It’s Christmas Day and I finally have time to finish off a post that I started nearly a week ago. It seems appropriate that on the day when Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus I should reflect on what we actually know about him.
A little over a week ago, I was pleased to be able to listen to an audio recording of the Memory Studies in Historical Jesus Research session at SBL 2013, thanks to Anthony Le Donne over at the Jesus Blog (and, I assume, to the participants who gave permission for it to be put on line). The presentations were/are:
- Chris Keith – “The Past Approaching and Approaching the Past: The Contribution of Memory Studies to Historical Jesus Research”
- Zeba Crook – “Memory Distortion and the Historical Jesus”
- Rafael Rodríguez – “An Uneasy Concord: Memory and History in Contemporary Jesus Research”
- Paul Foster – “Memory: Help or Hindrance in Historical Jesus Research?”
This session has been referred to as the ‘blow-up in Baltimore‘ – a name coined by Tyler Stewart – and the question and answer session at the end was certainly lively, although not quite as lively I expected of something described as a ‘blowup’. A problem with the audio of the Q&A was that it was not always easy to tell which of the participants was speaking (almost certainly because James Crossley, the chair of the session, didn’t realise he was moderating for audio-recording). While Chris Keith’s southern accent and Paul Foster’s very British tones are quite distinctive, Rafael Rodríguez and Zeba Crook are somewhat more difficult to tell apart in the heat of discussion – at least I found them so (North Americans need to note that Australians and New Zealanders find it incredible that you can’t tell our accents apart, too). Unfortunately, I can’t see a way of articulating my reactions in a reasonable number of words for one post, so I have split it into two, with my comments on Chris and Zeba’s presentations here and on Rafael and Paul’s in part 2.
I found myself agreeing with some of the things that each of them said (or the things I understood them to be saying, anyway) and disagreeing with others. One of the things I found consistently interesting is that they, and I, all seem to be coming to very similar conclusions about the nature of the gospel materials, even if what we think we should do about it is different. I think that what we have is the beginnings of triangulation, which is good.
[Alan Bryman (http://www.referenceworld.com/sage/socialscience/triangulation.pdf) offers the following definition of the use of triangulation in social science research: “Triangulation refers to the use of more than one approach to the investigation of a research question in order to enhance confidence in the ensuing findings. Since much social research is founded on the use of a single research method and as such may suffer from limitations associated with that method or from the specific application of it, triangulation offers the prospect of enhanced confidence.”]
I found Chris’s survey of the field of Social Memory Theory (SMT) very helpful, and would recommend listening to the recording of his inaugural lecture (“Social Memory Theory and the Gospels – the first ten years”) for further information, although the video part is less than stimulating. I agreed with him when he called into question the criteria of authenticity and said that memory doesn’t preserve the past in a way that means that you can separate past actions from their interpretations, but that historians can nevertheless make a reasonable guess at the past. I kind of agreed with him when he said that SMT makes a definite contribution to historiography, but that its contribution is to how we use the material we have to reach our conclusions. Maybe I abbreviated what he said in the notes I took, but I think that what SMT does is to help us to understand what kind of material we actually have and it is this which informs (or should inform) how we can and can’t use it in reaching conclusions about history.
Zeba provided a quick tour of the psychological research on memory, noted that most groups want to keep a positive image of themselves and therefore tend to manipulate their memories for the purpose of collective self-deception, and that some of the ways that memory distorts the past are less severe than others. He listed them in order of severity. I agreed with all of this. I am not so sure about his conclusion that this leaves us with a New No Quest (for the historical Jesus), which we might perhaps replace with a quest for the remembered Jesus. The quest for the historical Jesus is no more hopeless than is the quest for the historical Julius Caesar or the quest for any other historical personage (Richard Burridge, What are the Gospels?: a comparison with Graeco-Roman biography. 2d ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004 provides comparisons between the gospels and bioi of other historical personages of the time), yet historians do not appear to be giving up on them. The difference is in what we want to do with the information we find out about the historical Jesus and the historical Julius Caesar – no-one today is trying to base their lifestyle on the sayings of Caesar and even the Romans who considered their emperors to be divine had a very different relationship to them to the one that Christians have to Jesus.
If you read the psychological literature, while it is possible to get people to ‘remember’ things that simply didn’t happen, if they are wholly fictitious events as opposed to merely altered details, there needs to be a deliberate attempt and some significant work on the part of some external agent to create a false memory. Thus, if we are prepared to accept that the early Christians were people of integrity who had had genuine encounters with Jesus, it is less likely that we have total fabrications than that we have distortions. Again, this helps us to understand that we don’t have empirically verifiable facts, but what we have is arguably no less reliable than any other historical evidence from that period or any other period before less ephemeral records are available. the broad brushstrokes of the gospel stories are highly likely to be accurate, but the details less so.