From the Gospel of Luke:
Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Luke 1:1-4 – September 25, 2012)
“Just as they were handed on to us . . . .” Those eight words from the introduction to Luke’s Gospel are often overlooked; in fact, I’d be willing to bet there are members of the church who’ve never heard or read them! The prologue to Luke’s Gospel is a very formal, brief, and somewhat vague introduction, but these eight words may be the most important in it. They ought to be heard as a caution to those who would treat this (or any Gospel) as absolute truth; Gospels are not histories, nor are they eyewitness accounts. As the writer makes clear, it was someone else who witnessed the things he writes about; he learned them because they were “handed on” and because he has done his research.
Not that eyewitness testimony would be all that great! As a former trial lawyer, I can verify from personal experience that eyewitness evidence is notoriously unreliable. This is because human beings don’t actually remember what we see; we reconstruct what we believe we have seen. Memory is a reconstruction, not a record. Research has shown that memory traces are, at best, highly impoverished versions of the original perception. Eyewitnesses often have insufficient information in their memories, so they reconstruct events adding pieces of information from other sources. There are two main sources of additional information: 1) pre-existing stereotyped mental models of objects and events, and 2) other memories. When people recognize a situation, either in perception or in memory, they invoke the most applicable steretypical model, or another similar memory, and unconsciously fill in missing information in order to complete the picture. This is why two eyewitnesses will describe an event in very different ways. This (in part) is why there are four Gospels, each telling Jesus’ story in a different way.
So even though Luke “investigated everything carefully from the very first,” his Gospel cannot be taken as 100% historical fact; none of the Gospels can. That’s no reason not to read them, study them, read, mark, and inwardly digest them. But it is a reason not to beat other people over the head with them. The Gospels are part of the story “handed on to us” and like Luke, we have to do our research and do our best to discover the truth.
Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.