After all of the discussion of this session, I was eager to hear what I missed. But I must say that I found it ultimately disappointing. The discussion was lively, but it could have been better informed. I'm thinking specifically of the paper by Paul Foster. I don't begrudge Paul for taking a skeptical position as to the value of "memory research" for the study of ancient history. Skepticism has always been a part of the game in Jesus studies. Par for the course, really. Most disappointing is that Paul had published his paper previously and was criticized for his deficiencies. Yet many of these deficiencies remained unaddressed in his presentation.
Chris Keith wrote a rebuttal to Foster's “Memory, Orality, and the Fourth Gospel: Three Dead-Ends in Historical Jesus Research,” JSHJ 10 (2012): 191–227. One of Chris' main criticisms was that Paul neglected many of the important voices in NT and memory studies (see further here). Paul's essay, instead, focuses on Bauckham and a few others who do not represent the wider conversation. Importantly, Paul read a draft of Chris' rebuttal before his presentation in Baltimore. Yet rather than fortifying his presentation by interacting with the wider field, Paul simply reiterated much of the same content and thus repeats errors of oversight made the first time around. What struck me most was that instead of thanking Chris for his critical engagement, Paul derided him (mocking tone noted) for suggesting that some of Chris' own work might have been addressed. I have absolutely no reservations when I say that no New Testament scholar has written more about social memory theory than Chris Keith. Moreover, Chris' work is among the most erudite in the field. Lest you think that I'm simply defending a friend, consider:
Keith, Chris. “The Role of the Cross in the Composition of the Markan Crucifixion Narrative.” Stone-Campbell Journal 9.1 (2006): 61–75. ———. “The Claim of John 7.15 and the Memory of Jesus’ Literacy.” New Testament Studies 56.1 (2010): 44–63. ———. “A Performance of the Text: The Adulteress’s Entrance into John’s Gospel.” Pages 49–69 in The Fourth Gospel in First-Century Media Culture. Edited by Anthony Le Donne and Tom Thatcher. European Studies on Christian Origins/LNTS 426. London: T&T Clark, 2011. ———. “Memory and Authenticity: Jesus Tradition and What Really Happened.” Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kunde der älteren Kirche 102.2 (2011): 155–77. ———. Jesus’ Literacy: Scribal Culture and the Teacher from Galilee. LHJS 8/LNTS 413. London: T&T Clark, 2012. ———. “The Fall of the Quest for an Authentic Jesus: Concluding Remarks.” Pages 200–05 in Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity. Edited by Chris Keith and Anthony Le Donne. London: T&T Clark, 2012. ———. “The Indebtedness of the Criteria Approach to Form Criticism and Recent Attempts to Rehabilitate the Search for an Authentic Jesus.” Pages 25–48 in Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity. Edited by Chris Keith and Anthony Le Donne. London: T&T Clark, 2012. ———. Jesus the Controversial Teacher. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014. ———. “Prolegomena on the Textualization of Mark’s Gospel: Manuscript Culture, the Extended Situation, and the Emergence of Written Gospels,” forthcoming.And more is on the way soon. One would think that Paul, who is a very intelligent and kind person, might have fortified his deficiencies by interacting a bit with his co-presenter's primary area of research. I find it quite strange that he chose otherwise.
While I still have serious problems with Zeb's assessment of the field, his presentation was a model of professionalism. Crook had previously published a similar essay on memory distortion. I took him to task quite directly in my response essay (“The Problem of Selectivity in Memory Research: A Response to Zeba Crook.” JSHJ 11 : 77-97). Zeb remained courteous in his rejoinder and conceded a few points. I don't retract any of my criticism of his essay, but I should say that I regret the tone that I sometimes take in that essay. I'm sure that I could (and should) learn more from him. To his credit, Crook took the time and effort to fortify his Baltimore presentation to include a wider range of research.
Crook's thesis is that serious study of "memory" leads us to another "no quest" in Jesus research. I still maintain that he needs to interact more fully with Barry Schwartz, Rafael Rodríguez, Jens Schroeter, Alan Kirk, Tom Thatcher, etc. While none of the scholars I've listed are confident in the Gospel's reliability by default or overlook the features of memory distortion, none of them would argue that historical Jesus research is futile, or impossible, or hindered by memory research.
It was clear by the end of this session that Paul Foster and Zeba Crook (I'm thinking specifically of the Q&A) continue to misrepresent the wider field of social memory theory. This conversation might have been much more constructive if one or either had simply interacted with Barry Schwartz or Jens Schroeter. Indeed, they both had ample time to do so between the publications of their initial papers and their presentations in Baltimore. The result was that Chris and Rafael (both experts in memory) and Zeb and Paul (both new comers) talked past each other.
I would have liked to hear Paul and Zeb interact seriously with mnemonic triangulation. It has been my project for sometime to demonstrate that (1) all memory is refracted, (2) much of memory refracts in ways that can be charted, (3) the episodes in the Gospels where refraction is most pronounced can provide clues as to the tendencies of the remembrancers. Finally, if we find evidence that multiple episodes in the Jesus tradition are explicit attempts to create counter memories, we can postulate the common sphere of intelligibility for both mnemonic trajectories. If so—and here we depart from previous stages in historical Jesus research—the episodes that are the most clearly "redacted" can give us the most to work with toward historical reconstruction.
Or, in lieu of triangulation, perhaps Paul and Zeb might have addressed the gains and losses of Dale Allison's attempt at mnemonic impressionism. Dale had argued that even passages that have been traditionally labeled "fiction" can contribute to a general impression (cf. Dunn's idea of impact) of Jesus' historical teaching and character. As such, instead of bracketing out the fictitious or panning for nuggets of "historical" material, we get the "gist" of Jesus first and foremost. I have found Allison's method quite helpful in recent years.
The observations that memory "distorts" and that the Gospels are therefore "distorted" are much too superficial to be helpful. Chris Keith, Barry Schwartz, Rafael Rodríguez, Jens Schroeter, Alan Kirk, Tom Thatcher, etc. are all very well aware that the proof of eye-witness testimony does not support a conservative notion of reliability. It was clear that Paul Foster was hoping to have an argument with Richard Bauckham on this point. If he had prepared to discuss the wider work of social memory theory, I have no doubt that the conversation would have been richer.
For more on social memory, see here. See also this recent exchange (both the post and the comments are quite interesting).