Category Archives: Social Memory


The Memory Mavens, Part 7: When Terms Matter

by Tim Widowfield

In foreign policy, the United States — especially in the last hundred years or so — has tried to have it both ways: assiduously following the Constitution and domestic law, as well as keeping within the dictates of international agreements, while at the same time aggressively maintaining an empire with far-reaching hegemony. In doing so, the executive branch often finds itself carrying out actions that conform to the letter of the law, but would seem to violate its spirit.

Aerial photograph of an SA-2 site in Cuba. Tak...

Aerial photograph of an SA-2 site in Cuba. Taken by RF-101 Voodoo during the Cuban Missile Crisis. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Duck Test

War and diplomacy, domains in which precision in word choice matters, are fertile grounds for Newspeak. Consider, for example, the frequent use of the words “conflict” and “police action” after World War II. The U.S. government has tended to avoid the word “war,” because it has a definite meaning, a specific basis in law. For the U.S., it means that Congress has approved a formal declaration of war against another sovereign state or group of states. The new terms play a role in American “freedom of action” (viz., the use of violence and the constant threat of violence to advance policy) while apparently staying within the boundaries of the law.

Consider, as well, President John F. Kennedy‘s use of the term “quarantine” during the Cuban Missile Crisis, deftly avoiding the word “blockade,” which is a legal term that signifies an act of war. The administration called it a quarantine for diplomatic purposes; however for the purpose of exercising power, it did the job equally well. It quacked like a duck and walked like a duck, but calling it a duck might have precipitated World War III. (As it was, we were closer to doomsday than we realized.)

Finally, consider the terms “detainee” and “unlawful combatant” as used by American administrations in the wars that followed the September 11 terror attacks on U.S. soil. “Prisoners of war” have a distinct status in international law, and all signatories to the Geneva Conventions have agreed to treat those prisoners according to a detailed set of protocols. Yet the Bush administration said that despite the all the quacking and the cloud of feathers, those waddling birds were not ducks.

Terms of Art

In the social sciences as well, we have terms of art that refer to specifically defined concepts, conditions, events, etc. It drives experts in psychology, well, a bit mad when authors in popular media incorrectly use terms like schizophrenia. Notice that I deliberately avoided the word “insane,” since that’s a term of art in both the clinic and the courtroom. It is especially important when writing about a particular subject matter to use terms of art only for their intended purpose. Moreover, if you (unadvisedly) choose to redefine a well-established term of art, then you should clearly state what you’re doing up front.

The realm of memory theory, including the psychological study of personal memory and the sociological study of group memory, has its own terms of art. I offer the following examples.

  • False memory
  • Counter-memory

I present these two here because I have lately seen Memory Mavens misuse them in the similar ways. Specifically, they incorrectly use a term of art to describe a general condition or event. Doing so muddies the water; it confuses the experts who know how the term ought to be used, and it misinforms the general public who trust scholars and expect them to know what they’re writing about. read more »


Tales of Jesus and Moses: Two Ways to Apply Social Memory in Historical Studies

by Neil Godfrey
Pharaoh Akhenaten and his family adoring the Aten

Pharaoh Akhenaten and his family adoring the Aten

Akhenaten refresher

  • Egyptian Pharaoh who ruled for 17 years in middle of fourteenth century, up till around 1336 or 1334 BCE
  • originally known as Amenthotep IV (or in Greek, Amenophis IV); changed his name to Akhenaten
  • opposed the orthodox priests of Ammon-Re; redirected their income to his new god Aton
  • abolished traditional cults and idols of Egyptian polytheism
  • established the sole worship of a new god of light, Aton, (variously described as monotheismmonolatrism and  henotheism)
  • depicted Aton as sun disc with rays ending in hands, understood to be a universal god incapable of true representation
  • established new centre of worship at Akhetaten (today known as Amarna)
  • temples to Aten stressed worship in open sunlight (contrary to earlier custom of darkened indoor temples)
  • Akhenaten was the sole mediator between Aton and earth
  • affinities between Hymn to Aton and Psalm 104
  • son was the famous Tutankhamen

Unlike Moses, Akhenaten, Pharaoh Amenophis IV, was a figure exclusively of history and not of memory. Shortly after his death, his name was erased from the king-lists, his monuments were dismantled, his inscriptions and representations were destroyed, and almost every trace of his existence was obliterated. For centuries no one knew of his extraordinary revolution. Until his rediscovery in the nineteenth century, there was virtually no memory of Akhenaten.

