2016-09-24

Reception of Jesus in Early Christianity, Conference. Some Questions.

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by Neil Godfrey

Lectures from the Memory and the Reception of Jesus in Early Christianity Conference (10th-11th June 2016, St Mary’s University) have been made available at Biblical Studies Online. I look forward to updating myself with these talks and have already listened with interest to the first two, “The Memory Approach and the Reception of Jesus” by Chris Keith (though read by Steve Walton) and “The Reception of Jesus in Paul” by Christine Jacobi.

Chris Keith’s paper essentially outlined the introductory points he has published previously about the nature of the social memory approach to Jesus studies but with an emphasis on defending the originality of what it has to offer New Testament scholars today. Much of the criticism of memory theory in New Testament studies, he begins, even criticism that has passed through the peer-review process, has been inaccurate. It has mischaracterized what the approach is about and failed to engage with the theory and its methodology.

The main point Keith emphasizes is that past events are not remembered (individually or collectively) in a “pristine” state as if preserved whole in a time capsule for our benefit, but are always remembered through the filters of earlier interpretation of the event that we have inherited and our present interests, needs, circumstances, environmental or cultural influences. As a long-time student of history I see nothing controversial about this statement. It strikes me as little more than a truism for any serious historian.

brueghel_ii_pieter_-_christ_and_the_woman_taken_in_adultery_1600However, I do wonder what such a process of “remembering” means for Chris Keith when he cites as a case study by David Parker(?) the pericope adulterae or passage in the Gospel of John about the woman taken in adultery. The manuscript evidence informs us that this story was not part of the original Gospel yet the story is such a part of our heritage that it inevitably influences the way we read and think about the gospels and the historical Jesus. Knowing that it was not part of the original accounts does not remove its influence over the way we think about Jesus.

I question that claim. If I understand the point correctly, I cannot accept that it is true. Surely scholars have written their own views on the historical Jesus that have no place at all for this story. Traditionally many scholars have attempted to reconstruct the teachings of Jesus entirely by means of comparing data in the synoptic gospels and leaving the entire Gospel of John (not just the pericope adulterae) out of their view completely.

Parker’s (and Keith’s) claim that the story inevitably influences how we think about Jesus is true at a general cultural level; Jesus’ forgiveness of the woman is part of image of Jesus that has come to us through our cultural heritage. But anyone who is interested in a serious study of the gospels by normative scholarly means can indeed construct a “historical Jesus” that allows no place for it.

Or perhaps I misunderstand the point. I am open to being corrected.

Misunderstanding Historical Positivism and Mnemohistory

Later Keith argues that memory theory turns traditional historical positivism on its head. Again, I find myself questioning his presentation. To begin with, he offers what to me is an inadequate definition of what positivism means as an approach by historians to the past. In Keith’s view as I understand it historical positivism is the belief that the historian can and should “get behind the sources” to recover a purely objective truth or fact of what actually happened. From this point Keith argues that since the past must always necessarily be interpreted to be remembered at all, then it can never be “truly objective reality” but always some form of narrated “myth”.

To justify this view Keith refers to the work of Jan Assmann on mnemohistory. I have addressed Jan Assmann’s interest and what he means by mnemohistory in Tales of Jesus and Moses: Two Ways to Apply Social Memory in Historical Studies and show why comparing Assmann’s history of how historical figures were remembered with other historical tasks such as understanding, say, the origins of the French Revolution (or the origins of Christianity) is seriously misguided.

What Jesus scholars aspire to do (however unrealistic their hopes) is comparable to what Egyptologists do when they uncover and analyze the data in order to find out as far as possible “what happened” in the days of Akhenaten; Assmann’s interest is entirely different. His mnemohistory is a survey of the various cultural myths that appear to have arisen in the wake of the Akhenaten revolution. The two types of historical inquiry are completely different. Both are valid, but they each have quite different agendas.

To see a fuller explanation of historical positivism and how historians have both embraced and moved away from it see R.G. Collingwood, The Idea of History, originally published 1946 but printed and released many times since.

It seems to me that with an oversimplified view of historical positivism Chris Keith has thrown out the baby with the bath water. Historical positivism originated as an attempt to set historical inquiry on a scientific footing. To this end historians believed that they should first establish the “facts” as a scientist establishes the facts, and from that starting point hypothesize and test laws to explain the relationships between those facts. By turning to Assmann it looks to me as if Keith has begun with a view of history that has no interest in the historical origin of a myth, that is, uncovering “the original facts” (this being considered an impossible quest), but only in the various ways the myth came to be “remembered” and mutated through the generations and again in his own time.

