The Memory Mavens, Part 9: Social Memory Distortion (2)

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by Tim Widowfield

English: Close-up shot of a turntable cartridg...

English: Close-up shot of a turntable cartridge and needle resting on a vinyl record. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The word distortion reminds me of an old hobby. In our late teens and twenties, many 20th-century dinosaurs like me invested in high-fidelity (hi-fi) sound equipment to play our music. I can remember taking an LP record out of its sleeve for the first time, recording it on tape, and then storing the record away safely. We performed that ritual, because we knew each time we played the record — even with the best stylus and cartridge — it would suffer wear.

Of course, in our old analog systems we had to deal with multiple sources of distortion during recording and playback. The turntable motor might produce rumble, the stylus might produce pops and clicks as it encountered dust particles or scratches, or the tape machine might produce wow and flutter.

And so we had two goals: first, prevent the distortion where we could and second, manage or mitigate the distortion we couldn’t prevent.

Technically, none of the above are examples of electronic distortion; rather they’re instances of noise or interference. We actually had little control over true distortion, other than to use the best equipment we could afford and not to scrimp on peripheral items like cables.


As I noted above, each time we play a record, the stylus rubs directly against the vinyl and causes wear. So in this case, playback creates more damage and more noise. It changes the surface and distorts the groove. Human memory is somewhat similar. When we encode memories and, subsequently, each time we retrieve them, we change them — even if only in subtle ways. Michael Schudson, whom we met in our last installment, puts it this way:

Distortion is inevitable. Memory is distortion since memory is invariably and inevitably selective. A way of seeing is a way of not seeing, a way of remembering is a way of forgetting, too. If memory were only a kind of registration, a “true” memory might be possible. But memory is a process of encoding information, storing information, and strategically retrieving information, and there are social, psychological, and historical influences at each point. (Schudson, 1995, p. 348, emphasis mine)

Worse than noise, worse than distortion

One of our favorite Memory Mavens, Anthony Le Donne, likes to to repeat a variation on that phrase, namely: “All memory is memory distortion.” Curiously, though, he desperately insists “that this claim in no way denigrates the re­liability of memory.” (Le Donne, 2011, p. 108)

But of course it does. In fact, it’s worse than that. For memory is not simply distortion. All memory is construction and reconstruction. Our brains don’t metaphorically rewind a tape and play it back. Instead, we pull highlighted bits of memory and place them into a narrative framework. Each time we execute that process, we change the memory — we add meaning, we forget details, we embellish.

More than that, our memories suffer distortion from adjacent, stored memories and from suggestions by other people whom we trust. Loftus, Feldman, and Dashiell remind us that our brains respond to external information in ways that can cause us to recall things that never happened or never existed.

Two decades of research leave little doubt that misleading information can produce errors in what subjects report that they have seen. In some studies, the deficits in memory performance following exposure to misinformation have been dramatic, with performance differences exceeding 30%. With a little help from misinformation, subjects have recalled seeing stop signs when they were actually yield signs, hammers when they were actually screwdrivers, and curly-haired culprits when they actually had straight hair. Subjects have also recalled nonexistent items such as broken glass, tape recorders, and even something as large and conspicuous as a barn in a scene that contained no buildings at all. (Loftus, Feldman, and Dashiell, 1995, p. 48)

Our primary interest in this series is collective memory; however, all memory resides in human minds. And ongoing research continues to show that although we may believe our memories are reliable, we’re often quite mistaken.

In other realms such as psychology, sociology, criminal justice, etc., people have had to come to grips with these issues. Consider, for example, the consequences in the realm of law enforcement if we insist that human memory is almost always reliable. We know that an unscrupulous prosecutor or detective can convince a witness that he saw a hammer instead of a screwdriver, or that the person they saw for a brief instant is identical to the person now being held in police custody. Yes, and we already know what the consequences are — innocent people spending years in prison.

