Memories of Jesus? (Or False-Memory Syndrome?)

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by Neil Godfrey

The Jesus historian’s proper task is to explain the existence of the Jesus memories in the Gospels. (Chris Keith, Jesus’ Literacy: Scribal Culture and the Teacher from Galilee, p. 66)

literacyThe question Chris Keith appears to overlook is how we know the Gospels do in fact contain “Jesus memories”. In fact, Keith’s book demonstrates, at least to my mind, just how far removed “Jesus historians” are from the mainstream of nonbiblical historical studies. (I am aware many biblical scholars would either deny or excuse this but that’s a topic I won’t address again in this post.)

Keith rightly leaves aside the tool of authenticity criteria as a means of determining “what happened” (I have addressed core aspects of Keith’s argument on such criteria before) but has left a gaping hole at centre of his attempt to reconstruct the origins of Christianity.

While some would argue that Jesus did not “start” Christianity that seems not to be Keith’s view. As I read him he associates Christianity’s beginnings with the impact Jesus had in his (pre-resurrection) lifetime on his disciples. Indeed, he even blurs the distinction between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith:

The overall implications of the Jesus-memory approach are significant. They challenge nothing less than the distinction between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith. . . . [T]he Jesus-memory approach denies scholars’ abilities to separate cleanly the historical Jesus from the Christ of faith and properly returns historical investigation to why early Christians remembered Jesus in the manners they did. (pp. 69-70)

Keith’s colleague, Anthony Le Donne, at least acknowledged the necessity to somehow establish with some degree of independent verification (not just assumption) the existence of Jesus and reality of certain types of things he did. Le Donne admitted he had nothing but authenticity criteria to accomplish this, however, and Keith expresses some dismay over this return to a flawed method:

I disagree with Le Donne’s surprising appeals to criteria of authenticity. (p. 67 — Keith does acknowledge, however, that Le Donne modifies the claims he makes for these criteria by conceding they “cannot verify what actually happened” – p. 65 — only what “may have” happened, in effect)

Here is where I find biblical scholarship to be so removed from historical studies more generally. Ever since my undergraduate days I took it as a truism that all “facts” are at some level interpretations. Yet Keith attempts to explain at length why he believes that an “interpreted” event is somehow not, per se, necessarily “authentic”. He stresses what I and I am sure many historians have taken to be an obvious point — that every event we know about is transmitted through interpretations. Of course they are, but that does not deny the possibility of some sort of “objectivity” to the reality of those events. All we know about the Holocaust has come to us through interpretations of experiences and observations. But that does not mean we can say nothing stronger than that the Holocaust “plausibly happened”.

Keith speaks of our inability to have any “objective apprehension of past reality” and how the historian is always reduced to assessing “what is more or less plausible” (p. 66). I think Holocaust survivors have wanted something more than a claim like this in their defence.

Of course all human experience is interpreted, but that does not deny its objective reality at the same time. Droughts and floods and earthquakes and eclipses and assassinations — all having played significant roles in history — are more than human interpretations. Yes, they are interpreted. Even the central actants interpreted what they do. Julius Caesar had his own interpretations of his conquest of Gaul. If Jesus healed and preached then he, too, could only speak of his own interpretations of his career. But that would not mean we can only say his career itself was nothing more than a “plausible” event. Everyone, including Jesus, would have a different way of describing it, that’s all. A movie is real but everyone — including the director and actors — has a different take on it.

What Keith is doing is trying to establish “what plausibly happened” in order to explain the narratives we have in the Gospels.

His approach is to try to ascertain what sorts of (interpreted) experiences and reports among Jesus’ followers and their audiences eventually led to the Gospel narratives. The criteria of success (or relative success) is the extent such reconstructions are “plausible”.

All of this hangs on the assumption that the Gospels are indeed written as “memories” of Jesus.

What Keith has overlooked here is what I would think ought to be the very first task of the historian.

The historian first needs to establish the nature, character, of her sources. That means establishing some relative certainties about their provenance, who wrote them, when, where, for whom, why? Equally it means establishing some relative certainties about the “intent” of the sources — are they meant to establish some formal exchange of information? tell an allegory? record a diary? entertain? And just as importantly it means being able to establish by means of independent sources the extent to which they might contain reliable historical data. All of these go together. So a work meant to entertain may contain reliable historical data but not tell a “true story” — as many of the ancient “novellas” do.

But such discussion is avoided. We read, instead, explanations such as the following:

[A]ccording to Hurtado, “The only reasonable factor that accounts for the central place of the figure of Jesus in early Christianity is the impact of Jesus’ ministry and its consequences, especially for his followers.” (p. 49)

Only one explanation is considered reasonable. I once asked Larry Hurtado what data he presented upon which to base his belief that the general outline of the Gospel narrative was in fact a “true” (more or less, with interpretations) account of how Christianity began. I repeated what he saw as the “raw data” in an earlier post. Not a single point is what most historians would normally call “raw data” or “primary evidence” but in each case they are extrapolations or assumptions drawn from an unprovenanced narrative (the Gospels and Acts) for which we have no independent authentication.

But the historian is not left without evidence at all.

