Memory Theory and the Historical Jesus

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by Neil Godfrey

Alan Kirk

Bloomsbury publishers sent me an electronic copy of Memory and the Jesus Tradition, a collection of articles by Alan Kirk, for review and comment in response to my request. My first post on this book was Memory and the Pursuit of the Jesus Tradition. This post, my second, responds to chapter 10, “Memory Theory and Jesus Research”, which was originally published in the Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus (2011). It’s a good opportunity to do an overview of how biblical scholars apply memory theory in historical Jesus studies.

One of Alan Kirk’s main points in this chapter is that memories are not inert blocks waiting to be brought out whenever called upon, but are malleable, and not only open to modification but also actively shape our perceptions of certain changing circumstances in our lives.

A second critical point Kirk emphasizes is that community memories do not work like the game of ‘Telephone’.  Rather, memories in community settings are like more like nets. Multiple witnesses or “rememberers” are there to correct and refine the stories as they are told and retold. The “net” model safeguards against the sorts of losses and changes that the party game or laboratory experiments experience.

Fellow blogger Tim Widowfield is far more on top of Rudolf Bultmann’s work than I am and he may wish to contribute, perhaps even correct, either what I am writing here or what Kirk himself has written.

In Kirk’s view the old form critical approach to historical Jesus studies (originating with Rudolf K. Bultmann) assumed the former “inert block” view of memory. It was Bultmann’s view that by identifying and peeling away accretions building up on a story one could arrive at the initial account. Those accretions were essentially fabrications imposed on the original story that were created to meet the changing needs and interests of the church.

The gospel tradition was thus construed as a bifurcated entity: fabricated tradition coming to overlay diminishing residues of memory, for their part more or less inert with respect to the traditioning process itself. Tradition thus conceived primarily gave expression to the contemporary debates, predicaments and developments of the early communities.

Bultmann’s analysis was in fact characterized by a programmatic disconnect between memory and the growing tradition, his occasional gestures to ‘reminiscence’ notwithstanding. This was the consequence of according little agency to memory and instead locating the decisive generative forces for tradition in contemporary social factors.

Collective memory, Kirk points out through references to numerous studies, organizes and gives meaning to the data that is being recalled. Citing Barry Schwartz he writes

collective memory thus becomes ‘a social fact as it is made and remade to serve changing societal interests and needs’.

The stories that are remembered through communal recitations and commemorations help shape the identity of the community, and it is this memory-shaped identity that prompts communities to interpret and respond in certain ways to new experiences. The key point for Kirk is that it is remembered pasts that come into play with new situations facing the community, and in turn the new situations will call upon different aspects of that remembered past, sometimes imputing new meanings into the past, even reconstructing aspects of the remembered past.

Let’s get specific.

Bultmann, for example, attributed the tense dialogue about forgiveness of sins (Mk 2.5-10) – on his form-critical criteria interpolated into the Healing of the Paralytic (Mk 2.1-12) – to the desire of the ‘Church … to trace back to Jesus its own right to forgive sins’. The dialogue element, that is, is secondary, generated by the present interests of the church. But analysis informed by memory approaches, if not actually disputing this tradition-history, would at minimum be sceptical that the community’s assertion of a claim to forgive sins could be accounted for apart from some impulse from the salient past. 

This is an interesting example of the different outcomes that are produced by the different approaches: form criticism and memory theory. It is particularly interesting for me because not long ago I posted on that same passage in Mark from an entirely different perspective:

See also

At this time I will leave it to readers to think through for themselves how, or if, the perspectives implicit in those three posts might be compatible with the memory approach.

Another point of discussion might be the dialogue form itself:

Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus by digging through it and then lowered the mat the man was lying on. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralyzed man, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”

Now some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, 7“Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?”

Immediately Jesus knew in his spirit that this was what they were thinking in their hearts, and he said to them, “Why are you thinking these things?Which is easier: to say to this paralyzed man, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, take your mat and walk’?10 But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” So he said to the man, 11 “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” 12 He got up, took his mat and walked out in full view of them all. This amazed everyone and they praised God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!”

