The Memory Mavens, Part 11: Origins of the Criteria of Authenticity (4)

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by Tim Widowfield

After a long delay, owing to intrusions from the real world, I now wish to end this part of the Memory Mavens series with a discussion of perspectives and methods. For weeks I’ve ruminated over these subjects, concerned (no doubt overly concerned) that I will miss some important points. But when I do, I know I can return to them in the future. Such is the privilege of blogging.

Historical fads

Heikki Räisänen
1941 – 2015

Recently, while re-reading the introductory chapters to Heikki Räisänen’s The “Messianic Secret” in Mark’s Gospel, it struck me how little has changed in NT scholarship. Fads may come and go (does anyone even bother with rhetorical criticism today?), but we can always count on a sizable number of scholars to solve every problem in NT studies with a historical explanation that goes back to the “actual” words and deeds of Jesus.

William Wrede, as you will recall, addressed two problems: (1) What are the origins of the secrecy (or silence) motifs in Mark’s gospel? (2) Did Jesus think he was the Messiah, or did his disciples assign that role to him after they became convinced he had been raised from the dead? Wrede concluded that we could gain important insights into the second problem by solving the first.

By painstakingly examining each case of secrecy — silencing demons, warning people not to publicize his miracles, etc. — against contrary cases in which no such admonition is given, Wrede demonstrated that both openness and secrecy existed in Mark’s sources. He then set about to determine which traditions came first. If the historical Jesus openly proclaimed his status as the Son of God, the Messiah, the savior of Israel, etc., then it becomes exceedingly difficult to explain how the secrecy motif arose. But if Jesus did not publicly proclaim his messiahship, then we can imagine a transitional post-Easter belief (that Jesus and his disciples kept it a secret until his death and resurrection. Which is more likely?

Scholarly backlash and a volcanic Jesus

In the immediate backlash, scholars furiously accused Wrede of hyper-skepticism. As you recall, Albert Schweitzer entitled a chapter in The Quest of the Historical Jesus, “Thoroughgoing Scepticism and Thoroughgoing Eschatology.” He changed his mind, but nobody in the guild seems to care. Although scholars will pretend to have read Wrede’s Secret and Schweitzer’s Quest, the latter is the only one that’s actually on their bookshelves. And sadly, none of them seems to have caught up with the changes made in the second edition (published in 1913).

Schweitzer, along with Wrede, criticized the appalling excesses and flights of fancy which many life-of-Jesus scholars had fallen into. But Schweitzer was not immune to the allure of romantic historicization.

Around the turn of the [20th] century, exegetes were still interested in Mark’s gospel as a source for historical criticism. This was the time when ‘life of Jesus’ literature was flourishing. This literature received the fatal blow from Albert Schweitzer, although even Schweitzer could not free himself from the basic approach which he himself had criticized. He too tried to reconstruct on the basis of the chronology of the gospels (Matthew and Mark) the different stages of Jesus’ activity. The decisive impulse came from another direction. It was William Wrede who steered gospel studies in a new direction. He subjected Mark’s presentation to a rigorous historical criticism and concluded that the author provided no realistic picture of the historical facts of Jesus’ life. Mark’s gospel was thus recognized as a part of the earliest history of dogma. (Räisänen 2000, p. 2, emphasis mine)

Wrede, from his Religionsgeschichtliche Schule perspective, used historical methods to analyze Mark’s gospel as if it were any other work of human literature. Essentially, this approach turned biblical scholarship on its head, because before Wrede the assumed history of Jesus and the emergence of Christianity drove the analysis of the text.

As if to prove his point, scholars pounced on the secrecy theory and offered historical reasons for its existence in the text.

Schweitzer refused to follow Wrede in seeing Mark’s illogical picture as an expression of clumsy redactional work. A Mark who had proceeded in the way Wrede presupposed would have been a pathological case. [Schweitzer 2001, p. 312] ‘The chaotic sequence’ of the stories handed down goes back much more to Jesus’ ‘volcanic nature‘. [Schweitzer 2001, p. 315] Insofar as Mark simply hands on mechanically the reports of his tradition, he gives a historically reliable picture of the course of Jesus’ life. However, in order to be able to present this picture, Schweitzer has to resort to an arbitrary procedure by placing the transfiguration (9.2ff.) before Peter’s confession (8.27ff.)! Jesus can then quite justifiably expect a messianic confession from Peter. Wrede’s critique of the historical interpretations remains unanswered. Once the basic insights of form criticism have been accepted, Schweitzer’s support for Mark’s chronology is of historical interest only. (Räisänen 2000, pp. 49-50, emphasis mine)


