Time for my weekly mailbag. Before dealing with two rather more direct questions that have come to me – one about eyewitness testimony and the other about whether I hope to get on Fresh Air and Colbert with the new book – I thought I would include an item that did not come to me from the blog, but on my Facebook page. It’s a brief exchange I had with some anonymous figure. I seem to have a lot of these. Please excuse his/her (lack of) syntax; grammar is evidently not a strong suit. But I think you get the idea of the question. At least I thought I did.
bart you said on npr that you feel as that the eye witness all had visions or hallucinations.that jesus didn`t rise from the tomb.do you really expect serious students of the word to accept that,do you know that the expert on the resurrection gary habermas of liberty university called your explanation total nonsense.the ration that over 500 people all experiencing the same thing is total guessing on your part.no bart better try again not all eye witness had hallicinations
Bart D. Ehrman Really? What do you make of the hundreds of people who say they have, at one and the same time, seen the Blessed Virgin Mary?
What they are stating is not in the bible I go by what the word of God said and what people died for.why are you limiting God Bart? If he wants to manifest the blessed virgin then isn’t he allowed as God that choice Bart?what your doing is limiting God and his great power to work.first you don’t believe in the resurrection of Jesus and now the appearances of the blessed Mary.
Bart D. Ehrman Oh, I thought you were saying that you could not have 500 people all witnessing a hallucination. Wait a second. That *is* what you were saying!!
Do you think the three variant accounts of Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus in Acts indicate that, even in the first century CE, it was known that eyewitness testimony and memory are not totally reliable?
My sense is that the general uninformed opinion about eyewitness testimony in antiquity was pretty much what it is today. Lots of people – probably most? – thought that if someone said they saw something, they really did. And if they told you about it, it was accurate. Even if evidence (e.g., the three accounts of Paul’s conversion in Acts 9, 22, and 26) indicated otherwise. Of course in antiquity there were not extensive studies by psychologists dealing with eyewitnesses since, well, there weren’t any psychologists. But still, my hunch is that most people simply believed eyewitnesses even though the most highly educated scholars – for example, historians and biographers – had a healthy dose of skepticism. But even they didn’t realize just *how* bad eyewitness testimony could be.
The following is a little anecdote I tell in my forthcoming book Jesus Before the Gospels involving, in a sense, eyewitnesses. I have lots of stories like this, and of course you would not want to base too much on just one story. Still, it’s pretty interesting:
On October 4, 1992, an El Al Boeing 707 that had just taken off from Schipfol Airport in Amsterdam lost power in two engines. The pilot tried to return to the airport but couldn’t make it. The plane crashed into an eleven-story apartment building in the Amsterdam suburb of Bijlmermeer. The four crew members and thirty-nine people in the building were killed. The crash was, understandably, the leading news story in the Netherlands for days.
Ten months later, in August 1993, Dutch psychology professor Hans Crombag and two colleagues gave a survey to 193 university professors, staff, and students in the country. Among the questions was the following: “Did you see the television film of the moment the plane hit the apartment building?” In their responses 107 of those surveyed (55%) said Yes, they had seen the film. Sometime later the researchers gave a similar survey with the same question to 93 law school students. In this instance, 62 (66%) of the respondents indicated that they had seen the film. There was just one problem. There was no film.
These striking results obviously puzzled the researchers, in part because basic common sense should have told anyone that there could not have been a film. Remember, this is 1992, before cell phone cameras. The only way to have a film of the event would have been for a television camera crew to have trained a camera on this particular apartment building in a suburb of Amsterdam at this exact time, in expectation of an imminent crash. And yet, between half and two-thirds of the people surveyed – most of them graduate students and professors – indicated they had seen the non-existent film. Why would they think they had seen something that didn’t exist?
Even more puzzling were the detailed answers that some of those interviewed said about what they actually saw on the film, for example, whether the plane crashed into the building horizontally or at vertical and whether the fire caused by the plane started at impact or only later. None of that information could have been known from a film, because there was no film. So why did these people remember, not only seeing the crash but also details about how it happened and what happened immediately afterward?
Obviously they were imagining it, based on logical inferences (the fire must have started right away) and on what they had been told by others (the plane crashed into the building as it was heading straight down). The psychologists argued that these people’s imaginations became so vivid, and were repeated so many times, that they eventually did not realize they were imagining something. They thought they were remembering it. They really thought that. In fact they did remember it. But it was a false memory. Not just a false memory one of them had. A false memory most of them had.
The researchers concluded: “It is difficult for us to distinguish between what we have actually witnessed, and what common sense inference tells us that must also have been the case.” In fact, commonsense inference, along with information we get by hearsay from others, together “conspire in distorting an eyewitness’s memory.” Indeed “this is particularly easy when, as in our studies, the event is of a highly dramatic nature, which almost by necessity evokes strong and detailed visual imagery.”
Any chance we’ll get to see you on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” or hear you on “Fresh Air with Terry Gross” after it’s published?
Every author is naturally desperate to get really good radio and television coverage for their work. That is really what matters when it comes to book sales. Frankly, what matters is not necessarily the quality of the book (tons of *terrific* books never get any coverage; some lousy ones get lots!). And not advertising (contrary to what I used to think). What matters is media attention.
No radio coverage is better than Terry Gross and no TV better than Colbert! And so, for every trade book that is published in the U.S., the publisher assigns a publicist to try to make it happen. The problem – this is an enormous problem, obviously – is that there are something like 600 books that get published in English every day. Only 20 books will be on the New York Times Bestseller list each week. And if a radio or TV show has 4-5 episodes a week, and, say, 40,000 books to choose from, well, do the math.
I have been unbelievably fortunate to appear on Fresh Air six times. Terry Gross is fantastic, preternaturally good! It is a real pleasure, and a profound honor, to be interviewed by her. I was on the Colbert Report twice, though I have to say that was not nearly so enjoyable. Damn he’s quick. And smart. And you have no idea where he’s going or how he got there. The Colbert Report was the toughest interview on the planet, even if it was the most huge honor. Which it was. He is an amazing man. Now, of course, he’s moved on.
So, in any event, my publicist is working very hard to line up some media coverage. One never knows how that will play out. Often it is a matter of luck and chance and good breaks. But one can always hope!
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