Kevin Randle is a long time UFO investigator and has just posted a really interesting discussion of how a witness’ description of a sighting evolved over time, apparently filling in extra details that never happened except in her memory.
He quotes a quite famous study on how students reacted to the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster of 1986, and their recollections of the event some 3 years later. I’ll quote that segment directly…
What happened to Erenberger [UFO witness] is not all that uncommon, even with events that are considered “traumatic”, and therefore, fixed in memory. Ulric Neisser, who was teaching at Emory University when the space shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986, realized that he had a perfect opportunity to study these sorts of “flashbulb” memories. The day after the disaster, he gave the students in his freshmen psychology class a short questionnaire about the events. He asked them where they were when they heard and how they had heard and other such questions. He then filed the questionnaires for three years.
The students, when they were seniors, were given the same questionnaire about Challenger. He added an additional question, which was about the accuracy of their memories. According to the results provided by Neisser and graduate assistant Nicole Harsh, a quarter of the students didnâ€™t have a single memory that was accurate. In one case, a student said that he had been at home, with his parents, when he heard, though the questionnaire, prepared the day after the explosion, revealed that he had been in class when he learned of the disaster.
More important, however, was the reaction of the students to the proof that their memories were inaccurate. None disputed the accuracy of the statements they had made the day after the event, but one student, when confronted by the discrepancy between what she had written just hours after the explosion and with what she remembered three years later, said, “I still remember everything happening the way I told you. I canâ€™t help it.” She was defending the memories that were clearly an invention in her own mind.
Human memory can be incredibly creative, though – importantly – some of the students had perfect recall. But others, as described, had invented memories that seemed utterly real and couldn’t shake the feeling of reality. But remember there was also a triggering event which created the base memory that was subsequently modified – something real happened (Challenger exploding, bright lights in the sky) and generated an intense emotional reaction, but the vagaries of memory created even more details, that never happened.
So how is this relevent to the Empty Tomb, the cornerstone event of the Christian faith?
A key finding of New Testament scholarship is what’s called The Priority of Mark, that the Gospel of Mark was used by both Matthew and Luke as their primary narrative source for Jesus’s life and teachings. But, interestingly, both added a lot more details to the final act of Jesus’s life, his “Passion”, or Arrest, Trial, Crucifixion, Burial, Empty Tomb, and After. But not the same details, and that’s the puzzle.
Why are they so different? The standard excuse by Inerrantists (people who believe the Bible is 100% accurate) is that the Gospels were written from different points of view, like eye-witnesses to some event see it from different angles. There’s a lot that’s wrong with such a simplistic hand-waving explanation, but as we have seen memory can be quite creative. Mark is usually believed to be first of the three and it also tells us the least about after the Empty Tomb – just a brief vision of angels and a command to go to Galilee as Jesus had told the disciples to before his arrest.
So, by analogy with Challenger and the UFO, the Empty Tomb might have been the trigger, utterly inexplicable, and emotionally loaded.
Matthew tells us that not only did the women see angels, but they also saw Jesus, who reiterated the command. The disciples faithfully went to Galilee and saw Jesus from a mountain top, though some wondered/doubted. That sounds like the kind of embellishment that could follow from a misremembered event.
Luke admits he wasn’t an eye-witness and is only gathering other people’s reports, trying to put the whole affair in order. So whose vague memories is he passing on to us? He knows nothing of appearances in Galilee and speaks of new appearances in Jerusalem itself, as well as on the road.
Then there’s John, who has both a Jerusalem appearance (though no Emmaus Road encounter) and a Galilee appearance (which is oddly like a natural miracle, or two, in Mark.) And John is the only Gospel that claims to be from an eye-witness.
Finally there’s a terse summary of appearances in Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians but they don’t fit in too well with the Synoptics either.
So what triggered all these reports of appearances of a Risen Jesus? And why could no one agree on what they remembered?