Memory and the Pursuit of the Jesus Tradition

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by Neil Godfrey

I have begun to read Alan Kirk’s Memory and the Jesus Tradition, a compilation of twelve of his essays published between 2001 and 2016, and have, as usual, found myself making slower progress than I expected. At so many points in just the first few chapters I have had to detour to endnotes and seek out cited works to get a clearer idea of what lies behind many of Kirk’s points and quotations. The parallel readings have been worth it, though. Reading Kirk and the sources to which he alludes in parallel has opened up my understanding memory theory as applied in very practical ways in the social sciences on the one hand, and its theoretical application in Jesus tradition studies on the other. Kirk would disagree that his discussion of memory theory is entirely theoretical and I will address one of his attempts to present real-world applications of his theoretical discussions.

One pleasant surprise I have already experienced so early in my exploration of memory theory studies (in particular from the section in one of Kirk’s references titled “Literature and Cultural Memory” but which Kirk appears to entirely overlook in this collection of essays) is that I have become convinced that memory studies do have a most significant place in the study of early Christianity. Alan Kirk and other historical Jesus scholars attempt to use memory theories to uncover pre-gospel development of the Jesus tradition while I suspect that their most fruitful contribution can be found in exploring how the various gospels themselves helped establish the emerging identities of the early Christianities.

But first, let’s see what Alan Kirk himself, and no doubt with the agreement of the editor he credits for assisting him with putting this book together, Chris Keith, has to say about memory studies in the context of Christian origins:

. . . what was emerging under the aegis of memory analysis was a comprehensive account of the formation of the Jesus tradition and its history, from its origins and continuing on its arc towards canon-formation. . . . 

Memory-grounded analysis is able to deliver a coherent account, not only of the tradition’s origins, but also of its history through analysis of how the tradition mediates the salient past into contemporary contexts of reception. Here it intersects with source criticism and redaction criticism. In other words, a memory-based account of the tradition neither displaces standard redaction-critical, tradition-history and source-critical approaches nor does it merely supplement them. Rather, it integrates them into a more comprehensive account of cultural formation and history, providing a kind of unified field theory for various lines of enquiry.

(pp. 10, 18 of 375 — all page numbers are taken from an e-book version. My bolding in all quotations.)

How memory works

Holocaust survivors, survivors of more recent genocidal attacks in Africa, persons emerging from collective war-time experiences with individual post-traumatic stress syndrome, — it is by the sharing of personal experiences among such persons that meaning is found for what they have experienced as a new kind of “collective memory” is established. A collective narrative, a story that offers some sort of control or meaning, of their experiences, is created through such sharing of memories. Similarly the populations of entire nations that have experienced traumatic times can find a new sense of self or national identity through a collective communication of those experiences in dialogue, in the arts, in literature, in rousing speeches that inject hope and meaning into the raw memories of their devastating experiences. A close relation to the latter scenario is the nineteenth and early twentieth century

Zionist commemoration of ancient Jewish resistance movements such as the Zealots, . . . aimed at legitimating the Zionist political programme as well as promoting activist countermodels for Jewish identity, while its breathtaking (sic) diminution of the exile to a point of virtually no magnitude signified its repudiation of the stereotypically passive, sighing Jew of the Gulat. Zionist memory, in other words, was a matter of the ‘ideological classification of the past’. 

(p. 34 / 375)

I can to some extent understand how “memory studies” work, how “memory” can create or renew personal and collective identities and meanings, when applied to such situations.

If I understand Alan Kirk’s essays correctly (and I have read so far no more than four of the twelve), I believe he is attempting to apply that sort of memory process, or memory re-creation and meaning through social sharing, to groups he imagines to have been early (pre-gospel) bearers of “memories of Jesus” originating with historical encounters with Jesus.

Finally, this approach has obvious relevance for historical Jesus research. Historical Jesus scholarship, not recognizing the extent to which the tradition is the artefact of commemorative processes, often treats the gospels as garden-variety archival materials, for example, regarding them in their relative brevity as very incomplete records preserving just traces of events rather than being symbolically concentrated mediations of the aggregate of events. The model worked out in this chapter raises the question of what sort of historiography is required to deal with tradition – a media-based artefact with a commemorative and representational relationship to historical realities.

(pp. 89f. / 375)

But what justifies the application of memory theory to historical Jesus studies?

