Alan Kirk on Cognition, Commemoration and Tradition (3) – memory, tradition & historiography

Memory, tradition, and historiography

This is the third of three posts that look at Kirk, A. (2015). Cognition, Commemoration, and Tradition: Memory and the Historiography of Jesus Research. Early Christianity, 6(3), 285-310. It   follows on from here and begins here.

Kirk’s final section (pp 306-310) addresses the issue of the challenges that the gospel traditions offer to critical historical enquiry. The people responsible for the formation of the tradition were not trying to write history but to sustain culture, and the details that are important to the historian are often least important to the formation of cultural tradition. The formers of cultural tradition are interested in the conceptual and morally signifying elements that can be drawn from what happened, rather than in the detail of the events themselves. These significant elements are distilled from the historical events and making it possible for the tradent communities to maintain their connections with founding events.

I am going to cite extensively from p 309 because I am at a loss as to how to summarise it effectively:

Synoptic communities are not directly remembering the past, but the tradition, which mediates the normative past in symbolic forms into the present. The tradition circulates in visual, oral, and written media, all of which have tractable properties. It can be redacted, reformulated, recontextualized, reconfigured, consolidated, and in the course of unfolding its symbolic potential supply the resources for Christological and moral reflection and for its own elaboration. The autonomy of the tradition entails that past and present come to co-exist in the tradition in ways that are not easily separable.

This, then, affirms from the perspective of neuroscience what others have said using different data: what is found in the Synoptics cannot be viewed as a simple historical account of the Jesus events and it is difficult to know which parts of it are from the time of Jesus and which from the time and place in which each gospel was written. He then says:

The tradition thus gives much scope for the exercise of critical historical judgment. But the indissolubility of the connection between the tradition’s symbolic mediation of the past and its autonomous course of development is what opens up productive lines of historical enquiry on the basis of the materials of the tradition. It accounts for why the Synoptic tradition has in fact proven so responsive to historical analysis.

The point he appears to be making here is that there is historical fact embedded in the Synoptic accounts – they mediate the historical events for the reader. The authors did not simply make up material. He sees this paper as having provided the theoretical basis for a model for the formation and history of the Synoptic tradition,

one that shows how the Wirkungseffekte of Jesus might be traced back into the cognitive formation of memory itself and to the formation of the tradition at the interface of the cognitive processes of memory with cultural media. We have been able to clarify how it is that the tradition mediates historical realities, and yet how it enables, and is itself part of, a complex Wirkungsgeschichte [effective history] that includes the appearance of the Gospel narratives themselves.

Kirk then makes two final points.

The first is that his analysis suggests that the Synoptic Gospels are not garden-variety archival materials – that they are actually ‘symbolically concentrated mediations of the aggregates of events’ (p 310) rather than incomplete records of particular events. This, he suggests, helps to explain the lack of extra early Jesus tradition in the non-canonical material, and supports Gerhardsson’s questioning of the notion that the authors of the canon selected material from a large amount of Jesus-tradition. The notion that the Synoptics are not ordinary archival materials is not new, nor is the idea that they nevertheless contain historical information. His suggestion that they are concentrated aggregates of events rather than selections from a large amount of circulating material is new – at least to me. This builds, I assume, on the fact that tradition replaces individual memories in the memories of the community to which the tradition belongs, so that other material is forgotten unless it is recorded in some way. I am not sure, however, that there is as big a lack as he suggests in the non-canonical material. About half of GosThom is not found in the canon and there is other material in the other apocryphal gospels. While some of this is, to our thinking, clearly fantastic, to the person who is unused to the canon, much of the gospel material is also fantastic, although Christians hold it to be true. Clearly, however, this contention deserves more thought.

Second, he maintains that even though it has been usual to view the question of historicity of the gospel tradition as being a question of its relationship to individual eyewitness recollection, this is not really accurate. The fact that individual memory has an uneven ability to remember episodic details is not really important because it is these details that are filtered out as of minimal relevance for the task of the tradition – ‘to distil out and transmit the normative past.’ Thus, he contends that the historiographical challenges presented by the tradition have little to do with the qualities of eyewitness memory.

I think Kirk’s paper is an important contribution to the field, but I think he has misunderstood its significance. He spends significant time demonstrating that in everyday life, as opposed to forensic situations, a critical part of remembering is determining which of the details of an event are salient and therefore worth remembering. Tradition, he contends, is formed as individual eyewitnesses share their memories and the community determines what is salient for the purposes of understanding its collective moral and social identity. He seems to see this as somehow different to what happens when individuals remember and yet psychologists suggest that individuals rarely remember events in order to reconstruct history, but rather to help them to understand themselves as moral and social beings (see my paper here for references). Thus, what Kirk describes as he describes the formation of tradition appears to be the same process that individuals go through in remembering the past, just at a group rather than an individual level. It is also the same process that the people working in social memory theory are describing, but using a different theoretical basis. What communities do when they create traditions in which to preserve important memories is the same as individuals do when they create and retrieve individual memories. Yes, they are more stable than individual memories because more people are invested in maintaining their stability, but the process of sifting, sorting and re-sorting is basically the same, because it is using the same basic tool – the human brain. I think that what is actually happening is that we are getting increasing triangulation from various sciences – psychology, neuroscience and sociology – that helps us to understand the nature of the gospel materials and therefore what kinds of conclusions we can reasonably draw from them.

They are not ordinary historical accounts and cannot be treated as though they are, but nor are they simply ahistorical materials designed to convince the reader of the author’s particular theological perspective. That we have increasing scientific evidence of this has important implications for Christians, but does not, I think, invalidate the preceding two millennia of faith.


2 thoughts on “Alan Kirk on Cognition, Commemoration and Tradition (3) – memory, tradition & historiography

  1. Pingback: Alan Kirk on Cognition, Commemoration and Tradition (2) – how tradition emerges | Judy's research blog

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