Baker Academic

Thursday, November 8, 2012

So What is All of This Business about “Memory” in Jesus Research? - Le Donne

As a general rule, it is not a good idea to write a blog post related to one’s dissertation topic. There are several reasons for this, not least which: there is the ever-present danger of lapsing into a research binge that lasts for weeks. I knew a dude who wrote an op-ed for bibleinterp.com once. He began typing in a café in Chattanooga and woke up in a Notre Dame gutter reeking of Marxist poetry. So it is with great reluctance that I begin this post concerning the many and varied attempts to apply “memory” to Jesus research. Out of respect for those whom I love, I will avoid saying much about my own work on this subject.

If you’ve been paying attention to Jesus studies even marginally in the last ten years, you’ve probably heard the terms social memory, cultural memory, collective memory, communicative memory, cognitive memory,  mnemonic frameworks, memory distortion, memory refraction, anti-individualism of mental content, autobiographical memory, and other permutations of the like.

First, let me say that there’s a large degree of overlap between these categories but they represent about five different fields of study. Rather than walking you from Jeremias to Dunn, or Halbwachs to Schröter, or Gerhardsson to Byrskog, or Kelber to Dewey, or Ebbinghaus to McIver, or Lord to Thatcher, or Ong to Mournet, or Zerubavel to Le Donne, or Schwartz to Keith, or Burge to whatever name picks up my suggestion and runs with it, I’ll cut right to the chase. Here are the major variations of memory applications in Jesus research over the past ten years (I risk over-simplifying at every turn):

Jens Schröter, Rafael Rodríguez, and Alan Kirk: These guys are influenced by Egyptologist Jan Assmann (among others). The key points to this application of “social memory” are that (1) all memory is constructed in social categories and interactions, (2) memory is not frozen and passive; it is fluid and ever-changing, and (3) memories tell us as much (or perhaps more) about the groups who remember as they do about the events/figures of the past. This is an adaptation of the work of French Sociologist Maurice Halbwachs but with significant alterations. Jens Schröter is the patriarch of Social Memory in Jesus scholarship. See more of my thought about Jens’ work here.

Tom Thatcher: Thatcher should also be included in the above paragraph. His work is focused specifically on John’s Gospel and incorporates folklorist studies to a greater extent. There are several elements of folklore that are interesting to NT scholars, including the ways in which oral (telling) and aural (hearing) cultures differ from textual/literate cultures. Thatcher and Alan Kirk introduced social memory theory (stemming from Halbwachs and Assmann and borrowing from Schröter) to New Testament scholars in the English-speaking world. See the Semeia volume related to the SBL Mapping Memory group for this seminal achievement. Abraham Lincoln scholar Barry Schwartz’s penultimate essay in this book is a must read. Thatcher is presently working on a really interesting volume that showcases Schwartz’s work. [Now available here.]

The Bible in Ancient and Modern Media (BAMM) group: this group has tended to emphasize folklorist approaches (see the synopsis of Thatcher above). Names like Lord, Kelber, Ong and Joanna Dewey are revered by this group. I’m connected to the “board of elders” of the BAMM group; basically I just show up, smile, and drink mimosas. Holly Hearon represents the backbone of BAMM; her work deals with the social dynamics related to the suppression of non-male voices and the political aspects of memory. Richard Horsley’s work with memory and politics belongs with this section. This group has tended to emphasize the group dynamics that best explain the Gospels and (to a much lesser degree) has shown interest in the “earliest memories” that might tell us things related to the historical Jesus. In simple terms, this group has tended to be wary of more conservative voices in the discussion of Christian origins.

Chris Keith: In a rare combination of ruggedly handsome, devastatingly charming, and phobic of toothy fish, Keith represents something of a departure from the usual BAMM steering committee member. He is more inclined to blur the distinction of oral culture and textual culture (a distinction that was made popular by Werner Kelber). He is also more inclined to discuss the connection between remembering groups and the events/figures of the past. Simply put, he thinks that the Gospels tell us about both the “historical Jesus” and the communities who conveyed the oral “gospel”. He has taken his cues more from social memory theorists like Barry Schwartz, Alan Kirk, Tom Thatcher (whom he wrote under at the graduate level while Kirk and Thatcher were putting together their Semeia volume), and Jens Schröter, and me, and (perhaps) less from folklorists and performance theorists, although Chris is fluent in both fields. My guess is that his foundations as a textual critic will open up new avenues for the discussion of textuality in primarily oral cultures.