But even when mainstream historians rejected positivism (the belief that they could establish historical laws or principles from “the facts”) they did not reject the belief that they could find some form of real substance or “true events” in the past. Of course everything is necessarily interpreted. That again is a truism that needs no elaboration — at least to most historians I know of. (It only seems to be “big news” among some New Testament scholars, it seems to me.) But interpretation of an event does not mean that the event does not have some form of objective reality. We all have our interpretations of World War 2, of Churchill and Hitler. We cannot avoid them. But that does not remove the possibility of knowing that Churchill and Hitler really did do and say certain things, made certain decisions, and that very real and objective events that we can know about did follow as a result. Yes, we view those events through our interpretations. We know that people in other cultures and nations will have different interpretations, but no-one can deny that certain events are real and really did happen.

If I have misunderstood Chris Keith’s point I am more than willing to be better informed.

The difficulty with historical Jesus studies that has given rise to this misguided view of history as being completely beyond reach is that our earliest sources for Jesus, the letters of Paul, write about nothing but the myth of Jesus. Jesus, and what is sometimes referred to as “the Christ event”, is to Paul an entirely theological construct. The same is true of the later sources, the Gospels.

We only come to historical constructs (as distinguished from theological/mythical ones) in the next lecture in the conference, “The Reception of Jesus in Paul” by Christine Jacobi. However, as we shall see, those earliest historical constructs — the model of Jesus teaching and his words being remembered and passed on in various forms until they are set down in the Gospels — are entirely hypothetical. They are entirely extrapolations from the myth itself.

I suspect Chris Keith would respond by saying that all records of history are by nature, inevitably, some form of myth because they must be interpreted in order to be narrated. My response is that yes, but interpretation does not deny the reality of events or persons. Recall my example above referencing the facts and persons of World War 2. We can know there was a real person Akhenaten and series of events that really happened around him — independently of the myths that those events generated.

It does not logically follow that there was no historical Jesus at the start of it all or that Jacobi’s historical construct is wrong. What does follow, in my view, is that it is pointless to ask questions about what the historical Jesus was like or what he said. We simply have nothing beyond the myths to inform us. The only question that the available evidence allows us to ask, as I see it, is how are we to understand the nature of the earliest evidence and how do we account for its origins.

To answer that the historian needs to inquire into not only the character of the world from which our sources emerged but also into attentive literary, redactional and other analyses that deepen our understanding of the nature of those sources.

One comment

  • Griffin
    2016-09-25 10:11:03 UTC - 10:11 | Permalink

    For some time, philosophers and others have questioned how accurate, how objective, are our human ideas about the world. There are many different opinions, many discussions. But?

    Basically, the best way to picture the debate, is to imagine a continuous line or scale. With say the supporters of extreme objectivity, the Positivists – or “Objectivists” as we might call them – on the left side of the scale. And the poststructualists or “Subjectivists” as we might call them, in the other.

    The objectivists believe that we can completely and objectively and accurately know what nature and reality are like. At the other extreme end of the scale, the extreme subjectivists believe that we cannot know anything at all objectively, fully; that all we know are subjective human ideas, (“phenomena”).

    The opposite ends are of course very extreme. And so today, most scholars, historians, fall somewhere in between these two extremes.

    As you rightly note, most historians believe that in most cases, we can correct for our human biases to some extent, and reach any number of reasonably certain, objective facts.

    However, Dr. Chris Keith leans rather far to the other, Subjectivity end of the scale. He perhaps almost believes that finally, the very structure of our minds, our cultural biases, are so very, very great, that we cannot ever reach any very objective truths at all. That even when we are sitting looking at our plate of toast and eggs in the morning, before our very eyes, we cannot be sure they are exactly what we think they are. Or even that they really are there at all.

    Dr. Chris Keith’s position to be sure, is quite extreme. By far the great bulk of historians – and arguably, all of them, except for Keith himself – are very, very far away from the extreme position that Keith very nearly represents.

    By far, most historians believe that we can access reasonably certain facts. And if we cannot in some cases? Then we should not call what we are doing “history.” But just say, speculation, or imagining.

    Keith to be sure, for that matter, is not an absolutely subjectivist. He seems to think that we can at least, know something objective about how our memories often distort reality. Still however, his expressed views are typically very, very far on the subjectivity end of the scale. So far, that Keith is vulnerable to criticisms of extreme Subjectivism, as we are calling it here. Or well known criticisms of say, perenially subjectivistic Poststructualism.

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