Philip Davies

The only data on which it relies, as far as I am aware, are narrative details in the gospels. The assumption appears to be that the gospel narratives about Jesus are ultimately based upon memories, however much or little distorted, that were shared and passed on by “Jesus following communities”. At this point it is worth stepping back to allow the voice of highly renowned Old Testament scholar to repeat what he wrote in 2012 for Bible and Interpretation:

I cannot resist making a contribution to the recent spate of exchanges between scholars about the existence of Jesus — these mostly on the internet and blogosphere, and so confined to a few addicts, but the issue has always been lurking within New Testament scholarship generally. Shortly before his death, Robert Funk had approached me about the possibility of setting up the equivalent of a ‘Jesus Seminar’ for Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, perhaps a ‘Moses Seminar’? I couldn’t see any scope for such an exercise (and still can’t), but have often thought how a ‘minimalist’ approach might transfer to the New Testament, and in particular the ‘historical Jesus’, who keeps appearing to New Testament scholars in different guises. . . . 

I don’t think, however, that in another 20 years there will be a consensus that Jesus did not exist, or even possibly didn’t exist, but a recognition that his existence is not entirely certain would nudge Jesus scholarship towards academic respectability. In the first place, what does it mean to affirm that ‘Jesus existed’, anyway, when so many different Jesuses are displayed for us by the ancient sources and modern NT scholars? Logically, some of these Jesuses cannot have existed. So in asserting historicity, it is necessary to define which ones (rabbi, prophet, sage, shaman, revolutionary leader, etc.) are being affirmed — and thus which ones deemed unhistorical. In fact, as things stand, what is being affirmed as the Jesus of history is a cipher, not a rounded personality (the same is true of the King David of the Hebrew Bible, as a number of recent ‘biographies’ show).

What might Davies have had in mind by “a minimalist approach to the New Testament and in particular the historical Jesus”? I think we can see exactly what his starting point was by noting his foundational criticisms of the assumptions brought to the studies of “biblical Israel” in the “Old Testament”. I copy the key points from my vridar.info page:

The unfortunate fact is that we have no evidence to support the assumption that memories or stories about Jesus were being passed on orally from the time of the crucifixion right up to forty years and more later when certain scribes decided to put them in writing, even though they did not identify their sources or themselves in a way that might have enabled audiences to have confidence in the “historical reliability” of what they were hearing or reading.

On the other hand, we do have very clear and direct evidence that many of the gospel stories about Jesus were adaptations or ‘intertextual’ reworkings of episodes in the Jewish Scriptures. Dale Allison wrote The New Moses: A Matthean Typology to demonstrate the many ways in which the Gospel of Matthew presents Jesus as a “new Moses”; Rikki Watts wrote Isaiah’s New Exodus in Mark pointing out how the Gospel of Mark presents Jesus as the leader of Isaiah’s “New Exodus”; Adam Winn (Mark and the Elijah-Elisha Narrative) and Thomas Brodie (The Crucial Bridge) draw clear links between the Jesus events in the earliest gospel and the stories of Elijah and Elisha. And so forth. There can be little doubt about the Elijah-Elisha source of the story of Jesus raising Jairus’s daughter, or of the Old Testament echoes of Jesus stilling the storm, or being tested forty days in the wilderness, or miraculously feeding multitudes in wilderness areas. Something motivated evangelists to write new narratives from the materials of the Jewish Scriptures and centred around a namesake to the successor of Moses after the destruction of the Jewish Temple, and those narratives became the etiological memories of Christianity.

Back to Alan Kirk

We have no historical evidence for pre-gospel communities sharing stories or memories of Jesus. For Paul, and presumably his followers, knowing Jesus “after the flesh” was a meaningless exercise. The prologue to the Gospel of Luke speaks vaguely of unidentified “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word” but not of communities sharing or exchanging various historical memories of Jesus. (See John N. Collins’s discussion of the meaning of Luke’s prologue). On the other hand, we do have clear evidence that sources of gospel narratives can be identified in the Jewish Scriptures.

Kirk himself inadvertently sounds a warning against assuming that the gospel narratives are derived from memories originating in historical activities and sayings of Jesus.

In her analysis of the άπομνημόνεύμα [= reminiscences, recounting, commemoration] genre [e.g. Xenophon and Lynceus], Alexander observes the arc of development from ‘remembering’ to media-based ‘memorializing’ of exemplary individuals (the memorializing of Socrates by Xenophon, Demonax by Lucian and Epicurus by the Epicureans).