Moses represents the reverse case. No traces have ever been found of his historical existence. He grew and developed only as a figure of memory, absorbing and embodying all traditions that pertained to legislation, liberation, and monotheism. (Assmann, Moses the Egyptian, p. 23)

This current series of posts has arisen out of Professor Chris Keith’s references to Egyptologist Jan Assmann’s comments about social memory theory in history. Keith uses memory theory to “answer questions about the historical Jesus”. By starting with the gospel narratives as memories of Jesus that have been necessarily reinterpreted he attempts to uncover those narrative details that most likely point to a past reality about Jesus. In Jesus’ Literacy, for example, he judges the Gospel of Mark’s implication that Jesus was was not scribally literate to be more likely a memory reflection of the real historical Jesus than the Gospel of Luke’s suggestion that Jesus was able to competently read the Jewish Scriptures.

However, when I read the first two chapters of Assmann’s Moses the Egyptian I read an approach to social memory that is the opposite of the one used by Chris Keith. Keith begins with the Gospels that are assumed to record certain memory-impressions and attempts to work backwards to what those original events more or less looked like to observers. But as I wrote in my earlier post that’s not how the Egyptologist works:

The Egyptologist begins with “hard evidence” and originally genuine historical memories and works his way forward into the later literature to find out what must have become of these memories. The historical Jesus scholar, it appears to me, begins with the later literature and tries to guess what memories came before it.

The two methods look to me to be like polar opposites rather than “similar”.

It is a pity Chris Keith is too busy to engage with Vridar (no reason given in his personal email, just a copy of a cordial invitation to respond to a Nigerian banker-benefactor asking me for my account details) at the cost of public religious literacy. I would love to discuss these questions with him seriously but he’s clearly not interested. (Slightly revised)

The difference is potentially very significant. Take the different versions of the Moses-Exodus narratives that we have seen in the recent posts — each one a differently interpreted memory — and apply Keith’s method to those in order to arrive at information about “the historical Moses” and the “historical Exodus” and see what happens. As we saw in that first post Assmann has doubts that there even was a historical Moses in the first place and he does not believe there ever was a biblical-like Exodus led by such a figure. Applying Keith’s method to “answer questions about the historical Jesus” to these memory-narratives would produce a very false notion of Egyptian and Jewish history.

Assmann starts with something we lack in the case of the historical Jesus. The known events of Egyptian history according to the contemporary inscriptions. These are used to interpret the later “memory literature”. The “memory literature” is not used in an attempt to uncover past historical events. The past historical events are used to interpret the subsequent stories.

Keith may object that he does use what is known of the historical past in order to assess what is closest to historical reality in the Gospels. He does, for example, in Jesus’ Literacy delve into what we can know about the nature and extent of literacy in ancient Palestine. But this tells us nothing new or relevant to the actual historical Jesus. It is comparable to uncovering details about the historical Pilate, or the architecture of the Jerusalem Temple, or the geography of Galilee. No-one would believe we are coming any closer to “the historical Moses” by learning all we can about the Egyptian religious customs and beliefs, the social structures, ethnic groups or literacy in ancient Egypt and Palestine and applying this knowledge to any of the stories we have about Moses.

So here’s how Assmann uses social memory. read more »


Does Social Memory Theory Advance Historical Jesus Studies?

by Neil Godfrey

I’d like to comment on one section of the inaugural lecture of Prof Chris Keith, Chair of the New Testament and Early Christianity at St Mary’s University College, Twickenham. Its title is ‘Social Memory Theory and the Gospels: Assessing the First Decade.’

Keith is a co-blogger of The Jesus Blog. Both Tim and I have previously addressed facets of Keith’s views and co-publications.

Keith’s postmodernist perspective on the gospels offers a valuable critique of traditional “historical Jesus” scholarship but it also leaves untouched and builds upon a fundamental blind spot in that scholarship.

Around the 47th minute into the address Keith expresses regret that other scholars who have criticized the social memory approach have failed to address the pioneering work of Jens Schröter. No doubt Chris Keith will be gratified to see that in the interests of public religious literacy Vridar has outlined and critically engaged with a core feature of Schröter’s arguments: see the Confusing “Narrative Voice” of Gospels with “Historical Truth Claims”.

Following is a transcription of a few minutes of Keith’s talk. I have bolded sections I find of particular interest for good or ill.

