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My Original Interest in Memory

When I decided no longer to do a commentary on the Gospel of Peter and other early Greek Gospel fragments it was not only because I realized that I was not up for two or three years of that particular kind of laborious detailed work.  It was also because there was another area of research that I was really, really interested in but that I knew very little about.  That was the study of memory.

I was interested in memory for both personal and professional reasons.  On the personal level, I have known people very close to me who have experienced serious memory problems, for example through strokes.  Depending on what part of the brain is affected, different memory functions are damaged.   For example, someone may remember perfectly well what happened in an event 20 years ago, but forget a conversation they just had.   I have often wondered why and how that is..

And then there was my own memory.  For some things I have a terrific memory.  And for lots of things I have an absolutely terrible memory.   I especially have a terrible “episodic” memory (as psychologists call it), a memory for things that happen in your life and you experience.   Let me give an example.

About three years ago…


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Different Kinds of Memory
My New Project on Memory



  1. Avatar
    Jason  April 1, 2015

    Timely give Brian Williams and Bill O’Really’s travails!

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    Todd  April 1, 2015

    This will be fascinating

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    Tom  April 1, 2015

    Fascinating, Dr. E.

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    Lawyerskeptic  April 1, 2015

    Have you ever heard of the seminal work of Prof. Edwin M. Borchard? To the best of my knowledge, he wrote the first book on wrongful convictions. Convicting the Innocent: Errors of Criminal Justice (1932). His book discussed sixty-five cases of wrongful conviction, twenty-nine of which were due to false identification.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 1, 2015

      I’ve heard of him, but haven’t read the book. Sounds interesting.

      • Avatar
        Lawyerskeptic  April 2, 2015

        It is a fascinating and groundbreaking book to me, but the more I think about it, of only marginal interest to you. Most of the book is taken up with the sixty-five case studies, and Prof. Borchard’s analysis is limited to an eleven-page introductory chapter, only one paragraph of which discusses false identification. I can send it to you if you wish to read it.

        • Bart
          Bart  April 3, 2015

          Thanks. I’ve ordered it and will read it with interest!

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    HistoricalChristianity  April 1, 2015

    Of course I look forward to your sharing what you learned! But for the subject to be even relevant to the NT, one would need to make the case that anyone involved was dealing with memory rather than tradition, legend, or invention. Do we ever say that Greek or Roman mythology was based on memory of actual events with the gods?

    All the early variants of Christianity claimed apostolic authority. But we have no single text credibly authored by anyone who actually met Jesus while alive on earth. Paul rarely if ever referred to any memory about Jesus while on earth, and he was the closest author.

    Gospels are defended by the premise that surely people who actually met Jesus could still be alive (unlikely) and could refute any story inaccuracies. Yet none of the writings originated in the areas Jesus walked. We have no evidence that any gospel diarist had access to any such person. Certainly none is ever credited.

    OK, enough of the pre-performance press. This opera critic will wait until he hears that fat lady (or at least somebody) sing! Looking forward to your blogs.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 1, 2015

      It depends on what you mean by memory. By memory I refer to the mental act of calling something back to mind. False memories are recollections of things that did not in fact happen or that you did not in fact experience. But they are still memories.

      • Avatar
        Scott  April 2, 2015

        In your book, will you be addressing the difference/interplay between legend and “memory”?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 4, 2015

          Yes, indirectly. Legends — recollectoins of past figures that did not in fact happen — are forms of false memory.

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    John  April 1, 2015

    “Why did some authors remember what Jesus said and did in such different ways? Did some of them “misremember” or fail to remember what Jesus really said and did?”

    Who are you referring to here, not the Gospel authors surely?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 1, 2015


      • Avatar
        John  April 2, 2015

        This was from you next post

        “All you have to do is read how Jesus was remembered in the non-canonical Gospels – the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Judas, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, the Proto-Gospel of James, and so on – and you’ll see that what Christians recalled about Jesus is not what really happened in your life.”

        I think I am getting confused now. Are you suggesting that these books were written by someone who had experienced these events? I thought these books were written years later by people who were basically ‘making stuff up’.

        • Bart
          Bart  April 3, 2015

          No, memories are not simply of things that happened to you personally. We all “remember” the Civil War, for example. Remembering something simply means calling it back to mind.

          • Avatar
            John  April 4, 2015

            In that case you will need to be EXTREMELY clear what you mean when you write this up.

            For example, is Matthew writing about an event (like the civil war) when he describes the graves opening up or is he construction something new from his imagination.

          • Bart
            Bart  April 4, 2015

            Many of his readers *remembered*this about the graves, because they read/heard it, whatever Matthew himself thought about it

        • Avatar
          John  April 5, 2015

          “Many of his readers *remembered*this about the graves, because they read/heard it, whatever Matthew himself thought about it”

          So you don’t think Matthew invented it then?