(84 / 375)

Demonax, Lucian’s teacher, about whom Lucian wrote from supposedly first-hand acquaintance — and very likely a fiction. See here an outline of the analysis by Tomas Hägg in The Art of Biography in Antiquity.

Top to bottom: Evans, Dumville, Finley

If we might be wrong about Demonax as an example of a memory-based account of a historical person . . . .

The questioning of Demonax arises not from social science theories but from longstanding, tried and true principles of historical verification as set out in history departments by historians of modern (Richard Evans), medieval (David Dumville) and ancient times (Moses Finley). Contemporary accounts, even if the testimony of the eyewitnesses generation has been demonstrably preserved in the writing of a subsequent generation, are the essential basis on which sound historical research relies. It makes no difference if the time period under study is twenty years ago or two thousand years ago. The only difference a millennium or two makes is that research questions are necessarily broadened as the archival material and literary evidence becomes scarcer.

But let Kirk give us an example from the gospels of Matthew and Luke of how memories are constructed and reconstructed as different communities bring their own experiences into the conversations.

Matthew 5:38-42

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say unto you. Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat (chiton), give your cloak (himationas well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

Luke 6:27-30

But I say unto you that listen. Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer  the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat (himation) do not withhold even your shirt (chiton). Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not  ask for them again.

Matthew’s version looks odd to us: Jesus speaks of someone taking your shirt (garment worn beneath your coat) and requiring you to respond by offering your outer coat as well. Luke’s order looks more natural: if someone takes your outer garment, your coat, be sure to give him your shirt, too. The more natural order of Luke is what we would expect in a simple robbery situation. Kirk explains Matthew’s unexpected order:

In fact Matthew’s version, and in particular the reverse order in which the items of clothing are stripped off, makes full sense only to an audience with knowledge of Jewish laws governing loans to the poor, spelled out in Exod. 22.25-27 and Deut. 24.10-13. These stipulate that the cloak of a poor man, taken in pledge for a loan, be returned to the poor man every night so that he can stay warm. Seen in this light, Matthew’s version emerges as a biting satire of the powerful, who conform to the letter of Torah by leaving the poor man with his cloak (himation), but use their control of the courts to confiscate, quite literally, the shirt (chiton) off the poor man’s back. Matthew’s Jesus, addressing the poor of Palestine suffering this and other degrading forms of exploitation, tells the poor man to cast off his cloak in the court assembly, thereby provocatively exposing the hypocrisy of the powerful, their transgression of the Torah’s demand that the poor be treated with justice. 

(62 / 375)

I suppose that is technical possible. It might be correct, but I can’t help thinking the explanation violates the spirit of the moral injunctions of Sermon on the Mount. It is not a gesture of “blessing one’s enemy” but a gesture designed to humiliate and shame him. That doesn’t seem quite right to me.

But let’s continue. It is Kirk’s view that social memories carry power of symbolic meaning that can be adapted to changing situations of the communities. Luke is not writing for an audience familiar with the Jewish legal background of Exodus 22:25-27 and Deuteronomy 24:10-13 but for an audience more familiar with simple robbery.

We have seen that the gospel tradition, far from being a collection of museum pieces that statically preserves the past, in fact operates as an autonomous, and we can add, highly versatile system of symbols. This is what makes tradition so efficient in solving new problems of cultural identity that constantly arise out of the changes and crises in a community’s social and historical realities.

(80 /375)

Then again,

We can account for these transformations by approaching the gospel tradition as a highly versatile symbol system, the activation of which makes possible the reproduction and dissemination of cultural identity, grounded in the normative past, in quite different social and cultural environments.

(82 / 375)

Kirk’s assumption throughout is that the saying of Jesus derives from historical memory and is adapted, as memories are wont to adapt, over time with changing circumstances. Kirk’s assumption may be quite correct, but how can we test it? As Philip Davies points out, the assumption that the saying derives from a historical memory of Jesus can be just as validly countered with a suggestion that Matthew made it up and Luke modified Matthew in a way that presented a less awkward sequence for his non-Jewish audience.

