We have deep depth.*
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)
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.
It’s like déjà vu all over again.*
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.
You can observe a lot by just watching.*
As an American I can’t help but have a fondness for the myths of the Founding Fathers. In grade school I recall drawing in crayon a young George Washington, standing next to a fallen tree, holding an ax, and saying, “I cannot tell a lie.” I’m pretty sure he was wearing a powdered wig in my rendition. Naturally.
We know that Washington almost certainly never chopped down a cherry tree and then ‘fessed up to his dad. But does the gist of the story reveal something about George’s character? In other words, do the myths of Washington provide a window into the past? — the echo of a “memory” of our first President?
The future ain’t what it used to be.*
Suppose we’re living 10,000 years from now on a new planet — after a devastating war and and ensuing “dark age.” Our knowledge of the past is incomplete. All we know about George Washington is contained in the fragments we have from children’s books printed in the 19th century.
What could we say that we probably know about old George? Could we assume that the story about cutting down the cherry tree, although fabricated, “may provide a true sense of the gist of what
Jesus Washington was about, however inauthentic it may be as far as the specific details are concerned“? That’s one possible interpretation.
However, we would also be aware that the claim of his unfaltering honesty could have arisen from Washington’s carefully crafted public persona. The badge of honesty may have resulted from a successful propaganda campaign. That is, we may be able to say that people in the age in which the stories were written “remembered” Washington as an honest man, but we may not know the real man.
A third alternative, to which I subscribe, is that we don’t really know what the story means until we know why it was written. And there’s good evidence that both this story, along with the story of Young George and the Colt, arose out of a desire to instill virtue in children by means of examples. In short, the impetus behind these myths comes not from a shared social memory of Washington, but from a strong desire to teach children to tell the truth.
To assume without physical evidence, while relying completely on fragmentary, secondary, literary evidence, that a story reflects a memory is begging the question.
It’s pretty far, but it doesn’t seem like it.*
The problem I have with a lot of these new “memory” studies, popping up like so many mushrooms in the soft, pungent muck of NT scholarship, is the frequent assumption that each passage in the gospels or in Paul’s letters that alludes to something Jesus did or said is a memory of the authentic Jesus. Yes, it might be “refracted on a trajectory” or distorted by “frail memory.” Hell, it might even be true fiction! As Anthony Le Donne wrote of Allison’s work:
[W]hat Constructing Jesus will be celebrated for 50 years from now is Allison’s thesis that even haggadic fictions can betray memory in ways that are helpful to the historians.
Before reflecting upon the reasons for the story’s existence, they start thinking about memory. Even after dispensing with historicity, they insist that some kernel of truth is hidden within.
It gets late early out here.*
Just what in the world is going on here? L. Michael White in Scripting Jesus hit the nail on the head.
In part, the problem here is the term “memory.” For many people working in the area of Gosple studies, it is taken to imply an “authentic kernel of teaching or a historical episode” that is preserved more or less without variation in later oral reports. But is that really what is reflected in studies of oral tradition? Even Kenneth Bailey‘s work, which served as the basis for [James D.G.] Dunn’s model [in Jesus Remembered], suggests a rather different notion of memory. (White, p. 100, emphasis mine)
White recounts Bailey’s description of tales told in gatherings of modern villages in the Middle East. But while it’s true that Bailey himself wrote about “informal, controlled oral tradition,” passed down from generation to generation, his actual research revealed something else.
On the other hand, closer examination of Bailey’s own sources shows that many of these stories as preserved are far removed from early authentic accounts of what really happened. Instead, they were often episodes or stories that were shaped through the later experience of those village communities and then passed down in this later, evolved form.
In one case, the story discussed by Bailey even reflects a conscious and collective effort of villagers to concoct a fictional account to cover up an accidental death.
In another, the original episode was fancifully embellished into a story of a Christian preacher’s nighttime encounter with a band of robbers, who then converted to Christianity. Such elements never appear in the earliest version, yet it is this fanciful version that is “remembered” in later storytelling.
In a third, the traditional Bedouin folk tale was intentionally altered in oral presentation by one respected village elder in order to make a new didactic point; meanwhile, the villagers knew quite well what he was doing. Yet both the original version and the altered one were preserved in later storytelling. (White, p. 101, my bold emphasis and reformatting)
It ain’t over ’til it’s over.*
Note well that the villagers now “remember” a false version of the story. What is now true for them is a story that fulfills a purpose different from history. Quoting White again:
What this all means is that, although stories were indeed preserved and passed on in the life of these villages, they usually represent some sort of “constructed memory” that reinforces the identity and self-consciousness of the community, not just “what really happened.” (White, p. 101, emphasis mine)
What’s missing from the much of the research in memory studies within NT scholarship is the acknowledgment that the majority (if not all) of the stories in the gospels are almost certainly “constructed memories,” generated and maintained by communities of worshipers. They are not memories that were distorted over time by human frailty; they are fictions that reinforce community identity. As such, we cannot apply a magic lens to rectify the distorted image. The true story behind the fiction has been erased, or it might never have existed in the first place.
Instead, we need some method or methods by which we can separate what has been constructed from what has been left intact. But even that statement presupposes that the collection of stories must contain some truth, and we simply don’t know that.
You can doubt everything if you want to. It’s a question of what’s more plausible, and it’s my sense of things that positing an historical Jesus leaves us with fewer problems than the alternative.
I don’t doubt because I “want to,” but because honest analysis of the facts leads me there. That said, I will agree with part of that last sentence. The only valid argument left to Jesus historicists is whether the historical model is more plausible. But that’s cold comfort, since it could easily lead us to a Jesus who “probably existed,” but whom we know nothing about.
- Quotes attributed to Yogi Berra
Latest posts by Tim Widowfield (see all)
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