Ignoring the problem does more harm than good. And simply stating emphatically that memory is generally reliable is, essentially, ignoring the problem. Nor should we insist, against all available evidence, that people remember better when they witness something important. That’s demonstrably false. No, if we truly wish to account for the presence of memory distortion, we must discover its causes and observe its effects.

Some causes of memory distortion

In his groundbreaking paper, “Dynamics of Distortion in Collective Memory,” Michael Schudson identifies “at least four important and distinguishable processes of distortion in collective memory: distanciation, instrumentalization, narrativization, and conventionalization.” (Schudson, 1995, p. 348). I’ll summarize them below, using Schudson’s words.

Processes of Distortion in Collective Memory

  • Distanciation (p. 348):
    • First, there is a loss of detail. Memory grows more vague.
    • Second, there tends to be a loss of emotional intensity.
  • Instrumentalization (p. 351): Memory selects and distorts in the service of present interests.
  • Narrativization (p. 355): To pass on a version of the past, the past must be encapsulated into some
    sort of cultural form, and generally this is a narrative, a story, with a beginning, middle, and end . . .
  • Cognitivization and Conventionalization (p. 358):
    • [A]dults remember, from their own lives, not what they experienced but what they learn they are conventionally supposed to have experienced.
    • A special case of conventionalization is memorialization. Turning something into a monument or memorial changes the past in that very process.

We should point out that these four processes fall under a broader framework. Schudson maintains that:

  1. all memory is social,
  2. memory requires selection,
  3. memory selection is driven by various processes, and
  4. collective memory is open to contestation. (Schudson, 1995, pp. 360-361)

The processes of distortion listed above will make more sense to you if you understand that they are all related to the question of selection.

What Le Donne Missed

Schudson views selection of memory as the main impetus for distortion. Regrettably, Anthony Le Donne seems to have missed that point entirely. In his critique of Le Donne, Zeba Crook also misses the point. Crook rightly takes Le Donne to task for weaseling out on the term “distortion” in favor of “refraction” and writes:

Le Donne reduces memory distortion to mere memory selection. All memory is distorted because all memory is composed from a selection of possible material, not from the entirety of it. Selectivity is certainly an aspect of memory distortion, but it is by far not the whole or the heart of it, as Le Donne implies. (Crook, 2013, p. 63)

It his rebuttal, Le Donne testily complains that Crook has misrepresented his views. He says that he does not “reduce memory distortion to distanciation.” He protests:

I carefully avoid the reduction that Crook accuses me of committing. In every case, I argue that distanciation (i.e. selectivity) is the most prominent feature of memory. (Le Donne, 2013, p. 94)

In case you missed it, both chaps have lost their way. Crook misses the full import of memory selection, calling it “mere selection,” and Le Donne has equated selection (which is the primary impetus for distortion) with distanciation (which is just one of several processes of distortion). They have both veered off the highway and are tumbling about in the corn field.

And there’s more. Despite the neologisms sprinkled throughout (a requirement in modern social studies), Schudson’s paper is a model of clarity and precision. Yet when Le Donne cherry-picked its data for his work, he missed some crucial points. For example, directly after writing “memory is distortion,” doubtless intending to shock the reader, Schudson writes:

This is not to say that there are no grounds for arriving at a degree of consensus about the past. People normally accept some sorts of standards of what counts as true distortion and what counts simply as the inevitable variability of perspectives of people looking at the same phenomenon from different values and viewpoints at different points in time. (Schudson, 1995, p. 348, emphasis mine)

We could characterize these two different phenomena as significant distortion and trivial distortion. Failing to catch this distinction causes Le Donne to throw all distortions into one big stew pot. But not all variations in memory are created equal, and Schudson wants to focus on “true distortions.”

Since Le Donne ignores this distinction, he can’t help but wish to backpedal away from the term. Distortion sounds too harsh. He must continually reassure the reader that distortion is “a natural and benign function of memory selection.” (Le Donne, 2013, p. 93) Finally, he settles on a new term, refraction to replace the troublesome connotations of distortion. Unfortunately, that term sugarcoats significant distortions — i.e., true distortions.

