The Memory Mavens, Part 5: Rituals and Remembrance (1)

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by Tim Widowfield

The Historiographical Jesus

The Historiographical Jesus

Earlier this month on The Jesus Blog, Anthony Le Donne, one of the main Memory Mavens, let us know that he had publicly posted a chapter of his monograph, The Historiographical Jesus: Memory, Typology, and the Son of David. (You can, incidentally, read the original version of Le Donne’s thesis at the Durham University web site.) While I expect to have more to say about Le Donne’s book in a later post in this series, for the time being I would like to focus on three criticisms he has about Maurice Halbwachs‘s study of the sacred sites of Palestine.

Before going further, we should note that Halbwachs’ study was seriously deficient in several ways. The first is that he relied heavily upon the account by pilgrims of Bordeaux and neglected any part that Constantine played in the localization of holy sites.[14] Also, he inexplicably presupposed that the Synoptic Gospels took written form in the second century and perhaps over a century after the events to which they attest.[15] This poorly defended position was foundational to Halbwachs’ conclusion that the Gospels are mostly invented and fictive in nature.[16] Halbwachs also misrepresented (and oversimplified) the relationship between Jewish and Christian religious belief.

[14] Eusebius, Vita Constantine, 2.46; 3.30–32. Constantine’s wife Helena is also reputed to have traveled to Bethlehem and Jerusalem to establish monuments at the place of Jesus’ birth and at the Mount of Olives. See H. Lietzmann, From Constantine to Julian: A History of the Church, vol. 3 (London: Lutterworth, 1950), 147.

[15] Halbwachs, On Collective Memory, 209.

[16] Halbwachs, On Collective Memory, 213.

(Le Donne, 2009, p. 44, emphasis mine)

Constantine’s . . . er . . . wife?

Before continuing, we ought to address the elephant in the room. Seriously? Constantine’s wife? Helena was, of course, the mother of Constantine. How is it possible that “the first book-length treatment of Social Memory for historical Jesus research” managed to undergo intense scrutiny from a PhD examination board, extensive peer review, editing by a major publishing house, glowing reviews from scholars around the world — all without noticing this strange little error? 

I have no doubt that Le Donne knows full well that Helena was the mother of Constantine and the consort of Constantius Chlorus. Only a complete chowderhead would confuse Constantine with Oedipus Rex. What concerns me, though, is the fact that so many eyes looked over this work, and nobody noticed it. Doesn’t anybody read anymore? (Note: Hans Lietzmann usually refers to Helena as the queen-mother. Le Donne surely knows what that means.)

As you can see above in the quotation above from Le Donne, his critique of Halbwachs relies heavily on an analysis of the last chapter of On Collective Memory. We mentioned in part three of this series that this last chapter is actually only the conclusion of a much longer treatment. Our first clue that we’re missing something is that the title of the chapter is “Conclusion,” but the actual conclusion of The Social Frameworks of Memory can be found on p. 167. The conclusion that starts on p. 193 is, in fact, the concluding chapter of 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).

We can find our second clue (to the fact that we’re missing a good deal of material from the original study) in the first 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)

Now the careful reader may take some solace in learning that Le Donne cites La topographie legendaire in the bibliography of his thesis (and probably in his book too, but I’m still waiting for delivery). However, it would appear he did not consult this longer work when he leveled his charges against Halbwachs. Nor does it seem that he even read On Collective Memory itself all that carefully. Let’s consider each of his criticisms against the totality of Halbwachs’s work and see how they hold up.

Halbwachs “neglected any part that Constantine played in the localization of holy sites”

If you search for the words Constantine, Helena, and Eusebius in On Collective Memory, you will find, as did Le Donne, that Halbwachs never mentions Eusebius. And the only reference to Helena merely mentions her in passing:

After Helena and Constantine had built the churches of Bethlehem, Anastasius, and Martyrium, the bishop of Maximus — under Constantine, around 340 — erected the Basilica of the Apostles (called St. Zion) on the actual site of the Cenacle [The “Upper Room”]. (Halbwachs, 1992, p. 225)

And if you restricted your reading to On Collective Memory, you would come away thinking that Halbwachs had omitted Eusebius completely. Such an omission would be hard to imagine, given the scope of his project and its emphasis on the two distinct periods of localization in the Holy Land, which Halbwachs called “the epoch of Constantine and the epoch of the Crusaders.” (Halbwachs, 1992, p. 233)

But it turns out Halbachs did consult Eusebius and mentions him several times in the larger work, La topographie legendaire. He specifically cited the Life of Constantine several times. I’ve taken the liberty of translating two relevant passages, which you’ll find below. First, here’s what he wrote about the church at Bethlehem.

The basilica [at Bethlehem] was built by the Emperor Constantine, or more precisely by his mother Helena, starting from the year 326 (Eusebius, Life of Constantine). This was what the pilgrim [of Bordeaux] saw in 333. According to the annals of the patriarch Eutychius (tenth century), [the emperor] Justinian would have destroyed it and had it replaced, around 540, with a larger church. Vincent and Abel [Jérusalem. Recherches de topographie, d’archéologie et d’histoire, 1914] are convinced that the nave, including beyond the outside corner of the transept, dates back to the early days. (Halbwachs, 2008, p. 46, emphasis mine)

And here’s what he wrote about the church on the Mount of Olives.

