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

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by Tim Widowfield

A muddle of mavens

Maurice Halbwachs
Maurice Halbwachs, French Sociologist, 1877-1945

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:

Yes, oral traditions are documents of the present, because they are told in the present. Yet they also embody a message from the past, so they are expressions of the past at the same time. They are the representation of the past in the present. One cannot deny either the past or the present in them. To attribute their whole content to the evanescent present as some sociologists do, is to mutilate tradition; it is reductionistic. To ignore the impact of the present as some historians have done, is equally reductionistic. Traditions must always be understood as reflecting both past and present in a single breath. (Vansina, 1985, p. xii, bold emphasis mine)

Vansina argues for a balance between the extremes of cynicism on the one hand and naive credulity on the other. We see the past through the lens of the present, he would argue, but the past is not completely irretrievable.

I would not wish to leave the impression that Vansina was taking aim at Halbwachs with the above remarks. He fully accepts collective memory as a feature of oral tradition.

Traditions presuppose the slow remodeling of memory as well as reasonably frequent, more dynamic reorganizations. That this is collective memory is important. To a point all memory is collective,[26] but memories of traditions are especially so since different people hear a single rendering and may or may not render it later themselves. Indeed the earlier performer often is the later listener. This collective character is important also in that it implies a faster pace of remolding of dormant data in memory.

Memory changes over time, even when dormant, because of the constant input of new items in memory which must coexist with older material and force its reappraisal, its reorganization, and, in the case of repetitive events, its disappearance. Such inputs are greater in collective memory than in individual memory, at least with regard to tradition. The memory of oral tradition is more dynamic at all times than individual memory.

[26] A. Lieury, La memoire, pp. 35-36, 193-98; M. Halbwachs, Les cadres sociaux [The Social Frameworks of Memory], is largely vindicated by recent research.

(Vansina, 1985, p. 161, emphasis mine)

Discomfiting parentage

Vansina’s acceptance of social memory contrasts sharply with the reactions of some Memory Mavens. The Neutestamentler ritual of writing books and papers about collective memory begins with a short blurb about Maurice Halbwachs, followed by warnings about going “too far” or being “too skeptical.” Barry Schwartz (career sociologist and recent NT scholar), for example, warns that while attempting to “grasp the social memory of first-century believers” we might be able to use social memory scholarship; however:

[W]e cannot invoke it rashly; we need to recognize its merits and avoid its pathologies, especially those it shares with biblical studies, lest it certify the very distortions we want to correct. These distortions result from a cynicalconstructionist” project rooted in the valuable idea of memory being assembled from parts (Hacking: 49–50), but fixated on the circular assumption that constructed products are not what they seem precisely because they are constructed. No assumption, in my view, has done more to undermine the foundation of social memory scholarship or hinder its application to biblical studies. (Schwartz, 2005)

In the above quotation, I’ve highlighted some of the scare-words Schwartz loves to use. He breathlessly warns us against pathological distortions and circular assumptions about presentist thinking. He even knows the cause of these “foundational flaws”: cynicism. After all, why stop at disproving the message when you can disparage the messenger?

Schwartz cites the “culture of suspicion” that pervaded Western thought after the First World War, in which many people, especially the intelligentsia wallowed in disillusionment. Not only social memory but also form criticism falls under Schwartz’s stern, disapproving gaze.

Social memory scholarship, like the sociology of knowledge and form criticism, has an affinity for cynicism and casual dismissal of conventional belief. It flourishes in societies where cultural values no longer unify, where people have already become alienated from common values, and separate communities regard one another distrustfully. . . . Biblical scholarship, like social memory scholarship and the sociology of knowledge, frequently despairs over its ability to know events as they actually were and finds its triumphant moments in clever reinterpretations or the debunking of what was once believed to be true. (Schwartz, 2005, pp. 45-46)

We might be inclined to forgive Schwartz for not knowing that Hermann Gunkel, the father of Formgeschichte, developed his methodology in the first decade of the 20th century, or that Gunkel’s student, Martin Dibelius, referred to “die Geschichte der Form” as early as 1911 in Die urchristliche Überlieferung von Johannes dem Täufer (The Early Christian Tradition of John the Baptist). After all, Schwartz, a sociologist by trade, although embraced by the Memory Mavens as one of their own, probably lacks the depth of experience to have an awareness of such things. (Although one might have hoped that the editors who reviewed his article or the SBL keynote address from which it sprang might have pointed out that form criticism preceded the Great War.)

Blaming Bultmann

Naturally, Rudolf Bultmann draws most of Schwartz’s ire, since he’s the only form critic modern authors claim to read.

