Search Results for: Memory Mavens


2014-11-27

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

by Tim Widowfield
Maurice Halbwachs

Maurice Halbwachs, French Philosopher and Sociologist, 1877-1945

A muddle of mavens

For several months now, I’ve been poring over works written by a contingent of New Testament scholars who I like to call the Memory Mavens. This group claims that “memory theory” offers new perspectives on Jesus traditions and provides new insights on how those traditions eventually found their way into the written gospels. Some of the best-known authors in this subfield include Alan Kirk, Tom Thatcher, Anthony Le Donne, and Chris Keith. In this introduction we’ll examine some of the basic ideas in memory theory, while attempting to nail down some definitions and core concepts.

Unfortunately, the often imprecise and confusing language in use under the umbrella of “memory,” tends to impede our understanding. Much of the ambiguity in terminology stems from the broad range of meanings that encompass the English word “memory,” which can refer to a personal recollection, the human faculty or ability to remember, a commemorated event, or a given period of time in which things are remembered. But the addition of psychological and sociological layers aggravates the problem, especially when people simply use the word “memory” without clear context or antecedent.

If you search for works on memory, you will find countless examples of self-help books whose authors promise to improve your recollection of names, numbers, events, and anything else you want to remember. On a somber note, you will also find many books discussing Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. Generally speaking, when most people hear the term “memory theory,” they think of the faculty of (individual) human memory or the physiological and psychological aspects of personal recollection.

The constructed past

“A specialised area of research is ‘collective memory’, which is the notion that people remember together with other people and that memory is constructed in, by and for a social group. Collective memory in relation to smaller groups is sometimes called ‘social memory’, whereas, in relation to whole cultures, it tends to be called ‘cultural memory’. Both types of collective memory include ‘memory sites’ such as works of art, ritual acts, symbols, celebrations, memorials, libraries, writings and much more, all of which reinforce the collective identity of a people.” (Duling, 2011, p.1)

However, when the Memory Mavens talk about “memory,” they usually mean collective memory. In the 1920s, sociologist Maurice Halbwachs observed that we do not remember the past independently, but within groups, and that we understand and interpret all memories, even those we experience directly, within social frameworks. Hence, we have no access to the direct past; we see only the interpretation of the past as it is shaped by present circumstances.

Halbwachs’ theory of collective memory may at first seem paradoxical. It changes our focus from the past to the present, while it diminishes the role of the individual in favor of the group. The past, then, is not so much retrieved from our personal recollections, but rather constructed in the present by means of our current social frameworks.

[T]he collective frameworks of memory are not constructed after the fact by the combination of individual recollections; nor are they empty forms where recollections coming from elsewhere would insert themselves. Collective frameworks are, to the contrary, precisely the instruments used by the collective memory to reconstruct an image of the past which is in accord, in each epoch, with the predominant thoughts of the society. (Halbwachs, 1992, p. 40)

Taken to the extreme, collective memory theory erases the past, replacing it with the present, and equates tradition history with fiction, leaving us nothing but mere constructed stories. As a result we see scholars periodically chastising “presentist,” “constructivist” sociologists for being too skeptical. For example, Jan Vansina wrote:

read more »


2016-05-10

Bart Ehrman: Jesus Before the Gospels, Basic Element 5: Memory Distortion

by Tim Widowfield
Mnemosyne

Mnemosyne, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

In our last post, we discussed the genre of the gospels. We saw that Bart Ehrman, at least for this book (Jesus Before the Gospels), chooses to gloss over the issue of genre, and simply assumes that the gospels contain memories of the historical Jesus. Of course, he concedes that those memories may be distorted.

But what exactly do we mean by “memory distortion”? And is it a big deal, or is it just a minor annoyance?

Human memory can fail in two ways. First, we can simply forget the past. Second, our memories of the past can become changed and distorted. These inaccurate memories can contain false details, or they can represent incidents that never happened. Our capacity for distortion affects not only our personal recollection but social memories as well.

The nature of collective memory

In the introductory chapter to Memory Distortion: How Minds, Brains, and Societies Reconstruct the Past, Daniel Schacter writes:

A prominent theme in this area of study is that societies often hold beliefs about their pasts that are based on stories and myths that develop and change over time, often bearing little resemblance to the events that initially gave rise to them . . . 

Thus, understanding the nature of collective memory is inextricably intertwined with understanding the nature of memory distortion. Yet here, too, issues pertaining to memory distortion are of more than purely academic concern. For example, recent attempts by various fringe groups to deny the occurrence of the Holocaust have alerted scholars and the lay public alike to the extraordinary dangers that are posed by willful distortion of collective memory . . . (Schacter, 1995, p. 3, emphasis mine)

At the end of the same book, Lawrence E. Sullivan offers some closing remarks in an essay entitled “Memory Distortion and Anamnesis: A View from the Human Sciences.” He writes: read more »


2017-12-27

What’s the Matter with Biblical Scholarship? Part 3

by Tim Widowfield

Horse Racing Near Apsley House, London  by Francis Elizabeth Wynne

The horses are on the track

In Daniel Gullotta’s “On Richard Carrier’s Doubts,” we see a phenomenon common in nearly every apologetic debate, but comparatively rare in print: namely, the Gish Gallop. It works better in a live, oral/aural environment, of course, because the wave of information washes over and stuns the opposition, while on the other hand, it impresses supporters with its sheer volume of facts.

However, it loses its power on the page, since we all read at our own pace. We can pause. We can look away and reflect. I still, nevertheless, must offer Gullotta kudos on giving it the old college try. Here’s just a portion of a Daniel Dash:

In conjunction with the fact that Jesus’ crucifixion by Romans is depicted in every one of the earliest narrations of his death, one can also examine the reaction to early Christianity by Greco-Roman critics to see a widespread reception of Jesus as a crucified man. Lucian called Jesus a ‘crucified sophist’; Suetonius describes Jesus as ‘the man who was crucified in Palestine’; Celsus depicts Jesus’ death as a ