More Not Knowing

This article gives a scientific basis for the kind of caution I advocate for historical reasoning. I don’t think the neuroscience entails conclusive evidence of any particular thesis — after all, neuroscience had underwritten the “assured results” that preceded the new synthesis that Discover reports here — and anecdotal evidence abounds for the unreliability of memory.
Still, biblical scholarship plays for such very high stakes that historians assert firmly and loudly that such-and-such a thing definitely happened (or not) in such-and-such a way, quite disregarding the extent to which all memory changes in the process of recollection and preservation. Even if we could be sure that apostolic eyewitnesses transmitted verbatim instructions to diligent tradents, up to the point at which someone wrote them down — and we can’t — the apostles’ memories themselves would have been malleable.
We historians still have a basis for well-founded judgments about more or less likely courses of events. But please, please, let’s back down from the egregiously overconfident claims about ancient history. The stronger the claim to certainty we make, the surer we are to be wrong.

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