The question of eyewitness reliability is a pertinent conversation that every parent will have (or should have) when their child asks, “How do we know that we can trust the Bible?” If the New Testament documents are not reliable, and if the people writing the New Testament documents were not reliable, what leg does our faith have to stand on? If we are basing our lives and our beliefs on a historical document, that document is worth investigating and defending. 'How do we know we can trust the Bible?' is a question EVERY Christian parent will face eventually. Click To Tweet

The latest en vogue critique of New Testament reliability involves something known as “flashbulb memories.” Flashbulb memories are memories which are so surprising and so emotional that they remain etched in our minds forever. (An example would be remembering where you were and what you were doing when you learned about the Twin Towers being hit.) However, flashbulb memories may not be as credible as scientists once thought, according to an Emory University study on recollections of the Challenger explosion. This was Bart Ehrman’s main point of contention during last year’s debate with Justin Bass. However, Rebekah and I felt skeptical about many of Ehrman’s conclusions.

This is part 2 of a series we began a few weeks ago in response to the debate between Dr. Justin Bass and Dr. Bart Ehrman. (You can see part 1 here.) Please excuse the quality of the audio. There was a glitch in the microphone. In this podcast, Rebekah and I discuss the research that was presented by Ehrman at the debate, and lend some perspective on how we should address these arguments with our kids – especially in regards to experimental bias. While I cannot find the original experimental write-up, numerous articles report that essentially half of the once-believed “infallible” flashbulb memories were actually flawed. However, this should naturally leave one asking, “What is the difference between those who had accurate flashbulb memories and those who didn’t?”

Upon further investigation, Rebekah and I discover that that there are two important hallmarks of accuracy in a flashbulb memory. The first hallmark is a close relation between the individual and the event. According to this study discussed in the podcast, the more personally affected individuals were by an event, the more likely they were to remember the event accurately. The disciples were incredibly and personally impacted by the events of the New Testament. Jesus, whom they had followed for years, eaten with daily, studied under, and revered as the Son of God was suddenly arrested, put to death, and appeared to them again resurrected. Afterwards, they were ostracized from their communities, some disowned by their families, and ten of whom were brutally murdered for sticking to this story. None of the examples cited by Ehrman during the debate even remotely addressed the memory differences between people personally affected by a tragedy and those who were just bystanders, and thus his claims are cherry-picked, faulty comparisons.

The second hallmark is regular review of the details of the event. This  appears to be based on Ebbinhaus’ forgetting curve. The research we discussed showed that the amount an individual reviewed material, especially within the first 6 years, was highly correlated with their ability to retain the information. This is also pertinent to the New Testament eye-witnesses. The entire testimony of these men and women hinged on their recounting of events they had witnessed. Many of these witnessed accounts were experienced in groups, and they could rehash events together, correcting one another, reinforcing the memories, and putting them into easy-to-remember creeds to be passed down from person to person. These were not individuals, alone in a vacuum with their memories. These are corporate memories reviewed in a communal setting and within an oral culture.

We have few things in our world with which we can accurately compare this culture. We live in a world of DVRs, YouTube, Facebook, and blogs. We don’t have to remember anything more than the necessary keywords to Google it. To compare our memory in today’s culture with the highly advanced mnemonic memories of oral culture is itself problematic.

Join Rebekah and me as we dive into the question of whether or not flashbulb memory research discredits the eyewitness accounts of the New Testament writers! And if we drop a couple of 10-cent words on you, check out our “unfamiliar vocabulary” section in the notes.

Summary of topics discussed:

  • If you let kids discover Bible variances on their own, they will wonder what else you have kept hidden from them.
  • Differences do not equal contradiction, but they do to the skeptic.
  • Home is where kids should be asking these questions.
  • Flashbulb memory – emotion that etches a memory into your mind.
  • Studies that show that flashbulb memories are not as reliable as previously thought.
  • Challenger explosion study (I am unfortunately yet to locate the original study)
    • 50% memories were accurate and 50% were not.
    • None of them reported that the Challenger did not blow up!
    • If you report 50/50 and you report only on half of the data, that should be a red flag that there is bias – the researchers had a goal.
    • Peripheral details get lost because you are focused on the impact of the event
  • Studies on the Danish resistance by Dorthe Berntsen and Dorthe Thomsen
    • Memories related to Danish occupation 1940 and liberation in 1945
    • People who had closer ties to the resistance remembered the events more accurately.
    • The amount of a person’s investment in the event impacts how accurate a flashbulb memory is!
  • The minor details that are different in the New Testament eyewitness accounts lend credibility to this being actual eyewitness testimony.
  • The church had 2000 years to change these little discrepancies, but the church chose not to, because they were trying to be faithful to the text.
  • If scripture had identical eye-witness testimonies, textual critics would be faulting scripture for being forged because they are too identical – they will find fault either way.
  • Nobody is getting killed for their recollections about 9/11 or the Challenger
  • Another study called Emotion, Memory and Attention quote:
    • “Most of these naturalistic studies suggest that confidence in the ability to accurately remember emotionally charged events is remarkably high, and that these events and contextual details associated with them are recalled with especially high accuracy. Examples of such contextual details are how and when participants first became aware of the event, where they were (event location), what they were doing, and who else was present. Although memory for contextual details may degrade over time, intensity of the initially experienced emotions correlates with recall accuracy.”
  • Individual vs corporate memory – Memories that an individual keeps to themselves vs. memories that are recalled in a group setting over and over again.
    • The church took great pains to corporately preserve these memories through creedal statements and recitation in a community environment.
    • Modern corporate memories – like guys sitting around talking about a famous football catch.
    • They’ll sit around and talk about it, correct each other.
    • None of them are dying for incorrect memories about a football statistic.
  • Another study looked at memory surrounding learning of Spanish words. Most of the forgetting occurred within 6 years, and then after that, memory was stable.
    • Significant correlation was found with how much a person remembered the words and how many times they reviewed the words.
    • New Testament churches were constantly reciting creedal statements, thus “reviewing” the facts over and over, making transmission accurate over a long time.
  • We CAN’T compare our modern culture to an oral culture.
    • Community could help fill in the gaps.
    • If you were taught to memorize things from a young age, that skill would be highly developed.
    • There are closed countries who have entire books of scripture memorized.
  • Sometimes we need to doubt out doubts!

People and resources mentioned:

  • Original Justin Bass/Bart Ehrman debate on “Did the Historical Jesus Claim to be Divine?”
  • Dan Wallace – Dallas Theological Professor – Head of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts (
  • Craig Blomberg – New Testament scholar out of Denver seminary
  • Bart Ehrman – New Testament scholar whose career is predominantly directed towards trying to discredit the New Testament documents. See Intro to Bart Ehrman podcast here.
  • Dorthe Berntson and Dorthe Thomsen– co-researchers on the Danish occupation memory study

Unfamiliar Vocabulary:

  • Cherry-picking – only using evidence that supports your premises/beliefs without including evidence that shows the opposite
  • Confirmation bias – a type of cherry-picking defined as “the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs or hypotheses, while giving disproportionately less consideration to alternative possibilities”
  • Flashbulb memory – detailed photographic-like memory of a moment seared into one’s memory by way of it’s highly emotional and/or surprising nature. (i.e. the moment you heard about the Twin Towers going down)
  • Everyday memory – distinguished from flashbulb memory by lack of intense emotional component. More factually and objectively understood than subjectively.
  • Excommunicated/excommunication – The act of banning individuals from participating in a religious community
  • Blasphemy – often considered the “unforgivable sin” as per Mar 3:28-20. Defined generally as “the act of insulting or showing contempt or lack of reverence to a deity, to religious or holy persons or sacred things, or toward something considered sacred or inviolable” Claiming to be God or claiming to do things that only God is supposed to do (i.e. like forgiving sins) was considered blasphemy according to Jewish law and tradition.
  • Corporate memory (also called communal memory, or collective memory) – the act of a group of 2 or more persons recollecting a memory together, and capable of correcting one another and solidifying the story by each member sharing their recollection. Ex: guys sitting around talking about a famous football game, or people discussing what happened in class, or a movie etc.
  • Oral culture – culture where stories are passed down orally. Often individuals learn pneumonic devices from an early age to aid in retention of story details.
  • Chiasm – where two ideas are listed back to back and in reverse order. For example “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”
  • Parallelisms – “giving two or more parts of one or more sentences a similar form to create a definite pattern, a concept and method” (see examples at the link)
  • Mnemonic device – learning device that aids in memory and retention of information. Ex: from algebra “Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally” showing us the order of operations “Parentheses, exponents, multiplication, division, addition and subtraction.”

Quotable quotes:

  • “In recent years, it has been estimated that over 60% of kids coming from Christian homes abandon the faith by the time they get done with college. It is time for pastors and other Christian leaders to educate the masses about the reality of the transmission of the Bible. If we don’t, the fallout will only get worse.” Dan Wallace from article/blog, Can We Still Believe the Bible?
  • “These gospel writers weren’t thinking, “You know what, in 2000 years they are going to discover this thing about flashbulb memories and the peripheral details are the things that are going to have more discrepancies, so lets make our peripheral details some discrepancies so it sounds more real.” No, this lends authenticity.”

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