At the risk of stepping way beyond what Kirk himself addresses in his article, that dialogue is obviously not “recalled” but is surely fabricated. People do not remember word for word what people say (let alone what they think as per this pericope; and besides, groups of people do not chant out the same sentence with one voice, again as per this pericope) but they remember meaning or overall pattern of exchanges. The dialogue itself is surely an invention that the memory approach would have to concede was accepted for (perhaps) a mnemonic or performance purpose.

I am opening up questions here. Discussion is for others and/or another post.

Let’s look at another example that Kirk uses and that highlights how the memory theory reading leads us to appreciate and interpret the origins of a gospel passage again differently from the form critical approach. Kirk draws attention to the numerous elements that are characteristic of memory organization to enable easy recall and to enable adaptation of the story for telling in new circumstances.

Mark 3

31 Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him.

32 A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.”

33 “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked.

34 Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers!

35  Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”

Both Bultmann and Dibelius gave particular attention to the queen of the tradition, the pronouncement story (apophthegm; chreia). Bultmann observed the economy of the form, for instance, and that its dramatis personae are portrayed as emblematic types. Both Bultmann and Dibelius, in isolating and classifying the genre, recognized its distinctive organizing schema. This sets the constraints and cues for enactment in all the genre’s discrete exemplars: brief narrative contextualization, frequently with conventionalized syntax, culminating in a pointed saying, itself formulated in accordance with cultural conventions for proverbs and maxims for maximum memorability. The pronouncement story’s utilization of additional constraints to cue specific content is exemplified in Mk 3.31-35, the Family of Jesus. The narrative contextualization that inaugurates the unit (vv. 31-32) is dense in descriptive and spatial (inside/outside) imagery. The dominant image is ‘family’, and it is important to note that the imagery cues wording, in a generative, non-rote manner, for the brief lead-in narrative. The image of Jesus’s family (mother and brothers), moreover, cues the theme: ‘Who are my mother and my brothers’ (v. 33)? The image and the theme are simultaneously a mnemonic for the climactic aphorism: ‘Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother’ (v. 35). The image of ‘mother and brothers’ recurs in each component of the unit. Likewise, the image and the aphorism reinforce each other mnemonically, which is to say that the narrative portion could for its part be cued from recollection of the memorable aphorism. In short, the unit is a system of cues that together eliminate the burden of exact recall, that is, of carrying the story around verbatim in one’s head as a condition for reproducing it from occasion to occasion. It also renders it capable of variation. (italics original)

One may concur that the passage is “made for easy recall”. Does it necessarily follow that it was a memory narrative gestated in a communal womb before being committed to writing? But that is obviously Kirk’s working hypothesis.

At what point do such memories, reconstructed and infused with new meanings as may be the case, come to be written down? Kirk points to studies that suggest a generational crisis of memory occurs within (the biblical) three or four generations from the original witnesses. It is as the first recollectors and those closest to them, the traditional guarantors or arbiters of the “correct” version, are dying off that a written account is deemed most important. That model, happily, brings us to within the period of around 70 to 100 CE when conventional wisdom has it that the canonical gospels were written.

Such a model presents the gospels as a certain type of literature that requires a certain type of reading if one is to approach their narrative contents as a kind of remembered history. We will address this question in an upcoming post.

Kirk is in no doubt about the place of such memory-generated narratives in relation to history. Memory theory applied to the gospels does not bring us to any exact moment in the life of Jesus or word that he spoke. The memory has been reshaped to make that assurance impossible. But memories are recalled in commemorative occasions and that is where history as it is known to the commemoration’s participants is recalled:


Tradition being the product of memory dynamics, we have seen, rules out that it transparently redescribes empirical events. Genre-based mnemonic strategies, moreover, are directed to recalling the tradition. Nevertheless, the gospel tradition has an essential relationship to the empirical past, one that is mediated by commemoration. The tradition may be viewed, in other words, as a commemorative representation of historical events. To deny this historical dynamic to the Jesus tradition would be equivalent to claiming that the Vietnam War Memorial on the National Mall in Washington DC, because it is the product of politically charged commemorative debates of the 1980s, has no historical relationship to the Vietnam War, or likewise that the Lincoln Memorial, reflective as its design is of the preoccupations of the pre-Civil Rights era, has nothing of historical value to tell us about the presidency of Abraham Lincoln and the events of the American Civil War. To the contrary, the changing, even conflicting, interpretations of landmark events evident in these commemorative enteiprises amount to the reverberative effects of foundational events into new social contexts and thus are historically informative in their own right. As regards the Jesus traditions this entails a historiography of reception along the lines sketched out, for example, by Schröter, summarized above, one that addresses the relationship between historical events andtheir symbolic representation. (my highlighting)