Le Donne also appears to have missed the fact that distanciation refers not only to the gradual fading of memory, but also to the loss of emotional intensity. By that we mean that the memory may still be intact, but our perspective has changed over time. We can deal with the event on a more rational level, less clouded by anger, sorrow, guilt, etc.

Finally, Le Donne seems not to realize that Schudson fully understood the importance of language in the formation and transmission of collective memory. In fact, since we humans remember by telling stories, language is the medium of memory. It proves his point that all memory is, at least to some degree, social.

[Memories] operate through the supra-individual cultural construction of language. (Schudson, 1995, p. 347)

Schudson, I would argue, views language as the primary medium of memory. By its very nature, it contributes to “variability in perspective,” or what I’ve called above “trivial distortion.” And certainly it plays a role in the narrativization of memory. The social forms of storytelling depend heavily on a society’s use of language. How could it be otherwise?

But Le Donne sees this as a missing category of “refraction,” and so he adds articulation to Schudson’s list. Because Le Donne fails to differentiate between trivial and significant distortion, he must address it. He defines articulation as “the tendency for memories to conform to language conventions.” (Le Donne, 2009, p. 52)

Why It Matters

Lincoln’s new public image in social memory arose through a kind of punctuated equilibrium, and not via the forces of random drift, but through the constructive and destructive powers of distanciation and instrumentalization. The present created the Lincoln it needed, and it still does.

In The Historiographical Jesus, Le Donne, directly after listing Schudson’s four processes of distortion focuses on only one, narrativization, along with his own, articulation. Moreover, he deliberately de-emphasizes the constructive, destructive, and inventive power of memory distortion. His entire thesis depends on the notion that memory has continuity. He writes:

Central to this thesis is the concept of mnemonic continuity: I will argue that memory distortion refraction (most often) is a gradual and imperceptible process that renders past perceptions intelligible to the continually shifting contexts of the present. Because of this, distortion refraction trajectories can be charted backward and the historian can postulate the most plausible historical memories that best account for these distortions refractions. (Le Donne, 2011, p. 14)

Note: In this same paragraph on p. 13 of his original doctoral thesis, Le Donne used the word “distortion,” but five years later he changed it to “refraction.”

Rebutting Zeba Crook in 2013, he reiterated his earlier conviction:

My point is not that memory reliably conveys what actually happened, but that there is a tendency for early memory distortions to demonstrate continuity with later memory distortions. That is, we cannot rely on memory to verify the actual past, but we can rely on memory to (most often) evolve continuously. (Le Donne, 2013, p. 14, italics his)

He can only dare to make these bold statements because he has diluted the pool of significant distortions with insignificant distortions. He tells us that most distortions are small and gradual, to which I would say, “Yes, and those aren’t the ones we’re interested in.” Those can be explained by shifts in perspective or gradual changes in language.

As an example of true distortion, on the other hand, consider that Abraham Lincoln, a man who in life was vocally opposed to race mixing and who thought that blacks were clearly and unalterably inferior to whites, is now often portrayed as a civil rights champion. How did that happen?

With respect to Lincoln’s evolving image, I would never argue against the idea that some memory distortion occurred slowly over time, but at some point there were clear and necessarily sudden breaks with the past. Lincoln’s new public image in social memory arose through a kind of punctuated equilibrium, and not via the forces of random drift, but through the constructive and destructive powers of distanciation and instrumentalization. The present created the Lincoln it needed, and it still does.

Similarly, I think memory theory helps explain why the Jesus of the gospels differs so radically from the Jesus portrayed in Paul’s letters. The present created the Jesus it needed, and it still does.


For the time being, that’s all I have to say, specifically, about memory distortion. Bart Ehrman’s memory-centric opus, Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior, has just hit the streets, and I’m currently reading it. I expect nothing earth-shattering here, but it’s Ehrman, and we’re all required to buy his books and make him the center of our discussions, right? So the next installment will most likely have something to do with brother Bart’s new book.


