One other section that I attended at the Society of Biblical Literature meeting in Baltimore was devoted to the field of social memory and the historical Jesus. This was a very interesting panel, of four papers, devoted to what we can say about the recollections of Jesus found in the Gospels, based on what psychologists now tell us about memory, and what historians familiar with this psychological work are saying about how the past can be remembered. I found one paper in particular to be especially interesting, because the author, a very smart scholar named Zeba Crook, used developments in the psychology of memory to argue that we can NOT know anything about the historical Jesus.
Crook’s paper (I’m reconstructing this from my mind, based on what I heard two days ago; I may get some of this wrong. But if Crook’s point is correct, then I can’t reconstruct the event at all, as you’ll see!) was based on the phenomenon of memory distortion. Psychologists have determined several things about memory and how it gets distorted. For one thing, distortion happens all the time, either because our memories are faulty or because in conversation with other people (or, say, with the media, as we read “accounts” what happened) our views about what took place change – away from what really happened.
Memory distortion happens all the time; it cannot be prevented; and here’s the tricky part – we are unable to differentiate, in our heads, between an accurate memory of what happened in the past and a distorted memory of it. When we mis-remember something, it is absolutely as vivid in our minds as a real memory as the thing that we remember correctly. Psychologists have shown all this. And what it means is that we don’t know ourselves whether our memories are distorted or not.
And so there have been studies of how people “remember” such things as the first war in Iraq, the Cuban missile crisis, the Allied victory in Europe, and have shown conclusively that these things in fact are misremembered.
The problem is that if “history” is based on how people remember the past – or how they portray the past in writing, even if they do so soon after the past events have transpired – and people consistently distort the past in their memories, then there is no way to have any real access to the past.
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