          • Bart
            Bart  April 6, 2015

            I don’t think there’s any way to know.

  7. talitakum
    talitakum  April 1, 2015

    I remember examples of personal experiences of how memory can play tricks (similar to what happened to you with your trip to Crete) in some important books of Dale Allison – who then puts forth his own methodology for historical Jesus research based (also) on memory studies premises. Have you been, to some extent, influenced by Dale Allison’s books? And, more recently, what about Anthony LeDonne?
    Thank you!

    • Bart
      Bart  April 1, 2015

      Yes, I know their work. Dale is more interested in cognitive psych. and Anthony in collective memory.

  8. Avatar
    @manx  April 1, 2015

    Memory is a odd thing. I appear to be the opposite of yourself in that i can remember events from my life clearly, and struggle to retain knowledge that I read (which can be frustrating because I read a lot.)

    An example would be that i can recall clearly the three young Jehovah Witness’s that called to my home in May 2005 and that it was their visit that rekindled my interest in early Christianity. I know that over the past few weeks I have reread The Invention Of The Jewish People by Shlomo Sand / The Bible Unearthed by Israel Finkelstein and The Ark Before Noah by Irving Finkel.

    However whilst I can recall the outlines of each book the details are a misty fog. Which means that whilst I read I have to take notes on places, dates and events. And whilst it is not really important that even though I know I enjoyed reading “The Wheel Of Time” books i can not recall the details, It is frustrating when trying to trace Mesopotamian mythology spreading through cuneiform and seeing how it influenced the old testament without having to go through note book after note book to recall simple details I feel i should be able to recall.

    So in short I will look forward to your findings and am sure they will be as enjoyable to read as your already published works. (Even if I will have trouble remembering the details Ha!) @manx

  9. Avatar
    Triassicman  April 1, 2015

    Wow! that is a giant brave step to take. You should get Sam Harris on board. I think it is a great idea but the subject is very complex. I observe a lot of the text not only coming from memory, thereby historical, but also from the desire to twist the memories so that the text can link to the OT in order to give credence to the life of Jesus.
    T=MD^2 where text equals memory multiplied by the square of dogma.

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    tom.hennell@btinternet.com  April 1, 2015

    Fascinating Bart.

    You may well already have picked up on this; but one very rich, and intriguing, resource for memories in a religious context, could be the proceedings of medieval formal investigations of claims to sanctity, following their brought under the exclusive control of the Papacy from 13th century onwards. (see Michael E Goodrich; ‘Miracles and Wonders’, 2007, ch 5). I recall a study of reported medieval healing miracles, published in the British Medical Journal (in one of their ‘Christmas Special’ editions I think) sometime in the 1980s. The value of these canonization records is partly that the proceedings were very fully documented, with much verbatim quotations from witnesses and from the persons claimed to have been healed; but also that they generally included an assessment from a qualfied physician. Medieval canonization trials were typically open-minded – commissions were open to the possibility of miraculous healing; but also sceptical – the commissions were well aware that many claims to healing would be exaggerated or fraudulent . So it is often possible to cross-compare what the witnesses reported at the time, against findings following an ex post facto medical examination.

    If I remember right (which of course begs the question) the article found a consistent tendency for witness accounts to be conformed to prior ‘standard’ narratives of healing – ‘he got up from his bed and walked across the room’ – as opposed to what the commission found subsequently to have been the most likely details of the actual event.

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    MikeyS  April 1, 2015

    In over 75% of the cases that have been overturned the conviction was originally based exclusively on the grounds of eyewitness testimony!
    How does that compare with remembering what someone said Bart? ie hearing and seeing are different aspects of memory which I’m sure you will know already. Just to add my continual skepticism about most ancient historical events in that people will believe what they want to believe irrespective of any evidence. Its why the ethnic minorities find themselves more likely to be found guilty than not guilty. I would suggest that ANY oral tradition has always inflated the original event or activity eg that fish we caught back then was so….How likely is it that 5000 people turned up to be fed 5 loaves and two fish? How did Jesus manage to speak to these crowds without a megaphone or microphone when you need to shout to someone ten yards away? Noah’s and the Flood was more likely to be a local one where he hopped on a raft wih his wife and dog etc etc. I would say there seems to be no real opposition to the stuff Jesus supposedly said like “If you have faith as small as etc, you can move mountains” etc. Ignorant peasants would just stare, while the more skeptical thinkers would reply, “OK Jesus, move that mountain over there and we will believe you”! MAYBE that is why he surrounded himself with mostly uneducated people?

    Always remember Bart, where religion is concerned, black will be white and vice versa. I’ve passed caring what they may have said or did myself!

