Human memory is a curious thing. We are constantly learning more about how our brains work, the connections it makes, and how we come to believe what truth really is.

Jesus Before the Gospels,” by Bart Ehrman is a well-researched with note to go do my own research. Erhman spent two years researching and speaking to psychologists, anthropologists and sociologists about how memories work and how the earliest Christians “remembered, changed, and invented their stories of the savior.”

Erhman gathers biblical and extra-biblical texts and applies what he learned about human memory to the texts to determine if certain things actually happened.

I was intrigued to see how the stories of Jesus came to be. I have long since accepted he was not a messiah, god, or miracle worker, but I was curious to see if the early writers had purposely distorted the stories. What I found as I was reading was far more about memories in general.

Erhman says many memory experts argue memories are always distorted. Since the brain is not a video camera, it records selected bits of what happens. Those parts are then stored in different parts of our brain. When we recall a particular memory, the brain must reconstruct it. Therefore, the memory is never one of the original events, but a distorted memory. In this sense, distortion is not a negative term.

As time goes on, our memories become distorted, but not because of anything we do on purpose.

Leading memory expert Elizabeth Loftus and her colleague Katherine Ketcham reflect on this issue: “Are we aware of our mind’s distortions of our past experiences? In most cases, the answer is no. As time goes by and the memories gradually change, we become convinced that we saw or said or did what we remember.”

In the article, “John Dean’s Memory: A Case Study,” Ulric Neisser wrote about two specific conversations Dean had with President Richard Nixon. The conversations were recorded, which provided an opportunity to see how memory works.

Neisser argues that it is all about “filling in the gaps,” the problem I mentioned earlier with respect to F. C. Bartlett. Dean was pulling from different parts of his brain the traces of what had occurred on the occasion, and his mind, unconsciously, filled in the gaps. Thus he “remembered” what was said when he walked into the Oval Office based on the kinds of things that typically were said when he walked into the Oval Office. In fact, whereas they may have been said on other occasions, they weren’t on this one. Or he might have recalled how his conversations with Nixon typically began and thought that that was the case here as well, even though it was not. Moreover, almost certainly, whether intentionally or subconsciously, he was doing what all of us do a lot of the time: he was inflating his own role in and position in the conversation: “What his testimony really describes is not the September 15 meeting itself but his fantasy of it: the meeting as it should have been, so to speak. . . . By June, this fantasy had become the way Dean remembered the meeting.”

These comments are dealing with just our own personal memories. What about a report, by someone else, of a conversation that a third person had, written long afterward? What are the chances that it will be accurate, word for word? Or even better what about a report written by someone who had heard about the conversation from someone who was friends with a man whose brother’s wife had a cousin who happened to be there—a report written, say, several decades after the fact? Is it likely to record the exact words? In fact, is it likely to remember precisely even the gist? Or the topics?

My first editor, Steve Frederick, always told me to write the story as soon as possible after the interview or else you will forget the details. This was especially true during the “Pride” section the Star-Herald published every Saturday in March.

These were profiles on people and businesses assigned in addition to our regular stories. Regardless of whether I hand-wrote or typed the interview, if I did not write the story within a day or so, vital details had begun to fade.

If I waited too long, my story might just say, “Irene sat in her chair and told her story.” If I wrote the story soon after the interview, the story might say, “Irene leaned back in her black and blue computer chair and sighed deeply. A partially broken fan blew cool air across her lap. She moved the hair away from her face and began to retell how she got here.”

Both accounts are accurate, but one is lacking in detail.

During their extensive interviews of Yugoslavian singers, which included listening to them perform oral epic poetry, Milman Parry (1902–35), a scholar of classics and epic poetry at Harvard, and his student Albert Lord (1912–91) found each time the oral is recited, it changes, while the “gist” of the story remains mostly the same. Through oral performance, there is “no such thing as the ‘original’ version of a story, or poem, or saying.”

According to Ehrman, “Whoever performs the tradition alters it in light of his own interests, his sense of what the audience wants to hear, the amount of time he has to tell or sing it, and numerous other factors. And so, as a result, the one who sings the tales is at one and the same time the performer of the tradition and the composer.”

Sometimes, even the same story by the same person is different.

Social anthropologist Jack Goody has noted that when Milman Parry first met a singer named Avdo, he took down by dictation a lengthy song that he performed called “The Wedding of Smailagiæ.” It was 12,323 lines long. Some years later Albert Lord met up with Avdo again, and took down a performance of “the same” song. This time it was 8,488 lines. Parry himself observed this phenomenon. He one time had Avdo sing a song performed by another singer, named Mumin. Avdo strongly insisted it was the same song. His version was nearly three times as long.

In addition to being a factual writer, I am also a storyteller. My stories can be delivered orally or in written form. I conducted an experiment on myself to see how my own memory works. In 2018, I wrote a story about getting a speeding ticket. I wrote the story again a few weeks ago.

