Baker Academic

Monday, May 23, 2016

The Jesus Conference Roster: Sandra Huebenthal—Chris Keith

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One of the presentations that I'm most anxious for at our upcoming "Memory and the Reception of Jesus in Early Christianity" conference is that of Sandra Huebenthal.  Sandra holds the Chair of Exegesis and Biblical Theology at the University of Passau.  Sandra's Tuebingen Habilitationsschrift is one of the most thorough applications of collective memory theory to the Gospels and was published as Das Markusevangelium als kollectives Gedaechtnis by Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht in 2014.  In it, she approaches (as the name suggests) Mark's Gospel as collective memory.  Among many other things, in this important study she criticizes yours truly for still wanting to have the historical discussion about Jesus since she thinks that the insights of memory theory lead to greater attention to the interpretations of Jesus in the text but also to a more agnostic approach to historical matters.  Although Sandra sometimes does not get as much attention in English-speaking scholarship, she is really one of the leaders of this discussion and has been for some time.  She's one of the most knowledgeable scholars about the theory itself, and one of the more insightful "memory" NT scholars I've read.  In addition to Alan Kirk's introductory essay on social and collective memory, I very, very highly recommend Sandra's essay "Social and Cultural Memory in Biblical Exegesis: The Quest for an Adequate Application" (in Cultural Memory in Biblical Exegesis, Gorgias Press, 2012), where she has this great statement:

"The good news is that social memory theory has finally found its way into Biblical Studies.  The bad news is that it is often unclear . . . what social memory theory really is about." 

Sandra will be presenting on "The Reception of Jesus in Mark's Gospel" and if you want to hear her and meet her, you can register here.


  1. Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

    Chris, you quoted Dr. Heubenthal in part, " is often unclear...what social memory theory really is about."

    I came away from Kirk and Thatcher's Memory, Tradition, and Text (2005) with distinctly mixed feelings:

    (1)On the one hand who can argue that "social memory" isn't an important tool for interpreting the biblical writings, certainly no more than one would argue that narrative criticism or performance theory are unimportant to biblical understanding. Perhaps many, such as myself are advocates of "social memory" interpretation but have, perhaps wrongly, used other phrases such as "oral tradition."

    (2) On the other hand, to quote from Barry Schwartz' response to the eleven essays: "...this volume has identified important dynamics of early Christian memory...(and)doubt and conviction are basic properties of collective memory; yet, most contributors bracket the issue of historical veracity, refusing to worry--as did the Christians about whom they write--whether Jesus and his achievements might be a figure of the collective imagination, rather than a real man doing real things. Reality, however, makes a difference. If we cannot at least estimate the authenticity of an event, we have no way of knowing whether different communities or different generations have distorted it. If we cannot estimate authenticity, we can reach no understanding of how commemoration selectively celebrates the historical record. Lacking historical benchmarks, we can only say that social memory varies; we can never no how much or in what direction."

    To me this is a warning to any theoretical approach that wants to claim the high ground over its predecessors, and it seems that all "new" approaches want to do that. Perhaps over the last ten years Schwartz' concern about "a real man doing real things" has generated a number of helpful responses from other scholars (other than the Jesus Seminar). Perhaps you could provide some direction.

    1. Gene, quickly here...
      (1) Social memory theory is (by far) not the only theoretical approach that is making these points. So it's not the case that you've mistakenly referred to it as something else so much as it's the case that multiple methodologies are part of a broader shift in the understanding of "history," including oral-traditional studies.
      (2) I think Barry's comments are directed more toward those particular essays, which admittedly were not really trying to do historical Jesus research. Although there are a few people in the "memory" camp who are not concerned with questions of historical accuracy (and Prof Dr Huebenthal would be one), the vast majority of us think we can and should make judgments on such matters. The important difference is not *whether* we make decisions about historical accuracy but *how*. This is where a memory-informed approach is different from the ground up, in my opinion, because it has a thoroughly different view of what the sources are and also a different view of what the historian is to do with those sources in approaching the past. Does that help?

  2. Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

    Chris, it's encouraging to hear that "...the vast majority of 'people in the memory camp' (are concerned) with questions of historical accuracy." As you say, the most important matter is "how" such decisions are made, and you are saying that a "memory informed approach is different from the ground up." I'm left wondering what the criteria are for the memory approach; is there a book or article that would be a good place to start, or could you state the matter in a few paragraphs?

    Part of my problem is that I did not find anything "new," so to speak, in Hearon's treatment of "the woman who anointed Jesus" which she calls "a study of tradition as memory." (Kirk and Thatcher, 99-118). She does a side-by-side with Mark-Luke-John and identifies the stable and unstable phrasing. She suggests that one level of social memory is uniquely identified within the unstable material. She investigates key words and how they were used in the NT, LXX, and other literature. She considers the unique input of each gospel narrator regarding Christology, i.e, how the anointing is to be viewed.

    Hearon recognizes that she has created a context of competing responses to the question, "Who is Jesus?"
    She comments, "We are invited to reflect on how the story goes beyond 'a simple act of recall' to become a reflection of 'identity formation, power and authority, cultural norms, and social interaction' (Zelizer: 214)."

    Okay! But I don't see anything in there much different from how I would have approached an exegesis of the material. The question remains: Was there an act of anointing? Is the stable material as close as we can get to an answer, and that's a guess: is the guess possible or probable? Or, wss the anointing story a look-back from the beginning, created as a recall of truthful piety, the social memory of those who thought Jesus to be the Messiah. Does it make any difference which option one chooses?

    Hearon also states in passing, but without further comment or interpretation, that Dennis MacDonald (Mythologizing Jesus, 2015)sees a mimetic relationship between this story and Odyssey 19 (89-96). MacDonald takes particular note of the gospel claim that the woman would be remembered throughout the world where the gospel is proclaimed. The name of the woman doing the anointing in the Odyssey tale is Eurycleia (meaning 'far flung and great fame'). If this interpretation is accurate in some way, then another dimension is added to social memory and Christology. MacDonald theorizes that in many of his stories, Mark's mimetic purpose was to show Jesus as superior to the Greek gods and heroes, certainly a valuable tool in the mission to the gentiles.