It is notable that recent criticisms of social memory applications in gospel studies fail to engage his work altogether.

In very general terms Schröter proposes that every approach to the historical Jesus behind the gospels has to explain how these writings could have come into being as the earliest descriptions of this person.

Insofar as this approach grounds historical Jesus inquiry in the past as portrayed in our extant sources, it is similar to what Assmann labeled mnemohistory which also foregrounds the text in traditions as they stand before historians. Related directly to this fact, Schröter insists that one cannot neatly separate past from present, history and interpretation, due to their intertwined and mutually interdependent natures of commemorative activity.

Keith’s/Schröter’s point is that the past is lost to us and the best that the historian can do with respect to Jesus or the “Jesus tradition/s” is to attempt to understand how/why the Gospels came narrate their respective lives of Jesus.

The comparison with Jan Assmann‘s mnemohistory (history of memories) is not quite apt but Keith does say that Schröter’s approach (and by extension Keith’s, too) is “similar”. Actually a comparison with Assmann’s work raises serious questions about Keith’s approach and I’ll address those toward the end of this post.

Notice in the last sentence above that Keith refers to Schröter’s words about “commemorative activity”. read more »


The Memory Mavens, Part 6: How Did Paul Remember Jesus?

by Tim Widowfield

We have covered the subject of the apostle Paul’s silence on Jesus’ life many times on Vridar. But for quite a while now, I’ve been thinking we keep asking the same, misdirected questions. NT scholars have kept us focused on the narrow confines of the debate they want to have. But there are other questions that we need to ask.

Last Judgment panel Diest 001

Last Judgment panel Diest 001 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Pretty apocalyptic prophets, all in a row

For example, Bart Ehrman, defending his claim that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet, has habitually argued that we can draw a sort of “line of succession” from John the Baptist, through Jesus, to Paul. In Did Jesus Exist? he explains it all in an apocalyptic nutshell:

At the beginning of Jesus’s ministry he associated with an apocalyptic prophet, John; in the aftermath of his ministry there sprang up apocalyptic communities. What connects this beginning and this end? Or put otherwise, what is the link between John the Baptist and Paul? It is the historical Jesus. Jesus’s public ministry occurs between the beginning and the end. Now if the beginning is apocalyptic and the end is apocalyptic, what about the middle? It almost certainly had to be apocalyptic as well. To explain this beginning and this end, we have to think that Jesus himself was an apocalypticist. (Ehrman, 2012, p. 304, emphasis mine)

Dr. Ehrman sees the evidence at the ends as “keys to the middle.” For him, it’s a decisive argument.

The only plausible explanation for the connection between an apocalyptic beginning and an apocalyptic end is an apocalyptic middle. Jesus, during his public ministry, must have proclaimed an apocalyptic message.

I think this is a powerful argument for Jesus being an apocalypticist. It is especially persuasive in combination with the fact, which we have already seen, that apocalyptic teachings of Jesus are found throughout our earliest sources, multiply attested by independent witnesses. (Ehrman, 2012, p. 304, emphasis mine)

You’ve probably heard Ehrman make this argument elsewhere. He’s nothing if not a conscientious recycler. Here, he follows up by summarizing Jesus’ supposed apocalyptic proclamation. Jesus heralds the coming kingdom of God; he refers to himself as the Son of Man; he warns of the imminent day of judgment. And how should people prepare for the wrath that is to come?

We saw in Jesus’s earliest recorded words that his followers were to “repent” in light of the coming kingdom. This meant that, in particular, they were to change their ways and begin doing what God wanted them to do. As a good Jewish teacher, Jesus was completely unambiguous about how one knows what God wants people to do. It is spelled out in the Torah. (Ehrman, 2012, p. 309)

Unasked questions

However, Ehrman’s argument works only if we continue to read the texts with appropriate tunnel vision and maintain discipline by not asking uncomfortable questions. Ehrman wants us to ask, “Was Paul an apocalypticist?” To which we must answer, “Yes,” and be done with it.

But I have more questions. read more »


Ehrman Misremembers Halbwachs: “Everybody Wants ta Get inta the Act”

by Tim Widowfield
Cropped screenshot of Jimmy Durante from the t...

Everybody wants ta get inta the act!” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Early this morning, I was sipping coffee and catching up on some Biblioblogs. Hey, did you notice we’re number 31 on the list of the Top 50 Biblioblogs? Thanks for reading Vridar! Anyhow, I was reading the latest posts on the Ehrman blog, and lo and behold it turns out Brother Bart is interested in memory.