Testing for the most likely source

One possible “test” would be to set up a prediction that we would expect to see if the hypothesis that the teaching about the cloak and shirt originated with a genuine memory of Jesus himself. We would be right to expect, I think, to find Paul buttressing his command to bless enemies in epistle to the Romans with an appeal to Jesus’s command. As we know, Paul makes no such appeal to the authority of Jesus for this command to do good to one’s enemies.

But if there is no evidence for such a teaching in a pre-gospel Jesus tradition, is there evidence for any other potential source for the teaching in Paul (subsequently expanded to love one’s enemies in Matthew and Luke (or Q))? Perhaps. Here is Runar M. Thorsteinsson in Roman Christianity and Roman Stoicism: A Comparative Study in Ancient Morality:

As for Paul’s statements in Romans—and this applies to 1 Peter, too (cf. 3.9)—it is clear that the apostle wants his addressees to be well disposed towards all people, including persecutors and enemies, but it is important to pay notice to the fact that he does not speak of ‘love’ in this regard. He calls for a ‘blessing’ of persecutors and a help offered to enemies (at least until they receive due punishment from God), but there is no such thing as a demand for enemy love in these verses. It is possible, as some scholars argue, that Paul here draws on an earlier Jesus tradition of enemy love (as later related in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke), knowledge of which he could then assume on the part of his audience. But this seems unlikely. The fact remains that he does not refer explicitly to such a tradition, and he never speaks of ‘love of enemies’ in this text (as do Matthew and Luke). Nor do we know of any first-century Roman Christian source that includes such a tradition. What we do know, on the other hand, is that there circulated a corresponding moral teaching in Rome in the first century, namely, the Stoic one, and if there were people in Paul’s audience who knew about that teaching they may well have made associations between his message in Romans and the Stoic teaching. Indeed, it is quite possible that for the audience in Rome the line of thought in this respect between Paul and the Stoics was more lucid and direct than between Paul and Jesus.


Among the philosophers known in Rome at the relevant era and their teachings about blessing and even loving one’s enemies are Cicero, Seneca, Musonius, Epictetus — A few quotes from Thorsteinsson establish the point:

For Epictetus, in their application of love, human beings have clear patterns to follow in such virtuous individuals as Socrates and Diogenes the Cynic, whose love of others was rooted not only in their character as human beings but also in their specific relationship with God. Responding to an interlocutor’s question of how one should become ‘affectionate’ (φιλόστοργος), Epictetus reminds him of his duty to love (φιλείν) all fellow human beings, precisely as Diogenes had done, a sage who was so gentle and benevolent (ήμερος και φιλάνθρωπος) that he willingly took upon himself great physical pain and suffering for the sake of the common welfare of humanity (ύπάρ τού κοινού των ανθρώπων). ‘But what was the manner of his loving(φιλείν)? the Stoic teacher then asks, providing the answer himself ‘As became a servant of Zeus, caring for men indeed, but at the same time subject unto God’ . . .


Seneca puts the Stoic position in plain terms: ‘Nature begot me loving (amantem) all people.’


Thus, at the same time that Paul’s letter arrived in Rome, Seneca was proclaiming forcefully that it can never be right to render evil for evil. ‘If someone strikes you, step back’, he advised. In fact, long before Seneca, Cicero had presented precisely this view to the Romans as the orthodox Stoic view. Correspondingly, around the time of the authorship of 1 Peter and 1 Clement, Musonius was teaching his Roman students to renounce the old and widely fostered ‘eye for an eye’ attitude, which he described as characteristic not of human beings but of wild beasts. Shortly thereafter, Musonius’ teaching was promoted by Epictetus as well.



Seneca urges his readers to imitate the gods, ‘those glorious authors of all things’, in giving benefits to all, including even those who do not know the gods at all, as well as those who are ungrateful for what they receive. Then he says:

Some reproach them [i.e. the gods] with indifference to us (neclegentiam nostri), others with injustice (iniquitatem); some place them outside of their world (extra mundum suum), and abandon them to sloth and languor, leaving them without light, without any task. . . . Yet, none the less, like the best of parents, who only smile at the spiteful words of their children, the gods do not cease to heap their benefits upon those who are doubtful about the source of benefits, but distribute their blessings among the nations and peoples (per gentes populosque) with unbroken uniformity. Possessing only the power of doing good, they sprinkle the lands with timely rains, they stir the seas with their blasts, they mark off the seasons by the course of the stars, they modify the extremes of summer and winter by interposing periods of milder temperature, and, ever gentle and kindly, bear with the errors of our feeble spirits.