The problem is to get from the social memory of Jesus to the establishment of Christianity. Since this problem involves the transition from orality to literacy, we collide with Rudolph Bultmann’s presentist approach to memory and Christianity. Seeking to bridge the gap between individual memories and New Testament accounts authenticating specific sayings, Bultmann assumed that oral tradition, the recollection of Jesus’ spoken words, could not be trusted to represent Jesus’ life. The interests of the early church, not its longing for the truth, shaped its conception of Jesus’ life. The interests of the early church, not its longing for the truth, shaped its conception of Jesus’ life. Bultmann’s comment on Mark pertains to all four Gospels: its author is “steeped in the theology of the early church, and he ordered and arranged the traditional material that he received in light of the faith of the early church” [quoting Bultmann in History of the Synoptic Tradition, p.1]. (Schwartz, 2005, p. 47)

Again, we can hardly blame a sociologist for not fully appreciating that Bultmann was practically quoting William Wrede directly. Nor would he comprehend (not having read Wrede, and, really, who has time for that?) the specific references to the order and arrangement of the traditional material in the gospels. The idea that the evangelists picked and chose older bits of either oral or written stories and placed them in a framework based on their own theological perspective is not merely an assumption, but the well-established conclusion of careful study.

Naturally, no one — neither sociologist nor Neutestamentler — has the time to read K. L. Schmidt, but surely somebody in academia must have read past page one of History of the Synoptic Tradition. Bultmann explained that source criticism, especially the intense analysis of the Synoptics, demonstrated that the evangelists assembled their gospels from smaller, older chunks of material.

The most important and far-reaching work in the field of Synoptic research since Wrede has been done by [Julius] Wellhausen [ref. his commentaries on Mark, Matthew, and Luke, virtually unknown in the English-speaking world]. His work is more comprehensive than Wrede’s, for he has shown how the theology of the early Church has influenced the traditional material, not only in Mark, but also in Matthew and Luke, and therefore in Q, which, like Mark, lies behind them. Wellhausen stated very clearly the fundamental assumption that the tradition consists of individual stories or groups of stories joined together in the Gospels by the work of the editors; and he also showed how pieces of the primitive tradition alternated with secondary material . . . (Bultmann, 1963, p. 2)

(Note: I wonder how many biblical scholars know about Wellhausen’s work on the New Testament. Just imagine — a vast, untapped body of work that they could be misquoting, misrepresenting, and misunderstanding, just like the Prolegomena.)

We should view Bultmann’s task as anything but cynical; in fact, I have always thought of him as brimming with optimism. For here we have a situation in which the great biblical scholars of the day (excluding the pious Britons, of course) came to the realization that even the oldest gospel, Mark, comes to us already heavily edited — already revised according to the theological needs of ancient Christians.

But as source criticism and traditional exegesis appeared to lead to a dead end, Bultmann believed we could find “the original units of the Synoptics” by means of form-critical methods. He conceived of the History of the Synoptic Tradition as a work that:

. . . sets out to give an account of the history of the individual units of the tradition, and how the tradition passed from a fluid state to the fixed form in which it meets us in the Synoptics and in some instances even outside them. (Bultmann, 1963, p. 3, italics his)

Of Bethlehem and Boston

We may dismiss Schwartz’s warped understanding of Bultmann as a common problem even within the guild. However, his odd display of venom against Halbwachs nearly defies explanation. He writes:

Since Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem conveniently connects him to the line of David, Halbwachs dismisses the Nativity as a legend (1992). The logical problem is patent. John F. Kennedy’s birthplace, Boston, connects him to the beginning of the American Revolution, but this hardly means that he was not born in Boston. Halbwachs’s greatest failure is his inability to see commemoration as anything more than an elaborate delusion. It is not just that localizations distort history; the more they distort the better they work. (Schwartz, 2005, p. 49, emphasis mine)

He laments:

Halbwachs advances a pejorative conception of collective memory, one that distrusts and works to undermine established beliefs. He assumes that memory, as opposed to history, is inauthentic, manipulative, shady, something to be overcome rather than accepted in its own right. That commemoration is a selective celebration rather than an inferior version of history escapes Halbwachs. He cannot fully grasp what sacred sites accomplish, how they transmute reality to mobilize and sustain religious sentiment and, above all, elevate Jesus and sustain faith in what he did and represented. (Schwartz, 2005, p. 49, emphasis mine)

First of all, Halbwachs did not “dismiss the Nativity as legend” by means of an argument based on his understanding of collective memory. He was instead accepting the well-known, well-established, uncontroversial, historical-critical conclusion that the Bethlehem stories are late, fanciful legends. Collective memory comes into play when Halbwachs tries to find more reasons other than the standard “Davidic-messiah-predicition” to explain the attraction early Christians may have had toward Bethlehem.

