Lecturer’s book gives confidence in Bible writers
Dr John Cox
Avondale College of Higher Education
Cooranbong, New South Wales, Australia
An Avondale academic and theologian has written a scholarly book that gives fresh confidence in the authenticity of the Bible’s Gospel narratives.
The teachings and deeds of Jesus were preserved in human memory for perhaps 30-60 years before they were written in the Gospels, a fact that has led many to question the reliability of the books. But Associate Professor Robert McIver’s Memory, Jesus and the Synoptic Gospels brings a new dimension to the debate by using the insights from more than a century of psychological experimentation to argue the reliability of the memories underlying the Gospels.
Psychological evidence discussed in the book reveals eyewitness memory is generally trustworthy, despite variations in the recollection of details. While recollection of detail declines during the first three to five years after an event, it is still about 80 per cent accurate. Memory remains relatively stable for the next 20 or more years, with only slight decline thereafter. Memory is further enhanced when eyewitnesses share their recollections, as Jesus’ followers would have done as they discussed His deeds and teachings.
Rob argues the strong social cohesion known to exist in first-century Mediterranean groups, and visible in the book of Acts, would have resulted in strong collective memories of Jesus. While the present needs and interests of groups do shape what is remembered and the group’s sense of what is significant, there are limits to such shaping, especially when eyewitnesses are still present. Radical change that is inconsistent with reality is almost never found in such circumstances.
According to Rob, the repeated references in the Gospels to Jesus as teacher suggests a further reason for confidence in these texts. Teaching methods in Greek, Roman and Jewish cultures emphasised repetition and memorisation to ensure students mastered the main content of their lessons. As a teacher, Jesus, too, would have schooled His disciples thoroughly in the things He wanted them to remember, and the disciples would have passed these things on to their converts – a process giving added confidence in the reliability of the information about Jesus current in the early Christian communities and recorded in the Gospels.
A second book, Mainstream or Marginal: the Matthean Community in Early Christianity, also uses the Gospel as its focus. Rob constructs a profile of the community behind the Gospel of Matthew by investigating content unique to Matthew’s Gospel together with insights from sociology and studies of oral and writing-based cultures. The book argues the Matthean community was likely to be mainstream in early Christianity, not marginal.
Rob explores the community’s relationship to both Judaism and Christianity. On the one hand, the community had a high regard for law, practising Sabbath observance and the distinction between clean and unclean foods, but it also viewed its members as saved sinners who should conduct themselves in a manner appropriate to those who await the soon return of their Lord.