Thoughts on Dale Allison’s thoughts on memory and historical approaches to the study of the Gospels

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by Neil Godfrey

Having just read the first chapter of Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History by Dale C. Allison I can finally comment on what surely strikes most people as a curious statement to come from someone who claims to be a historian. In reviewing Allison’s opening chapter McGrath claimed that Allison was contending that

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.

This certainly does capture what Allison writes of his approach to finding “the historical Jesus” in the Gospels.

Allison considers the results of a wide range of studies on human memory and considers what these must mean for the accuracy of the Gospels, given the assumption that the Gospels are records of what was passed down about Jesus via fallible memories of those who had met him.

Allison even writes:

All this is why fictions may contain facts; an accurate impression can take any number of forms. Even a work as full of make-believe as the Alexander Romance sometimes catches the character of the historical Alexander of Macedon. Similarly, tales about an absentminded professor may be apocryphal and yet spot-on because they capture the teacher’s personality. The letter can be false, the spirit true. (pp. 13-14)

While I can understand what Allison says about memory, I do not understand what this statement has to do with a discussion about approaching evidence in an historical inquiry. Surely no historian takes anything in the Alexander Romance as containing anything of value for a serious attempt to learn about the historical Alexander himself. The Romance was not written from memories of eyewitnesses. Apocryphal tales may be footnoted in a work of history if they contain something humorous, say. But surely no historian uses them as historical evidence. Maybe legends and fiction that arise in later generations are the subject of a study about what a historical memory meant for a new generation or particular culture, but that’s not the same thing as using them to study the original historical person or event.

Maybe I am missing something in what Allison meant after all. But if he did not mean to apply his comparison with the Alexander Romance to a study of the Gospels, then why did he refer to it at all?

Allison’s flaw? Individual memories versus group eyewitness memory

There is surely another disconnect in Allison’s discussion of the relevance of memory for the historical value of the Gospels.

We all know the frailties of individual memories, but did not the eyewitnesses of Jesus talk with one another about what they had witnessed? Did not their audiences compare what one witness said with what they heard from elsewhere and interrogate their informants to get a clear idea of what happened?

In other words, surely if the Gospels are records of what their authors learned from the memories of others, those memories had been checked and held to account in the process of sharing them with fellow witnesses and community dialogue. I don’t think anyone has proposed a model that suggests that the Gospels vary in their accounts because each author had access to a different eyewitness whose personal memories dug their own channels without any sharing of any kind with fellow witnesses.

I am not saying that every detail would be constant across multiple witnesses, but when a number of witnesses talk about what they had seen, they tend to come away with a shared view of the basics of what they had just witnessed. Some gospels say Jesus was anointed in the house of Simon the leper on the eve of his arrest and execution; another says the anointing took place in a Pharisee’s house midway through Jesus’ ministry. Mark says Jesus exorcised a single man living among tombs; Matthew says it was not a single man there but two. Mark names Bartimaeus as one healed by Jesus of blindness, but Matthew forgets the name and says there were two men in this incident who were cured of blindness. I find it difficult to attribute such differences to idiosyncracies of variable eyewitness memories. Eyewitnesses of such events would talk about what they had witnessed, and there is no way some would walk off thinking maybe they saw two people there, and others thinking there was only one and recalling his distinctively unusual name even.

Then when we go a little further and see that at least one of our texts clearly and unambiguously uses healings of blindness to metaphorically declare Jesus to be a healer of spiritual blindness, and another text clearly has an interest in containing a certain number of people healed so as to convey a special message through a spiritually significant number, then surely the judicious historian is warned that he or she is not dealing with recorded memories at all. He or she is reading metaphors and symbolical tales fabricated by the authors.

Allison’s superior awareness of the flaws in his approach

But Dale C. Allison is an honest scholar who is aware of the weaknesses of his approach to the Gospels. He writes:

I can think of no line of reasoning that is not, in the end, strictly circular. (p. 23)

Why do some biblical scholars seem to react so defensively and with such hostility when I attempt to point out what Dale Allison himself can see and admit?

One way to avoid circularity

I think there is a line of reasoning that does avoid circularity, but I can understand why most biblical scholars cannot bring themselves to “think of it”. It means to stop putting the cart before the horse. Stop seeking first the historical Jesus and seek first instead a justifiable historical inquiry into the origin and nature of the Gospels. It just might mean that there is no historical Jesus to seek.

