Given the frailty of memory, how can we trust in the accuracy of the Gospels?

In her book “The Myth of Repressed Memory,” Elizabeth Loftus describes Ulric Neisser’s experiences with what are called flash-bub memories.  The morning after the shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after take-off,  Neisser asked students at Emory University to write about how they learned about the disaster.  Two and a half years later, he asked the 44 students to recall that same experience.

While most of the students described their memories of the event as vivid, not one of the students gave an account that was completely in accord with their description that was recorded the morning after the Challenger disaster.  And a third of the accounts were widely inaccurate.

One of the students who responded that she believed strongly in the accuracy of her memory reported many inconstancies.  For example, the morning after, she reported that she had been in a religion class when some people walked in talking about the explosion.  Two and a half years later she recalls having heard the news in her dorm room with her roommate while watching TV.

When confronted by the dramatic difference of the two accounts, the students could not accept that their present account was inaccurate.  Even after seeing the written account in their own handwriting, many students insisted that their later account was the more accurate one.

This teaches us a very important lesson on trusting our memories; and more importantly, on trusting the memories of others when making important decisions.  Consider the new testament, which was written about a century after the purported events occurred.   Not only do these texts rely on the memories of individuals, but are prone to transcription errors as the information is passed from person to person.

So how can we be sure of the validity of the new testament?  We are told that God has made ensured perfect transcription.  But on what grounds are we to beleive this is so?  What else, but the New Testament.  Such self-referencing is clearly flawed logic.  The last line of defense of the new testament is the magic catchall phrase, “Faith,” which in the context of its usage is defined as believing in God even when there is no supporting evidence.

Even in the face of evidence against God, we are supposed to believe.  Not a good enough reason for me!

If that is not enough, consider the parallels between the myth of the Egyptian God Horus and the life of Jesus.  The parallels are so close that one can not help but imagine that the writers of the New Testament may have also taken some plagiaristic liberties.  This is a topic for yet another day!

In closing, Sam Harris says it best in his book, “Letter to a Christian Nation.”   “How do we know that our holy books are free from error? Because the books themselves say so. Epistemological black holes of this sort are fast draining the light from our world…”

P.S. It may be more than 22 years after the event, but here are my memories of the Challenger explosion.  At that time, I was working at Bell Labs in Princeton, NJ.  I recall January 28th, 1986 because it was my son’s first birthday.  That day, a few of us from the Princeton Lab drove to the Murray Hill Lab to meet with collaborators.

On our entrance to the building, we passed by a lobby near the cafeteria that had a loud TV showing the explosion, and went to our meeting without stopping to watch.  At the time, we did not know what it was about.  After the meeting, we came upon the same TV, and the Challenger accident was still being played over and over.  I recall the somber mood of all the people that were watching as well as the looks on the faces of my colleagues.  Perhaps I will be quizzed on this event in 22 years to see if my account has changed!

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