With evidence like that, and in the absence of alternative evidence in favour of a pre-gospel Jesus tradition, it is not difficult to conclude that we see here the simplest explanation for the original source of the teachings we find in Paul and the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.

Alan Kirk, in my view, overstates the significance of the teaching material in Matthew and Luke when we adds:

This chain of admonitions illustrates the heavy investment of the gospel tradition in inculcating moral norms.

(62 / 375)

There is only one recognized source for that teaching material. Some place it in Q and think the authors of the gospels of Matthew and Luke used that source; others set out a case for the third evangelist having known, used and adapted the Gospel according to Matthew. The gospel that preceded both of those, however, the Gospel of Mark, indicates no knowledge of, or interest in, a “heavy investment in inculcating moral norms”. Their heavy investment arguably surfaces later with the “pastoral material” of later epistles (and that Winsome Munro in Authority in Paul and Peter: The Identification of a Pastoral Stratum in the Pauline Corpus and 1 Peter believes has been interwoven even through the “genuine” Pauline epistles) and the gospels authored some time after the Gospel of Mark.

And that brings us to the question that I think can most profitably be served by memory theory. Kirk cites essays relating to social, political and psychological applications of memory studies in Cultural Memory Studies: An International and Interdisciplinary Handbook, edited by Astrid Erll and Ansgar Nünning. I mentioned at the outset my appreciation of these studies for groups who have been through certain historical experiences that have shaped both their collective memories and meaningful identities. My difficulty is that we have no such clearly defined groups in the historical record between the time of Tiberius and the fall of Jerusalem. We only have hypotheses that such groups existed and what they were like. But we do have literary documents, both canonical and extra-canonical, from the first through second centuries. And Erll and Nünning’s volume does contain a section of five chapters under the heading of “Literature and Cultural Memory”. (As far as I can tell Kirk does not cite any of these essays.) I will look at just one of those essays to conclude this post.

Birgit Neumann

In Birgit Neumann’s “The Literary Presentation of Memory” I can begin to see a clear relationship between the theory and the “hard evidence” (as opposed to hypothetical entities and traditions) that consists of the gospels and their reception among various Christian groups as noted among various “Church Fathers”. The gospels were presenting narratives that were incorporated as group memories that were significant for constructing clear and meaningful identities for each of those Christian groups. As one small example, reflect on the difference, discussed above, of the sayings about the cloak and shirt in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.

It is not important that the gospel narratives are based on genuine “historical memories”. The gospel narratives are composed as extensions, I believe, of the canon that had long sustained Jewish cultural memory, the Jewish Scriptures. The situation changed after 70 CE and new memories were required to offer new meanings and identities for those “shell-shocked” by the destruction of the Temple and related displacements. We know the history. Let’s look at some of the theory:

. . . cultural memories . . . involve intentional fashioning to a greater extent than do individual memories. Hence, literary fictions disseminate influential models of both individual and cultural memories as well as of the nature and functions of memory. . . .

. . . only recently have scholars begun investigating literary representations of collective memory (cf. Erll). . . .

Narratological approaches draw attention to formal-aesthetic characteristics of literature and thereby bring into view the fictional possibilities for world- or memory-creation. Such approaches are based on the assumption that works of fiction have specific, genuinely literary techniques at hand to plumb the connection between memory and identity. . . .

True, literature draws upon the extra-textual reality. However, as a depragmaticized medium, it represents a constructive way to encounter the world, and creates its own memory worlds with specifically literary techniques.

For a long time, no genre designation existed for texts which represent processes of remembering. However, recently critics proposed the term “fictions of memory” (Nünning, Fictions; Neumann) to designate such works. The term “fictions of memory” deliberately alludes to the double meaning of fiction. First, the phrase refers to literary, non-referential narratives that depict the workings of memory. Second, in a broader sense, the term “fictions of memory” refers to the stories that individuals or cultures tell about their past to answer the question “who am I?”, or, collectively, “who are we?” These stories can also be called “fictions of memory” because, more often than not, they turn out to be an imaginative (re)construction of the past in response to current needs. Such conceptual and ideological fictions of memory consist of predispositions, biases, and values, which provide agreed-upon codes for understanding the past and present and which find their most succinct expression in literary plot-lines and myths (cf. Nünning, “Editorial” 5).


