The Memory Mavens, Part 3: Bethlehem Remembered

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by Tim Widowfield

As you may recall from the first part of this series, Maurice Halbwachs wrote an important and detailed treatise on social memory and its relation to memorialized places (les localisations), which he called The Legendary Topography of the Gospels in the Holy Land: A Study of Collective Memory (La topographie legendaire des evangiles en terre sainte: Etude de memoire collective). In it, he chronicled the succession of Christians who memorialized various key places in Palestine: Nazareth, Bethlehem, Jerusalem, etc. Pilgrims, as well as those who could only imagine those places, combined the shared memory of events in the gospels with the ritual observance of those events within the social framework of their religion.

O, little town of Bethlehem

Grotto of the Nativity

Grotto of the Nativity, west part. Bethlehem.
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

[Note: Edited on 20 April 2015. The earlier version erroneously said that La topographie was unfinished and published posthumously. That is incorrect. It was, rather, the work entitled La mémoire collective (1950), which was published after Halbwachs’s death in Buchenwald. We need to be careful not to confuse the English translation, The Collective Memory, with On Collective Memory. The latter is a collection, consisting of excerpts from Les Cadres Sociaux de La Memoire (The Social Frameworks of Memory) and the Conclusion (only) of The Legendary Topography of the Gospels.]

I must stress two points at the outset. First, for Halbwachs, the individual recollections of the disciples (imperfect, distorted, and incomplete as they may have been) formed the basis of the collective memory of later Christians. History, as we understand it today, is the product of critical research, and we shouldn’t confuse its results with our study of the collective memory of Christianity. Halwachs writes:

Collective memory must be distinguished from history. Historical preoccupations such as we think of them, and which each author of a work of history must be concerned with, were alien to Christians of those periods. It is in the context of a milieu comprising believers devoted to their religion that the cult of the holy sites was created. Their memories were closely tied to rites of commemoration and adoration, to ceremonies, feasts, and processions. (Halbwachs, 1992, p. 222)

How still we see thee lie

The second point we should keep in mind is that the work in French contained extensive notes by the author, with each chapter representing a different locale. The English version omits these earlier sections. Coser explains in a footnote:

The whole thesis and documentation of La topographie legendaire des evangiles en terre sainte: Etude de memoire collective is found in the conclusion, which has been translated in full. Earlier chapters are preparatory in character, discussing sources, documentation, and the like. They are primarily of interest to specialists in the area, and have not been translated here. (Halbwachs, 1992, p. 193, emphasis mine)

Anyone seeking to engage Halbwachs’s conclusions and criticize them needs to take those words to heart. It struck me after writing my first post on the Memory Mavens that I had perhaps been too harsh with Barry Schwartz. After all, according to Anthony Le Donne, he is peerless

If you’ve ever wondered what a “secular historian” might think of what we’re doing here in the inner sanctum, this is the book for you. While busy with his Abraham Lincoln monograph series, Professor Schwartz has become conversant with historical Jesus research and New Testament studies in his “spare time” over the past ten years. Schwartz has deep roots in sociology and is (without rival) the leading voice of social memory theory in the English-speaking world.

There you have it. He has no rival. When I first read the following sentences from Schwartz’s SBL address/paper from 2005, I thought they were provocative —

Halbwachs advances a pejorative conception of collective memory, one that distrusts and works to undermine established beliefs. He assumes that memory, as opposed to history, is inauthentic, manipulative, shady, something to be overcome rather than accepted in its own right. That commemoration is a selective celebration rather than an inferior version of history escapes Halbwachs. (Schwartz, 2005, p. 49, emphasis mine)

— because Schwartz was not simply saying he disagreed with Halbwachs, but he essentially accused him of scholarly malpractice. More than that, I found it provocative because I believed Schwartz was utterly wrong. However, I had not consulted those earlier chapters in La topographie legendaire, and perhaps I had missed something. An expert sans peer must have read these preliminary chapters since they are, after all, aimed at experts. So I ordered the book last month and began reading — slowly, of course. The last time I studied French was in high school, and that was nearly 40 years ago.

Above thy deep and dreamless sleep

Recall that the supposed dismissal of the Nativity in Bethlehem as a legend sparked Schwartz’s tirade, so we should investigate what Halbwachs said about it in his chapter on Bethlehem (Halbwachs, 2008, pp. 50-63). Actually, we need look no further than the introduction, in which the author quotes Ernest Renan (see below: Renan, 1864).

Early in the Life of Jesus, Renan wrote: “Jesus was born in Nazareth.” For him, “it is only by a rather embarrassed and round-about way, that, in the legends respecting him, he is made to be born in Bethlehem.” We will study the topographical traditions which are connected with this city. We note merely that the Pilgrim of Bordeaux saw the newly built basilica on that site that was believed to be that of his birth, but before and after that, he mentions purely Jewish locations. (Halbwachs, 2008, my translation)

By that, he means that the Pilgrim of Bordeaux listed several sites, all of which had links to the Old Testament, except for one, sandwiched in between. You can read the pilgrim’s itinerary from 333 CE on line. I’ve copied the relevant passage below:

The Surroundings of Jerusalem: 
Bethlehem and Hebron

On the road, on the right hand, is a tomb, in which lies Rachel, the wife of Jacob (Gen 35:19-20; Matt 2:18). Two miles from thence, on the left hand, is Bethlehem, where our Lord Jesus Christ was born (Matt 2:1; Luke 2:1-7). A basilica has been built there by the orders of Constantine. Not far from thence is the tomb of Ezekiel, Asaph, Job, Jesse, David, and Solomon, whose names are inscribed in Hebrew letters upon the wall as you go down into the vault itself.

Here we see the contrast between the results of critical, historical scholarship — whose consensus position regarding the birth of Jesus still overwhelmingly favors Nazareth — and Christian collective memory, which well before 333 CE had accepted Bethlehem as the obvious place of the birth of the Messiah.

Gustaf Dalman, upon whom Halbwachs relies heavily, writes in Sacred Sites and Ways: Studies in the Topography of the Gospels (1935), that some writers thought Jesus’ actual birthplace was not in Judea, but in Bethlehem of Zebulon, which lies 12 miles to the north of Nazareth. And Halbwachs reminds us that in the gospels of John and Mark, Bethlehem is not even mentioned.

The silent stars go by

The careful reader will quickly appreciate that for Halbwachs, the historical “authenticity” of the Nativity is secondary to his interests. We will recall that later traditions concerning the Nativity centered not on a house (Matthew) or a manger in a stable (Luke), but on a grotto. In fact, Halbwachs visited the grotto for a little firsthand research. He recounts a Provençal Christmas carol from his youth about the three kings who came to visit Jesus and then writes:

I remembered this old Provençal Christmas carol when I was in Bethlehem. I went in a car. What does one see in the car? At the Church of the Nativity, we went down by one of the two spiral staircases of fifteen steps, in the underground church under the choir. It is irregular, because it occupies the site of the Stable and the Crèche. It is cut into the rock. The floor and walls are covered with marble. The place of the Nativity is marked by white marble inlaid with jasper, and surrounded by a silver disc, radiating in the form of the sun, round about which we read: Hic de Virgine Maria, Jesus Christus Natus est.

A few steps away, toward the south, we descend by two degrees, and we find an arch deeply embedded in the rock. A block of white marble, carved in the shape of a cradle, indicates the crib. This sort of crypt is lit only by lamps or candles. A dozen Italian Franciscans, kneeling, solemnly sing a hymn or litanies. – The outer and inner church is shared among Greeks, Armenians, Roman Catholics. According to an Assumptionist who accompanied us, a quarrel concerning the erosion of the silver disc, or the location it occupies, was the cause of the Crimean War . . . (Halbwachs, 2008, p. 50, my translation)

I invite you to compare those gentle, almost wistful, musings to Schwartz’s blistering denunciations:

In these sites [of memory] Bultmann and Halbwachs share great interest, but where Bultmann regards them as one source of information about Christian origins, Halbwachs takes them as the primary source and is determined to demonstrate their capacity to distort. As we consider the question of whether Gospel content reflects or determines popular beliefs about Jesus, therefore, we quickly realize that Maurice Halbwachs, founder of the field of collective memory, provides no help. He says little about the life of Jesus, confining himself instead to the landmarks symbolizing it. (Schwartz, 2005, p. 49, emphasis mine)

Yet in thy dark street shineth the everlasting light

It is one thing to learn and accept the belief that God became flesh and died for your sins. It is quite another to experience the location of Golgotha and to feel the certain knowledge in your heart that this is the place where Jesus died.