Crook, Zeba

“Collective Memory Distortion and the Quest for the Historical Jesus,”in Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, vol. 11, Issue 1 (2013), pp. 53-76.

Le Donne, Anthony

The Historiographical Jesus: Memory, Typology, and the Son of David, Baylor University Press, 2009
Historical Jesus: What Can We Know and How Can We Know It?, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2011
“The Problem of Selectivity in Memory Research: A Response to Zeba Crook” in Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, vol. 11, Issue 1 (2013), pp. 77-97.

Loftus, Elizabeth; Feldman, Julie; Dashiell, Richard

“The Reality of Illusory Memories” in Memory Distortion: How Minds, Brains, and Societies Reconstruct the Past (pp. 47-68), Harvard University Press, 1995

Schudson, Michael

“Dynamics of Distortion in Collective Memory” in Memory Distortion: How Minds, Brains, and Societies Reconstruct the Past (pp. 346-364), Harvard University Press, 1995


  • Bee
    2016-03-06 07:24:01 UTC - 07:24 | Permalink

    Nice work Tim. This looks perhaps even publishable.

    Le Donne is now one of the consulting specialist editors at the JSHJ; the Journal for the Study of Historical Jesus. And he has generously invited perhaps even critical commenters on his blog to float a submission by now and then. Granted, the editorial staff now includes Mike Bird. However, Le Donne is somewhat open at times. In academe, a politely-worded and well thought out objection even to one’s own position, is sometimes allowed by mature scholars/editors.

    On a slight but probably too diverting tangent to the focus of your article, I’d add that among the things that distort initial impressions, and then memory, are probably specifically, emotional attachments. And the heavily-promoted “love” for Jesus would qualify.

    • Tim Widowfield
      2016-03-07 14:40:16 UTC - 14:40 | Permalink

      I appreciate the kind words. Given the responses Neil has received from earlier overtures to Le Donne and Co., I’m not hopeful.

  • maryhelena
    2016-03-06 11:00:16 UTC - 11:00 | Permalink

    Yep, we all have to read Bart’s new book 😉

    I’ve just finished the book so await your review with interest.

    There is one thing those proposing eyewitness to a Pilate Jesus crucifixion are forgetting – people living around 30/33 c.e. would not have a memory blank slate. i.e. they would remember earlier than 30/33 c.e. historical/political events. Thus, an assumed eyewitness to a Jesus crucified by Pilate would also be in procession of an earlier memory about Rome executing a King of the Jews. (Antigonus in 37 b.c.e.) How would such an assumed eyewitness, to the gospel event of 30/33 c.e., incorporate and thus manage these two memories without some distortion taking place in their retelling – and the further and yet further retelling until, as Bart writes, some 50 to 60 years later Matthew writes his gospel….One may as well argue that the gospel Pilate crucifixion of Jesus in 30/33 c.e. is actually a literary remembrance of the 70 year earlier Roman execution of the last King and High Priest of the Jews in 37 b.c.e.

    Memory, methinks, could well be the Achilles heel for the Jesus historicists…

    • Bee
      2016-03-06 14:34:36 UTC - 14:34 | Permalink

      That’s a very, very good and extremely important point. It should become the central theme of the Mythicist critique of historicity.

      • maryhelena
        2016-03-06 15:04:00 UTC - 15:04 | Permalink

        The pity is that lots of mythicist just don’t want to get involved with Jewish history. Yet, to my thinking, it’s the only way forward in the historicist vs ahistoricist debate.

        • Bee
          2016-03-06 17:41:40 UTC - 17:41 | Permalink

          Definitely extremely, critically, centrally important. Especially the Jewish interaction with Greece and Rome. Especially the times Judah was taken over or even mostly demolished by them. From 332 BC to say 167 BC; 64 BC; 70AD.

