The Gospels were not written until several decades after the events included in them. This has been a major point of attack by opponents of Christianity against the truth of the gospel stories.

In the 19th century it was the general understanding that the gospels were written centuries afterwards, however, archaeological research by people such as Sir William Ramsay and discoveries of texts much closer to the time have made such a position untenable.

However, according to several atheists, the 30-70 or so years between the events of Jesus’ ministry and the writing of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John is enough of a window for the stories to be seriously corrupted.

The argument comes down to two issues: oral tradition, and eye-witness memory.

Most people treat memory as basically accurate in recording the past. Dr David Papineau in a recent forum organised by the Centre for Inquiry and the British Humanist Association (check for quote at about 1:45:00), said in contra to such a position:

“Peter Williams said, ‘Well, don’t we have to take it for granted, prior to any empirical investigation, that in general memory is a good guide to facts about the past.’ I think that’s a terrible example. There’s lots of empirical investigation as to whether memory is a good guide to facts about the past and it turns out it’s not a very good guide, in fact it’s a shockingly bad guide, and it’s a terrible thing that people have relied on it so much. There are many people in jail now because courts tend to believe eye-witness testimony even though there’s lots of evidence that eye-witness testimony is wrong. I think – I mean, if I’d have known Peter was going to say this I would have brought the figures, but there’s something like 200 people being released from long-term prison sentences in the United States because of DNA evidence going back to the occasion of their crime many years ago and a significant number of those 200 were in jail because of false eye-witness testimony. So memory in general is not a good guide to the past.”

Dr Papineau is a respected professor of Philosophy, so I’m somewhat surprised that he did not see the irony in using his memory to quote a study to supposedly show the failings of memory. I don’t know which study he was talking about so I can’t judge as to the accuracy of his memory, but surely this shows that despite the rhetoric of memory being “a shockingly bad guide”, he’s quite prepared to rely on it himself. Moreover, he conflates memory with testimony, ignoring the fact that false eye-witness testimony may be due to factors other than the failure of memory (lying witnesses, for example).

Of course we have all experienced times when our memories have deceived us, either by failing to recall, or by recalling incorrectly, however, in the great majority of cases, our memory does recall accurately. Wittgenstein’s Poker is a fascinating story of conflicting accounts of an argument between Wittgenstein and Karl Popper where someone’s memory has obviously not recalled things accurately. Richard Bauckham in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses has a chapter on Eyewitness Memory and points out several markers of authentic memory

  • A memory of a unique of unusual event
  • A memory of a salient or consequential event
  • A memory of an event in which a person is emotionally involved
  • Authentic memories tend to have more vivid imagery
  • Authentic memories tend to include irrelevant details
  • Authentic memories are often not particular about exact dates and time.
  • Even if details are inaccurate, the gist is likely to be accurate
  • Frequently rehearsed memories are more accurately remembered

Bauckham then goes on to see how these factors relate to the gospel stories, and in fact show the gospel stories to be likely to be  recordings of accurate eyewitness memory.