On 29 March, he told his readers he had lost interest in a project (a commentary on gospels for which we have only fragmentary remains), and was focusing his attention squarely on a book about how early Christians remembered Jesus.

As many of you know, I have spent almost all my research time for more than a year now working on issues of memory. I have now read all that I need to read for my next book, a trade book for a general audience, on how Jesus was “remembered” by early Christians in the decades before any of the Gospels were written. My plan is to start writing on Tuesday. Gods willing, I’ll have the book in draft by the end of April. The idea is to have it published next year about this time, early spring 2016. (Ehrman, “My New Project on Memory”)

I’m somewhat envious. I have clearly not read all I need to read on memory. I will probably still be slogging through my series on memory on into 2018, if I’m lucky. Of course, my interests are quite different from Dr. Ehrman’s, but I’ve found that the subject matter is so vast and difficult to grasp, that I’m still doing basic research, even to the point of re-reading what I thought I had already understood.

Sometimes you can’t read a book until you’ve read it, which may sound like a Yogi-ism, but that’s often the way it goes. Just as individuals need a social framework for memory, so we also need intellectual scaffolding to understand scholarly works on sociology, psychology, history, etc. Often the initial frameworks we construct fail, and we must rebuild them.

If I hadn’t read and re-read Maurice Halbwachs (just as I had to read and re-read William Wrede), I would probably still hold to the incorrect impressions left by the Memory Mavens, especially Barry Schwartz. I would have only a sketch, a caricature of Halbwachs, instead of a more complete understanding, which I’m still trying to gain.

And that brings us to Ehrman’s post from 3 April, in which he wrote:  read more »


The Memory Mavens, Part 5: Rituals and Remembrance (2)

by Tim Widowfield

This is the second section of Part 5: Rituals and Remembrance. In the previous post, I tried to explain how modern Memory Mavens often read Maurice Halbwachs selectively. For example, Barry Schwartz (see Part 3) and Anthony Le Donne (see Part 5.1) inexplicably failed to read the earlier chapters 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).

In a similar fashion, some modern authors seem all too ready to conflate Halbwachs’s generalized treatment of the “localization” of memory with his specific discussions about locations, places, etc. To be fair, we might argue that part of the problem is Halbwachs’s use of the term.

Localizing individual memories in social frameworks

Couverture du livre de Maurice Halbwachs, Les ...

Couverture du livre de Maurice Halbwachs, Les Cadres sociaux de la mémoire, 2 édition (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So let’s try to be clear from the start. In his 1925 work, Les cadres sociaux de la memoire, partially translated in On Collective Memory (see Chapter 3, “The Localization of Memory”), he explains that recent individual memories “hang together” only if we can place them within an overall framework. That is, they make sense to us when “they are part of a totality of thoughts common to a group.” He writes:

To recall them it is hence sufficient that we place ourselves in the perspective of this group, that we adopt its interests and follow the slant of its reflections. Exactly the same process occurs when we attempt to localize older memories. We have to place them within a totality of memories common to other groups, groups that are narrower and more lasting, such as our family. (Halbwachs, 1992, p. 52, emphasis mine)

In its first iteration, then, localization in general refers to two things: (1) the placement of individuals within the perspective of a group and (2) the placement of individual memories within the larger framework of group memories. Hence, for Halbwachs, we cannot understand how memory works unless we take into account the associations between individual recollections and the group or groups to which that individual belongs.

We can understand each memory as it occurs in individual thought only if we locate each within the thought of the corresponding group. We cannot properly understand their relative strength and the ways in which they combine within individual thought unless we connect the individual to the various groups of which he is simultaneously a member. (Halbwachs, 1992, p. 53, emphasis mine)

Conceptual localization vs. geographical localization

Clearly, Halbwachs is not talking about geographical places here, but “locations” within conceptual, sociological frameworks. However, it’s easy to conflate the two ideas by mistake, which Elizabeth Castelli does in Martyrdom and Memory: Early Christian Culture Making:   read more »


A Tribute to Maurice Halbwachs

by Tim Widowfield
Maurice Halbwachs

Maurice Halbwachs, French Sociologist, 1877-1945

In a recent post on memory theory, I erroneously stated that 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) was published posthumously in 1941. In actuality, Halbwachs died 70 years ago on this date in 1945, in the German death camp called Buchenwald. His health had failed, and he did not survive to see the Allies free the camp just 19 days later on 4 April.

