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 http://www.revistajesushistorico.ifcs.ufrj.br/arquivos13/2-Redman.pdf 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.

Alan Kirk on Cognition, Commemoration and Tradition (2) – how tradition emerges

How tradition emerges

This is the second 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, and follows on from here.

Kirk begins his account of the emergence of tradition by looking at ‘schemas’ – the structures containing a set of ‘typical’ elements for particular activities that our memories use to save space by configuring memories in logical (conceptual or sequential) order. ‘Experiences unfold in unpredictable, diffuse ways, rarely schematically, but in memory they will be organized and recalled as such.’ (p 296) Further, memories which are schematically similar will blend together over time to form a generic memory which achieves the smallest possible size for minimal loss of information (p 267). Although each of us has individual schemas for particular kinds of events, many of them are drawn from the schemas and scripts of the culture into which we are socialised. Kirk argues that that ‘cognitive schemas are already a form of tradition’ and that memory makes sense of the present by enabling us to make connections between present experience and the schematic patterns laid down in the past (p 298).

How well something is remembered depends on the strength of neural connections formed, which depend on the conditions when the memory is initially encoded, and then on what happens when it is subsequently recalled. People are more likely to remember material that matters (is salient) to them and to forget that which is not. They are more likely to remember events that arouse their emotions, and to become emotionally aroused again when they remember these events. In particular, events that have moral significance to the person are more likely to be deeply encoded and more frequently remembered and thought about, which further reinforces the patterns in which they are encoded. This, again, is triangulation of findings from psychology and social memory theory.

He then notes the similarities between memories as cognitive artefacts and tradition forms as cultural artefacts – they both have schematic, scripted structures, filtering of details and convergence upon existentially and morally salient element. They are thus ‘economical bearers of judgements, evaluations, and affects’ (p 299) From here, he moves to memory genres and forms.

When people communicate their memories, they do so using the formulaic patterns of the genres in circulation within their cultures, and the way that the memories are communicated consolidates the memories. Kirk illustrates this with Harald Welzer, Sabine Moller, and Karoline Tschuggnal’s Opa war kein Nazi: Nationalsozialismus und Holocaust im Familiengedächtnis [trans: Grandpa was not a Nazi: National Socialism and Holocaust in family memory] (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Taschenbuch, 2002), which details the shift in the way family memories are told between the generation that lived through the National Socialist era and their grandchildren as they tell the stories using schemata from their respective ‘ambient cultural fields.’ They show that there has been a shift between generations from the grandparents who simply use the narrative schemas from the Nazi era to tell stories about the soldiers being transported east to Soviet prison camps, and the women in houses trying to hide from Russian soldiers, to grandchildren who distance their grandparents from the regime (Opa war kein Nazi) and even cast them as heroic resisters and helpers of the oppressed. Clearly this tendency for the tradition to ‘romanticise’ events is problematic for the historian and biblical scholar, although Kirk aims to minimise the difficulties by saying that (unlike, the reader must assume, the Jesus events) this study is on memories which could potentially disrupt rather than strengthen the family, so, he suggests the grandchildren view the era as one from which lessons must be learned but which has no bearing on them personally; and that the sample excludes those who are unwilling to talk about their memories, thus biasing it. (pp 299-301)

Kirk next examines how commemorations become traditions (pp 301-303). ‘Community identity is grounded in a shared past; remembering therefore is a high stakes activity: commemoration.‘ (p 301) He describes commemorations as more than just the sum of individual recollections. They form around elements that are important for the moral and social identity of the commemorating community and thus have had individual recollections filtered out. ‘Emergent representations thereby escape the limitations of unreflective, notoriously unstable eyewitness memories with their fragmented, idiosyncratic perspectives’ and thus ‘[c]ommemorative artifacts highlight morally significant elements of a past event at the expense of specific details and thus take on timeless, exemplary qualities.’ (p 302) He states approvingly that they become cultural symbols, virtually decontextualised and stabilized in ‘culturally resonant media forms.’ Again, however, freeing the important elements of a story from their historical context is problematic for the historian and potentially also for the biblical scholar.