    • Bart
      Bart  April 1, 2015

      Yes, there are studies about how much we remember of what we hear as well as what we see or experience.

  12. Avatar
    madmargie  April 1, 2015

    Do you recall the McMasters daycare case? Several years ago, children in the daycare told authorities they McMasters were abusing the children, teaching witchcraft, and practicing witchcraft. The McMasters were convicted and went to prison. After some of the children grew up, they admitted making all that up. The McMasters were finally exonerated after spending years in prison. Those were false memories that experts decided some were planted by the psychologists who were interviewing them.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 1, 2015

      Yes, indeed. Very tragic.

    • Avatar
      Lawyerskeptic  April 2, 2015

      I believe you are referring to the McMartin preschool case. An excellent book on it is Satan’s Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt by Debbie Nathan. HBO did an film which, from what I have read, is about as accurate as Hollywood ever gets. Indictment: The McMartin Trial.

  13. Avatar
    madmargie  April 1, 2015

    You see, I misremembered the case too. It was the McMartin daycare. Although all were exonerated,eventually, they still spent years in jail awaiting trial. Read all about it on Wikapedia.

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    tedandcarol1960  April 1, 2015

    Piaget (1951) in his book Play, Dreams and Imitation in Childhood, provides a provocative example of what seems to be a reconstructed memory based on postevent suggestion. Piaget had a memory for being kidnapped at age 2 which he maintained until he learned that it was false when he was fifteen. It turned out that Piaget’s nanny had concocted the whole story of the kidnapping in order to get a reward. What’s striking about Piaget’s memory is the vividness of it. The memory contained vivid visual imagery. Piaget writes,

    “I can still see, most clearly, the following scene, in which I believed until I was about fifteen. I was sitting in my pram, which my nurse was pushing in the Champs Elysees, when a man tried to kidnap me. I was held in by the strap fastened round me while my nurse bravely tried to stand between me and the thief. She received various scratches and I can still see vaguely those on her face. Then a crowd gathered, a policeman with a cloak and a white baton came up, and the man took to his heels. I can still see the whole scene, and can even place it near the tube station. [p. 188]”
    Piaget himself accounted for this as a reconstruction and added, “Many real memories are doubtless of the same order.”

  15. Avatar
    magpie  April 1, 2015

    Courage! My memory banks also experience intermittent and unpredictable outages. Very frustrating. I will be interested in what you will find. I think you made a good decision not to do what has become uninteresting to you and to pursue something new. Variety is the spice of life and other platitudes.

  16. Avatar
    John  April 1, 2015

    But I thought you claimed that the Gospels weren’t written by eye witnesses or people who knew them?

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    qaelith2112  April 1, 2015

    I can offer only this: Elizabeth Loftus. By now, though, I’m sure you’ve run across her work.

  18. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  April 2, 2015

    Thanks for teaching me about “”boustrophedon.” I look forward to learning how you tie all your memory research into a better understanding of the spread of early Christianity.

  19. Avatar
    daviskent  April 2, 2015

    A formal study of the “Telephone” game…excellent!

  20. Avatar
    walstrom  April 4, 2015

    There are a great many strategies for remembering almost anything. Learning and practicing such strategies enables an ‘ordinary’ person to commit to memory what is surely impossible otherwise.
    In his book, “Moonwalking with Einstein,” Joshua Foer writes about his encounter with the U.S. Memory Championship which convinced him to take on the task himself of competing.
    The process makes for a surprisingly entertaining and informative book. Learning how to memorize 27 decks of shuffled cards in an hour or 4,140 binary digits in half that time may be impractical, but not impossible once you’ve mapped out the proper strategies.
    Further, in the documentary, “Ben Franklin Blowing Bubbles at a Sword: The Journey of a Mental Athlete”, Nelson Dellis becomes the center of a study in what it takes to win the (above) championship 3 times.

    I would suggest reading about these analog methods first, Bart, before getting lost in the labyrinth of brain chemistry. I was able to memorize the entire Rime of the Ancient Mariner and recite it in class in the 8th grade for extra credit employing a simple method taught to me by my grandfather. I, in turn, taught my son and daughter to memorize Pi to 100 decimal places for showing off in high school.
    Historically, ancient people employed similar methods (Rhetorica ad Herennium, Cicero’s De Oratore, and Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria) as an art and for practical use. Among the American aborigine tribes (Native Americans) the necessity of recalling and reciting tribal history was in the hands of a few adepts skilled in the process. (Methods of Memory: On Native American Storytelling
    Bruce Ballenger, Boise State University)

    I hope you find this of benefit and good luck in your endeavor!

    • Bart
      Bart  April 6, 2015

      Yes indeed, I have read the book and will be using it in mine.

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