved because the events were often thought about and talked about ... Events in which the subjects were actors were remembered better than events in which they were only bystanders, and unique occasions and first times were remembered more often than generic events or last times".

According to Bauckham, these studies illustrate the way several of the nine factors discussed tend to occur in combination, making it difficult to gauge their relative importance. On pp. 341-346, Bauckham applies these factors to the eyewitness memories behind the Gospels, concluding as follows:

"The eyewitnesses who remembered the events of the history of Jesus were remembering inherently very memorable events, unusual events that would have impressed themselves on the memory, events of key significance for those who remembered them, landmark or life-changing events for them in many cases, and their memories would have been reinforced and stabilized by frequent rehearsal, beginning soon after the event. They did not need to remember - and the Gospels rarely record - merely peripheral aspects of the scene or the event, the aspects of recollective memory that are least reliable. Such details may often have been subject to performative variation in the eyewitnesses' tellings of their stories, but the central features of the memory, those that constituted its meaning for those who witnessed and attested it, are likely to have been preserved reliably. We may conclude that 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".

Thursday, 16 July 2015

"Joy and sorrow in great and equal measure" - Completing a New Testament PhD by Dr Colin Bullard

Colin Bullard completed his PhD in New Testament under Simon Gathercole a while ago. I really enjoyed reading Colin's reflections back after the viva.

I discovered some pictures I took of the Bullards somewhere on my desktop. Great memories!