From here he moves to the effects of these cultural artifacts back on the cognitive processes (pp 303-305). This section is very dense and provides significant information about the neurobiology of memory, but Kirk appears to be saying that using cognitive-cultural coupling, the brain is able to extend its capacity by using ‘cultural artifacts’ (such as tradition) to store important information. Because of the way that memory works, the memories of individuals are relatively unstable, whereas cognitive-cultural coupling in the form of tradition provides external support which renders salient memories very stable. Tradition, however, displaces or overwrites individual memories, becoming the cognitive basis for individual recollections. Thus, Kirk seems to be saying that once an account of an event becomes part of a tradition, the individual eyewitnesses will no longer actually remember the details of what they saw and experienced – what was salient for them is replaced by what is salient for the community.

My note in the margin of this section says ‘but what about accuracy?’ Tradition is very stable, but it may not necessarily be correct. Opa may not have been a Nazi, but he probably wasn’t the hero that the grandchildren talk about either. This doesn’t matter if the purpose of the communal memory is to extract information about appropriate responses to something like the Nazi regime, but could become quite problematic if someone thinks it would be good to nominate Opa for an award for his bravery.

Finally, before applying his work to the Synoptic tradition, Kirk looks at tradition as an autonomous cognitive system (pp 305-306). His argument here appears to be that when unnecessary detail is stripped so that the tradition can be stabilised and the memory load decreased, the material can be operated on at the higher levels of cognition which are necessary to enable ‘tradent communities’ to apply the information it contains within their shifting historical and social horizons. That is, successive communities are able to apply the concepts and precepts of tradition to the new challenges that arise as the society in which they live changes, thus ensuring the transmission of a cultural identity across generations. This, of course, is an extremely useful thing for people to be able to do with religious tradition because as time goes on it becomes increasingly unlikely that followers of a particular religion will encounter situations that are close to those in which the teachings of their faith emerged. It is not so useful for the historian.

(continued in part 3)

 

Alan Kirk on Cognition, Commemoration and Tradition (1) – memory distortion

Following on from my previous post, I want to look at Alan Kirk’s paper in the same edition of Early Christianity: ‘Cognition, Commemoration, and Tradition: Memory and the Historiography of Jesus Research” (vol 6, pp 280-310). Again, Kirk is not a blogger, but I’ve linked to his university page. The paper is fascinating, but the language is dense and deals at some depth with the psychological and neurobiological literature around cognition and memory, and he also quotes a significant amount of German literature in German – a not unreasonable thing to do in a journal published by a German company and which has German abstracts for all papers, but makes it heavier going.

Kirk begins by reminding us that there is a distinction between memory (what individuals remember about events) and tradition (what is handed down) and traces how tradition develops, with an emphasis on the neurobiological processes involved. He concludes that “We have been able to clarify where the historiographical challenges presented by the tradition lie, but these have little to do with the quality of eyewitness recollection.” (p 310) I think that the account he gives of the process is very useful, that his analysis of the significance of many of the facets of the process is insightful and helpful, but I want to suggest that what he has actually demonstrated is something different. In order to do so, I need to deal with the paper in some detail, so I am dividing my response into 3 posts.

Kirk begins with the concept of memory distortion and suggests that both sides of the historical Jesus debate now take for granted the fact that memory distortion occurs, with the more skeptical emphasising how much it contaminates fact and those who defend the tradition arguing for limitations on its effects. He points out that:

  • Psychological research into memory does not deal with real life situations because it asks participants to remember things that have no significance to them (like word lists) and deliberately tries to manipulate people into misremembering, thus exaggerating memory’s susceptibility to distortion (pp 289-291).
  • Although no two activations of a particular memory are exactly the same because neural activation of particular memories is driven by the immediate social context in which we remember it, most people are able to remember well. Thus, he contends, not all memories are necessarily distortions of events remembered (p 292).
  • Psychological memory distortion studies are mainly done in forensic (legal) situations where incidental details can be critical in determining guilt or innocence, so loss of detail can be critical and is taken as an indicator of the fragility of memory. In most other situations, he argues, what is important is the ability to determine what is worth remembering ie determining the salience of various details, rather than trying to keep track of all the detail. This involves subjective factors and makes remembering and recounting history much more complex than simply remembering a list of words by heart. (p 293-4)
  • ‘[R]emembering a significant past is an inherently relational activity’ which ‘…entails that it is under obligation to ethical norms, to the virtues of integrity, responsibility, and accountability to others’ and thus ‘…cannot be separated from its moral, existential significance for its rememberers’ (pp 294-5, emphasis Kirk’s). This, it seems to me, is a cognitive psychological explanation for Kenneth Bailey’s observation that community members in an oral society act to stop oral tradents from straying too far from what the community sees as the facts.

Thus, Kirk reiterates, but with neurobiological data as evidence, the fact that observers do not remember all the details of events that they have witnessed. This provides triangulation for previous work that looks at eyewitness testimony and human memory from psychological and social memory theory standpoints. His new contribution is in making the case that it is only in situations like that of a court-room that this is necessarily problematic. In other situations, discarding unnecessary information is a useful skill. It thus seems that he is arguing that it depends how one defines ‘accurate’ as to whether what is reproduced from people’s memories can be considered accurate.

It appears that the point he is trying to make (although he does not say this) is that the level of detail provided is not the same as the level of accuracy. For example, if I stop and ask for directions to get to 25 Smith Street, one person may tell me to drive the way I am headed and turn right into Brown Street and then left into Smith Street and number 25 will be in the second block on my left. Another may tell me that I need to keep heading south for two blocks and turn west into Brown Street, which has a McDonalds on the corner, then keep heading west for two blocks and turn south into Smith Street and that I will find number 25, which is a two-storey white house, two blocks down on my left. Both these sets of directions will get me to the same place, so they are arguably both accurate, although the second one is more detailed. Despite the extra detail, I would find it less helpful because I am not at all good at determining compass points when I am driving, so the first one would probably get me to my destination more effectively.

Kirk is, however, more interested in the material that we have available to us – the tradition – than he is in individual memories, and it is to the tradition that he turns next.

(continued in part 2)

 

 

 

 

Memory and the historical Jesus – part 4 (Thomas)

Context

Apart from what I have already said here, here and here about the 2013 SBL Memory and the Historical Jesus session, I am also interested in what we might make of the Gospel of Thomas in the light of Rafael’s point about the importance of context although this is moving away from the historical Jesus to the early Jesus movement. Rafael (in his paper, at least) is interested in the importance of context for the work of contemporary historians in accessing the historical Jesus, but it has another important function – that of controlling the possible interpretations.

We are all familiar with public figures, especially politicians, who insist that their comments have been quoted out of context and that they didn’t mean what they are quoted as having said at all. Sometimes this is even true. Sometimes quoting something out of context can sometimes make it possible to interpret it in exactly the opposite meaning to that which it had originally, and decontextualising can often enable a range of quite odd interpretations, as well as those intended by the speaker (or writer). Rafael reminds us that the interpretation given in the text explains why the words were remembered, but it does more than this – it also explains how the writer wants them to be remembered and understood. I wonder what it says about the intent of the author of  GTh, given that copies of it were still being made in the fourth century, so it clearly wasn’t considered to have been superseded by the narrative gospels.

Thomas begins his text with the statement that whoever finds the meaning of the secret sayings of Jesus which were recorded by Judas Didymos Thomas will not taste death, and in it the most complex context provided is “the disciples asked Jesus X and he replied…”. This contrasts with the Synoptics which almost invariably provide contexts that limit potential meanings and in some cases also provide the authorised interpretation (the parable of the sower springs immediately to mind). Given that about half of the so-called ‘secret’ sayings bear a significant resemblance to sayings of Jesus reported in one or more of the Synoptics, it is difficult to know exactly what the author meant by their being ‘secret’ unless GTh really did predate Mark or Q (assuming Q existed). What is quite clear is that he is not giving the reader any clues about the meanings. Any reader who wishes not to taste death needs to do some hard yards to find their correct interpretation.