A good number of biblical scholars do recognize tangible evidence for many of the narratives and sayings in the Gospels. Man y are found in the “Old Testament” writings. The account of Jesus’ miraculous feeding of thousands is surely sourced from Elisha’s comparable miracle. There is very strong tangible evidence that the story of the raising of the daughter of Jairus is likewise sourced from the same prophet.

A common response to such claims is that the authors or those preserving the tradition merely chose to add a biblical touch to what they remembered of Jesus. Yet that answer is only adding unverifiable assumptions to the tangible evidence we have at hand. This argument does not mean that we would discount the historicity of other ancient figures who also were in part described in mythical tones. Alexander the Great, for example, has ample evidence to establish his historicity and the mythical trappings do not make up the whole of his narratives.


It’s not easy blogging here in the midst of early morning music and traffic noise in a Bali cafe but I have tried at least to hit on a few key considerations as I am reading Keith’s book. Each one of the above points, I am well aware, requires elaboration to clarify and justify itself for those not used to this approach. I have covered those elaborations in previous posts. But now it’s time to turn to my real reason for being here in Bali — my trip to the dentist.


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Neil Godfrey

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16 thoughts on “Memories of Jesus? (Or False-Memory Syndrome?)”

  1. In fact too we can use science. Which strongly suggests that many miracles say, were highly unlikely.

    Using science, many things can be objectively known, even about the pre-historic past.

  2. It’s all about going with the evidence we have. This social-memory application to historical Jesus studies comes across to me as a pretentious exercise in apologetics. It provides a “scholarly-sounding” cover for rationalizing the Gospel narratives. it’s another way of reconstructing the myth.

    Keith refers to James Crossley’s term “over-interpreting” to refer to approaches that seek first to “seriously” understand the gospels as literary and theological constructions and to first interpret them as such. The default reading must be that they are “historical memories” of Jesus. No rationale is offered for this starting point. It is simply a given.

    1. The Gospels of Thomas, Judas, Peter etc are obviously not historical memories of Jesus. After all, they are not in the New Testament.

      Those works are literary and theological constructions, and I think I can’t be accused of over-interpreting when I say that.

      1. It is useful to note that what studying the apocrypha etc. taught us, should now be seen as the larger context for the gospels.

        Barr hinted that if the gospels were not written by the apostles, then they themselves are even psedepigraphal (“Interpretation, ” ?Ox. Companion)

  3. I attempted to engage Chris Keith in discussion but he replied by sending me a copy of a spam email from a Nigerian benefactor offering me a fortune if I sent him my account details. Such nice types, these Christian apologist scholars. But good company for Larry H, sadly.

    1. Whenever I come across a scholar saying this or that “must have” happened, I imagine a mythical land of Mustovy, inhabited by the Mustovites. From our current crop of NT scholars, I nominate Dr. Hurtado as the Duke of Mustovy, the chief of all Mustovites.

  4. Coincidentally, I came across this interesting article: Stories vs. Statistics. There’s usually a tension between stories and statistics; they are commonly at odds. Facts that we read in narrative form are taken as more credible than numbers (indeed, bare narrative vs cold facts — even though both might be fundamentally the same — affects are brains differently).

    Moreover, one of the fundamental ways that stories are in opposition to statistics is the conjunction fallacy vs. what psychologists call representativeness. In this context, if a memory of Jesus fits our representative model of what we think Jesus was like, then we’ll be more likely to believe it. On the other hand, the more details that a story has (i.e., it tends more towards “representativeness”) the less likely it is to be true probabilistically.

    A Jesus who preached and had twelve disciples is literally less probable than a Jesus who just preached. Since those two pieces are in conjunction, both of them being true at the same time is less likely than either one taken independently. This is especially relevant when talking about people’s memories. People have a tendency to add details to an event after it has occurred, yet these additional details make it less likely. Worse yet, because a lot of things that follow necessarily from probability are counter-intuitive, people are more likely to instinctively reject it; and this rejection is more likely to happen when someone is more educated.

    1. Yes, interesting indeed. I have been painfully aware (including from my own experience) how education and intelligence does not innoculate against groundless and fallacious beliefs and reasoning. In fact the more intelligent and knowledgeable one is the more tools and mechanisms one has with which to defend and rationalise whatever one wants.

      I see I’ve written on this a few times now — back in 2011 I had Why are the Gospels so Believable?

  5. Here’s a thought for you, Neil…if in John A Mary is wandering around in pre-dawn dark, how likely and possible is it she may have come across the wrong tomb in the dark and set off a comedy of errors? After all, only days before, one such tomb had been emptied of its occupant and the wrappings left in it…Lazarus’.

    Now imagine the implications.

    1. I think you may have meant this for Tim (he was the author of the post) but my own response when I hear such questions is to generally shelve them or leave them for others with apologetic interests to discuss. The tale of Mary at the tomb is just a story. It has a theological message and that’s it’s entire point. I see no reason to wonder what the characters might or might not have done as if they were real people in history.

        1. I did, too. Why does words I believe in my head I’m typing and re-reading get swallowed up by mysterious empty web space somehow? Thanks for pointing it out.

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