The line of reasoning I am thinking of involves addressing the literary nature of the Gospels and assessing whether they are really likely to be records of memories or symbolic and theological constructions. That is, the historian needs first of all to evaluate the nature of the source material before knowing what questions to ask of it. It is “strictly circular” to bring to it the assumption that it must be the record of orally transmitted memories and then subsequently claim that the text we have so conceived demonstrates the existence of those earlier memories.

Let’s make no assumptions about the historicity or oral sources of the narratives in the texts. Let’s begin by evaluating the nature of the narratives. Are they symbolic and theological tales? If so, can we find objective sources for these tales? If so (e.g. in the Old Testament) then do we need to look any further or do we have a sufficient explanation already? Are their narrative details that cannot be explained this way? When do we find these texts and narratives registering an impact in the wider literary world? What sort of impact? Who are the stakeholders?

This way the historian seeks to explain the narratives in accord with the available internal and external evidence. The historian does not begin with assumptions of the historicity of the narrative itself. That would be a “strictly circular” approach. Maybe the narratives can be explained simply and in accordance with the evidence quite apart from any need to imagine that they drew on historical memories or real events.

Keep in mind the rationale for the Gospels

One thing to keep in mind is that the only reason for the Gospel narratives as we have them is to explain the centrality of the resurrection of Jesus and what this means for the people of faith.

All of the life of Jesus prior to his resurrection only has relevance because of the resurrection — and the assumption that the same person is still with us or about to return to us.

And the resurrection also explains the interest in the Gospel focus on eschatology. The resurrection has relevance because it brings with it the message that these are the “last days” and the one resurrected is to judge all and wrap up human history once and for all.

The reason for the Gospels would seem to me to be to explain and sustain belief in a supernatural event that has meaning for the faithful now and in the future. They were not written to record “history” in the same sense as any other ancient biography or history was written.

(This last thought — the raison d’être of the Gospels being to narrate the meaning of the resurrection — was something I read only recently. Unfortunately I have been reading several books at once and cannot at the moment recall which one it was from. Will return to this post to make amends and identify the source as soon as I recover it.)

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Neil Godfrey

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0 thoughts on “Thoughts on Dale Allison’s thoughts on memory and historical approaches to the study of the Gospels”

  1. I am currently reading ECONned: How Unenlightened Self Interest Undermined Democracy and Corrupted Capitalism by Yves Smith. It is fascinating to see how many assumptions, like efficient markets and rational economic actors, are taken as gospel truth in the field of economics despite the lack of empirical foundation. Despite the massive failure of economists to recognize the imbalances that led to the near collapse of the global financial system, there is very little will to question the neo-classical paradigms. There is some tweaking that goes on, but assumptions that are both unverified and unverifiable still drive the discussion. I can’t help but be struck by similarities to historical Jesus studies. In both fields, there are large contingents with an ideological commitment to the prevailing wisdom. Dissenters are not necessarily silenced, but their voices are drown out by the consensus.

    1. Vinny: “Dissenters are not necessarily silenced, but their voices are drowned out by the consensus.”

      Dissenters aren’t allowed in the room, so the power brokers don’t even know about other options, unless they are presented as straw men with the confident appraisal (and white lie): “We tried that once before and it doesn’t work.”

      If an outsider like Naomi Klein manages to get a book published that reveals the results of unrestrained capitalism, the establishment attacks her credentials and says she “oversimplifies” things, and the free market fundamentalists attack her supposed agenda and call her a commie.

      So yeah, it sort of does remind me of NT studies.

      1. In economics, there is at least some demand for unbiased research. Those who benefit greatly from the status quo will fund think tanks to generate laissez-faire propaganda, but there will still be those who have their own money on the line who want to have the most accurate picture possible of how the world really works in order to make the best financial decisions possible.

        When it comes to historical Jesus studies, there is a large demand from conservative Christian institutions for scholarship that will confirm the historicity of Jesus regardless of the evidence, but I don’t see anyone who stands to benefit directly from an unbiased picture. Moreover, if a graduate student in ancient history comes to the conclusion that our sources are insufficient to say anything with certainty about the historical Jesus, that isn’t going to make for a very interesting PhD dissertation. Moreover, it is going to be much harder to get tenure somewhere writing articles about what we don’t know than it would be writing articles about what we do know.