We see here that Neumann’s use of “fiction” does not preclude stories that originate as genuine historical events. But we also see that historicity is not a necessity, and I think this is most important to keep in mind when we consider the Jewish context of collective memory grounded in a predominantly “fictional canon” and extra-canonical stories.

Novels do not imitate existing versions of memory, but produce, in the act of discourse, that very past which they purport to describe. . . .

novels create new models of memory. They configure memory representations because they select and edit elements of culturally given discourse: They combine the real and the imaginary, the remembered imaginative explorations can influence readers’ understanding of the past and thus refigure culturally prevailing versions of memory. Literature is therefore never a simple reflection of pre-existing cultural discourses; rather, it proactively contributes to the negotiation of cultural memory.


Allusions to legends, fairy tales, myths, and other stories of dubious historical authenticity suggest that fact and fiction intermingle in cultural memory and that these fictions should thus be treated as cultural documents in their own right as they shed light on what is actually remembered as a culture’s past.


The concepts of memory staged within the medium of fiction may influence the extra-literary memory culture — given that they are also actualized by the recipients. Thus, these concepts can influence the creation and reflection of individual as well as collective images of the past. As a medium of cultural self-reflection, literature — through its aesthetic structure — paves the way for cultural change.

Narrative psychologists have pointed out that novels, with their conventionalized plot-lines and highly suggestive myths, provide powerful, often normative models for our own self-narration and interpretation of the past (see Straub, this volume). Apparently, when interpreting our own experience, we constantly, and often unconsciously, draw on pre-existing narrative patterns as supplied by literature. Thus, by disseminating new interpretations of the past and new models of identity, fictions of memory may also influence how we, as readers, narrate our pasts and ourselves into existence. Fictions of memory may symbolically empower the culturally marginalized or forgotten and thus figure as an imaginative counterdiscourse. By bringing together multiple, even incompatible versions of the past, they can keep alive conflict about what exactly the collective past stands for and how it should be remembered. Moreover, to the extent that many fictions of memory link the hegemonic discourse to the unrealized and inexpressible possibilities of the past, they can become a force of continual innovation and cultural self-renewal. Thus, far from merely perpetuating culturally pre-existing memories, fictions of memory have a considerable share in reinforcing new concepts of memory. Literature becomes a formative medium within the memory culture which, on the basis of symbol-specific characteristics, can fulfill particular functions, functions which cannot be served by other symbol systems. Viewed in this way, we may conclude that the study of fictional narratives is not only wedded to particular lifeworlds, but turns into a laboratory in which we can experiment with the possibilities for culturally admissible constructions of the past.


I think it is protocol to point out if a book I review or discuss was sent to me gratis, something I have not always observed. In this case I did ask Bloomsbury if they would like to send me a copy of Memory and the Jesus Tradition and presumably in acknowledgement of other in depth discussions of books on this blog they gave me access to an electronic copy.

Hägg, Tomas. 2012. The Art of Biography in Antiquity. Cambridge, UK ; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Kirk, Alan. 2018. Memory and the Jesus Tradition. Edited by Chris Keith, Jens Schroeter, and Helen K. Bond. The Reception of Jesus in the First Three Centuries 2. London New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark.

Neumann, Birgit. 2010. “The Literary Representation of Memory.” In A Companion to Cultural Memory Studies, edited by Astrid Erll and Ansgar Nünning, 333–43. Berlin ; New York: De Gruyter.

Thorsteinsson, Runar. 2013. Roman Christianity and Roman Stoicism: A Comparative Study of Ancient Morality. Reprint edition. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.

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10 thoughts on “Memory and the Pursuit of the Jesus Tradition”

  1. Good post. I’ll add that not only do we have the Elijah/Elisha narrative to deal with, but also the use of the Epistles. Between Elijah/Elisha and Tom Dykstra’s book and the one by David Oliver Smith (which I HIGHLY recommend) (Matthew, Mark, Luke and Paul), there is essentially nothing left over to be “oral tradition”.

    I don’t see how “oral tradition” can be credibly even discussed as a serious issue anymore. Virtually every sentence of Mark is accounted for as sourced from the OT or the Epistles.

    And not only that, but between Goodacre and DOS’s work, plus a few other things, pretty much all of Matthew and Luke are accounted for too.