          Just as important is the fact that unreliable memory especially mixes up dates. As you noted.

          My favorites candidates for early sources for Christianity are the c. 1) 167 BC martyrdom of Eleazar and the seven sons of God; who die in atonement to resurrect and save us all, in 2 Mac. 6-7. Then the 2) unjust killing of the sons of Mary or Marianne and Herod, the King and Lord of the Jews, c. 6 BC. Then the 3) crucifixion, by the Roman Varus, of 2,000. C. 4. BC. The 2,000 including, statistically, about 160 males named Joshua. Or in Greek, Jesus.

          Your own nomination of 4) the last King of the Jews , Antigonus, looks promising too.

          I think these events and others like them gradually built up the myth of a dying Christ and Jesus. From about 200 BC to 4 BC. With additional updating material.

          • maryhelena
            2016-03-06 17:58:32 UTC - 17:58 | Permalink

            Yep, history mattered to the Jews – then and now…historical memories of events prior to 30/33 c.e. need to be entertained when trying to understand the gospel story. The gospel story, to my thinking, is a political allegory at it’s foundation with a superstructure of theology and philosophy.

            Interestingly, Richard Carrier does not write of such an approach to the gospels – he just does not want to consider it himself although saying a gospel ‘fiction’ suits the gospels well.

            It’s not case of choosing a Pauline christ story over a gospel political allegory. These two very different stories are part and parcel of the NT story. As I like to say – if the gospels are not to be read into Paul – then lets not read Paul into the gospels…

            Richard Carrier: On the Historicity of Jesus (page 53/54}
            ”If ‘Jesus Christ began as a celestial deity’ is false, it could still be that he began as a political fiction, for example (as some
            scholars have indeed argued-the best examples being R.G. Price and Gary Courtney).16 But as will become dear in following chapters (especially Chapter 11), such a premise has a much lower prior probability (and thus is already at a huge disadvantage over Premise 1 even before we start examining the evidence), and a very low consequent probability (though it suits the Gospels well, it just isn’t possible to explain the evidence in the Epistles this way, and the origin of Christianity itself becomes very hard to explain as well). Although I leave open the possibility it may yet be vindicated, I’m sure it’s very unlikely to be, and accordingly I will assume its prior probability is too small even to show up in our math. This decision can be reversed only by a sound and valid demonstration that we must assign it a higher prior or consequent, but that I leave to anyone who thinks it’s possible. ”

            • Bee
              2016-03-07 08:07:11 UTC - 08:07 | Permalink

              The origin of the Jesus story though, could have been an oral folk history -that was funneled through Paul.

              Paul is usually very, very vague about Jesus. Suggesting that Paul himself was getting it all in turn, from a few vague popular oral rumors.

              So saying that 1) the Jesus myth came from folk stories or unreliable oral histories, and saying 2) it came from Paul, are not mutually exclusive hypotheses. It was probably both, in my current opinion, in fact.

              In fact it is, among other scenarios, precisely this very combination that at last allows the genesis of Jesus to snap into focus.

  • Bee
    2016-03-06 13:27:49 UTC - 13:27 | Permalink

    “Ehrman provides an intriguing overview of memory studies and introduces readers to a variety of important pioneers and studies. . . . Ehrman concludes that ‘the historical Jesus did not make history; the remembered Jesus did.’ An intriguing new angle on the well-worn field of ‘historical Jesus’ studies.”
    —Kirkus Review

  • maryhelena
    2016-03-06 13:50:25 UTC - 13:50 | Permalink

    A hard hitting interview with Bart Ehrman re his new book.

    Remembering Jesus (Or Not)
    An interview with Bart Ehrman
    Phil Zuckerman Ph.D.

    The more I read of your book, the more I found myself actually sympathizing with those scholars out there who say that Jesus never existed at all. That he is pure fiction. And yet you insist, throughout the book, that Jesus did exist. Why? What is your best evidence?


