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.
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:
Read more about memory studies here.
Preliminary Bibliography here.
Read more about memory studies here.
Preliminary Bibliography here.
Anthony Le Donne (PhD) is the author of Historical Jesus: What Can We Know and How Can We Know It?