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Is Eyewitness Evidence Bad Evidence? (Part 1 - Suggestibility)
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Is Eyewitness Evidence Bad Evidence? (Part 1 - Suggestibility)

Those who believe in the trustworthiness of the New Testament in general, and the gospels in particular, have a bit of a problem. At least, this is what several prominent skeptics allege. The problem is not necessarily that the gospels were not written by eyewitnesses (although this point is hardly conceded), but that even if they were written by eyewitnesses, the gospels could still not be trusted. Why is this? Because eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable due to the error-prone memory of human beings. And when you compound an error-prone memory by thirty to sixty years, reason would dictate that one ought to expect numerous errors in the reports that follow. Since this is the best-case scenario for the gospels, the conclusion is that we have little reason for thinking that they are reliable historical accounts in any case.

Just what kinds of memory errors are we talking about? Do they seriously call into question the gospel author’s ability to recall the accounts that they recorded? Those are the questions this series of blogs will address. And to answer these questions, I’ll start with articles addressing the relevant problem areas of human memory: Suggestibility, bias, chronology, and transience. After that, I’ll address the problem of unreliable eyewitness testimony in a court of law. And finally, I’ll see if the conditions under which the gospels were written would imply that these problems should cause concern for their reliability.

The Problem of Suggestibility

Suggestibility describes the mind’s ability to distort certain memories when fed suggestions about the event that were not part of the initial memory. This might happen when one observes an event and forms a memory. Later, that person learns additional information about that event that was not part of the initial memory. In this case, the new information is likely going to be spliced together with the initial memory memory such that one now “remembers” the event as if the new information was always part of the memory. Anecdotes of this kind of memory error are easily found in talks given by various researchers in the field of memory. In a clinical setting, researchers may give participants a list of words related to sleeping, but not include the word “sleep.” Nevertheless, participants will often recall the word “sleep” despite having never actually seen or heard it. Why is this? Suggestibility.

In some extreme cases, researchers have even been able to fabricate in the minds of participants memories for events that never took place. One example is where participants would receive records of their own every-day activities. However, occasionally, the researchers would provide “foils” which were records of someone else’s experiences, albeit similar experiences to the participant’s. In several cases, the participants would come to “remember” the events in the foil as if they were the ones who experienced those activities. In another case, a fourteen-year-old was induced, over the course of a few weeks, to remember a time when he had been lost in a mall at the age of five. While he ended up recalling the event with vivid detail, the event never happened.

A Problem for the Gospels?

One might think that all these problems for memory and eyewitness testimony place one in a position of uncomfortable skepticism toward memory in general. Upon reflection, however, this can’t be the proper conclusion. As a preliminary consideration, the skeptic’s own framework makes it difficult to maintain that our memory is generally unreliable. This point of view is evolution through natural selection. According to this view, the selective pressures of a creature’s environment would make it very unlikely for a such a faulty trait to either develop or be preserved. In addition to this, and more simply, the human experience of memory is one of general reliability at a minimum. You have a generally reliable memory! Considering all the problems just discussed, then, how can one reconcile these facts?

The first point to keep in mind when solving this apparent conflict is that the lab does not usually resemble the real world. The experimental conditions under which these mistakes in memory often occur are not typically the conditions you’ll find in normal, every-day life. In fact, these memory experiments are specifically engineered to induce false memories. So, we shouldn’t be surprised when these carefully crafted situations lead to the desired outcome. We also shouldn’t be surprised that our memories function reliably outside of such conditions.

Second, some of the conditions of these experiments actually highlight situations where one might expect memory to be more reliable. For example, it is easier to induce entirely false memories if the time period under consideration is one’s childhood. Naturally, false memories such as being lost in a mall are much less frequent in one’s teenage and adult memories. This is good news since no one thinks that, if the gospels were written by eyewitnesses, that those authors were children during Jesus’ ministry! What about the cases of adults “remembering” the events of a typical day which belonged to someone else? This kind of suggestion seems only to take hold when the person believes that the memory plausibly describes their own experience. In other words, if it sounds like something they would have done, then the memory is more likely to take hold. On the flip side, then, this “suggests that memories for unusual events are least likely to be false memories. Memorable events stick with us; it is with the ordinary and the everyday that our memories may sometimes deceive us.” Once again, this is good news for much of what is recorded about Jesus’ ministry. Miracles, confrontations with the religious leaders, teachings which contradicted the prevailing wisdom of the day, and interactions with people that were not typically associated with were all characteristic of Jesus’ ministry. These are not the kinds of memories that are assimilated into a long line of every-day, 1st century Jewish experience.

Third, while the problem of suggestibility does have implications for verbatim recollection, or for precise recall of details, it reinforces the mind’s ability to remember and reconstruct an accurate gist. And so, while chronological steps may be altered or created, or while new words may be put into the mouth of a speaker, all this is done in service of the gist of the situation. In this way, one can recall events – conversations, tasks, observations – in a reconstructed, yet accurate way. Even those relatively skeptical about the reliability of memory have concluded that “[M]uch of our autobiographical recollection of the past is reasonably free of error, provided that we stick to remembering the broad outline of events.” This is good news for those who do not hold to the Bible’s inspiration. Since ancient biographers did not pretend to give verbatim accounts of their subject’s teachings, nor reproduce events or chronology in minute detail, insofar as the gospels resemble ancient biographies, even a skeptic will not have to worry too much about the problem of suggestibility. For those who already believe in inspiration, one may still hold that the gospel’s record the gist of Jesus’ life and teachings. After all, Luke is certainly giving the gist of various speeches made by the apostles, not transcripts. Nevertheless, John 14:26 certainly justifies believing that the Gospel texts record exact, minute details.

Conclusion

Is human memory equivalent to a video recorder that can playback situations on command, able to relive situations with minute detail? No. Are there times when memory is unreliable? Yes. Can we trust our memory to give us reliable information? Also yes. The problem of suggestibility is certainly not something that can be ignored, especially when doing history. But it shouldn’t become a lens of skepticism through which all of history is viewed as suspect. Because if the gospels are suspect, nearly all of our sources from antiquity are suspect. Rather, one should recognize when memories are susceptible to suggestion and when they are not. In the case of the gospels, there are few events that would be good candidates for the problem of suggestibility.


Aaron grew up in Canada, and now he and his wife live in Colorado. He has been in full-time ministry since earning a BA in Biblical Studies. He writes articles and interacts online for The Daily Apolo...
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