Ehrman begins by reviewing the history of the study of how well (i.e., how accurately) individuals remember (pp. 131–48). Of course, the discussion emphasizes how and when memory fails; the "sins of memory" are much more interesting than mundane accounts of memory working just fine. Ehrman briefly describes Hermann Ebbinghaus's (1850–1909) early work on memory and forgetting (Ebbinghaus discovered that forgetting happens fairly quickly and at predictable rates that can be mapped onto a statistical curve) as well as Frederic Bartlett's experimental work on memory and his conclusion that memories are not recalled so much as they are constructed. Perhaps the greatest difference between Ebbinghaus's and Bartlett's experiments, as Ehrman presents them, is that Ebbinghaus "wanted to study memory in a pure form" (p. 132), so he tested his memory of random, "three-letter nonsense syllabus, such as DAX, GUF, and NOK" (p. 132). Unlike Ebbinghaus, Bartlett attempted to student "how we recall things we personally experience" rather than memorizing nonsense. Ehrman's summary of Bartlett's findings is worth citing at length:
When most of us try to conceptualize what it means to remember something that happens to us, we probably have some kind of vague notion that it's like taking a picture with your I-phone. You snap a picture of the moment with your brain, and it's back there somewhere tucked away until you retrieve it. . . . The brain doesn't work like that. Instead, when we experience something, bits and pieces of its memory are storied [sic] in different parts of the brain. Later, when we try to retrieve the memory, these bits and pieces are reassembled. (p. 134)
Ehrman's use of distortion as an antonym for "accurate" or "true" memories, therefore, is unhelpful. Images of the past are transmitted to and actualized in the present through the very distortions that Ehrman treats as corruptions (even inventions) of the past an account claims to remember. This is more than semantic quibbling over the term distortion. This gets us to the heart of the question of how memory works to connect past and present. We can explore this question in reference to Ehrman's work. After summarizing Ulric Neisser's analysis of John Dean's memory of and testimony about conversations during the Watergate cover-up, Ehrman offers the following challenge:
In this instance we are talking about an extraordinarily intelligent and educated man with a fine memory, trying to recall conversations from nine months before. What would happen if we were dealing with more ordinary people with average memories, trying to recall what someone said maybe two years ago? Or twenty? Or forty? Try it for yourself: pick a conversation that you had two years ago with someone—a teacher, a pastor, a boss. Do you remember it word for word? (pp. 146–47)The answer, of course, is no. John Dean struggled to recall any of the facts of conversations in September 1972 and March 1973 in his testimony just a few months later, in June 1973; we simply lack any real basis for assuming that "more ordinary people with average memories" would do better after spans of years.
Even so, Ehrman's presentation of Neisser's findings (which are readily available online and take only minutes to read) is highly problematic. Here is Ehrman's quote of Neisser:
Comparison with the transcript shows that hardly a word of Dean's account is true. Nixon did not say any of the things attributed to him here. . . . Nor had Dean himself said the things he later describes himself as saying. . . . His account is plausible but entirely incorrect. . . . Dean cannot be said to have reported the "gist" of the opening remarks; no count of idea units or comparison of structure would produce a score much above zero. (p. 145; citing Neisser; see p. 107 in the essay linked above)Later, Ehrman provides another lengthy quote:
It is clear that Dean's account of the opening of the September 15 conversation is wrong both as to the words used and their gist. Moreover, cross-examination did not reveal his errors as clearly as one might have hoped. . . . Dean came across as a man who has a good memory for gist with an occasional literal word stuck in, like a raisin in a pudding. He was not such a man. (p. 146; citing Neisser; see p. 110 in the essay linked above)
[Dean's] testimony had much truth in it, but not at the level of "gist." It was true at a deeper level. Nixon was the kind of man Dean described, he had the knowledge Dean attributed to him, there was a cover-up. Dean remembered all of that; he just didn't recall the actual conversation he was testifying about. (p. 110)In fact, Neisser goes further:
We are hardly surprised to find that memory is constructive, or that confident witnesses may be wrong. . . . I believe, however, that John Dean's testimony can do more than remind us of [previous memory research, including Bartlett]. For one thing, his constructed memories were not altogether wrong. On the contrary, there is a sense in which he was altogether right; a level at which he was telling the truth about the Nixon White House. (pp. 113–14)No one reading Ehrman's chapter before reading Neisser's essay would have anticipated this conclusion. Ehrman's selection of quotes has fundamentally altered the point Neisser himself says he is trying to make: that "what seems to be a remembered episode actually represents a repeated series of events, and thus reflects a genuinely existing state of affairs" (my emphasis; from the Abstract).