I’m not sure what to make of Schwartz’s hostility and ignorance. As we noted earlier, Halbwachs drew clear distinctions among the three disciplines at work here. First, how the disciples’ recollection of events may have been distorted over time is a question about individual memory. Such distortions refer to the capacity of humans to remember, while recognizing our limitations with respect to observation, encoding, and retrieval. Second, historical memory attempts to describe the past “as it essentially was.” Critical historical scholarship in the New Testament seeks to discover what Jesus and his followers probably said and did.

The third discipline, social memory, was Halbwachs’s main concern. Hence, the historicity of locations and the events Christians believed took place there remain secondary. That’s because social memory is not “an inferior version of history,” but something else altogether. Halbwachs cared about what Christians at different times thought about the sacred places in the “Holy Land,” and how their religious beliefs informed those thoughts and feelings. He was not “confining himself to the landmarks,” but to the people and how they used those landmarks as social frames (les cadres sociaux) upon which to interpret their memories.

Contrary to Schwartz, Halbwachs never argued that the landmarks are the “primary source” of Christian origins. He was not interested in their “capacity to distort,” but rather, in their usage as reinforcements of already-held beliefs. It is one thing to learn and accept the belief that God became flesh and died for your sins. It is quite another to experience the location of Golgotha and to feel the certain knowledge in your heart that this is the place where Jesus died. The locations pilgrims visited in ancient times and continue to visit today tie theological, transcendent beliefs to concrete, temporal locations. In other words, they turn thoughts into personal reality.

The hopes and fears of all the years 

Nevertheless, Halbwachs did accept the scholarly consensus that the Bethlehem story is not historical.

There is nothing indicating that Jesus was born at Bethlehem, that Joseph and Mary ever passed through or stayed there, or that they were ever in Egypt. The authors of the Gospels seem entirely to have invented this poetic history which has occupied a considerable place in Christian imagination. The story was meant to show to the Jews that Jesus really was the Messiah since he was born in the city of David in conformity with scripture. (Halbwachs, 1992, p. 214)

Halbwachs theorized that early Christianity needed to link its memories to the locations of earlier Jewish memories in order to legitimize itself.

The Christian collective memory could annex a part of the Jewish collective memory only by appropriating part of the latter’s local remembrance while at the same time transforming its entire perspective of historical space. This happens when a territorial group unites with another whose soil is more sacred and more ancient: in this way its own territories become elevated and gain in prestige. (Halbwachs, 1992, p. 215)

Christianity appropriated the memories of Judaism and transformed them into indicators of the Messiah. Even non-prophetic works in the Hebrew Bible became sources for prophecies of Jesus. Moreover, the New Testament events that occurred at various sites in Jerusalem now overshadowed the long history of kings, priests, people, and prophets.

Christians also embraced landmarks in Jerusalem that had no Jewish ties.

The Court of Justice was an official building, the seat of Roman authority. At the time the Gospels were composed it no longer existed. Only its ruins remained, and some strewn-about stones. It seems that the Jews themselves were not concerned with preserving the memory of a place that was not Jewish and that was not linked to any of their consecrated places. But for the Christians, the Court of Justice became a consecrated place because Jesus had been there and had appeared there before his judges. (Halbwachs, 1992, p. 217)

Did the early Christians find the real sites of the Praetorium, of the Cenacle, of Golgotha? Were they historically authentic? We’re not doing archaeology here. Such questions matter to the scholar of social memory only insofar as it helps explain the thoughts and behavior of Christians over time.

Are met in thee tonight

For Halbwachs, to focus simply on pointing out inconsistencies in accounts or in noticing that some stories are legendary (while others are not) would be missing the point.

And so, returning to Schwartz, was the founder of social memory interested only in a “pejorative conception of collective memory“? Did he not “fully grasp what sacred sites accomplish“?

