What do I think of Robert McIver’s book published by SBL? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.
McIver’s book on the usage of memory in reporting the events of the Gospels is certainly one worth reading. It is meticulously researched and incredibly thorough in its approach and it even has a nice little appendix at the end that describes life expectancy in the ancient world and if the eyewitnesses would have been around for interview or even rebuttal around the time the Gospels were written.
McIver covers how it is that we form memories and what kinds of things memories are. He also goes into what are known as flashbulb and personal event memories. I will give two examples from my own life. I have clear and distinct (To use Descartes’s term) memories about many events that happened on 9/11. I remember sitting in the chapel at Bible college and seeing a professor come in and tell the speaker to announce we should be praying for the people of New York as a plane just crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers. I’m sure most of us thought it was a tragedy then. I remember hearing afterwards that a second plane had hit the second tower and no one thought it was accidental at that point. I remember being in the lobby watching this all unfold on TV and watching the towers fall. I remember walking around outside and noticing no planes in the sky.
For personal event, I remember well when I got married. I remember that I parked my car at the hotel we would be staying at that evening in the morning and pacing around with my tux while I waited for my best man to pick me up. I remember going to the restroom numerous times before hand to make sure nothing happened. I remember one of my groomsmen telling me how awesome Allie looked. I remember seeing her smile at me during the ceremony. I remember hearing my best man’s excellent toast. I remember riding in the limo. I could go on and on. Now note this does not mean I remember every little detail. There could be some things I get wrong. I certainly will not get the major things wrong. I know it was Allie and not Ashley I married. I know it was in the area of Charlotte and not Charleston. I know it was on July 24, 2010 and not on another date.
This is also something important. It’s quite amusing that the same people who complain that the Gospels supposedly weren’t written by eyewitnesses or don’t contain eyewitness testimony will then come and say that eyewitness testimony can’t be trusted. Is it infallible? Not at all. McIver from his research shows that eyewitness testimony tends to be at least 80% reliable and we often hope to have multiple eyewitnesses to further corroborate claims.
McIver also shows that we can generally guess how much of something will be forgotten but after a few years, many memories do reach a sort of locked-in state. Some secondary details could be iffy, but the primary memory itself will usually stay intact, provided of course that there are no major events such as some head injury of some sort or a debilitating condition that affects memory.
To go beyond this, McIver also has information on collective memory. This takes place in oral societies where stories are told repeatedly back and forth. It is often the gist of the story that is the main focus to get right. Minor details in the story can vary. The main information of the story is usually trusted to a few tradents who oversee the process and make sure the information does not get lost.
At this point, I did have one criticism. We do see a lot on how memory is done today, but I would have liked to have seen more on how memory worked in a pre-Gutenberg culture. We know the ancients prized memory more than we do and that they had better abilities of memorization due to not living in a culture where writing was readily abundant and you couldn’t use post-it notes or cell phones to store your data. You had to keep it all in your memory.
In examining the Gospels, McIver sticks to the synoptics and thinks the little aphorisms of Jesus are where we have the best information. Still, his points also about how events would be memorized are important. While there could be mistakes, we would not expect radical mistakes. You do not see someone who is blind being told to be of good cheer and later on think “Well I really think I saw them regain their sight.”
As you can imagine, McIver builds heavily on the excellent research of Richard Bauckham in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. As I read through, I was wondering what McIver would be thinking if he had written this book after The Lost World of Scripture. The appendix I referred to earlier in this review is also extremely helpful in dealing with claims of many atheistic writers today who do use an argument that eyewitnesses would not be around at that time.
I’m very pleased to see research like this going on and those interested in whether the accounts of Jesus are accurate in the Gospels would be greatly benefited by reading this fine work.