Before Constantine had occupied the holy places of Palestine, the memory of the apocalyptic discourse of Jesus [cf. the Little Apocalypse of Mark 13] was linked to a cave that opened up to the top of the mountain [i.e., the Mount of Olives]. This leads to a text by Eusebius that Helen constructed a unique church, near the summit but not on the highest point above the cave [2]. As it was thought that Jesus departed from the cave to return to his father, this same building perpetuated (perhaps) the memory of his Ascension as well as his teaching. At any rate, the pilgrim of Bordeaux speaks only of teaching.

[2]. Life of Constantine, III (41), [translation by Ivar August] Heikel, p. 95: “For this is the same place, in the cave specifically, which authentic history relates that the Savior introduced all his disciples to the hidden mysteries.” [my translation into English of Halbwachs’s French translation of Heikel’s German translation of Eusebius’s Greek]

(Halbwachs, 2008, p. 46, emphasis mine)

I have retained Halbwachs’s footnote for increased emphasis. He did not neglect Constantine, Helena, or Eusebius. On the other hand, for whatever reason, Le Donne (along with his PhD advisers, editors, and reviewers) has neglected Halbwachs.

By the way, regarding his charge that Halbwachs relied too heavily on the testimony of the Pilgrims of Bordeaux, you would only think that if you hadn’t read the whole work. If anything, I was concerned that he had relied a bit too much on Gustaf Dalman, whom he quotes extensively, practically verbatim throughout the middle chapters.

Halbwachs “inexplicably presupposed that the Synoptic Gospels took written form in the second century”

Halbwachs wrote:

This is the source of the thesis that “the Gospels, which were an apocalyptic revelation in the first century, became a legendary form of narrative in the second.” (Halbwachs, 1992, p. 209)

La Donne reframes Halbwach’s thesis as a presupposition, which he finds both inexplicable and poorly defended. We can debate whether Halbachs defended this thesis adequately. But I would point out that he is not presenting it as his own, but as a conclusion based on his readings of Ernest Renan and Paul-Louis Couchoud. He explains:

Things look different when it comes to the story of the Gospels. The facts of which they speak have not retained the attention of historians. Josephus does not mention them. According to Renan, the account of the death of John the Baptist, as it appears in the Gospel of Mark, would be “the only genuinely historical page in all of the Gospels.” In the authentic epistles of Paul, we are told only that the son of God has come to earth, that he died for our sins, and that he was brought back to life again. There is no allusion to the circumstances of his life, except for the Lord’s Supper, which, Paul says, appeared to him in a vision (and not through witnesses). There is no indication of locality, no question of Galilee, or of the preachings of Jesus on the shores of the lake of Gennesaret. In the Apocalypse of John, which is, according to Couchoud, together with the epistles of Paul, “the only Christian document that can be dated with certainty in the first century,” all we are told of Jesus is that “he died and was resurrected, but not suffering or crucified.” Naturally, no specific location is provided either. (Halbwachs, 1992, p. 209, emphasis mine)

Paul-Louis Couchoud

Paul-Louis Couchoud

You may recall from Neil’s series on Couchoud’s The Creation of Christ, that the French scholar had changed his mind from The Enigma of Jesus (1924), in which he suggested that Mark wrote his gospel sometime during the reign of Domitian (81-96). By 1937, Couchoud had become convinced that the written gospels did not take shape until the first half of the second century. Neil and I would tend to disagree:

Whereas many (including myself) have attempted to argue that the gospel narrative was an indirect response to the crisis of the first Jewish war that witnessed the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, Couchoud places more emphasis on the events of the second Jewish war — the Bar Kochba rebellion (Bar Kochba being hailed as a Jewish Christ and being responsible for persecutions of Christians) and its suppression by Hadrian who erected a pagan temple on the site of the old in the early and mid 130s. (Neil Godfrey, 2011, Vridar)

As I said earlier, we can debate whether Halbwachs adequately defended the thesis (not a preconception) that the gospels were written perhaps 60 years later than today’s consensus date of 70 CE. But calling it “inexplicable,” I think, works only because Le Donne knows that you, the reader, will almost certainly not read Halbwachs.

It also depends on the fact that you (like Le Donne) will decline to go further to investigate Renan and Couchoud and find out why they posited late dates for the gospels. After all, Halbwachs is not presenting the thesis as his own, but as something he found persuasive in his research of contemporary NT scholars. It took me less that a day of reading and research to understand where Halbwachs was coming from, and I’m just a curious amateur.

I find Le Donne’s flippant dismissal both inexplicable and poorly defended.