    DOS shows how Matthew used the Epistles and Mark for his revisions. In addition to that there is evidence that Matthew used 1 Enoch as well, and of course Matthew also went back to the OT too. Luke is shown to use Mark, Matthew and Paul, as well as Josephus. There is just nothing left that needs explaining via oral tradition. Every aspect of how the Gospels were written is accounted for.

    And as for John, while my material certainly isn’t definitive, I think the case is strong that “John” invented the “Miraculous Signs” narrative, and of course he borrowed the rest from the Synoptics. The only remaining part is the theological part, which of course has nothing to do with Jesus the person.

    What so much of the intertextual analysis has shown is that we aren’t even dealing with a story that was “influenced by” other written sources, we are dealing with a story that was “constructed from” other written sources. We aren’t dealing with similarities, we are dealing with exact textual relationships which show that the the written sources were the direct inspiration for the narrative.

    1. Yes, and thanks for mentioning these other works. I only mentioned the three or four that came immediately to mind in the post. There are of course many more as you point out. I sometimes think of doing a post or webpage setting out in parallel the OT “midrashic” links to each of the gospel, or at least Markan, episodes. But I’m sure it’s been done well enough before somewhere. Michael Turton’s commentary is probably a good place to start.

      The closest I’ve come to anything like that so far is at https://vridar.org/2017/05/01/160-scriptural-quotations-and-allusions-in-mark-11-16/ And of course you list many in your book.

      As for the Gospel of John and his “signs”, Tim has posted on how in at least one instance they can be seen to be intertextual constructions in dialoge with the Gospel of (I think specifically) Matthew: How John Used the Synoptics: The First Temptation vs. The First Sign

      Helen Bond has an interesting discussion of the Gospel fo John’s apparent use and redoing of the Gospel of Mark, an essay that offers an explanation for John moving the temple cleansing moment to the beginning of his gospel: How the Gospel of John Uses and Completes the Gospel of Mark

      There are also arguments in favour of our final canonical version of Luke knowing and incorporating elements of the Gospel fo John in his “catholicizing” narrative agenda. I suspect his reference to Herod at the trial of Jesus is an attempt to reconcile the Gospel of Peter, too.

  2. This might be totally nonsensical, but reading this reminded me of a recent post over at another blog about artificial intelligence and neural networks. I follow some twitter posts where they tweet some of the somewhat nonsensical things that current neural networks write when given various prompts.

    Although OpenAI calls this a “language model”, modeling language necessarily involves modeling the world. Even if the AI was only supposed to learn things like “texts that talk about the Civil War use the word ‘Confederate’ a lot”, that has flowered into a rudimentary understanding of how the Civil War worked. Its training corpus (8 million web pages) was large enough that in the course of learning language it learned the specific idiom and structure of all sorts of different genres and subtopics. For example:

    Prompt: Legolas and Gimli advanced on the orcs, raising their weapons with a harrowing war cry.


    The big picture is beautiful. The AI understands the reference to Legolas and Gimli as placing this in the setting of Middle-Earth. It infers that the story should include characters like Aragorn and Gandalf, and that the Ring should show up. It maintains basic narrative coherence: the heroes attack, the orcs defend, a battle happens, the characters discuss the battle. It even gets the genre conventions right: the forces of Good overcome Evil, then deliver inspiring speeches about glory and bravery.

    But the details are a mess. Characters are brought in suddenly, then dropped for no reason. Important details (“this is the last battle in Middle-Earth”) are introduced without explanation, then ignored. The context switches midway between the battle and a seemingly unrelated discussion of the hobbits in Rivendell. It cannot seem to decide whether there are one or two Rings. (my emphasis)

    This isn’t a fanfiction, this is a dream sequence. The only way it could be more obvious is if Aragorn was somehow also my high-school math teacher. And the dreaminess isn’t a coincidence. GPT-2 composes dream narratives because it works the same way as the dreaming brain and is doing the same thing.

    The bolded part reminds me of the synoptic gospels, especially Mark. It makes me think that there is some relationship between dreaming and memory, if memory theory works well to shed light on the Jesus tradition.

    1. A basic principle in all social sciences (and Jesus tradition) discussions of memory theory I have come across stress the social matrix of memory formation. So the communication and sharing of memories is supposed to result in meaningful constructions and narratives that become important for the group’s sense of identity and meaning. I understand that process to involve the discarding of “messy details” that can’t be fit meaningfully into the narratives created by the social communication of memories. The point of the communication is to establish meaning and coherence in the narratives.