I’ll let Halbwachs answer. Yes, our social frameworks distort memories. However:

The very manner in which memory distorts facts reflects the need to show that each one has a significance beyond the event itself, that it has a logical place in the complete history and that it is part of a chain of events which together culminate in an event comprising all the others. . .  In the same manner it is easy to imagine how in the course of the religious ceremonies that gathered believers around Calvary, the priest turned to each rock, altar, and chapel which recalled a phase of Jesus’s torment, and made each commemorated event the theme of a doctrinal exposition, using it as a prop of demonstration. It is true that the Christian doctrine is a history; but its visible facts are the symbols of invisible truths. (Halbwachs, 1992, pp. 223-224, all emphasis mine)

Was Halbwachs some sort of cynic who thought that the gospels were fiction and that Christian memory was “inauthentic, manipulative, shady, something to be overcome rather than accepted in its own right” (Schwartz, 2005, p. 49)? Not according to his own writings:

. . . I have assumed that the events related in the Gospels corresponded to some reality. I am willing to speculate that these writings, even though they were written belatedly, were based on oral traditions that gave an image, unshaped and confused though it may be, that was to some degree authentically representative of the events themselves. (Halbwachs, 1992, p. 205)

In contrast with Renan, who visited Palestine on several occasions and spent a great deal of time there, Halbwachs visited briefly and only twice. However, as Coser points out:

Whereas Renan mainly took note of the discrepancies in the various accounts, Halbwachs attempted to explain them. He noticed, for example, that those commentators who were committed to stressing the interconnections between the Old and the New Testaments “discovered” many Christian holy places in the vicinity of Old Testament sites. Just as the apostles’ accounts of the Gospels differ in many respects — some emphasize Jesus’s life and suffering in his last days, and others stress his earlier life among the fishermen, whereas still others are wholly imaginary, like the accounts of the nativity in Bethlehem — so later generations of pilgrims and visitors found in the Holy Land what they had wished to find. (Halbwachs, 1992, p. 27, emphasis mine)

For Halbwachs, to focus simply on pointing out inconsistencies in accounts or in noticing that some stories are legendary (while others are not) would be missing the point. He wanted to understand why Christians chose certain sites, how they commemorated events at those sites, and what those locations meant to the people who remembered them. To condemn Halbwachs as the practitioner of a science that “finds its triumphant moments in clever reinterpretations or the debunking of what was once believed to be true” (Schwartz, 2005, p. 46) more than misses the point.

The holy sites of Christianity are relics of human societies. They hint at the beliefs, hopes, dreams, and aspirations of our forebears. I’ll let Maurice Halbwachs have the last word.

If the mission of humanity through the ages has been to make an effort to create or recreate gods in order to transcend itself, then one finds the essence of the religious phenomenon in those stones erected and preserved by crowds and by successive generations of people whose traces one can follow in these very stones. These are not traces of a human or supernatural individual but rather of groups animated by a collective faith that remains moving even if one does not really know its true nature. These groups evoked this individual, and those who were associated with him, in each epoch. (Halbwachs, 1992, p. 235, emphasis mine)

Halbwachs, Maurice

On Collective Memory, University Of Chicago Press, 1992/1925

La topographie legendaire des evangiles en terre sainte: Etude de memoire collective, Presses Universitaires de France (Quadrige/PUF), 2008 (1st ed., 1941, 2nd ed., 1971)

Renan, Ernest

The Life of Jesus, Trübner, 1864 (orig. French ver., 1863)

Schwartz, Barry

“Christian Origins: Historical Truth and Social Memory” in Kirk & Thatcher, Memory, Tradition, and Text: Uses of the Past in Early Christianity, SBL, 2005


  • Blood
    2014-12-26 19:05:04 UTC - 19:05 | Permalink

    You’ve forced me to try to track down and read Schwartz, though I’m not looking forward to it.

    Isn’t it funny how theologians are happy to accept the research of experts outside their field when it supports their ideas, but are openly hostile and dismissive (“he doesn’t have a degree in NT studies, how can he know anything!”) when it doesn’t?

    Looking forward to future posts in this important series.

    • Tim Widowfield
      2014-12-26 20:52:20 UTC - 20:52 | Permalink

      His stuff on Lincoln is highly readable and useful. But he loses all perspective when he gets a whiff of “constructivist” social memory theory. And he suffers, I think, from his ties to modern NT scholars who hate form criticism and wish to blame it for all the world’s ills.

  • Neil Godfrey
    2014-12-28 06:01:45 UTC - 06:01 | Permalink

    The message of these posts deserves to be making its point felt more widely. I’d like to see a way for some memory-theory scholars respond to these arguments.

  • Pingback: Vridar » The Memory Mavens, Part 5: Rituals and Remembrance (1)

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