Baker Academic

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Memory and the 'Car Accident' Example Revisited

One of the favorite clichés of teachers who teach the fourfold Gospel tradition is this old chestnut: Imagine an event involving a car accident. Now imagine that four different people see the event, each from four different perspectives. Inevitably, you will end up with four different stories, each with a variance of (good, bad, ugly) details. Some details will be deceits. Some will be facts. And no one person has the whole story. Such it is with the four canonical accounts of Jesus' life.

I've always found this explanation of "memory" within the Gospels to be naive and misleading. (1) Nobody should assume that the authors of Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John were "eyewitnesses" in the way that the four car-accident-event perspectives would be. We may debate the importance of eyewitness testimony for the composers of these Gospels. But authorship by eyewitnesses cannot be assumed. (2) This analogy robs the composers of these Gospels of their creative genius—as if the narrative aspects of these stories are lies, damned lies, and statistics. I.e. the purpose of these compositions was not to give a police report. (3) The usual bottom line of this analogy is that the stable core of this event (that a car accident occurred) will be the same in every version of the event. While there is truth to this point—no eyewitness e.g. is going to claim to have seen a tennis match rather than a car accident—it fails to address the purpose of the interviewer. The police report of this event intends to get the details right, not the general gist of the thing. Everyone knows that a car accident happened, but we want to know more (why did it happen, how did it happen, who is at fault?). The gist is not enough if indeed we are interested in reading the Gospels closely.

But last week a good friend was in a car accident and I got to revisit the analogy from a new angle: that of compositional authority. My friend was hit head-on by another car with such speed and force that she was whiplashed and dazed. She never lost consciousness but her memory of the event was dubious. I met her at the hospital soon after and talked to the police officer who documented the accident. Whereas she told me that there was no police officer on the scene before she was ambulanced away, the officer assured me that (1) not only was he there, (2) he spoke with her and took her statement. Nothing too interesting here. Such discrepancies are to be expected.

What I found interesting was the problem of authority. At the scene of the accident the officer relied on the testimony of the eyewitnesses to get an overview of the details and construct an official narrative: the police report. He accounted for the relative and incomplete testimonies and the remaining artifacts. But as soon as he wrote his report—in fact within minutes of the event—the eyewitnesses were no longer authoritative. Moreover, all involved agreed on this social arrangement. After relying on eyewitness testimony, the witnesses themselves relied on the officers account as the authoritative narrative: because he had the big picture which made sense of all the different perspectives.

Days later my friend mentioned to me that she would like to read the police report to find out what really happened. She wanted to hear the bigger picture, the one she couldn't get from her own limited perspective. So she, an eyewitness, conceded authority to the police report, a document composed by man who did not himself see the accident.

This is where the social memory theorist will want to pay attention. The interesting thing is not that details vary. The interesting thing is that our social arrangements force us to concede authority to an external artifact that was composed by an authoritative collector of facts jointly perceived and reported. Importantly, it is the composition of a non-eyewitness that frames all subsequent debate about the event.


  1. And the three layer 'witnesses' are not independent, but all are dependent on the first 'witness' account - and perhaps decades later. The analogy is basically a non-starter. And yet, people of a certain persuasion love it.

  2. This is a most interesting post, thanks, and your police report example is very useful. You say: "our social arrangements force us to concede authority to an external artifact that was composed by an authoritative collector of facts jointly perceived and reported."

    How do you think that statement applies to the four gospels? Obviously you and I today have no option but to go to the gospels because the eyewitnesses are long gone. But do you think that process happened during the first century? Does such a process "contaminate" some eyewitness evidence?

    1. Whatever process was at work in the first century, it was complex, interwoven, branching, converging, snowballing, retracting, progressing, and looping back.... and most important, most of the memories were lost down the river into to oblivion. On the other hand, that's how all social memory works.

      Glad you placed "contaminate" in scare quotes, unkleE (are you related to Eazy or Sheila?). Because "contaminate" assumes that there is something like "pure" reality, perception, or memory. There is not.


    2. Thanks for replying. I don't know Eazy or Sheila, but since much of my family history is a mystery I am currently working on, who knows?

  3. I think that the analogy is a reasonable place to start, because it starts with the concrete experiences of the people you're working with and Bruner's work in education theory says that this is a good place to start. The problem is when you say "and composing the gospels was exactly like that". Because it wasn't, but it started with a similar situation, in that something happened that was eyecatching for many people and changed the lives of some.

  4. I would like to relate a personal experience that I think might give some insight.

    I once testified in court as a witness to a car accident. The police officer had given his interpretation of the events, first. I knew that his narrative was wrong. I could have flat out contradicted him, had I chosen to do so. Instead, I simply stated what I saw, which left enough wiggle room for the magistrate to ignore the contradiction and wonder what was up. As I (and probably the officer) hoped, the magistrate focused on the common facts of our stories and came to the conclusion of who was at fault.

    I understood why the officer gave a semi-false story. The person at fault had told the officer that I was at fault for the accident, even though I had merely stopped after the accident to see if I could help and to be a witness. Meanwhile, the other car involved in the accident had driven off, even though they were not really at fault, it was a teenage driver who didn't want to get in trouble with his parents. When the officer saw that there was no damage to my car, he realized that the person at fault had been lying. He eventually tracked down the other driver (from an anonymous witness, I guess), and in order to protect him - and me - changed the narrative.

    But the person at fault stayed at fault, regardless of which narrative the magistrate accepted. It makes me wonder about some of the events in the Gospels, that seem to contradict each other. Perhaps we - just like the magistrate - should concentrate on the events that are told in common.