“Halbwachs . . . misrepresented (and oversimplified) the relationship between Jewish and Christian religious belief”

Rule of thumb: When in doubt, accuse your opponent of “oversimplifying” the subject matter. Just look at any book review today, and you’re likely to see someone scolding an author for not going into enough detail. “Of course, it is far, far more complicated than [author’s name] would lead us to believe,” snorts the distressed reviewer, as the monocle pops out of his eye.

What doesn’t Le Donne approve of, exactly? He writes:

Halbwachs was under the impression that Christianity was “drastically opposed” to Judaism and therefore understood the belief systems of the two religions to be “sharply contrasted.” [17] This is unfortunate because it consequentially weakens his otherwise insightful comments on the correspondence between Jewish topography and Christian commemoration.

[17] Halbwachs, On Collective Memory, 202.

(Le Donne, 2009, p. 44, emphasis mine)

Here’s what Halbwachs wrote:

At the beginning there must have been a period when the Christian community was not officially recognized and when it was attacked and persecuted. It must then have appeared important to preserve the memory of its historical beginnings, more than of any other epoch. The Christian community had no place in the regular Jewish society or in the legal Roman society of the time. It therefore had to concentrate all its forces upon the immediate past and upon those places that were imbued with its memories.

Christian thought contrasted sharply with the outlook of the surrounding groups in the midst of which it tried to organize itself. Its beliefs were drastically opposed to Jewish and pagan belief systems because of its different conceptions of life and society, and because of the whole sum of apocalyptic and supernatural visions which it constructed. This collective representation was construed without the help of any pagan elements, or of aspects of life in Jerusalem. How could such a memory continue if it failed to attach itself to some points in the terrain? These places were just as real in the present as in the past. (Halbwachs, 1992, p. 202, emphasis and reformatting mine)

Today, it is quite common to see NT scholars argue that the “reluctant parting” between Jews and Christians was overblown and that there was very little persecution in the early centuries of the faith. There may have been localized persecutions, but (we’re now told) not much in the way of empire-wide persecutions. However, in Halbwachs’s day, most scholars accepted the idea that pagans and Jews continually attacked and persecuted early Christians.

I think the proper response in this situation is to remember that we’re reading a work researched in the 1930s and published in 1941. I don’t think it damages Halbwachs’s overall arguments. It is possible to view historical works like this with a modern perspective, taking what is relevant and setting aside what is now passé or even discredited. If we couldn’t do that, then we’d be perpetually stuck in the present, unable to learn from our predecessors.

Conclusion (for now)

I had started this post as a point of departure to discuss rituals, especially religious rituals as Halbwachs discussed in chapter six of The Social Frameworks of Memory, “Religious Collective Memory,” and Paul Connerton’s penetrating observations on “commemorative ceremonies” and “bodily practices.”

I was going to point out that Le Donne’s statement —

Halbwachs’ conception of memory was hinged on the process of “localization.” (Le Donne, 2009, p. 47)

— is misleading. He cannot mean that Halbwachs’s only way of keying present reconstructions of memory to the past was through connections to geographical places. Focusing solely on the effects of localization would shortchange Halbwachs’s insightful thoughts on the cyclical rituals of Christianity. For example:

After his death and resurrection Christ did not lose contact with humankind, but rather remains perpetually within the bosom of his Church. There is no ceremony of the cult from which he is absent; there is no prayer and act of adoration which does not reach up to him. The sacrifice through which he has given us his body and his blood did not take place a single time. It is integrally renewed every time believers are assembled to receive the Eucharist. What is more, the successive sacrifices — celebrated at distinct moments and in distinct places — are but one and the same sacrifice. (Halbwachs, 1992, p. 90, emphasis mine)

However, I fear this post is already too long, and so I’ll stop for now. We’ll address the subject of rituals in depth in the next post.

Editorial Note

I have removed references in the above post in which I mistakenly wrote that La topographie legendaire des evangiles en terre sainte was published posthumously. It was notOn Collective Memory (Les cadres sociaux de la memoire) was published in 1925, followed by La topographie in 1941, during the Vichy occupation. Halbwachs’s final, unfinished work, The Collective Memory (La mémoire collective) was published in 1950, five years after his death in Buchenwald.

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)

Le Donne, Anthony

The Historiographical Jesus: Memory, Typology, and the Son of David, Baylor University Press, 2009


  • Bee
    2015-01-26 17:13:46 UTC - 17:13 | Permalink

    Great job Tim

    • Tim Widowfield
      2015-01-26 19:11:06 UTC - 19:11 | Permalink

      Thanks, Bee.

  • Neil Godfrey
    2015-01-26 19:57:12 UTC - 19:57 | Permalink

    Indeed. There is so much review and analysis to be done and I look forward to retirement when I’d like to think I will be able to contribute more like this, too. Meanwhile I’d really like someone to bring Tim’s series to the attention of Keith and LeDonne. I had once thought we were able to have amicable discussions but it appears that third parties who have taken ill-informed or unnecessary offence have led them to ignore my emails and ban my comments from their blog. So I’m not the one to attempt to bring these posts to their attention and request some comment.

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