If you subscribe to the theory that GTh is a Gnostic text (and many people don’t) then only the Gnostic elite have the ability to find the meaning.  If is not Gnostic, perhaps the Thomas community might have been allowing room for the guidance of the Holy Spirit to help those who genuinely wanted/deserved eternal life to find the correct meaning of the sayings – although the role of the Holy Spirit does not feature significantly in GTh.

Verbatim memory

In addition, having been quite pessimistic about our ability to prove the authenticity of any Jesus tradition or to have the actual words of Jesus, both here and on Michael Kok’s blog, I want to note a counter-argument. Anyone who has read to a small, preliterate child will recognise the speed with which they are able to learn by heart the text of a favourite book. Any attempt to alter the words or skip pages is met with loud protests and some will also offer to ‘read’ the book to you, sitting down and leafing through the pages, turning at the right time whilst reciting the words for you. I suspect that some of Jesus’ teachings were produced often enough so the disciples who travelled around with him got to know them pretty much by heart. I still think that the time-lapse between when Jesus taught and the gospels were written down, combined with the vagaries of both individual and social memory mitigates against our being able to prove that the gospels contain Jesus’ actual words, but I don’t think that what we have is necessarily a long way removed from them.

Memory and the Historical Jesus – part 3 (reflections)

I want to pick up some of the issues raised in the previous two posts and the comments on them, although I am not sure that I am actually answering the questions asked. Mike K says:

… 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?

Yes, I think that it was highly likely that Jesus followers had collections of sayings and quite possibly stories of miracles etc that were used when the narrative gospels were developed. This lines up with what we know about the way oral tradents produce hero sagas. Lord’s “The Gospels as Oral Traditional Literature,” (pp 33-91 in The Relationships Among the Gospels: An Interdisciplinary Dialogue. Ed William O Walker, Jr. San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 1978) has some helpful material on this. Unfortunately, lots of people just read Singer of Tales, which is about oral tradents producing poetic sagas, and get sidetracked by the libraries of stock phrases which are only necessary when you have to perform in a set meter.

There are basically two ways of rehearsing stories that you want to retell. One is to learn the gist or basic story outline and the punchline and choose the actual words every time you tell it. The other is to learn it verbatim and reproduce it word for word each time you tell it. The second method was used by the rabbis to learn the Hebrew Scriptures, but it is quite unusual in general story-telling circles. Even modern literate story-tellers  generally only write down the outline of their stories, and the illiterate Slavic oral tradents that Parry and Lord worked with used the story-line-plus-punch-line method. The tradents insisted that they told the same story each time, but Lord and Parry’s recordings demonstrated they were gist rather than verbatim reproductions. Experienced oral tradents tend to have  a library of stories that they can tell – typically lives of heroes which consist of a significant number of episodes but all following a similar template.  Different versions of the same saga may present episodes in a different order or add or subtract episodes, and may set them in different frames. Oral tradents certainly see no need to reproduce their stories verbatim (and I get the impression that they would see this as inappropriate).

With respect to NT biographies of ‘heroes’, Bauckham in “Historiographical Characteristics of the Gospel of John” (NTS 53, no. 1 (2007): 17-36), makes it quite clear that Graeco-Roman historians of Jesus’ time felt free to ‘deploy their own rhetorical skill quite liberally’ in composing speeches that represented ‘what the speaker in question would have said in the given circumstances’ (p 31) and there is general agreement that the gospel authors used similar methods. It therefore seems quite unlikely to me that the authors of the gospels were actually trying to reproduce Jesus’ words verbatim. They were, rather, trying to reproduce the content – the point that Jesus was trying to make with his stories – and given that what hearers take away from a particular speech event can vary considerably, and sometimes vary considerably from what the speaker thought s/he was conveying, it isn’t particularly surprising that different authors produced different versions of the same story. This is even without thinking that Jesus might have used the same story, with variations, a number of times during the course of his ministry, so different people might be remembering different originals.