    • Bee
      2016-03-06 14:28:31 UTC - 14:28 | Permalink

      In your quoted interview, Psychology Today – at least a pop psychology journal – is concluding that Bart is really subtly saying that Jesus is ” total fiction,” paraphrased.

      Bart himself adamantly doesn’t want to openly, unequivocally say that. But our psychologist, note, is hearing that as Bart ‘s subtext. Reading between the lines.

      That’s what our trained PhD psychologist says is there in Ehrman. But that Ehrman doesn’t quite want to openly say.

      • maryhelena
        2016-03-06 14:59:27 UTC - 14:59 | Permalink

        Bart is not using the ‘total fiction’ in the linked article. It is the interviewer that uses ‘pure fiction’. Bart is though saying some of the stories, memories, about Jesus are invented….

        ”I would say that it is absolutely wrong that the Gospels are “made up fictions.” If they were that, the authors would have invented all their stories themselves. But they can be shown not to have done that. ……..The authors of these books did not make up their stories about Jesus. They inherited their stories from the oral tradition. Most of these stories had been shaped and transformed by their oral transmission; some of them were invented, either with intent or not. ”

        Interestingly, in his book, Bart uses *invented* 63 times (6 references to *fiction*. Kindle edition)

        ”Some German scholars came to realize that these stories were not simply altered, or even invented, by the Gospel writers themselves…..It was during the oral phase of transmission….that distorted memories of Jesus were sometimes created.” (page 42)

        So, for Bart invented stories are not fiction! Oh, well……no wonder the interviewer seemed to be frustrated with Bart….

        • Bee
          2016-03-06 17:57:17 UTC - 17:57 | Permalink

          The “authors” didn’t make them up. But what about the oral tradition, that the authors of the written stories were working from?

          I’m going with what the psychologist says about Ehrman. Many say that religion is a white lie. One to which those who can see well, however, are given the keys.

          Our psychologist affirms this. He is saying that what Bart is doing, is phrasing things in a way that 1) emotional believers won’t hear their believers’ theology contradicted. But 2) those who can follow very complex language to the end, will eventually hear a far more critical account of Jesus. Who could have indeed been invented. Not by the later writers. But by the earlier oral traditions.

          • maryhelena
            2016-03-06 18:13:30 UTC - 18:13 | Permalink

            So Bart wants to pass the buck to the oral tradition and leave the gospel writers simply as journalists recording what they have heard…..;-)

            • Bee
              2016-03-06 19:20:29 UTC - 19:20 | Permalink

              Ehrman’s account is probably half true. But of course, if the oral tradition was bad in its inadequate but honest folk ignorance, the later redactors, writers, and modern theologians, were twice as bad. In their deliberately sly editorializing and double-tongued double dealing.

              • Bee
                2016-03-07 08:32:17 UTC - 08:32 | Permalink

                Correction: better said, the review interview is by a sociologist, writing in a psychology mag. But he brings some professional expertise to interviewing Ehrman. Among other things, he rightly accuses Ehrman of playing word games.

                Along with our PhD sociologist, I personally and professionally find most religious school’s recent pontifications on how “historians” and oral culture studies allegedly confirm an historical Jesus, exasperatingly wrong. With my own MA in a history-related discipline, and a PhD in Culture Studies – including oral and folk culture, popular culture – it is clear to me that our religious scholars are, as always, bending, distorting these academic fields. To serve their usual apologetics agenda.

                Tim’s present account of the unreliability of memory and oral culture is far clearer, and far closer to the truth, than most of the current theologians or religious “scholars” publishing extensively on the subject of Jesus studies and memory, history, or orality.

        • Pofarmer
          2016-03-07 05:17:51 UTC - 05:17 | Permalink

          Yeah, the problem with oral transmission is that textual evidence suggests nearly everything known about jesus can be explained by retelling OT stories or pieces if Homeric epics. It think it’s just as easy to posit the Gospells as deliberate fiction.