And sadly, that date as posted on Wikipedia — 16 March — is probably not correct. According to The American Journal of Sociology (see Vol. LI, No. 6), it happened back in February, and that may be right. On the other hand, the official death report from the Buchenwald archives (transcribed here) says it happened on the 15th of March.

On the day he died, his one-time student, Jorge Semprún, had the terrible job of erasing the memory of Maurice Halbwachs, his friend and teacher. At the camp office, he explained the ritual that represented the annihilation of a person. read more »


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

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?  read more »


The Memory Mavens, Part 4: The Analytical Power of Failure

by Tim Widowfield

Another lifetime ago, back when I was a U.S. Air Force field training detachment commander, one of our instructors came into my office with a worried look. He told me he had been teaching basic circuitry to a group of enlisted students. “Lieutenant,” he asked, “when you were in school what did they teach you about the flow of electricity? That it goes from the negative terminal to the positive, right?”

When I agreed, he continued, “Well, I’ve got this squid in my class, and he said in the Navy they taught him it goes from positive to negative!” He was flummoxed. (At the time our detachment on Beale AFB was the only certified DoD training facility from Sacramento up through Oregon, so we often played host to reservists and military members from other branches.)

I said, “But the math works both ways, right? I mean in circuit models it doesn’t really matter.” He found the whole thing terribly unsettling. It was as if I’d told him up was down and down was up.

Remember that all models are wrong; the practical question is how wrong do they have to be to not be useful.

— George E. P. Box

George E.P. Box

Statistician George E. P. Box (1919-2013)

All models are wrong

Often while trying to understand how processes work, we build representational, mental constructs or “models” to help us understand them better. These models don’t correspond identically to the real world; instead, they’re subsets of the world — small enough to fit inside our brains. Our models of simple electronics are like that.

What can we can learn from our little story above? First, the fact that we can swap logical current flow in a circuit diagram and still make it “work” (for our purposes) might suggest that our model doesn’t fully correspond with reality. It’s just a representational subset, after all. It’s fiction. But that’s all right, as long as our model gives us the answers we need.

Sometimes a model we know is wrong around the edges can still serve us adequately in general circumstances. We’ve refined the standard model of gravitation quite a bit since Newton’s day. However, if our only task is to launch a projectile at a castle wall, then the older, simpler model will probably suffice. On the other hand, if we want to launch and maintain an array of geosynchronous satellites for precise global positioning, we’re going to have to take into account the effects of relativity — trading in Newton for Einstein, so to speak.

Whenever we use a scientific or mathematical model to help us make real-world predictions, we need to be aware of its limits. We need to know the range of conditions within which it works reliably. And we need to know whether and how its performance degrades as it approaches those limits.

Actually, we can apply that last lesson to the real world, too. That’s why car manufacturers slam their vehicles into walls. We can’t fully understand a system’s range of acceptable behavior until we find the points at which it fails. Moreover, we can learn a great deal from discovering where and how a system begins to degrade. We don’t smash cars because we want their safety systems to fail; we do it to find out where those failure points are. read more »


The Memory Mavens, Part 3: Bethlehem Remembered

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 peerlessread more »


The Memory Mavens, Part 2: A Case Study at Ellis Island

by Tim Widowfield

Legends that stick

Some myths have extraordinary staying power. Because modern media causes us to believe we’re witnesses to real events, we often reject good evidence that disproves what we think we saw and heard personally. I grew up thinking that the embarrassing mistakes Kermit Schaefer presented on his record albums were completely authentic. We all rolled on the floor laughing as we listened to cuts from Pardon My Blooper, but what my family and I didn’t know was that if Schaefer couldn’t obtain the actual recordings, he’d pay actors to recreate them.

“Goodnight, little friends, goodnight.”

Lots of people still think they know Uncle Don referred to his audience as “little bastards” over an open microphone. Even after you tell them that Schaefer forged the recording (with no warnings on the record, by the way), and even after you show them evidence that it never happened, they’re just so sure of their memories, they can’t quite believe it.

There’s something about hearing it on the radio or on a recording, or seeing it on television or in a movie that makes us complicit in the social memory of an event. We don’t think of the event as something “out there” in the past, but rather something we’re part of. In a sense, the event is part of us. So, for example, even a fictional story like The Godfather can become part of the fabric of our memory, especially the cultural memories of place and time: namely, the United States in the early 20th century.