That final Schröter reference, “summarized above”, may be summed up as:

Aware that every act of traditioning is an act of remembering in which past and present semantically interact, Schröter’s approach, instead of discounting, exploits interpretative reconfigurations of the tradition to draw inferences about the historical Jesus.
Schröter restricts himself to a triangulating analysis of complexes of tradition found in the written sources.
For “triangulation” see Anthony Le Donne’s explanation and application in Searching for a Good Fantasy: A Postmodernist’s Historical Jesus.

Kirk, Alan. 2018. “Memory Theory and Jesus Research.” In 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.

The following page references to the quotations are from the 2011 publication of the article and are in order 810, 816, 820, 832, 837, 821 :

Kirk, Alan. 2011. “Memory Theory and Jesus Research.” In Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus. Volume 1: How to Study the Historical Jesus. Part Two, Various Aspects of Historical Jesus Methodology, edited by Tom Holmén and Stanley E. Porter, 1:809–42. Leiden ; Boston: Brill.


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16 thoughts on “Memory Theory and the Historical Jesus”

  1. I don’t know what it is about how Biblical scholars apply memory theory that disturbs me. May be it is their almost skeptical or inferior opinion being cast on to those who are responsible for transfering news and information through time. It is as if it is being said that either the sages and scribes were helpless to inevitable changes driven by societal needs or they were unable to realise or detect this fact or the opinion that word for word preservation was not important to the early chroniclers – all this is in my view at best partially correct.

    The semitic people are known for having great memories – word for word – I mean. And there is evidence for this. Even in the west we naturally preserve word for word narratives when it comes to song and rhyme. (Preserving tune too). I do however also think that it is possible and probable that meaning was more important to be transfered at times, but I also believe there were complete reformative movements designed specifically to inject ideas in to scripture either at the translation stage or the duplication stage of texts. For the definite intent to steer and massage theological dogma in to the works. Not accidentally but they knew full well what they were doing and how it would affect time and memory.

    This is also reflected in their sister activity which was censorship and getting rid of heterodox texts where they could find them. Then there were other communities who would hide their scriptures to prevent them from being censored and disposed of. I feel these aspects need to be considered in the discussion of historical memory, if they are not already done so.

    I also believe process of where accounts become legend and legend to fable should be a very gradual process much more gradual than that can be afforded for the explanation of the variance in Biblical texts.

    But I’m not an expert in this, I’m only going by what I have read so far. Do Biblical scholars consider these possibilities? Do they consider the preservation of slogans and catch phrases as being more historically robust in memory than other texts such as narrative ones? I believe quotes of people can be far more robust and treated more likely to be word for word – with the exception that they must have been translated. Some terms we see are kept in their native tongues and have since lost some meaning and context. Anyway … are my frustrations baseless? I wonder …

  2. Robert – Well. I’ve made no attempt to argue for truth of subject matter in stories, but rather my argument is one of faithfulness in transmission (the art of storytelling).

    I believe every tradition that becomes well established is known for its constants. I think of each story as a layered gobstopper or like the earths layers or an egg have you. The core contains elements of referential integrity, inteplay between characters, signs, image references and sayings or phrases that tend to get preserved, losing them would lose everything important about the story. However, there are middle bands of stories that get translated and tend to be more fluid, then there are the outer layers that can acquire embellishings more customised by each storyteller.

    For example, King Arthur had a round table – it was intended to represent equality and unity and these references are essential to the king arthur story, whether he was real or not is not being questioned. Robin Hood – has the “rob” part of his name preserved in each story because it neatly links in to his trade – the idea of “steals from the rich and gives to the poor” if not present in the story would take the soul out of it. William Tell always has the apple on the head. I won’t comment about Elvis – However, perhaps we should look to Jack and the Beanstalk. Where would the story be if we didn’t have the phrase “Fee Fi Fo Fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman, be he alive or be he dead, I’ll grind his bones to make my bread”? You will see that there are many iterations of this story, but this part is almost word for word faithfully transmitted.