James Dunn: When Dunn’s Jesus Remembered was written, “social memory” studies had not taken off in Jesus research. While Dunn was aware of Jens Schröter’s work, he was much more interested in the various permutations of “orality” and “aurality”. So when he uses the concept of memory in that book, he is talking about the vehicles of memory in a largely illiterate culture before the Gospels were written down. He builds from Kelber and Gerdhardsson in a number of ways, but is ultimately interested in what these memories tell us about the person of Jesus more so than previous studies on these topics. He emphasized the variability and stability inherent in oral tradition and, in this way, argues that the “stable” elements in the Gospels might be found with the “characteristic” Jesus (the Kingdom of God Jesus, the parable-preaching Jesus, the “son of man” Jesus, etc). I.e. the various details attached these bedrock characteristics are less reliable. Until his essay in this collection, he held serious reservations about “social memory” theory. He argues here that social memory theorists tend to be so enamored with the “creativity” of memory that they ignore the “retentive” elements (i.e. his same beef with the later Form Critics). As such, he was a very good conversation partner for me when I wrote my The Historiographical Jesus. It is sometimes very valuable to have a brilliant person who disagrees with you on your team. Noteworthy here is the published dissertation of Terence Mournet, who was also a Dunn student. Terry and Jimmy have a great deal of overlap (more so than Jimmy and myself). His dissertation applies orality/folklorist studies to the synoptic problem. It is also worth mentioning this book (although I have not read it).

Richard Bauckham: Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses might be the black sheep of this family. One could argue that he is doing something entirely different than the names mentioned above. Bauckham explores the idea of “eyewitness testimony” in the world that produced the Gospels. Further, he is interested in the relationship between eyewitnesses and historical reliability. He touches only nominally on the canon “social memory” theorists mentioned above and he is open to the possibility of note-taking among the disciples (i.e. he underplays the extremely oral character made popular by Kelber). Like much of Bauckham’s work, you can expect him to come to conclusions more in keeping to traditional Christianity, but his books are required reading anyway. He almost always suggests a point or two that reminds you that you are not nearly as smart or original as Richard Bauckham. That said, Judy Redman’s JBL critique of Bauckham points to the frailty of human memory that undermines the reliability of “eyewitnesses” building from the field of psychology. Robert McIver’s recent publication advances this discussion (with respect to cognition) by leaps and bounds. See more of my thoughts on McIver’s work here.

Dale Allison: In almost a full turn from Bauckham, Allison builds from the conclusions of psychology (cf. Redman) and social memory theorists (cf. Assmann) that memory is frail. It tends to be selective, adds details, subtracts details, confirms assumptions, and is wrong more often than we’d like to think. So even if the Gospels represent “early eyewitnesses” this really isn’t saying much. But what Constructing Jesus will be celebrated for 50 years from now is Allison’s thesis that even haggadic fictions can betray memory in ways that are helpful to the historians. There is a kinship between Allison’s wide-scope “impressionistic” approach to Jesus and Dunn’s “characteristic” Jesus. Hubris also demands that I break my vow and mention my own work. I will leave it to others to say how my work relates to his, but I will say this: Dale is still of the mind that historians cannot get behind memory to what actually happened. While there is a profound truth here, I do not lament “memory distortion” because I work from the premise that memory is what happened. In other words, historians shouldn’t be attempting to find something that preceded memory or lament that they can “only” get to what was remembered. Scot McKnight’s review rightly pointed out that there is a “melancholy” behind the voice of Constructing Jesus. I felt the same way. In any case, Allison’s revival and adaptation of CH Dodd toward a post-criteria method might be the new world order in Jesus studies. In short, I do not think that this book will be remembered for what he has to say about memory. Lumping Allison with the other names in this group obscures what is truly brilliant about his book.

In sum, there is about as much diversity in assumptions and agendas in memory research as there are in New Testament studies at large.

ps. Chris just put this on my radar: Ian H. Henderson, “Memory, Text and Performance in Early Christian Formation,” Religion und Bildung: Medien und Funktionen religiösen Wissens in der Kaiserzeit (eds. Christa Frateantonio and Helmut Krasser; PAwB 30; Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 2010), 157–84.

pps. I had intended to include Soeding's Die Verkündigung Jesu here and forgot. This inclusion probably gives Bauckham's camp a bit more company. Thanks to Chris Tilling for this reminder:
http://blog.christilling.de/2012/10/soding-die-verkundigung-jesu.html

Read more about memory studies here.

Preliminary Bibliography here.

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Anthony Le Donne (PhD) is the author of Historical Jesus: What Can We Know and How Can We Know It?

26 comments:

  1. Thanks for a really helpful summary, Anthony. Would it be worth throwing in Vernon Robbins too? One of the things that I like about his work is the use of the term "rhetorical culture", which helps us to get away from the problematic "oral culture" which is, I think, somewhat ludicrous for this period that teams with texts and traditions.

    One of the problems with most of the people you mention is ignorance about the Synoptic Problem, which hampers their appreciation, I think, of a lot of what is going on in our earliest texts.

    I would be inclined to chat about your own work more. It can be a really helpful supplement to looking at your published stuff. I'd certainly love to hear you reflecting on your own contribution more :)

    Thanks again -- very helpful and interesting.

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    1. It's funny that you mention the dissonance between those who study the Synoptic Problem and those who study orality/aurality. Because it has occurred to me one or twice that many of the papers given in the Synoptics session at SBL could be greatly helped by a better understanding of what we mean by "oral culture". But that is water under the bridge now since several of us are now very well versed in both fields. Admittedly, works that deal with both are either recent or forthcoming.

      -anthony

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    2. Thanks, Antony; agreed. Werner Kelber is the worst offender in this area -- breathtaking ignorance of the Synoptic Problem, but there are others too. I am critical of Jimmy Dunn for equating the Two-Source Theory with the literary relationship among the Gospels too (Thomas and the Gospels, Chapter 8).

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    3. I suppose that I just think too highly of Werner to use the phrase "breathtaking ignorance"... but your point is well taken: we could all stand to have a better understanding of what our neighbors are doing.

      It is also worth noting that Kelber has recently come to different conclusions with regard to the "great divide" between orality and textuality. Prof. Dr. Keith can say more about this.

      Of course, all of us will have to stop what we're doing when Alan Kirk publishes his monograph.

      -anthony

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    4. Oh, and Kelber has changed his tune considerably. In fact, you could even say that the later Kelber has been the lead voice in correcting the earlier Kelber.

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    5. Thanks, Anthony. Well, Kelber is not alone in that ignorance, though it is an ignorance that participates in and encourages others to regard it as de rigueur. While I am less of a fan of his work than are others, I have been encouraged by his recent embracing of David Parker's "Living Texts".

      I too am looking forward to Alan's work. Eric Eve's _Behind the Gospels: Understanding the Oral Tradition_ is also going to be a very helpful contribution, I think. I'm lucky enough to be reading it in MS at the moment.

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    6. I agree, Chris, and reading later Kelber is essential in correcting earlier Kelber. Both earlier and later Kelber, however, are really ignorant about the Synoptic Problem.

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  2. Mark, I'm insulted! I'm astonished! I'm flabbergasted! One of my applications of memory theory in Jesus' Literacy deals specifically with the relationship between the Synoptic authors, affirms Markan Priority, and leaves Q out of the discussion. I'd have thought you'd like that. If only I could think of who the editor of the series that published it is....

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  3. Nice one, Chris! I did say "most" and not all, but of course you are an honourable exception. Having said that, I am making a mental note now to re-read your Jesus' Literacy, which I really liked.

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    1. Ah, shucks. You're just being nice now! I had to say something here, if for no other reason than to use the word "flabbergasted." "Discombobulated" almost made it in there too, such was my shock.

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  4. I'm just learning and curious - how does Birger Gerhardsson fit into the spectrum you outlined above?

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    1. Thank you for the question Lois. You might check out Mike Bird's (sympathetic) evaluation:

      http://euangelizomai.blogspot.com/2007/07/in-defence-of-gerhardsson.html

      see also Rafael's public thoughts:

      http://thinkinginpublic.blogspot.com/2010/09/problems-with-transmission.html

      -anthony

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    2. Thanks for the links. Michael Bird's article affirmed what I remembered about Gerhardsson's work from my reading.

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  5. As a non-scholar who is a pastor:

    I note that memory studies applied to the Gospels seem to omit a due emphasis on the intentionality of the rabbi-disciple relationship of Jesus and the apostles.

    It is one thing to merely remember and another to be taught to remember, with a delegated -- and sacred -- task of conveying to others what is remembered.

    The generality of memory, in contrast with neglect of details, may have characterized the method of the rabbi as well as the character of memory generally.

