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Flying Saucers and Gospels

By WizenedSage (Galen Rose) ~

I watched a very interesting TV program recently on the Military Channel titled, “Unsolved History: Roswell.” It dealt with three of the earliest UFO stories of the late 1940s. The show’s approach was to recreate the conditions of the original sightings as closely as possible in order to produce plausible explanations for what actually happened, what the people involved actually saw, without the flying saucers.

One segment of the show dealt with the famous Roswell incident of 1947. In it, a farmer in Roswell, NM discovers what appears to be wreckage. The debris includes what looks like large sheets of aluminum foil and other metallic pieces and parts. The farmer reported the wreckage to the local police, who in turn notified the military at the local Air Force base. The incident was on the local and national news for about a week and then nothing was heard about it for another 30 years or so. At the time, the military claimed the wreckage was from a radar-tracking balloon (and, later, a new type of top secret surveillance balloon).

Then, in 1978 a ufologist interviewed an Air Force major who had been involved in the original recovery of the debris in 1947. The major expressed his belief that the military had actually recovered an alien spacecraft and covered it up. This, of course, was not part of his original story. Later, a couple other alleged witnesses became involved and conspiracy theorists began claiming that the military had found a flying saucer and, possibly, even aliens, and were covering it up.

On the TV show, they took 6 people to a similar area for what they called a short nature walk. They fitted each with a helmet containing a camera. The experiment, designed by a psychologist who specialized in human memory, was intended to compare what the people later said they saw with what they actually saw, as verified by the cameras.

During their 20 minute walk through hilly, desert scrub terrain, they walked past a scene created by the designers of the experiment. In the scene, there was a uniformed soldier with a rifle walking around an area of wreckage, with standard yellow police tape cordoning off the area. The leader of the nature walk group explained very briefly to the 6 experimental subjects that something had crashed and the military was protecting the evidence and telling people to just pass quickly and pay it no attention.

A month later, the psychologist gathered the subjects together again and asked them to describe what they had seen on their nature walk. One woman said she had seen 2 soldiers who pointed their rifles at the party as they neared the wreckage. She said she was quite frightened. She was asked to rate her confidence that the story she related was factual on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 signifying little confidence and 5 signifying certainty. She chose 5.

When the experimenters examined the film from that woman’s helmet cam, they found that she had actually never seen any soldiers, and there actually was only one at the site anyway. Obviously, she couldn’t have seen 2 soldiers point rifles at the party since she never saw a soldier at all.

The key here, as the psychologist explained, is that the woman absolutely believed the story she told. She was not lying. She knew she had worn a helmet cam so that her story could be verified, yet she related that she was certain of the facts of her story.

Our memories do not work like computer memories. Each time we call up a memory, it is changed at least slightly, before we put it away again. Also, anything we have learned from others relating to a memory can change that memory, and we are prone to accepting suggestions, unconsciously, from others concerning that memory. Over time, the memory deteriorates more and more until, in some cases, as in the case of this woman, the memory bears little or no resemblance to what actually happened. There is no doubt that we all carry around thousands of false memories in our heads. This has been proved repeatedly in court cases, of child abuse especially. During interrogations, the suggestions implied in the questions can begin to get integrated into the memory.

In the case of the experiment described above. It appears that the subjects discussed with each other, if only briefly, what they had seen, perhaps suggesting to each other further details of what they might or might not have seen – or even what they expected to see. These discussions, and the witnesses repeated retellings of their stories over the month, led to major changes in the memories of the subjects.
I read of an interesting incident by a memory researcher illustrating how much a memory can be changed. He said he was talking with his brother one day about some of their childhood experiences and mentioned when his bicycle had been stolen. His brother corrected him. It was the brother’s bicycle which had been stolen. Apparently, in telling and retelling the story over the years, his memory of it had been dramatically altered.

Another illustration of the lack of accuracy of our memories concerns viewpoint. As you recall some past incident in your mind’s eye, notice that you see it as if you were watching yourself in the recreated scene from some distance away, and often from above, as though you were watching a movie of it. This is obviously not at all what you actually saw through your eyes as the event was taking place. You could not have seen yourself in the actual event because your eyes were not on yourself, but on the other actors and scenery of the event.

So what does all this have to do with the Gospels? Well, consider first how that woman in the TV experiment had her memory altered considerably while believing that she remembered perfectly. Now consider how that change in her memory was over just one month’s time. Now recall that the earliest Gospel is believed to date from at least 30 years after the death of Jesus (if there ever was a real Jesus), even by Christian scholars. If 30 days can do that much to a memory, what do you suppose 30 years can do? And recall that the Gospel authors must have been hearing many stories concerning Jesus’ life and retelling those stories over a 30 year span. Now, even if they had witnessed some of the events of Jesus’ life, their memories would doubtless have been drastically changed by the time they wrote down their stories. And, after 30 years of thousands of people telling and retelling the stories, there would be many different versions in the air by the time they were written down, much the same as there are many versions of popular urban legends today.

Clearly, we have solid scientific reasons for doubting the details of the Gospels. This is especially true since so much of the Gospels entail what purport to be direct quotes from Jesus. In fact, some of them are very long quotes, and, in places, there are long strings of quotes. What prodigious memories these authors must have had! (Although few scholars believe the authors were actual witnesses to begin with.) And, the disciples were all illiterate, not note-takers, so how accurate could their stories have been, years after the fact?

Now, the poorly informed believer might object here that all this memory failure and cross-pollination of stories is irrelevant because the Gospel stories are really revelations from god, and the authors were merely his instruments. Unfortunately, the many, many contradictions between the Gospels put the lie to this theory. For example, in the matter of who sees Jesus first after his alleged resurrection:

Mark - Jesus appears first to Mary Magdalena then later to “the eleven”
Matthew - Jesus appears first to Mary Magdalena, then to the other Mary, and finally to ”the eleven”
Luke - Jesus appears first to “two,” then to Simon, then to “the eleven”
John - Jesus appears first to Mary Magdalena, then the disciples without Thomas, then the disciples with Thomas

Obviously, at least 3 of these accounts are wrong, and more likely, all 4 are wrong.

But, shouldn’t their recollections of the most extraordinary events of Jesus life have been more accurate – or, wouldn’t the stories they heard from others be more likely to be accurate if they contained such events? Not necessarily. The following statement was posted on a Christian web site. “A missionary I know watched a bullet headed for him do a RIGHT ANGLE before it got to him.” This was posted with no apparent fear of dispute or mockery. Clearly, the author of this extraordinary event believed it and expects the reader to believe it as well. Now consider that this fellow was writing in the 21st century, and that perfectly formed, correctly spelled sentence suggests a reasonable level of formal education. Now consider that the Gospel writers were writing in a pre-scientific age of rampant superstition, when magic was practically a part of everyday life.

If a Middle Eastern man of the 1st century heard a wild story about a man who was dead several days and then just woke up, how likely was he to believe it and repeat it? I would say extremely likely, especially since billions of people in our century have heard the same story and believe it.

All in all, given the wide acceptance of superstition and magic in the 1st century, coupled with an almost complete lack of scientific knowledge, and the known distortions wrought by time on human memory, it would be a miracle if the Gospels contained more than the slightest shadow of factual accuracy. In fact, I am confident that we can safely file them alongside more modern flying saucer stories as tall tales.