Memory and the Historical Jesus (SBL session recording) – part 2

Following on from the previous post about the SBL 2013 Memory and the Historical Jesus session audio:

Rafael posed the question “How does memory study affect historical Jesus studies?” and I agree with him when he says that what it does is bring an old discussion to a close and call for a new discussion, rather than helping us to judge more accurately the authenticity (or lack thereof) of any particular material. He then makes three points:

  • that historians can’t separate Jesus’ past from his follower’s present by separating his words from their literary and historical contexts, because without their contexts, there is no reason that Jesus’ followers would have found them memorable. The interpretation given in the text explains why the words were remembered.
  • that historians have to account for the production as well as the reception of images of Jesus – why would an author want to produce this image? How would it have been accepted (if it is significantly different from something else that is clearly an account of the same event – see for example Mk 6: 1-6 || Lk 4:16-30)? Why did it work?
  • that historians have to account for the fact that whatever the details of his life were, Jesus of Nazareth must have made a significant impact on those he encountered, but they each remembered him for their own reasons and in their own situations.

He talks about the very different accounts that Luke and Mark provide of Jesus’ rejection in Nazareth and talks about Luke’s version as being heavily redacted, which it certainly is if it was based on the same original as Mark and Matthew. Psychologists have known since the work of people like Frederic Bartlett (Remembering: A Study in Experimental and Social Psychology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1932) and Gordon Allport and Leo Postman (The Psychology of Rumor. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1947)  that when people remember and re-tell stories, their personal interests and personalities will have a significant effect on the kinds of details they remember and how they choose to tell them, and that the passage of time can significantly affect how they retell their stories. Therefore the simplistic answer to Rafael’s first question – why would an author want to produce this image? – could well be: because that’s how he remembered it, and those were the details he thought it was important for his audience to know. Because his audience was distant in space and time from the actual event, it was probably received quite well. It was certainly received well by the early church, which chose to include it in its canon!

Thomas, however, presents us with the sayings of Jesus without any context, and exhorts his readers to find the true meaning of the sayings for themselves if they don’t want to taste death. Reflecting on this made me wonder about the interaction between context and interpretation. Providing a context for a saying helps to control both the way in which readers/hearers can reasonably interpret it and how they are likely to interpret it, but also controls how memorable it is. If we assume that Jesus used many of his sayings more than once, the context in which each of the authors of the canon remembered them will tell us something about how they understood Jesus, who they understood him to be, and what kinds of things interested them. The question then becomes whether how much of the differences between parallel accounts of the same saying are due to hearers distorting what they remembered post event to line up better with who they understood Jesus to be, and how much comes from Jesus having told the stories differently on different occasions. And the answer, unfortunately, is that we don’t and can’t know.

Paul is therefore correct when he said that memory research is not Historical Jesus Research (HJR) when it is defined as it traditionally has been. The study of memory is indeed a dead end in historical Jesus research in the sense that it is, as Rafael says, unable to tell us anything about the likely authenticity of any given Jesus saying or Jesus event in the canon (or outside it, for that matter). What I heard Paul to be saying which I do not agree with is that we can/should therefore set it aside and return to the traditional HJR methods. I think (and I think that the other three panelists agree with me) that memory studies, whether from an SMT perspective or a psychological perspective, indicate that some of the criteria and methods used in traditional HJR research just cannot hold up. I think that biblical scholars who want to treat any part of the gospel tradition as literal fact need to recognise that they do so from a particular faith stance about what it means that the bible is ‘inspired by God’ rather than because it is or can be empirically proven to be ‘accurate’. Those who do not want do this need to give careful thought to the implications of what we know about memory – both individual and social – for what we can, with integrity, do with the biblical texts. If they are people of faith, this may well mean reassessing their understanding of what inspiration of scripture means.

I think that I am more inclined to side with Rafael and Chris who both seem to believe that we can reach some understanding of the historical Jesus by going through the memories of his disciples, rather than with Zeba, who seems to think we must just give up on any attempt to reach him – after all, historians don’t seem to be giving up on the task of finding the historical Julius Caesar.  I do think, though, that it will be a while yet before we know what that means or what we can do with the person we find. :-)

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7 thoughts on “Memory and the Historical Jesus (SBL session recording) – part 2

  1. Thanks as always for the insightful posts. Your comments on the difference between the context-less sayings of Thomas vrs the NT Gospel contexts conditioning interpretation got me thinking. Since (I believe) you follow April DeConick’s rolling corpus model on Thomas, do you see the early Jesus followers as preserving sayings collections to draw from for different occasions (e.g. Paul quoting a saying of the Lord in a discussion about marriage) before they were placed into the contexts of the narrative Gospels (e.g., the sayings in the Sermon on the Mount or Plains, Mark’s teachings about the greatest as the one who serves in a different context in Luke’s last Supper, etc)? Would that be possible counter-evidence to Rafael’s position that a saying would not be remembered apart from a context, or perhaps remembered in a very different context in the memories of oral tradents from where it was placed in the Gospels, and perhaps in some limited cases we could see signs that an older tradition has been put in a new literary context by the Gospel writers?

  2. Pingback: Memory and the Historical Jesus (SBL session recording) – part 1 | Judy's research blog

  3. Mike, this is a very good question. I am in the process of thinking about it, but here are some preliminary ideas:

    I could see Jesus telling the same stories, or slightly altered versions of the same stories in different places and in different combinations which might then be preserved as varying ‘sets of sayings’ which might result in some of the differences in context. I could also see people taking different points from the same sayings, and then recalling them differently because of what they thought they were about, and then putting them together with other sayings that they thought were about the same thing. Parables are capable of having more than one meaning, and different hearers will take different things from them, and this in turn will affect how they retell them and therefore how they might group them in their minds (or in written collections). Thus, the parable of the banquet/wedding feast/meal (Lk 14: 16-24; Matt 22:1-10; GTh 64) appears with two other parables with similar themes in each case – it’s just that each author groups them as part of *different* themes. Luke’s are around hospitality in the here and now; Matthew’s are eschatalogical and Thomas’s are about attitudes to money.

    So, I think that in one sense Rafael is correct that things, especially if they are being transmitted orally, are remembered most easily in a context. I don’t think that the context in which they are remembered is necessarily the context in which the rememberer actually heard/experienced them, but it can be. It is, of course, possible to remember things by rote without putting them in a context, but you have to work harder at it (and people with outstanding memories tend to create artificial contexts for things to aid their memories).

  4. Thanks for the example of the parable of the banquet/wedding feast/meal (Lk 14: 16-24; Matt 22:1-10; GTh 64). That is helpful to see how the sayings it is grouped with aid in remembering and interpreting it.

  5. Pingback: Can Jesus Traditions be Extracted from their Gospel Contexts? | Euangelion Kata Markon

  6. Pingback: Memory and the historical Jesus – part 4 (Thomas) | Judy's research blog

  7. Pingback: Biblical Studies Carnival XCIV: December 2013 | Cataclysmic

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