The stories are different lengths and provide different details. Both are accurate. Both are different. When I tell the story, like Avdo, sometimes there are time constraints. I can recite the story in five to thirty minute versions. Each is original in their own sense. There is no “original” to my story.

French philosopher and sociologist Maurice Halbwachs (1877-1945) argued in “On Collective Memory” in 1925 that memory constructs the past and recalls traces of what happened by filling in the gaps with similar bits of information from your memory.

For example, if you remember a gathering one evening long ago in your family home, you will reconstruct that memory not only by calling back to mind precisely what happened on that occasion, but also by filling in the many gaps of your memory by recalling—inadvertently—the things that typically happened on such social occasions. In that act of reconstruction, you will often confuse one set of events for another. When it comes to a memory of this sort, “We compose it anew and introduce elements borrowed from several periods which preceded or followed the scene in question.”

One of my most graphic and intense memories is of a time when I was raped when I was alone at my grandmother’s house. For decades, the fact that I cannot remember minor details of the incident have plagued my mind. I wondered whether or not the rape could be real because I couldn’t remember the entire details of every single detail.

Two minor details I still can’t remember is the color of the couch and the color of the garbage can. During my lifetime, my grandmother had green couches and red couches. I remember her green garbage can, but not the color of the one she had before that.

Whenever I have a flashback of that time, I only see the green garbage can. The couch is always vague. As Erhman wrote, and many psychologists have studied, my brain is no different in this sense than others.

I remember the most traumatic aspects of the rape, including the physical and emotional pain, but my brain has filled in the gaps where it can for the minor parts, such as whether the television was off or on, what items were on the couch or if there were no items at all, what color the couch was, what color the garbage can was, etc.

Repeated flashbacks have solidified certain elements of the assaults I endured. The bits that are fuzzy have either remained fuzzy or my brain has tried to fill in the gaps. It doesn’t mean it never happened.

Ehrman agrees.

And there is more to life, and meaning, and truth than the question of whether this, that, or the other thing happened in the way some ancient text says it did.

In my view, the early Christian Gospels are so much more than historical sources. They are memories of early Christians about the one they considered to be the most important person ever to walk the planet. Yes, these memories can be recognized as distorted when seen from the perspective of historical reality. But—at least for me—that doesn’t rob them of their value. It simply makes them memories. All memories are distorted.

When we reflect on our past lives, when we remember all that has happened to us, all the people we have known, all the things we have seen, all the places we have visited, all the experiences we have had, we do not decide, before pondering the memory, to fact-check our recall to make sure we have the brute facts in place. Our lives are not spent establishing the past as it really happened. They are spent calling it back to mind.

The truth is that most of us deeply cherish our memories: memories of our childhood, of our parents, of our friends, of our romantic relationships, of our accomplishments, of our travels, of our pleasures, of our millions of experiences. Other memories, of course, are terribly wrenching: memories of pain, of suffering, of misunderstandings, of failed relationships, of financial strain, of violence, of lost loved ones, of yet millions of other experiences.

When we reflect on our past lives, when we remember all that has happened to us, all the people we have known, all the things we have seen, all the places we have visited, all the experiences we have had, we do not decide, before pondering the memory, to fact-check our recall to make sure we have the brute facts in place. Our lives are not spent establishing the past as it really happened. They are spent calling it back to mind.

Ehrman wondered if it mattered if Jesus delivered the famous Sermon on the Mount as it is written in Matthew 5-7. Historically, yes. Ehrman also recognizes that if it did not, it doesn’t make the story any less powerful. He goes one step further to say it is one of the “greatest accounts of ethical teaching in the history of the planet.”

He brings up other topics discussed throughout the book, concluding each time, historically it is significant to remember these events as they happened, but given the knowledge of how memory works, remembering the “gist” of the story is also okay.

Memory can certainly be studied to see where it is accurate and where it is frail, faulty, or even false. It should be studied that way. It needs to be studied that way. I spend most of my life studying it that way. But it should also be studied in a way that appreciates its inherent significance and power. Memory is what gives meaning to our lives, and not only to our own personal lives, but to the lives of everyone who has ever lived on this planet. Without it we couldn’t exist as social groups or function as individuals. Memory obviously deserves to be studied in its own right, not only to see what it preserves accurately about the past, but also to see what it can say about those who have it and share it.

Personally, I am caught between being historically accurate and living with the memories which are only partially there. I remember a few traumatic events in detail. Even then, there are gaps. In truth, I am only now beginning to see where my need for historical accuracy in my own memories is a hindrance for my healing in overcoming years of childhood trauma.

My mind went through incredible stress during my formative years. The full details will never be there. It doesn’t mean none of it happened. It did and it has a powerful effect on my life today.

Those horrific memories are significant to me and I need to appreciate the fact that, under duress, my brain protected me from certain memories and strengthened others.

Erhman’s book is an intriguing look at historical accuracy and how human memory works. The book didn’t convince me of a messiah. It did provide me with insight into my own mind and ideas in which to quit “beating myself up” over minor things that probably don’t even exist in my mind anymore.