How does the memory research of Elizabeth Loftus on eyewitness testimony affect the credibility of NT documents?

[Created 6/22/97] [Note: May 7, 2002--see also the piece on nonconscious memory influences on miracle stories, at mq9.html]
Someone recently sent me this comment from one of the discussion streams on the net:
Evangelical apologists like McDowell are notorious for assuming that eyewitness reports -- esp. those allegedly found in the New Testament -- must either be truthful or based upon lies. Yet anyone familiar with ongoing, experimental research in psychology on the nature of eyewitness testimony knows that an honest observer can be sincerely wrong. Reflecting on a case in which a Catholic priest had been falsely convicted of armed robbery on the basis of eyewitness testimony -- only later to be acquitted thanks to a confession by the actual criminal -- renown psychologist Elizabeth Loftus writes, "Implicit in the acceptance of this testimony as solid evidence is the assumption that the human mind is a precise recorder and storer of events. Unfortunately it is not.... To be mistaken about details is not the result of a bad memory, but of the normal functioning of human memory. As we have seen, human remembering does not work like a videotape recorder or a movie camera." As D.F. Hall points out, "[N]ew, misleading information is not only added to memory, it actually alters the content of what the subject is able to remember." The upshot is that even honest eyewitnesses who try to be objective may in fact remember misinformation.

The results of experimental research on the nature of eyewitness testimony are especially important when considering the more extravagant empirical claims of the New Testament, yet McDowell makes things easy for himself by assuming that eyewitness testimony should be taken at face value. Factors like the retention interval (how much time was there between the incident and the witness' recollection of that incident?), focus (what captured the attention of the witness?), and especially post-event information (what post-event information could have supplemented the witness' memory?) and unconscious transference (confusing a person seen in one situation with a person actually seen in another situation) are, so far as I know, never addressed by McDowell in any of his writings; yet these are precisely the issues which he needs to deal with if we are to accept as factual the 'eyewitness reports' given in the New Testament and elsewhere.

I am not sure what in these paragraphs is 'new news' to anyone, nor how relevant Loftus' work is to the NT reliability issue, but the issue has certainly come up a bit let's have a look.

My approach here is to:

Throughout the piece I will try to apply this to the gospel accounts (without being TOO detailed and extensive!), to assess relevance to the question at hand--"to what extent is the credibility of the NT modified by these studies?"

(There are numerous studies on Jesus' teaching methods, from both Jewish and Christian circles. For a quick overview, see WWRJ, chapter four: "Jesus as Teacher".)

One can easily see from this list that under the Learning/Teacher model, the disciples were in situations and under instruction that would have optimized their ability to remember the words and deeds of their Lord.

  • Summary: Issues/contributions to 'apologetic' work re: the eyewitness issue and NT credibility.
    1. Most of the studies, information, and conclusions in the book are simply inapplicable to the NT situation.
    2. Most of the factors discussed that DO or MIGHT apply to the NT, support its reliability for accuracy!
    3. Unlike individual test subjects in these studies, gospel production was a collaborative effort, with significant checks-and-balances on the factors discussed by ET.
    4. The gospel production goal was factually-based, composite belief--not uniform memories.
    5. The better model for the disciples as participants is that of learners, not as bystanders or victims.
    6. And actually, even with all the factors operative, the distortion amounts in studies are very, very small. In a detailed study by Loftus and Zanni ("Eyewitness Testimony: The influence of the wording of a question", Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society) using all the 'tampering devices', 85% of the subjects were not misled even about extraneous details (p.86-88).
    7. The presence of the powerful figure of Jesus of Nazareth--admitted by adherents of MOST worldviews as an incredible leader and teacher--would have created a learning environment radically different than simply memory experiments!
    I have to conclude, on the basis of my study, that it is simply incorrect (or perhaps better, "misguided") to use Loftus' research as a reason to reduce the credibility of the NT documents...In fact, if it is relevant AT ALL, then it tends rather to enhance that credibility.

     [Author's note: This book is somewhat dated at this point. I have a more recent and complete summary book on order--Mistaken Identification: The Eyewitness, Psychology, and the Law, by Cutler and Penrod (Cambridge UP:1995). If it contains any additional or more relevant data, I will update this piece at my earliest opportunity.]

    The Christian ThinkTank...[] (Reference Abbreviations)