The chaotic confusion of the narratives ought to have suggested that the events had been thrown into this confusion by the volcanic force of an unfathomable self-awareness, not by some kind of carelessness or freak of the tradition. The evangelist is supposed to have been compelled by ‘community theology’ to represent Jesus as thinking dogmatically and actively ‘making history’: if the poor evangelist can make him do it on paper, why should not Jesus have been quite capable of doing it himself? (Schweitzer 2001, p. 315, emphasis mine)

Räisänen also points out the historicist arguments of Oscar Cullmann and Vincent Taylor, both of whom tried to explain away the contradictions and tensions in Mark’s gospel by appealing to Jesus’ behavior, which the disciples apparently either misunderstood or misinterpreted. He writes, Above all, the tension between hiddenness and openness, which is characteristic of Mark’s presentation, remains unexplained.” (Räisänen 2000, p. 52)

As I read these passages again, it strikes me that this so-called method still persists, and that it is at its core either a conscious act of pious apologetic harmonization or a reflex action brought on by the continual witness to countless acts of past harmonization. It is the ultimate fallback position that simultaneously comforts the faithful and impresses the guild.

Holy historicizing and hopeful harmonization

Remarkably, the Memory Mavens, although allegedly well-read in current memory theory, especially the research surrounding social memory, have sometimes still heeded the siren song of historic harmonization. One would think that social memory would help them explain variations and contradictions in the gospel tradition — namely, that people often create legendary stories in an imagined past in order to serve present needs. Such creations are well understood and well documented.

If, for example, we have varying accounts in the gospels about Jesus’ literacy, we might expect a scholar such as Chris Keith — who claims to be studying the New Testament from a memory perspective — to point to social memory as an obvious solution. We might never know whether the historical Jesus could actually read or write. Moreover, the stories in the New Testament that hint at either probably persisted for reasons other than passing on actual history. In fact, both streams are likely the result of theological beliefs rather than eyewitness memory.

Yet Keith confounds our expectations. Instead, at the conclusion of Jesus’ Literacy he offers the following:

Jesus most likely did not hold scribal literacy. This alone, however, was not enough to keep some of his audiences, or members of his audiences, from concluding that he did. Although he was not a scribal-literate teacher, he was the type of teacher who was able to make people assume or conclude that he was. Therefore, within Jesus’ own lifetime there likely were contradictory and confused perceptions of his scribal-literate status. (Keith 2013, p. 187)

I recall my disappointment with the book hitting its lowest point when I reached the end of chapter 5. Yes, I fully understand that Keith thinks he is pushing back against what he would consider unwarranted presentism, which (naturally) he blames on form criticism.

Thus, despite my agreement with [Werner] Kelber and [John Dominic] Crossan that the portrayals of Jesus as a scribal-literate teacher are a movement away from historical reality, I here disagree with them on the stage of that development at which the scribal-literate Jesus emerged. It is not impossible that Luke, for example, is responsible for the scribal-literate image of Jesus; it is simply much more likely that Jesus himself is responsible. (Keith 2013, p. 175)

We may well ask how Keith can say it is “much more likely” that Jesus’ actual actions confused people about his true literary status. In his attempt to present a compelling argument we must confront statements like this:

Therefore, the conflicting or confused state of early Christian Jesus-memory concerning his scribal-literate status is traceable to the life and ministry of Jesus and not initially, or solely, a product of the theological concerns of early Christians such as Luke. I here offer what Jens Schröter rightly describes as the proper goal of historical Jesus studies: a hypothesis “about how things could have been” that accounts for the extant sources and Jesus’ historical context, and necessarily draws upon “historical imagination.” (Keith 2013, p. 175, emphasis mine)

Vague terms and a lack of method

Rather than proposing an actual methodology with a tangible framework and clear processes, the Jesus-memory approach gives the practitioner license to imagine or theorize about what might have happened in order to shape later, sometimes disjoint, traditions.

The ambiguous term “Jesus-memory” occurs 65 times in Keith’s work. What he means by it depends on the context. In the case above, it may be a synonym for “tradition.” He sometimes talks about “streams of Jesus-memory,” (see p. 146) which I think would be indistinguishable from good old-fashioned tradition.  But here the word memory implies early Christian recollections about Jesus or “actual-memories-about-Jesus,” and that’s a far different kettle of fish than social memory, let alone oral tradition.

In other cases, he’s referring to a social memory approach to Jesus studies — which often stands as perspective masquerading as method. Rather than proposing an actual methodology with a tangible framework and clear processes, the Jesus-memory approach gives the practitioner license to imagine or theorize about what might have happened in order to shape later, sometimes disjoint, traditions. After laying waste to the criteria method, and providing no replacement, Keith can offer as many theories about the past as he likes, but I don’t see how they differ from conjecture.