Immigrants just arrived from Foreign Countries...

Immigrants just arrived from Foreign Countries–Immigrant Building, Ellis Island, New York Harbor. (Half of a stereo card) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“They changed our name.”

In The Godfather II, we learn that Vito Corleone’s real surname is Andolini, but that the workers processing immigrants at Ellis Island mistook his home town for his last name and made Andolini his middle name. In the public’s mind these sorts of mistakes went on all the time. Sometimes, it turns out, they just bungled the transcription, and people had to live with their new, misspelled names. Worse than that, sometimes, perhaps many times, those faceless bureaucrats would force immigrants who had strange names to change them to something that sounded more “American.”

Yet, despite the widespread belief in such events, it’s all a myth. In fact, in the novel Vito Corleone deliberately changed his own name. And in real life, we know immigrants were not given new names at Ellis Island. The workers who processed immigrants simply took the names from the ship manifests (usually compiled at the port of embarkation) and transcribed them. They had no authority to modify what they found on the manifests, and they would not have had any incentive to do so.

Nor were they confused by the foreign languages of the incoming passengers. Most of them could speak and read those languages (Italian, German, Polish, etc.), or they could rely on translators standing nearby to help them.

Family memories

This social memory of Ellis Island as a place where heartless government administrators arbitrarily Americanized people’s names corresponds to the family memories of many next-generation ethnic Poles, Italians, Serbs, Croats, Czechs, etc., who learned early on that their name in the Old Country was one thing, but upon arrival, “They changed our name.” Sometimes the new name began with the same letter, but was Anglicized. Or sometimes it was simply translated. So, perhaps Wallechinsky became Wallace or Schmidt became Smith.

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The Memory Mavens, Part 1: A Brief Introduction to Memory Theory

by Tim Widowfield
Maurice Halbwachs

Maurice Halbwachs, French Philosopher and Sociologist, 1877-1945

A muddle of mavens

For several months now, I’ve been poring over works written by a contingent of New Testament scholars who I like to call the Memory Mavens. This group claims that “memory theory” offers new perspectives on Jesus traditions and provides new insights on how those traditions eventually found their way into the written gospels. Some of the best-known authors in this subfield include Alan Kirk, Tom Thatcher, Anthony Le Donne, and Chris Keith. In this introduction we’ll examine some of the basic ideas in memory theory, while attempting to nail down some definitions and core concepts.

Unfortunately, the often imprecise and confusing language in use under the umbrella of “memory,” tends to impede our understanding. Much of the ambiguity in terminology stems from the broad range of meanings that encompass the English word “memory,” which can refer to a personal recollection, the human faculty or ability to remember, a commemorated event, or a given period of time in which things are remembered. But the addition of psychological and sociological layers aggravates the problem, especially when people simply use the word “memory” without clear context or antecedent.

If you search for works on memory, you will find countless examples of self-help books whose authors promise to improve your recollection of names, numbers, events, and anything else you want to remember. On a somber note, you will also find many books discussing Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. Generally speaking, when most people hear the term “memory theory,” they think of the faculty of (individual) human memory or the physiological and psychological aspects of personal recollection.

The constructed past

“A specialised area of research is ‘collective memory’, which is the notion that people remember together with other people and that memory is constructed in, by and for a social group. Collective memory in relation to smaller groups is sometimes called ‘social memory’, whereas, in relation to whole cultures, it tends to be called ‘cultural memory’. Both types of collective memory include ‘memory sites’ such as works of art, ritual acts, symbols, celebrations, memorials, libraries, writings and much more, all of which reinforce the collective identity of a people.” (Duling, 2011, p.1)

However, when the Memory Mavens talk about “memory,” they usually mean collective memory. In the 1920s, sociologist Maurice Halbwachs observed that we do not remember the past independently, but within groups, and that we understand and interpret all memories, even those we experience directly, within social frameworks. Hence, we have no access to the direct past; we see only the interpretation of the past as it is shaped by present circumstances.

Halbwachs’ theory of collective memory may at first seem paradoxical. It changes our focus from the past to the present, while it diminishes the role of the individual in favor of the group. The past, then, is not so much retrieved from our personal recollections, but rather constructed in the present by means of our current social frameworks.

