Yes, People Can Have Good Memories
Feb 14, 2011 by Craig Blomberg | 1 Comments
“For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” (2 Peter 1:16, updated NIV)
We just finished a very enlightening and well-attended conference on campus on The Holocaust and the Bible last Thursday and Friday. Both through film and live autobiography, we were reminded again how well elderly people’s memories can preserve details of riveting events that occurred even 60-70 years earlier. It won’t be too much longer before all living survivors of the Holocaust will have passed away and it will be up to the generation of their children to preserve the most important memories.
The author of 2 Peter was on the verge of death, too, when he penned this epistle. Verse 15 speaks of his coming “departure” (Greek, exodus), a term that in this context most naturally refers to his death. He alludes to his experience of Christ’s transfiguration in verse 16, an event seen only by the inner core of Jesus’ three closest disciples, Peter, James and John (Mark 9:2). We know that the Transfiguration is in view because of 2 Peter 1:17-18, which describe the words of the heavenly voice that were uttered on that occasion “on the sacred mountain” (v. 18).
Ironically, the authorship of 2 Peter has been more disputed throughout the history of the church than any other letter to which a claim for authorship is actually attached in the text of the document itself. (The Gospels, for example, nowhere refer to who wrote them; the titles, The Gospel according to . . .” were probably first created when the four were brought together into a codex, in order to distinguish one from the others.) In fact 2 Peter is the only New Testament document containing a claim for authorship in the text itself where there was dispute about its accuracy already in the early centuries of church history. 1 Peter is among the most polished Greek of the New Testament, while 2 Peter is far more rugged. Of course, one possible explanation is that Peter employed a scribe to help him write 1 Peter, as ancient writers regularly did, and gave him the freedom to help him improve his style, whereas 2 Peter was the best Peter, an ex-Jewish fisherman who had spent a couple decades in the Greek-speaking half of the empire, could do on his own. There are other plausible suggestions as well.
At any rate, our author, whom I will continue to call Peter, has vivid memories of the Transfiguration and the very words he heard come from heaven. We shouldn’t be surprised. Peter was martyred, reasonably good early church tradition tells us, during Nero’s pogrom of A.D. 64-68, so this letter had to have been written during that period. 1 Peter can fairly precisely be dated to a year or two before the onset of the first imperially authorized persecution of Christians. In other words, even on the earlier and more commonly accepted date for the crucifixion of Christ in A.D. 30 (the other date is 33), Peter is reflecting on events that can’t have been more than forty years earlier and perhaps slightly less. If Jesus died in his mid-thirties, and his disciples, as was customary, were slightly younger than him, Peter was at most in his early seventies and maybe up to a decade younger than that.
I am not yet close to Peter’s age when he wrote 2 Peter, though at 55, I can definitely think back forty years. Forty years ago this month was when I prayed in my bedroom to receive Christ, after coming home from a Campus Life/Youth for Christ club meeting that my best friend had first invited me to at the start of the previous fall. I had been going regularly during this, my sophomore year of high school, and although I had been raised in the Lutheran church by faithful Christian parents, I could not honestly say that I had seen Sunday School and confirmation classes take any real roots in my peers, except perhaps among the girls. And our class of eighth-grade confirmands had been unusually dominated by boys, who came because their parents made them, but didn’t seem to take the process very seriously. At Campus Life it was completely different. I saw kids my age who had a real and life-changing relationship with Jesus and I wanted what they had.
I have never gone out of my way to try to remember for posterity lots of details from that year. I took no notes, wrote no diaries, nor did I at any later time while the memories were fresher than they are today. Still, I could tell you the names of a dozen of the key club members to whom I was closest and the name of our club leader. I could give an accurate sampling of the kinds of activities we participated in and topics we talked about at club meetings. I can recite all the names of my high school teachers and the topics that they taught, although one of the reasons I can do that (and do it for other levels of my schooling) is because my dad, one of my high school (Spanish) teachers, one challenged me to commit that information to memory and rehearse it periodically! But I’ve never written it down anywhere. I can certainly recite key conversations I had with people that year—particularly the most dramatically negative and positive ones, particularly when they are stories I have frequently told to others over the years, including in my preaching and teaching. If my high school were razed to the ground, I could still reconstruct from memory the locations and floors of most of the departments throughout the school, especially since when I was in the early grades, my mom would take me after I got home from school (a five-block walk) to pick my dad up from school in our family’s one car and at a certain age he allowed me to wander the halls if he was still busy with students until he was ready to leave. So I had explored every nook and cranny of the building for years.
I make absolutely no claim to special inspiration in any of these memories. So even those who don’t believe the biblical writers were divinely inspired should be a little less skeptical about what Peter might have remembered for forty years. He had probably shared much of what he remembered with his companion, John Mark, when Mark produced his Gospel earlier that same decade (again according to reasonably reliable early church tradition).
I recently debated a fellow New Testament professor from another seminary in town on the reliability of the Gospels. During the question and answer time, one student at the university where we were speaking asked my conversation partner, “If my grandfather tells me stories that he vividly remembers after forty to sixty years or more, and I have no reason to doubt him, why should we be so skeptical of the Gospel writers after similar periods of time?” The answer the other professor gave wandered around but basically boiled down to suggesting to the young man that perhaps he should doubt his grandfather. Of course, there could be settings in which that would be appropriate advice, but as a general strategy it simply won’t do.