          • Bee
            2016-03-07 08:38:36 UTC - 08:38 | Permalink

            Both are good, I think. The story of Jesus looks like a mostly fictional mix of 300 years of unreliable folk tales, and later theological agendas. To call it fiction though, would be a decent one-word summary.

            • maryhelena
              2016-03-07 09:03:13 UTC - 09:03 | Permalink

              Although *fiction* might, broadly speaking, cover the gospel story it does fail to do justice to the material itself. What type of fiction is the gospel story? Answering that question can either advance historical research for early christian origins or it can derail it.

              Animal Farm, for instance, is fiction but it’s also a political allegory.

              • Bee
                2016-03-07 10:48:20 UTC - 10:48 | Permalink

                Yes, I lean strongly to your point of view. Seeing the gospels as the product of an historical process, if not an historic individual.

                Sometimes I wonder though if, given the huge number of inaccuracies or lies in religion, one or two evil persons didn’t just sit down and cynically, maliciously make it all up. As a deliberate fiction. Or a studied, carefully fabricated lie.

                But the Bible is indeed full of layers. Including literal and allegorical. And also folk and elite.

                So maybe this is another both/and situation. There was honest folk confusion. Followed by often cynical editing and interpolation.

  • Bee
    2016-03-06 13:56:59 UTC - 13:56 | Permalink

    ‘In the book, Ehrman examines:

    – How cultural anthropologists studied the oral traditions of Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and Ghana to reveal how stories always change as they are passed along.

    – How psychologists have discovered the routine phenomena of “false memories” and how strongly people contend that these false memories really happened.

    – How modern legal scholars and psychologists have shown how unreliable eyewitness testimonies really are, with people regularly distorting what they experienced.

    – How sociologists have shown that a group’s collective memory is strongly shaped by the issues and concerns of the remembering community just as much by the events themselves,’

    From “”Bart Ehrman, books published.”

  • Neil Godfrey
    2016-03-06 20:08:59 UTC - 20:08 | Permalink

    I’m also doing my required reading of Ehrman’s newest and expect to post soon. The Lincoln example you mention here has interesting implications for Ehrman’s argument. I found myself asking when he raised the Lincoln reference how anyone reading about Lincoln as the civil rights ideologue could ever determine what was the “historical Lincoln”. Ehrman says we can do so with the gospels and his method is to take whatever is pervasive throughout all the gospels as historically true — e.g. Jesus taught love and not violence. In the absence of contemporary documents and straddled only with literature of a later generation, Ehrman’s method would take the later surviving literature of Lincoln as a civil rights advocate as historically true. Any occasional surfacing of the contrary (that is, the true historical Lincoln) would be considered anomalous and interpreted as a racist backlash of civil rights opponents.

    I woke up this morning prepared to post on the Zuckerman interview but see it has already been linked to here.

  • Neil Godfrey
    2016-03-06 23:52:37 UTC - 23:52 | Permalink

    Having almost completed the book I have a sneaking suspicion that the same text could be abridged by leaving out all the stuff about memory research and substituting “theological perspective” wherever the word “memory” appears in the discussions of the Gospels — it would be as simple as that to create a new book and one that is even logically coherent.

    • Tim Widowfield
      2016-03-07 14:46:46 UTC - 14:46 | Permalink

      The chapter on Mark disappointed me more than anything else. He could have used the memory perspective to talk about all the odd features of the earliest gospel. But instead he regurgitated his textbook chapter.