    So we should start to look at memory in this way too. We need to look for the constants between transmission and they may give us insight on what was to be preserved – what they felt they needed to preserve. Likewise, I didn’t reject the idea of drift completely. I do feel in time you get the chinese whisper effect and that is where history becomes legend and legend becomes fable – however, that would naturally take a much longer course in time. The amount of deviation in the NT for example in the time frames we see – in my estimation for the time being, until found otherwise might actually be due to deliberate sabbotage of scripture.

    1. There’s a very recent theory, or book, from three years ago or so, that Paul worked for the Romans, fabricating. When things got too hot, he skipped town, as he Bible said. And went back to Rome.

    2. “King Arthur” is a splendid example of mythological chain reaction run amok.
      If my own memory is accurate, he first appeared in a two line mention in an early Welsh chronicle as the leader of a war band (dux bellorum) who was killed at Mount Baden.
      From that point things snowballed until Arthur became the center of a story cycle in which he was king who united England, conquered the Western Roman Empire, got speared by his upstart son/cousin/nephew and now exists in a state of un-death against the day he returns to Britain to solve its social problems and complete Brexit, or something like that.

  3. Another good article.

    re “The following page references to the quotations are from the 2011 publication of the article and are in order 810, 816, 820, 832, 837, 821”

    Th preceding^ page references ??

  4. It is impossible to prove that any element of any Gospel narrative was derived from oral tradition, but it is imminently possible to prove literary dependence.

    The problem with all of the memory theory business is that while you can do all kinds of research to show what types of information tends to be transmitted orally or how oral traditions work, etc., none of it really applies to the Gospels anyway.

    The problem for NT scholars is that we have no independent record to compare anything to. So much of the NT “oral tradition” hypothesis rests on the idea that the epistles and the Gospels are independent of one another. But careful analysis show that that is not the case, and that actually the Gospels are heavily dependent on the epistles, so this ends up blowing “oral traditions” and all of the business about “memory theory” out of the water.

    This is sort of a major theme in NT “scholarship”. What so many NT “scholars” claim is the ability to solve for X in equations where there are two unknown variables.

    The mainstream NT scholar starts with the known value of 42, then says that perhaps 42 was arrived at via the following method: X * Y = 42, and they claim to be able to identify what both X and Y are. They claim that their expertise has given them to tools to understand that X * Y = 42 is the most likely way that the value was derived.

    They will then say something like given that 42 = X * Y, I can deduce that X must be 7, which means that Y = 6, so everything is solved.

    But so often what happens is that we then come across later evidence which conclusively shows that X = 126, which then must mean that in fact 42 was arrived at via the equation 126 / 3 = 42.

    The biblical scholar will then typically either ignore this finding and continue to push his evidence-less theory, or dispute to finding that X = 126.

    Oral tradition and memory theory are the equivalent of trying to maintain a framework with two unknown variables, in which the ultimate answer is un-provable and thus open to speculation and the claims of “experts” as opposed to hard evidence.

    1. or else XY=Z and if they merely induce Z= 42, and X may really have been A+B rather than 7, and Y may have been KM (and B may have been R+SQ, and M may have been (G+H)E, etc)

  5. Being derived from oral tradition does in absolutely no way imply being derived from stories by or about a historical protagonist of the later canonical gospel-story.

  6. “Oral Tradition”, my arse! Almost all of it goes back to some literary source or other; the vast majority nameable. Most of these literary references seem to be multiple layered with multiple connections within and without the texts in question. Granted the ancients had vastly better memories and memory techniques, I’ll also grant that associations might be carried in ones head; but they are useless without written texts to refer to I would submit.

  7. Another thing; it has become quite clear our authors were of the retainer class with access to an education denied c.96% of the population. Their audience – I stress audience were NOT literate; they could NOT consult a text absent the preacher of the text. Is it a wonder the text is memorable? I despair of these people.

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