    2. What the mythicist-historicist conflict witnesses by way of personal attacks, lies (or should that be “culpable falsehoods”?), and various tactics designed to denigrate and marginalize is no doubt what others experience in other conflicts far more serious than anything to do with what people think about Jesus.

      You are right. The attitudes and tactics are “everywhere”. This is one reason I sometimes express some indignation against academics whom one would expect to be leaders in more tolerant values but who use their status to fan anti-social attitudes and responses to views they don’t like.

      Compared with other sins of public intellectuals it seems petty to complain about Jesus and Bible scholars carrying on the way they do (let them wallow in their irrelevance!) — but then I think, why should we overlook anti-social behaviour on the part of public intellectuals at any time? Such a culture, whether its immediate impacts are literally murderous or merely fanning yet one more bigotry, should be held up for public rebuke.

      One thinks of conservative Moslem scholars who are deeply offended at a few liberals who have even come to question the historical existence of Mohammad, or even only to question certain conservative interpretations of the Koran. I’m sure our own bible scholar bigots can see the sins of the that section of the Moslem scholarly establishment with more clarity than they’ll ever acknowledge their own.

  2. While I usually completely disagree with you, here at least, I think you are fair in what you say. I am a student at DTS and for the life of me cannot understand the the need or “quest” for the “Historical Jesus.” Now I don’t deny that someone name Jesus “probably” lived and did something that was remarkable or noteworthy it seems clear that the Gospels are theologically driven stories. By this I mean that is what they are trying to be and “history” as we know it (or even they knew it) was not a primary or secondary concern. Theology is the goal and it seems to use it for other purposes is unfair to the texts.

    Please don’t misunderstand though; I do believe Jesus lived and died, was at least thought to cast out demons, proclaimed the KofG and died. But everything we know is for theology not for history.

    1. That’s interesting. Can you tell us why you think the author of John’s gospel didn’t think Jesus cast out demons? And why Paul, believed to be the earliest canonical author, doesn’t seem to think exorcism is an important deal?

      1. I’ll try… Question #1: Nope couldn’t tell you but I could guess that it wasn’t part of the apologetic program. Just a guess though. I view John as much later and clearly constructed for apologetic purposes that may or may not be understood to us. If the synoptics aren’t historical to me then I surely would hesitate to give an answer about John. Question #2: I think you assume too much. How do you know that ‘exorcism’ was not important to Paul? Just because it is not in his letters at most you can assume exorcism was not important for his letter writing purposes. Example: We know Paul knew and held to a Virgin Birth tradition (Gal 4:4) yet he fails to mention it in 1Cor 15. I doubt a Virgin Birth tradition is unimportant; it was just not relevant enough to include.

        I’m sure you think ohterwise but I’d like to know why. Again I do enjoy your position even though I don’t hold to it.

        1. Galatians 4:4 contains a virgin birth tradition? Really? Just had a glance and all it says is Jesus was ‘born of a woman’. No mention of a virgin. Seems a gratuitous assumption to suggest Paul was implying a virgin birth.

          One see a virgin birth here only if one is wearing gospel-coloured glasses (they come free with New Testament scholarship tenure. They’re really effective: every casual aside of Paul’s become a sly reference to the gospel narratives).

          If I’ve misunderstood what your saying and this isn’t what your arguing, I apologise.

          1. Hold the sad ask down it just makes u look stupid when the facts r brought to light. I held to a mythical view on the virgin birth to be a late development but through exegesis I came to believe “born of a woman” was most likely a reference to said doctrine. So it seems I’m no the only one wearing a bad pair of glasss.

            But fine I’ll play the game of explicit reference. The kingdom of God is key in both Jesus and Paul.

            Please don’t judge me or assume my beliefs. It makes for bad conversation.

            1. ‘The kingdom of God is key in both Jesus and Paul.’

              Paul, of course, never refers to ‘the kingdom of God’

              He was obviously so embarrassed by Jesus’ talk of ‘the kingdom of God’ that he airbrushed it out of history.

              1. Romans 14:17 ‘For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking….’

                Gosh, I was under the impression that Paul never used the phrase.

                It seems I was very wrong.

          1. There is indeed a miraculous birth in Galatians 4, which Paul produces as an example of a supernatural birth of huge significance for Christianity.

            But it is not the birth of Jesus which is singled out for talk of children born by the spirit.