  • maryhelena
    2016-03-07 08:28:39 UTC - 08:28 | Permalink

    The Zeba Crook article mentioned in the blog post is available at academia.edu

    Collective Memory Distortion and the
    Quest for the Historical Jesus

    Zeba Crook

    From a footnote:

     ”I prefer the term ‘manufacture’ to ‘invent’ when used of memory. This is because according to the strictly constructionist approach to memory, all memory is invented. Simply the act of selection, forgetting, shaping, arranging, and interpreting memories to form a coherent narrative is itself an act of invention. Rather than becoming tangled up in that issue, I would like to offer the phrase ‘memory manufacturing’ to refer to the creation of memories that have no basis in an historical event. That is, it is not that these memories are exaggerations of a historical event; rather, they are either so grossly
    exaggerated so as to be wholly new, or they are wholly manufactured or fictional.”
    So, looks like Zeba Crook has no problem with the use of *fictional* in dealing with memory research….
    I also like this quote:

    ”It is this last point that is key: we cannot take at face value the confidence people have in the accuracy or historicity of their own memories.
    In fact, there is according to some studies an inverse relationship between
    confidence in accuracy and actual accuracy.84 So, memory theory does not,
    pace Dunn, Bauckham, Le Donne and McIver, give us cause for optimism
    concerning the historicity of the Gospels. On the contrary, memory theory
    ought to leave us feeling deeply troubled about what we can actually know
    about the past. Alain Gowling writes that ‘it is this capacity of texts to create or establish memory—if you prefer, to fictionalize—that renders them somewhat problematic as sources of historical information’.85 Collective memory theory might enrich our understanding of how Gospel materials
    were transmitted, and how they may have taken shape, both in the period
    of oral transmission and in the period of literary redaction, but, properly
    understood, it does not provide shelter in the reliability wars.”

    Memory theory provides no shelter for the Jesus historicists……;-)

  • Bee
    2016-03-07 15:12:57 UTC - 15:12 | Permalink

    None of the many religious scholars who assure us there was an historical Jesus, are actually qualified to render any judgement on that issue. Most of them 1) do not have the proper professional credential: a PhD not in religion, but in History.

    The only credentialed person 2) writing extensively on that subject, is Dr. Richard Carrier, PhD. And his conclusion is that there probably was no historical Jesus.

    Probably 98% of the alleged scholars who claim there is an historical Jesus, don’t have the proper credentials to say that, or anything else about History. They don’t have a PhD in History. Most have something like a ThD. Or “Theology Doctorate.”

    And? The real academics don’t really want to have anything to do with them. In most state colleges, their seminaries and so forth are not even allowed on campus, or state property.

    • maryhelena
      2016-03-07 15:31:59 UTC - 15:31 | Permalink

      Lets not forget Thomas Brodie – way ahead of the lot of them – and that includes Richard Carrier…;-)

      • Bee
        2016-03-08 06:45:49 UTC - 06:45 | Permalink

        Since Historical Jesus studies is a field where the alleged experts have few or no actual professional qualifications, this in some ways puts the common man or woman on fairly equal footing. And in a position to contest with the experts eye to eye.

  • Giuseppe
    2016-03-07 17:57:53 UTC - 17:57 | Permalink

    The same name ”gospel” seems to be at odds with the concept of oral tradition and memory. Usually in his use, more than a ”good message”, a gospel is a ”new message”, then something that is not remembered (because, if it were remembered, would not be a new message but an old message). There is somehow a latent contradiction between the gospel proclamation that Jesus is something of new and the idea that Jesus is remembered.

    In more concrete terms, if, as I suspect, Marcion invented the Gospel Jesus, then he joined forever the DNA of the Gospel Jesus to the concept of new, surprising, antithetical, the exact opposite of something who is remembered. The proto-orthodox barely, in their efforts to help Jesus to fulfill (and not to contradict) the prophecies, managed to sell this new product called ”Jesus” linking him with the memory of ancient scriptures. What is round can not die squared.

  • Scot Griffin
    2016-03-08 00:56:31 UTC - 00:56 | Permalink

    “As I noted above, each time we play a record, the stylus rubs directly against the vinyl and causes wear. So in this case, playback creates more damage and more noise. It changes the surface and distorts the groove. Human memory is somewhat similar. ”

    Very good analogy. I recently viewed a PBS special on how memories are stored and retrieved, and your analogy sums up about 15 minutes of complex explanation very succinctly.

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