[T]he collective frameworks of memory are not constructed after the fact by the combination of individual recollections; nor are they empty forms where recollections coming from elsewhere would insert themselves. Collective frameworks are, to the contrary, precisely the instruments used by the collective memory to reconstruct an image of the past which is in accord, in each epoch, with the predominant thoughts of the society. (Halbwachs, 1992, p. 40)

Taken to the extreme, collective memory theory erases the past, replacing it with the present, and equates tradition history with fiction, leaving us nothing but mere constructed stories. As a result we see scholars periodically chastising “presentist,” “constructivist” sociologists for being too skeptical. For example, Jan Vansina wrote:

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Turning Awful Prose into Bad Poetry

by Tim Widowfield
English: William McGonagall, scottish poet

William McGonagall, Scottish doggerel poet (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Don’t expect to get much out of this post; I’m just letting off some steam.

This afternoon while we were channel-surfing among several games on DirecTV’s NFL Sunday Ticket, I paused and asked my wife to listen to a sentence from a book I was reading. When I finally finished, she admitted she didn’t understand any of it and asked me if the author was a native English speaker.

Sadly, the sentence was not the product of a single foreign author, working hard to compose in an alien tongue, but of two authors — one from Canada, one from the U.S. — both with PhDs. You might think that having two educated minds working on the same essay would result in better prose, with the excesses of one writer being held in check by the other.

In this case it didn’t work out that way. If anything, Alan Kirk and Tom Thatcher appear to have been engaged in a competition to write the most obscure prose imaginable. As a result, reading their essay, “Jesus Tradition as Social Memory” (Memory, Tradition, and Text, 2005, pp. 25-42) is like watching random words splash over your brain. You recall the act of reading, but you have no memory of the content.

I then recalled ex-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s impenetrable prose, which when re-formed as poetry, somehow took on an almost zen-like quality.

The Unknown

As we know, 
There are known knowns. 
There are things we know we know. 
We also know 
There are known unknowns. 
That is to say 
We know there are some things 
We do not know. 
But there are also unknown unknowns, 
The ones we don’t know 
We don’t know.

—Feb. 12, 2002, Donald Rumsfeld, Department of Defense news briefing

So, I wondered if perhaps Kirk and Thatcher’s word-piles might fare equally well if given the same treatment. Here’s the versified sentence I read to my wife. read more »


Jesus Forgotten: Faulty Memory or No Memory?

by Tim Widowfield

We have deep depth.*

In a recent interview focused on Jesus mythicism, Dale Allison said:

Re memory: My wife and I disagree about our memories all the time. About things that happened years ago, months ago, weeks ago, days ago, or hours ago. It happens so often that it’s a standing joke, and we’ve reconciled ourselves to the fact that, when there is no third witness, we can’t figure out who is right and who is wrong. Heck, sometimes we both must be wrong. But we’re not mythographers, because what we are almost always misremembering is related to something that happened. It’s faulty memory, not no memory. (emphasis mine)

Dale Allison

Dale Allison

He likens the issue of reliable memory in Jesus studies to the problem of how Socrates was remembered differently by his contemporaries. But Socrates, he asserts, still existed. He then likens the problem of the historical reliability of the New Testament to a court case. (I refer to Neil’s recent post on the Criterion of Embarrassment as to why a court case is a terrible example.)

It’s also worth thinking about conflicting testimony in court. When people disagree on their recollections of an accident or crime scene, we don’t conclude there was no accident or no crime. We just say that memories are frail and then try to find the true story behind the disagreements. I’ve argued in Constructing Jesus that we can try a similar approach with the sources for him.

That concept — finding “the true story behind the disagreements” — leads us to the notion that the gospels (and Paul) provide the gist of the stories about Jesus. They can tell us, Allison imagines, what Jesus was really like, even if the details have been changed over time because of our “frail” memory.

English: New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra i...

English: New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra in a 1956 issue of Baseball Digest. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s like déjà vu all over again.*

As our pal McGrath wrote:

Even fabricated material may provide a true sense of the gist of what Jesus was about, however inauthentic it may be as far as the specific details are concerned.

Or as Yogi Berra put it:

I really didn’t say everything I said.

I’d like to believe that Yogi really said most of the things he said, but I also know that we humans love our myths. And one of my favorite myths is that Yogi is some sort of unwitting Zen master who spontaneously utters cryptic, timeless Yogi-isms: nuggets of wisdom wrapped in apparent nonsense.
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