I’m going to be discussing soon some of the things that appear to be “misremembered” about Jesus in our early sources, but first it’s important to emphasize some of the hugely critical positive things about memory – like, that most of the time we get it basically right. Depending, of course, on what “basically” means!
Here’s how I discuss the matter in Jesus Before the Gospels (HarperOne, 2016).
Remembering the Gist?
Let me make a point that may not be clear from what I have said so far about the psychology of memory. In stressing the fact – which appears to be a fact – that memories are always constructed and therefore prone to error, even when they are quite vivid, I am not, I am decidedly not, saying that all of our memories are faulty or wrong. Most of the time we remember pretty well, at least in broad outline. Presumably, so too did eyewitnesses to the life of Jesus. As did the person who heard a story from an eyewitness may well have remembered in broad outline he was told. And the person who heard a story from a neighbor whose cousin was married to a man whose father told him a story that he heard from a business associate whose wife once knew someone who was married to an eyewitness. Probably in the latter case – which, as far-fetched as it sounds, may be pretty close to how most people were hearing stories about Jesus – a lot more would have been changed than in the case of an eyewitness telling someone the day after he saw something happen. But my basic point here is that despite the faults of memory, we do obviously remember a lot of things, and the fundamental memories themselves can often be right.
This is a commonplace in the psychological study of memory. We tend to remember the “gist” of an experience pretty well, even if the details get messed up. You may not remember correctly (despite what you think) where, when, with whom, or how you heard about the Challenger explosion, or the results of the O. J. Simpson trial, or even (this is harder to believe, but it appears to be true) the attacks of 9/11. But you do remember that you heard about the events, and you remember that they happened.
As we will see, this is an important point, because there are gist memories of Jesus recorded in the New Testament Gospels that are almost certainly accurate. At the same time, there are a lot of details – and in fact entire episodes – that are almost certainly not accurate. These are “memories” of things that didn’t actually happen. They are distorted memories.
Still, many of the broad outlines that are narrated in the Gospels certainly