As I said in response to this in the comments, people use contexts to help them remember, and this is especially true for oral transmission, but I think it depends on what they are remembering as to whether these are the contexts in which the events occurred on contexts which they’ve provided themselves as aids to memory.  If you do a memory course, you will be told that when you try to remember names or other fairly isolated items, you need to link them to things that you find memorable. In other words, where there is no natural context you construct one.  I am sure that there were times when Jesus preached to a crowd on a mountain and times when he preached to a crowd on a plain. It is quite likely that he used particular themes to do this rather than producing a random selection of stories. It is possible that what the evangelists present as the content at one of theses times is accurate, but it  is also possible that they have included material that was told at other times, but with the same theme because what has fixed in their memories is that the day when Jesus was at place X is the day when he talked about topic Y. Either would fit what we know about the way human memory works and we have no way of working out what actually happened. And it is, of course, also possible that the author of the gospel did actually make conscious decisions about placement of material within his structure in order to make particular points. It just isn’t the only explanation – and perhaps it’s a matter of both/and rather than either/or.

Memory is really complex. A whole lot of things will affect how someone remembers any particular story or event. One of the significant issues is what interests a particular person, and that will affect not only what details s/he remembers but also what actual events s/he remembers. For example, my daughter and I were recently talking about C, a mutual acquaintance. My daughter informed me that C had bought a house earlier this year, which surprised me – but apparently I was the person who told her about this! This is perfectly credible, because I saw C earlier in the year and she told me quite a  bit about her life since I had seen her twelve months earlier, but clearly her house-buying was not as important to me as it was to my daughter, so I dropped it from my memory stores and she didn’t.

Allport and Postman did some research in the 1940s where they showed people pictures of various events and then got them to tell someone who hadn’t see the picture what they had seen, and that person then told someone else, who told someone else etc. One of the pictures was of a scene in France and they found that the group of army ordinance officers remembered things like the signpost with the name and distance to the nearest town and the fact that there were army manoeuvres in the background – things that other people simply didn’t notice, but it was the job of ordinance officers to remember these kinds of things. Frederick Bartlett told a group of people a story that they would not have heard before and got them to retell it (in writing) on a number of occasions over a reasonable number of months, and in some cases years. He found that the stories rapidly became stereotyped and got shorter and shorter as time went on, with the bits that the teller found most interesting/important being moved closer and closer to the beginning of the account.

Although neither of these situations is exactly what happened in the retelling of parables and events in Jesus’ life, it suggests that the fact that one account of an event or retelling of a story does not contain the same details as another may mean that the shorter account has been told more frequently, rather than that it is more primitive, or that the more detailed account has been produced by someone who had a better eye for detail and/or was more interested in those particular features than was the teller of the shorter account. Both of these work against the traditional wisdom that the complexities of the more complex account are the result of redaction by the author to produce a particular effect, although this could also be true.

Thus, I think that Rafael is right that trying to separate Jesus’ words from their contexts is unhelpful, but the contexts in which we find them reported in the gospels are not necessarily the contexts in which Jesus said them because I think that the gospel writers are trying to tell us who Jesus was for them (and perhaps for their communities) rather than trying to produce either verbatim reproductions of his words or blow by blow accounts of his actions. Further, I while I don’t think that the gospel writers were deliberately trying to alter the facts, what they genuinely believed to be the facts may well have been altered in the course of their remembering them over time. I don’t think that Rafael is suggesting otherwise.

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.:-)

Memory and the Historical Jesus (SBL session recording) – part 1

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:

  1. Chris Keith – “The Past Approaching and Approaching the Past: The Contribution of Memory Studies to Historical Jesus Research”
  2. Zeba Crook – “Memory Distortion and the Historical Jesus”
  3. Rafael Rodríguez – “An Uneasy Concord: Memory and History in Contemporary Jesus Research”
  4. 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.

Now read on.