Richard Bauckham: Gospel Narratives and the Psychology of Eyewitness Memory

The authors of Christ and the Created Order have noted the fact that, although Jesus Christ is in every way central to the Christian faith, christology is usually poorly represented in the science-faith discussion. The New Testament describes a cosmic Christ, who is not only the key to the unfolding new creation through his death, resurrection and glorification, but is also the source and purpose of the old creation - the world that science studies.*

The reviewers here (Daniel Deen and Jon Garvey) endorse this need for a more christological approach. As ever though, the devil is in the detail, and we seek in these chapter reviews to bring our own insights to bear on the views offered in the book.

Richard Bauckham is something of a misplaced chapter in this collection. It is not so much about how Christology may affect our understanding of creation as it is a chance for Bauckham to answer critics of his book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony. It is, however, an example of how closely Christianity understands the relationship between creation and its creator when you reflect upon Bauckham’s thesis that the eyewitnesses were actually observing the walking creator of the universe, an inference he corroborates with the contemporary science of memory. Thus, Bauckham’s piece may not be as out of place as first thought.

Regardless, the chapter is pretty straightforward. Bauckham begins with a humorous account of a personal memory from his childhood. The point is to bring forward that certain memories from our past “stick” better than others due to their exceptionality and the narrative retelling of them over time. These sorts of memories he calls personal event memories (PEM). PEMs are “a memory of a specific event in a person’s past understood to have happened at a specific time and place…that was personally experienced and is remembered as personally experienced” (p. 114). The subjective element is important to highlight. The brain does not seem to work like a camera, taking snapshots of the world, but rather rebuilds images from memory. As we recall events from the past, our brains are actively reconstructing the event. Which raises the primary question of Bauckham’s chapter, are the reconstructions reliable?

Bauckham surveys the conclusions of his book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses on what makes for memorable memories: 1) unique events 2) gist versus fine detail 3) narration over time. He informs the readers in this article that returning to the literature has not caused a reframing of his original conclusion that, generally, human memory is highly reliable. Moreover, the more unusual or unique the event, the more likely it is to be properly remembered, e.g., a person rising from the dead.

Bauckham offers a few reasons to counter the pervasive notion in New Testament studies that memory is too faulty to matter even with the robust findings in the science of memory. First, rarely are types of memories (e.g., PEM) distinguished in the New Testament literature. The impression is that ALL memories fail in the same sorts of ways. However, the psychological literature is more circumscribed and nuanced. Second, the psychological literature focuses on memory failures in highly contrived laboratory experiments. “Such experiments,” argues Bauckham, “bear no statistical relationship to the frequency of memory errors in real life situations” (p. 122). Bauckham points out that most psychological writers are keen to preserve the intuition that our memories are reliable in a majority of situations, despite the negative findings in their laboratory experiments. Third, Bauckham dismisses the possibility that the eyewitnesses had implanted, suggested, or repressed memories. The psychological evidence for such fabricated memories concerns adult memories of childhood and/or relate to mental illness. Again, these sorts of false memories are the outliers, not the norm when it comes to memory processes.

Bauckham concludes with an extended discussion about the unreliability of memory in legal contexts concluding that the research is not as applicable to New Testament studies as usually thought. A legal context/event is much different from a natural context/event. Most eyewitnesses of crimes are not forming PEMs. Moreover, he provides an example of a high visibility crime providing proper conditions for PEMs where witnesses’ memories in a legal context proved highly reliable. It is something of the biblical analogue, “For I am persuaded that none of these things has escaped notice, for this has not been done in a corner” (Acts 26:26 ESV). Bauckham draws the chapter to a close in making a few comments about the current public intellectual climate regarding history and memory. People tend to be naively positivist about history while deeply postmodern about memory. He cautions us to ride this line carefully, reminding us that history is not as simple as it seems and memory is more reliable than often presented.


  1. Bauckham has identified yet another area where the actual scientific results and the public presentation of them are at odds with each other. Peaceful Science is attempting a similar professional/public bridge with the question of origins. What are the characteristics of a good professional/public dialogue?

  2. Bauckham’s book and this chapter are nice confirmations of the trustworthiness of the Gospel eyewitness reports. However, the testimony does include testimony to miracles, especially the raising of Jesus from from the dead. Does the eyewitness testimony provide positive secular evidence to the resurrection of Jesus?

    2a) Is it possible to be a non-Christian and affirm that the evidence suggests that at time (a) Jesus was rotting in a grave and at time (b) Jesus was walking around visiting people? You don’t have to believe in any of what it means just that the evidence seems to indicate that it did happen.

    – I ask as I remember listening to this two-part podcast where Bauckham discusses his work with James Crossley (agnostic NT scholar). At the end of one of the podcasts, Crossley admits that Bauckham’s research is solid but can’t follow the logic because it would require committing to a dead man walking. I am paraphrasing, but it captures the gist of my memory :wink:


It seems to me another factor to consider regarding the eyewitnesses among the Apostles is that all the Apostles suffered death, except John, for retelling this event of Christ’s resurrection. It seems difficult to believe that all 11 would be tortured and be killed for something they knew was a lie. That not one of them would have cracked. I think of Baranabas, skinned alive.

Something they saw between Good Friday and Easter changed these men from those who would hide behind a locked door to those who would travel far and wide telling the story of the resurrected Jesus and suffer horrible deaths for it. They claim they saw Jesus resurrected. I’m inclined to believe them.


I’ve been meaning to say hello @Mlkluther as I saw you pop into the forum a bit ago – Welcome! It’s always nice to see a fellow sojourner of the Lutheran option trying to figure all this origins and science/religion stuff out…

I agree that there are many more factors involved in a historical reconstruction of the death and resurrection of Christ. You mention the torture and death of many of the Apostles, but there is also the women at the tomb. If fabricated, why were the first narratives the testimony of women in a culture that downplayed women’s role in society?


Thank you kindly for the welcome!

Yes, the role of women in the Gospels seems to point to their credibility.

I am intrigued by your question regarding the non-Christian evaluating the evidence of the eyewitness accounts.

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I had noticed a few threads from a while ago that seemed to be trying to figure Lutherans and wondering what the Lutheran option with regard to origins may be. As a theologian I’d like to be a part of that discussion side by side with those who serve in the vocation of the sciences. I find the water gets pretty deep for me quickly with the science discussion and I’m thankful for those who serve in those fields.

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I’m a big fan of Richard Bauckham (a university contemporary), but I too wondered at the relevance of this chapter to the overall theme of the book. My own answer is that it responds to the call made in the previous chapter by N. T. Wright, that our understanding of the world, if it is christological, means that must be based on our understanding of the historical Jesus.

So the reliability of eyewitness testimony is crucial, and Bauckham’s points well-made. On the question of the truth of what he says, that is in itself encouraging - I remember when I was a medic having the unreliability of memory thrown at me by those who put great store by the literature, when I could quite clearly remember events from 40 years before which were confirmed, in the kind of essential details Bauckham puts forward, by newly-acquired videos of the same events.

Peripheral matters like dates, however, can easily be forgotten - but not key events in the lives of people important to one.