      (That, at least, is my “undergraduate” level of understanding of the question.)

  3. I’m studying prophecy, divination, and magic as practiced in the ancient Mediterranean right now and I’m pretty confident that Paul was what was called back then a manic prophet or inspired manic, called in Greek an engastrimythoi. These are people who would enter trances and vision states, often reporting to have visions of the heavens and to have conversed directly with divine beings.

    We then also have a category of people called chresmologos. These were collectors of oracles and prophetic writings. These people would do things like collect oracles and then interpret them and re-publish them in story formats, typically anonymously. There is a whole genre of Greek and Roman anonymous prophetic stories, which are largely produced by chresmologos. These stories typically feature a fictional prophet as a main character who predicts things that occur in the story and things that happened after the time-frame of the story, i.e. predicting wars and such that the readers would know had happened, as well as predicting things in the distant future. A typical future prediction in these stories is predicting the end of the world or the fall of the Roman empire.

    In the book I’m currently working on I’m basically making the case that Paul was an engastrimythoi and the author of Mark was a professional chresmologos who had extensive experience writing works of this genre.

    Also, many things described in Paul’s letters and the Revelation of John correspond with known practices of Greek magic both among mystery religions and outside of that context as well. The Greeks were actually heavily involved in mystic vision seeking and there were many temples dedicated to hosting vision traces and mystical experiences. Some of these were induced purely with rituals, but they also employed the use of hallucinogenic substances and extreme deprivation and various other techniques. There is even significant speculation backed up by some descriptions that in some temples they used devices to project images on walls, such as pin-hole projectors, and there is even speculation that they had invented lenses, which, ironically, were primarily used in mystic rituals as opposed to any practical purpose.

    So yeah, there was a lot of crazy stuff going on at that time.

    1. Fascinating – the idea of trying to link Paul to Hellenistic religions rather than Jewish. But is not the singular of engastrimythoi engastrimythos, and the plural of chresmologos chresmologoi?

      1. LOL, I’m the king of typos. Anyway, my thesis right now is that worship of Jesus began as a purely Jewish affair – a product of a process of re-interpretation of the Jewish scriptures among some small Jewish sects. We see a similar process at work in the writings of Qumran and the works of Enoch, whereby various figures from the Jewish scriptures are re-interpreted as eternal heavenly beings. The people doing this, scriptural prophets, viewed the Jewish scriptures as an encoded work of divine origin that contained hidden messages that they, the prophets, were able to divine. BTW, a similar process was common among Greeks and Romans as well, who were also re-interpreting ancient works in a similar fashion.

        James was a leader of a group of people that worshiped this heavenly Jesus who had been “discovered” by Jewish scriptural prophets.

        Then Paul came along. Paul was a Jewish Greek, i.e. a person of Jewish heritage who lived primarily as a Greek citizen, similar to how a typical American Jew would live today. He was Jewish, but fully integrated into Greek society.

        Paul blended the revealed Jesus with Greek religious traditions and “invented” his own flavor of the cult that was highly influenced by Greek mystery religions. Paul himself had visions and ecstatic experiences, or at least reported such and portrayed himself as an inspired manic.

        After the First Jewish-Roman War some professional chresmologos was in possession of the works of Paul and saw a connection between Paul’s Christ and the war. He used Paul’s letters to create a prophetic story about how the Jews brought the war upon themselves using Jesus as the main character. This writer was guided by Paul’s letters to use the OT as the source for various prophecies. I now think that the author of Mark used the Elijah/Elisha narrative because he was led to it by a passage in Paul’s letter to the Romans, in particular Romans 11.

        “Mark” is written using many intricate techniques and follows many tropes of chresmologic literature. It is surely not the work of some amateur, recording some narrative he had heard about. Mark is the work of a master writer of prophetic stories, who was deeply schooled in the art of mystical symbolism. The writing patterns used (ABB’A’, etc.), the literary references, the numerology. This was no amateur, this was someone who had honed his craft and was well studied in the art of mystic literature. It’s certain that this person had produced many other similar works previously, though they may have been of a purely “pagan” nature. They may also have been Jewish in nature, it’s impossible to say, but this was certainly not his first work of this kind.

        So in this scenario, the worship of Jesus is Jewish in origin, but the development from Paul on is heavily influenced by Greek/Roman culture.

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