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    1. Thank you Bobby,

      The point you are making is made in a very compelling way by Dunn in his Jesus Remembered. Jimmy emphasizes the impact of sacred memory. He speaks of it as the "life blood" of the disciples. It is the force of impact that made Jesus memorable, and worth remembering - thus it is not casual memory that we're talking about.

      -anthony

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  6. Mmm...while we're on Scandinavians, how about Samuel Byrskog, who is in some sympathy with both Dunn and Bauckham, I'd say?

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  7. Has anyone dealt extensively and specifically, with "false memories"?

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  8. Kathryn B WestbrookNovember 16, 2012 at 7:05 AM

    There is also Castelli, Elizabeth A. Martyrdom and Memory: Early Christian Culture Making (Gender, Theory, and Religion). New York, N.Y.; Chichester: Columbia University Press, 2004.
    From the blurb: Martyrs are produced, Elizabeth Castelli suggests, not by the lived experience of particular historical individuals but by the stories that are later told about them.

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  9. I find memory very fascinating because of all the different ways in which it can be manipulated. A couple years ago, I did a biology research project on pseudomemory. Here is one example I used in my background research that I found quite interesting.

    Pseudo memory is when someone remembers events that never occurred. In one case, a woman by the name of Lisa Hagen, a co-author in the March issue of Psychological Science, conducted an experiment using forty-five undergraduate students. The parents of these students supplied Hagen with class pictures from the third to sixth grade. Only twenty-three students were shown the pictures, while the other twenty-two were not. Hagen interviewed the students in two different sessions. In the first session, she quizzed the students on real events that occurred in the pictures that were supplied by their parents. The students with the pictures remembered the event much better than those who were not shown the pictures. In the second session, the students were interviewed about a first grade prank that was fabricated. The prank was the students placed slime inside the teacher’s desk. It ended up that 27.3% of the students without the photos “remembered” the story and 65.5% who were shown the class photos recalled details about the prank.

    One factor that could have skewed their answers was the suggestive influence. Before interviewing the undergraduates, Hagen said that these events really happened to them. The parents serve as an authority figure and could have made the students conform to the idea that all the events were factual. They might have figured since the first two stories were real the third must be too.

    maybe some individuals memories of Jesus have been skewed by the opinions of others?

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  10. Has anyone addressed what seems to me to be the self-defeating nature of arguments for the "frailty" of memory? I have read arguments such as Judy Redman's and found them frankly laughable. If her memory is as frail as she tries to make memory seem, then why should I believe anything she writes? Her memories of everything she's studied must be a dark fog! Logically, the more frail one argues that memory is, the less reliable their argument is, based as it is on such frail memory. Has anyone pointed out this logical problem?

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    1. Lots and lots... although, I think that you're reading Redman severely. Perhaps you don't recall her argument all that well. -kidding

      If you'd like a really great book on this topic see McIver's newest book.

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  11. Found a good reason to dig up this good post by Anthony Le Donne. Thanks again! See http://culturaljesus.wordpress.com/

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  12. Hi Anthony,

    I think I would take issue with the words, “memory is what happened.” While it is true that access to historical events is always mediated (among other things) through memory, I think it unwise to collapse the distinction between memories and the real events in time which they point to. Epistemologically, we cannot and need not “get behind” memories to say informative things about the events they point to. But ontologically, real events in time have properties and relations which are distinct from our acts of remembering them.

    Maybe I’m just being picky about terminology, but I see no problem with saying that there are historical realities distinct from our (or others’) memories of them, while affirming that our access to those realities is always mediated by memory. In so doing, we avoid the naïve objectivism of the criteria approach to HJR (which you critique elsewhere) and the radical subjectivism which says that real events in time are either inaccessible or reducible to our acts of remembering. In other words, memories and real events are related, but distinct.

    Thomas

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  13. I appreciate the great blog that you guys have put up. I have just started learning social memory theory in seminary, and I would like to understand it better. Where is a good place to begin?

    Thanks,
    Michael

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    1. Captain Lew,

      Thank you for your question. I began with a book called Social Memory by Fentress and Wickham. I do believe that a second edition was recently published. I include an introductory chapter on social memory in my book: The Historiographical Jesus. Here I set Social Memory theory in conversation with philosophical hermeneutics.

      -anthony

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    2. Thanks for taking time to answer the question.
      I really appreciate the blog you guys have.
      Thanks!

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