To make matters worse, Keith takes on faith that social memories are rooted in past events. He is unabashedly anti-presentist. As a result, Keith’s memory-focused perspective depends on a particular interpretation of social memory. For him, the present can affect the past, but it cannot (or at least can only rarely) invent the past. Again, I would simply counter that sometimes it doesn’t, and sometimes it does. I don’t say that because I want to destroy the past or erase history, but because it is demonstrably true. See The Memory Mavens, Part 2: A Case Study at Ellis Island.

I have taken Keith to task many times before, so I won’t elaborate much more on this matter other than to say the following: Keith’s interpretation of what “probably happened” is a masterwork of historical harmonization. It preserves both traditions — literacy and illiteracy — and places the confusion in the perceptions of his earliest eyewitnesses. Just as Schweitzer imagined Jesus’ “volcanic” nature, Keith imagines a Jesus who is illiterate, but at the same time adept at making people believe he must be able to read.

This is the stuff of fairytales. Keith convincingly explains just how much effort and free time it takes to become literate — not merely able to read, but scribally literate — and correctly concludes that a poor laborer in first-century Palestine would not have had the economic means, free time, let alone nearby access to acquire sufficient education.

Scholarly delusions

But he deludes himself into thinking Jesus could have posed as a learned man, standing toe to toe with doctors of the law, beating them at their own game. If you didn’t have the time or the means to learn how to read the Tanakh you certainly didn’t have the time or the means to learn how to understand the Tanakh. If Jesus really was a laborer who really did come from a tiny town in Galilee, then stories about his arguing circles around his adversaries are legendary. They are comforting miracle stories.

Unrestrained by method (other than “historical imagination”), Keith freely abandons social memory theory and posits instead a perception problem among those who recalled their memories of Jesus. This isn’t history, any more than it was history when the rationalists in the 19th century employed historical imagination to explain that the apostles misunderstood what they had seen when they thought Jesus had walked upon the water.

Keith’s “method” is rationalism at its finest. He has kept the baby and the bathwater, not having the tools to recognize either, and far too sophisticated to pick just one.

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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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8 thoughts on “The Memory Mavens, Part 11: Origins of the Criteria of Authenticity (4)”

  1. “If you didn’t have the time or the means to learn how to read the Tanakh you certainly didn’t have the time or the means to learn how to understand the Tanakh.’

    But when one’s default is that Jesus ‘wrote’ the Tanakh…

  2. I learned a lot as a first-year undergrad in Philosophy going to academic conferences and listening to the experts debate. I got a sense of what the debates were and formed my opinions on the debates, even though I was Philosophically illiterate at the time. Maybe it was this way for Jesus (such as per Luke 2:46). Jesus could have learned a great deal in his community/synagogue if he was theologically passionate.

    1. I think the real question is whether Luke 2:46 is a (eyewitness? Second or third hand?) actual historical event or a response to a specific criticism from another Christian sect.

      We do have that infancy gospel but we know why that’s not included in the “official record”.

    2. It is highly unlikely that a village in Galilee had the resources Jesus would have needed to come up to speed as an amateur theologian. Nor is it likely that a common laborer would have sufficient free time to do so, even if he spent his Saturdays walking to the nearest city to find a teacher.

      Is it possible? I suppose it can’t be entirely ruled out, but I don’t see how anyone could argue seriously that it’s the best answer or that is “much more likely” than any other conjecture. In the end, it comforts people like Keith to imagine just-so stories in which all the data can be accounted for and treated as the residue of true memory, and wherein a “brilliant” historical harmonization explains everything.

      Still, however pleasing it may be for believers, this is not history.

  3. Jesus was teaching with authority not like the scribes. Sort of says it all. On top of that in the gospel of Mark his reference to the story of David eating the bread of the presence is completely mangled and he even has the name of the priest wrong. It is a joke. If he can get away with that kind of arguing circles around the Pharisees who we presume know their scripture, en passant comparing himself with David who actually deceived the priest into allowing him to take the bread, it must be a joke. And a very clever one. The image of the disciples picking heads of grain, only poor beggars would do and the Pharisees nitpicking that they do it on a Sabbath only ads to the comedy.

  4. Unskilled labourers from provincial towns can run rings around professional scholars, even though they can hardly read or write.

    But amateur Bible critics , with a wealth of reading, and decades of study, are soon shown up as ignoramuses by todays Bible scholars…..

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