            I guess that for Paul the miraculous virgin birth of the Son of God paled into insignificance beside the birth described as being ‘a new covenant’

            His son by the slave woman was born according to the flesh, but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a divine promise.
            These things are being taken figuratively: The women represent two covenants.

            Now you, brothers and sisters, like Isaac, are children of promise. 29 At that time the son born according to the flesh persecuted the son born by the power of the Spirit. It is the same now. 30 But what does Scripture say? “Get rid of the slave woman and her son, for the slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with the free woman’s son.” 31 Therefore, brothers and sisters, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman.

            Gosh, Christians are just like Isaac, who was born by the power of the spirit.

            How could Paul’s world have been turned upside down by the astonishing news of the virgin birth of the Son of God, and he then spouts on about the birth of Isaac?

    2. Like cold waters to a thirsty soul is a civil response from “the other side” 🙂

      One of my first influences after leaving my faith was Spong and I read early how he and the atheist Michael Goulder were able to discuss biblical questions so amicably. It was a shock to subsequently discover that this seems to have been the exception among biblical scholars, however.

      Though biblical scholars often deny their theological interest unfairly biases their studies, this is surely hard to accept when one reads devotional statements in their prefaces of concluding chapters, sees their various links and tools for online piety on their websites, and denounce atheists for being almost genetically programmed to “hate religion” and argue with an “immoral bias and folly”.

      I have been reading through Dale Allison’s Constructing Jesus and am struck with how much of his “historical-scholarly” arguments are really nothing more than educated conjectures. Evidence is nonexistent. At least he admits the circularity of his approach. I’ll be posting more on this from Allison’s book.

      Just because it is not in his letters at most you can assume exorcism was not important for his letter writing purposes. Example: We know Paul knew and held to a Virgin Birth tradition (Gal 4:4) yet he fails to mention it in 1Cor 15. I doubt a Virgin Birth tradition is unimportant; it was just not relevant enough to include.

      Not to forget Paul’s declamation that though he once knew Christ “after the flesh” he had no interest in knowing him in such a way anymore. That kind of causes a twitch in one’s eyebrow if there was a virgin birth tucked away in there somewhere.

      Though in the case of Galatians 4:4, we do read that it is a God who had his son born of a woman. What is the most logical way to think of a God having a child born of a woman, given what we know of popular mythical beliefs of the day?

  3. ‘Similarly, tales about an absentminded professor may be apocryphal and yet spot-on because they capture the teacher’s personality. The letter can be false, the spirit true.’

    So all those Scientology biographies of L. Ron Hubbard capture the true spirit of the man?

    And if you want to know what Joseph Smith was really like, read Mormon fictional stories about him.

    Hailie Selassie had no idea of his ‘true identity’, but Rastafarians made a religion about him.

    Is Dale Allison really comparing mythmaking about religious leaders to stories about absent minded professors?

    1. Is Dale Allison really comparing mythmaking about religious leaders to stories about absent minded professors?

      And biblical theologians call themselves “historians”. McGrath recently found someone who said they really do do history the way other historians do it, and quoted him to prove it. In the same article he attacked “mythicists” for selectively quoting academic authorities who provide support for their arguments! (When you’ve never heard of von Ranke, E.H. Carr, Elton, the postmodernists, and think Hobsbawm is a lousy historian because his politics are of the left, you do need to rely on those rare quotes to prove you really truly are a historian too!)

      But we see here that Christian ethics pervades the methods of biblical history:

      • one rule is to remember 1 Corinthians 13 and “be charitable” to all texts (if they are in the Bible, that is); even anonymous texts have souls too, you know, and one must never forget that the critical spirit of the scientific age that came out of the Enlightenment was also responsible for Hitler and Stalin;
      • the other rule is to abide by another rule of Paul’s: if the letter fails (and it will), the real truth is to be found in the spirit; the letter might even kill (or go against faith in history) but the spirit will always save!

  4. Another excellent post Neil. What really hit home for me was the way your worded your point about circularity. You drew the perfect distinguishing line between a method that starts with evidence first, and a method that begins with assumption. Spot on.

    And to our DTS friend (and this is not a hostile cheap shot), I know from personal experience (past mentors and friends that attended DTS) that your school taught young-earth creationism until very recently. They might have a few decent scholars there now, but they’ve been a bastion for poor methodology for ages. You might want to keep that in mind regarding everything you encounter in your studies there.

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