The biggest problem with Ehrman's distortion of Neisser's research, however, is that it obscures the value precisely of memory's distortions. Dean's testimony conveyed the truth about Richard Nixon, not despite its distortions but precisely through them. As Ehrman rightly notes, Dean did not remember the gist of conversations about which he offered sworn testimony. As Ehrman wrongly ignores, Dean did recall "the common characteristics of a whole series of events" (114). More than this, Neisser recognizes that one of the influences affecting Deans congressional testimony was his preparation beforehand and his likely rehearsal afterwards of details of a conversation, and his testimony about this conversation (on 21 March 1973) reflected the memory of "a set of repeated experiences, a sequence of related events that the single recollection merely typifies or represents" (p. 114; see also p. 111). Neisser calls this repisodic memory (rather than episodic memory), in which "what seems to be an episode actually represents a repetition" (p. 114; original italics).
Come back to Ehrman's original challenge: "pick a conversation that you had two years ago with someone—a teacher, a pastor, a boss. Do you remember it word for word?" (pp. 146–47). Suddenly the challenge is very different. The question is no longer, Can you remember the details of a conversation from two (or twenty, or forty) years ago—the words that were spoken, the appearance of the speaker, the condition of the conversation? Now the question is, Can you recall the broader realities of a conversation from two years ago—the character of the person with whom you were speaking, the kind of give-and-take you might have had with them, and the tenor of a typical conversation? Moreover, imagine that this particular conversation is not one picked merely at random; the conversation you want to remember is one you've remembered repeatedly, before multiple audiences, in multiple circumstances.
Ehrman raises but does not discuss the example of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5–7 (see p. 147). After a declarative sentence informing readers that the Sermon "was recorded about fifty years after [Jesus] would have delivered" it, the paragraph consists of a series of six rhetorical questions. Ehrman's final two questions: "Or did he say something sort of like that on some other occasion—any occasion at all? Which is the gist and which is the detail?" (In an endnote, Ehrman signals that he will return to this example in Chapter 5; see pp. 195–202.) The implication is clear: Neisser's study reveals that none of us are actually able to recall the details of conversations even only months afterward, and so we ought not suppose Jesus said any of the words Matthew records in his famous Sermon.
ἀγαπᾶτε τοὺς ἐχθροὺς ὑμῶν ("Love your enemies"; Matt. 5.44), words even the Jesus Seminar prints in red ("Jesus undoubtedly said this or something very like it"). However, Neisser's study also suggests we should be looking for something else: not the very words of Jesus nor even the gist of what he said, but something true on a deeper (or perhaps "broader") level. Neisser's study, if it's appropriate to apply to Matthew's Sermon (a connection Ehrman himself suggested), raises the possibility that what Matthew says "is essentially correct, even though it is not literally faithful to any one occasion. He [Neisser is referring to John Dean; we are referring to the First Evangelist] is not remembering the 'gist' of a single episode by itself, but the common characteristics of a whole series of events" (Neisser, p. 114). In other words: Yes, Matthew's Sermon on the Mount is a distorted memory, but this distortion is the vehicle that puts us in touch with the Jesus of history; it is not a later interpretation that obscures the historical Jesus and so must first be peeled away.
The rest of the chapter is a surprisingly simplistic discussion of traditional historical Jesus methodology. Ehrman offers two ways to "uncover a distorted recollection of Jesus's life": (i) identifying conflicting accounts in the sources and (ii) simple implausibility (p. 151). Ehrman discusses Jesus' trial before Pilate from both of these angles, and then he examines five additional scenes from the Gospels' accounts of Jesus' final week (the Triumphal Entry, the Cleansing of the Temple, swords in the Garden of Gethsemane, the Barabbas episode, and the rending of the Temple veil), all of which fail one or both of Ehrman's two signs of distorted memory. However, since Ehrman assumes that distorted memory equals false memory, Ehrman is unable even to ask—let alone begin to answer—whether these distorted memories (if we may grant that designation for the sake of discussion) were "right about what had really been going on" even if they were "wrong . . . in terms of isolated episodes" (Neisser, p. 114). In other words, Ehrman misses what's really interesting about memory studies and never goes any further than repeating what he was already saying about Jesus and the Gospels before he took up and read memory research.
Continue to watch this space.
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 1)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 2)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 3)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 4)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 5)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 6)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 7)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 8)