Second, Halbwachs did not see that attraction to Bethlehem simply as an “elaborate delusion.” Instead, he talks about the intertwining of established Jewish traditions and emerging Christian traditions. It’s an important conclusion that Schwartz assiduously misses:

The Christian collective memory could annex a part of the Jewish collective memory only by appropriating part of the latter’s local remembrance while at the same time transforming its entire perspective of historical space. This happens when a territorial group unites with another whose soil is more sacred and more ancient: in this way its own territories become elevated and gain in prestige. (Halbwachs, 1992, p. 215)

How could Schwartz have not understood these basic points? Halbwachs clearly states at the beginning of La topographie légendaire des evangiles en terre sainte: Étude de mémoire collective [translated and contained in the Conclusion to On Collective Memory] that he believes the gospels consist of some factual and some legendary material. We’re fairly certain that some material is secondary, because the gospels differ significantly on several counts, one of which is the importance of Bethlehem — unknown to Mark and John, contradicted in Matthew and Luke.

Ernest-Renan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Third, even if Schwartz could not understand Halbwach’s point of view, he could have consulted the sources. Check the footnotes in La topographie, and you’ll see one name mentioned repeatedly: Ernest Renan. Here’s what Renan said about Bethlehem in The Life of Jesus:

Jesus was born at Nazareth, a small town of Galilee, which before his time had no celebrity. All his life he was designated by the name of “the Nazarene,” and it is only by a rather embarrassed and round-about way, that, in the legends respecting him, he is made to be born at Bethlehem. (Renan, 1864, p. 46)

Halbwachs had accepted Renan’s conclusion, which, as I mentioned earlier, is the current overwhelming consensus of non-apologetic scholars. But Schwartz chooses to react like an outraged schoolboy who has just heard from a friend that Santa Claus does not exist. One day on the playground his friend muses, “Why the North Pole? What’s the significance of that fictional location?” Schwartz is enraged that anyone would insist on holding to a worldview “that distrusts and works to undermine established beliefs,” and runs home sobbing.

Turning to Schwartz’s Kennedy analogy, suppose we came upon an anonymous biography of JFK written fifty years after his death. In it we learn that his mother, for mysterious reasons, was traveling through Philadelphia when she unexpectedly went into labor and gave birth to the future president right next to the Liberty Bell.

We would suspect the story is a fraud — primarily because it conflicts with earlier reports of his birth in Boston, but also because it surfaced quite late, has no secondary attestation, and lacks provenance. Finally, the story does seem rather “convenient,” in that it connects JFK to the founding fathers, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, etc. But that doesn’t mean our primary aim is to upset people who would like to believe JFK was born in Philadelphia, or that the Easter Bunny brings chocolate to good boys and girls.


In upcoming posts I hope to explain other concepts and methods in memory theory. Here I intended to lay some of the basic groundwork with a brief introduction to Halbwachs. The diligent reader will have a great deal of difficulty understanding the works of today’s Memory Mavens without appreciating the deep tension between them and the founder of collective memory. It reminds me in many ways of how today’s Biblical scholars will not read and cannot understand the works of their forebears. The tensions exist for similar reasons, which perhaps explains why the NT scholarly guild has welcomed Schwartz with open arms.

Bultmann, Rudolf K.

History of the Synoptic Tradition, Hendrickson Publishers, 1963/1931

“The Gospels (Form),” in Jaroslav Pelikan, Twentieth Century Theology in the Making, vol. I: Themes of Biblical Theology, Harper & Row, 1969

Dibelius, Martin

Die urchristliche Überlieferung von Johannes der Täufer, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1911

Duling, Dennis C.

“Memory, collective memory, orality and the gospels,” HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies, 67(1), Art. #915, 11 pages. DOI: 10.4102/hts.v67i1.915, 2011

Halbwachs, Maurice

On Collective Memory, University Of Chicago Press, 1992/1925

Renan, Ernest

The Life of Jesus, Trübner, 1864

Schwartz, Barry

“Christian Origins: Historical Truth and Social Memory” in Kirk & Thatcher, Memory, Tradition, and Text: Uses of the Past in Early Christianity, SBL, 2005

Vansina, Jan

Oral Tradition as History, The University of Wisconsin Press, 1985

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Tim Widowfield

Tim is a retired vagabond who lives with his wife and multiple cats in a 20-year-old motor home. To read more about Tim, see our About page.

