Memory, Jesus, and the Synoptic Gospels

By Robert K. McIver. 2012. Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers. 241 pages. ISBN: 9789004202566 (hard cover). Price: 135.00 (hard cover).


Reviewed by James Stahl, Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics.

[Review length: 1517 words • Review posted on February 27, 2013]


Robert McIver addresses the topic of the memory of the authors of the New Testament Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. He uses models from various cognitive and biblical scholars on how reliable these texts are for current readers. How well did the eyewitnesses remember the events? Did the authors get the story accurately? What factors might have biased and influenced the authors' memories?

McIver divides his book into two parts, Personal and Collective Memory, and Jesus Traditions as Memory. He looks at the reliability of eyewitness accounts of a variety of events, collective memory, and what parts of the Synoptic Gospels lend themselves to being remembered well. Memories of events tend to change quickly and then, after a period of three to five years, level out. Since these Gospels were written perhaps twenty or so years after their occurrences, it is worth looking at what happens to stories remembered after many years. How can research on long-term memory help us understand the development of these stories? McIver notes studies where people can remember events from twenty or more years berfore very well, and suggests that through collective groups and their memory, they can remember roughly 80% of the events accurately. However, McIver rejects the argument from theologians like Bultmann and Dibelius who suggest that these Gospels do not reflect what happened, but represent the views of the early church leaders who were not eyewitnesses and who only wrote to address issues within their current context, their Sitz im Leben.

Some non-narrative genres in the Gospels, such as parables and aphorisms, lend themselves to being remembered almost verbatim by the teacher's followers. McIver notes that teachers of the time would have coached their students and followers to learn their teachings and to repeat back to them what they learned in order to assess their understanding. This premise of learning to perform the story for the teacher before telling it to an audience is important to biblical storytellers today. Listening to a biblical text performed helps the audience to understand how that particular story might have been received by the original audiences, but this is getting off the point of the book.

McIver helps the reader to gain a realistic perspective of how these biblical stories developed and circulated orally and that not all of the biblical writings are to be considered equally memorable. Actual events seem to have the most variation, whereas stories told for teaching purposes, parables, had little variation. Given that the writers of the Synoptic Gospels each had different perspectives and points they wanted to make in their narratives, it is quite remarkable that they are similar. Mark is the briefest of the three Gospels, and Matthew and Luke seem to have different audiences in mind.

In chapter 1 McIver looks at eyewitness memory. One would assume if someone was eyewitness to something they would remember things exactly as they happened. Such is not the case, and McIver discusses two case studies that show some basic characteristics of eyewitness memory. Eyewitness memory, he concludes, varies from individual to individual. He cites Kelber, who states that remembering something accurately is not to remember it verbatim. The way a story is told depends on the situation and the audience.

McIver addresses the transience and reliability of long-term memory in chapter 2. Most human memory is transient (21) and what we do remember is largely a reconstruction of what happened. Even if we tell the same story again, it will change depending on our circumstances, audience, and what we are thinking about at the time. McIver looks at various frailties of human memory, yet despite these, he concludes, based on research available, that "details offered by eyewitnesses are likely to be 80 percent accurate." Psychological studies on memory are plentiful, but few focus on memories over twenty to fifty years old. What the many studies point out is that "forgetting curves are very regular for many types of memory" (29).

Roger Schank, as cited in Franklin (2010:14), also looks at memory and storytelling, and suggests storytelling helps us to remember the event:

"'Creating a story is a memory process, so if we do not tell the story soon enough, --the experience cannot be coalesced into a gist since its component pieces begin to mix with new information that continues to come in" (Schank 1990:115). We tell stories to remember them and telling a story makes it happen again. Schank distinguishes between a story based on memory and one passed on as a generalized event. The use of scripts is essential because we have a general storehouse of information in our memory but need to break up our daily experiences into component parts. Story-based memory contains memory encapsulating general world knowledge. Our memory expresses our worldview, but this depends upon telling and retelling our stories over a lifetime. Telling dreams, for example, is a way of remembering them."

Karl Franklin also comments on storytelling and memory, citing Haven:

"'So what do we remember? We remember the gist of something and our interpretation of it. --Experiences not framed into story suffer loss in memory' because story structure enhances and improves memory of content (Haven 2007:69). People never capture anything literally, because it is filtered through their experiences."

In chapter 3 McIver looks at personal-event memories, especially memories surrounding significant events, i.e., WW2, and JFK's assassination, where a person remembers and can see where they were at the particular point in time, or flashbulb memories involving very emotive events. However, flashbulb memories are not any more accurate than memories of regular events despite what the name suggests (49). Pillemer argues that flashbulb memories are a "subset of a wider type of memory that he calls 'personal event memories'" (49). Pillemer makes the distinction between sensory memory and narrative memory. In conclusion, McIver notes that studies like Pillemer's agree that personal event memories are not remembered perfectly, but the storyteller sufficiently remembers the gist of the event.

In chapter 4 McIver looks at suggestibility and bias in memory, which reminds me of the start of Luke's Gospel, where he made a concerted effort to interview, collect accounts, and render an accurate account of Jesus' life and ministry (Luke 1). While the memory of individuals is open to bias and such, McIver concludes that collective accounts of eyewitnesses "preserved the gist of the situation described" (80).

Chapter 5 looks at collective memory, a useful and slippery term coined by sociologists, but also used broadly by historians and folklorists. At times the present situation determines the importance of what is remembered. McIver notes that Lincoln's history became popular late, in 1908-09, when the USA was "looking outward" (90). The community that owns the narrative or story usually has a shared set of values and references that shape the story and what is important to it. Likewise, the "collective memory of a group such as the earliest followers of Jesus can give it cohesion and identity" (94).

In chapter 6 McIver looks at models from several Bible scholars, dismissing the arguments from Bultmann and Dibelius as going too far, the two concluding that the Gospels as we have them do not reflect the teachings and life of Jesus, but are solely accounts concocted by early church leaders to fit their situation and current issues. McIver also points to a group of scholars who suggest that Jesus coached his followers to memorize his teachings, such as students learning oral Torah. Kenneth Bailey offers yet another model of informal controlled oral tradition where parables, teachings, stories, and other lore are performed and passed along in a community setting and in regular frequent informal meetings. Dunn elaborated on Bailey's model in which Jesus' teachings would have quickly been preserved in informal communal gatherings.

In chapter 7 McIver picks up on pericopes as short memorable forms that were probably crafted by communities and eyewitnesses. These pericopes are consistent with episodic memory.

In chapter 8 McIver looks at memory frailties and the Gospel traditions and suggests that the inconsistencies between the gospels are in keeping with human memory and the writers' perspectives and what was known of Jesus. Each Gospel writer had a point to make and a style. The writers reflected their communities' values, knowledge, and traditions, and they wrote considering their audiences' frames of reference.

In chapter 9 McIver looks at Jesus the teacher and the teaching traditions of the day and how these combined with collective memory. "These processes eventually would have led to the formation of a relatively well-defined body of oral tradition about Jesus and his teachings from which the Evangelists could draw as they shaped the available traditions into the Gospels" (182).

Chapter 10 is the conclusion of this book and adds that despite human memory frailties one should not expect to find radical change in the Gospel narratives.

McIver gives Bible scholars, storytellers, folklorists, and people interested in long-term collective memory a well-written reference, and something that should spur further research into these topics.

Work Cited

Franklin, Karl. 2010. Loosen Your Tongue: An Introduction to Storytelling. Dallas, TX: Graduate Institute of Linguistics.