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13 thoughts on “The Memory Mavens, Part 1: A Brief Introduction to Memory Theory”

  1. Thank you. I also think that this is an important issue. I noticed it a few weeks ago when German scholar Sandra Hübenthal published her book “Das Markusevangelium als kollektives Gedächtnis” (The Gospel of Mark as a collective memory) http://www.v-r.de/de/title-0-0/das_markusevangelium_als_kollektives_gedaechtnis-1011833/

    This theory of collective memory is so “fluid”. It has the appearance of scientific rigor, but solve many critical problems like a drug. It’s good that someone has a sharp eye on it.

  2. As Carrier would say, Schwatz’s argument for Bethlehem as the birthplace of Jesus is “mired in naivete and possibiliter fallacies”. Forget the maths. But follow the method of Bayesian reasoning — which is nothing other than sound thinking about any hypothesis:

    What is the likelihood that a person of historical note is born at a place that has such neat ideological correspondence with their later reputation?

    It’s possible, of course — but there is obviously room for some doubt, too.

    Next, what do we know of the evidence for this claim — its provenance, it relationship to other relevant data, etc?

    Is not that a more valid basis for forming an opinion than reacting against perceived cynicism?

    1. I agree completely. However, Schwartz’s accusations fail not only because of your commonsense analysis, but because it’s clear that he just didn’t understand what Halbwachs was saying.

    1. Le Donne explains (http://historicaljesusresearch.blogspot.com/2014/09/secular-historians-dont-do-it-this-way.html)

      If you’ve ever wondered what a “secular historian” might think of what we’re doing here in the inner sanctum, this is the book for you. While busy with his Abraham Lincoln monograph series, Professor Schwartz has become conversant with historical Jesus research and New Testament studies in his “spare time” over the past ten years. Schwartz has deep roots in sociology and is (without rival) the leading voice of social memory theory in the English-speaking world. That said, he tends to be more of a “traditionalist” (or, better put, “continuitist”) concerning the relationship between the past and the present. In simple terms, he believes that we can indeed talk intelligently about the past, including Jesus. To be completely honest, Schwartz tends to be more “traditional” than many career Jesus enthusiasts (myself included).

      He’s participated in a few SBL gatherings. In Memory and Identity in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity, Thatcher writes:

      Schwartz’s contributions here extend a warm and fruitful running dialogue with biblical scholarship that has included participation in several meetings of the society of Biblical literature and a number of recent articles on problems in christian origins (Schwartz 2005a, 2005b, 2011). in the process, Schwartz has become a mentor to many in applications of social/ collective/cultural memory theories to issues in biblical studies, and the present book seeks to continue this conversation through focused reflection on several foundational premises of his theoretical model.

      In many ways, he’s a perfect fit. He gives comfort to those who need to hear his message that memory distortion has strict limits. I would also note in passing that the standards of scholarship in the subfield of social scientific criticism are notoriously low. It doesn’t take a whole lot of effort there to become a one-eyed king.

      Did you catch the wailing and gnashing of teeth over on the Exploding Cakemix about Neil being called a “scholar”? Remember, you simply must have the proper credentials to say anything at all about the Bible . . . unless, of course you’re saying what cool kids want to hear.

      1. Did you catch the wailing and gnashing of teeth over on the Exploding Cakemix about Neil being called a “scholar”? Remember, you simply must have the proper credentials to say anything at all about the Bible . . . unless, of course you’re saying what cool kids want to hear.

        God Almighty – I have just caught up with all that. It really demonstrates, if there had been any doubt, that the debate for one side is visceral, not intellectual.

  3. Was Wellhausen’s work on the New Testament (1903-05) ever translated?

    It only took English-language Biblical scholarship 87 years to come out with a translation of Gunkel’s “Genesis” (3rd Edition, 1910), and 57 years for a translation of Bousset’s “Kyrios Christos” (1913).

    So using their normal timetable, they were possibly getting around to translating Wellhausen when Bultmann (building from Wellhausen’s and others’ work) appeared on the scene. By which time Wellhausen appeared outdated. Therefore, English-language scholarship, which lost a good 30 years engaging with the scholarship which informed Bultmann, couldn’t really understand where Bultmann was coming from. As ignorant people tend to do, they responded by attacking or misrepresenting Bultmann, which continues apace today.

    We see this happening over and over again in theological studies. As the German scholars are always a generation or two ahead of the English-language scholars, the most the latter can do to retain any credibility at all is to either attack or ignore. They will never have the time to catch up to German scholarship, which passed them by 100 years ago.

    1. For some of masterworks of the early 20th century, there is absolutely no excuse. Schmidt’s Der Rahmen der Geschichte Jesu is, of course, at the top of my list. Everyone acknowledges that it was enormously influential. But for non-German readers, it remains accessible mostly through criticism from third-rate English and American scholars — crypto-apologists with an obvious ax to grind.

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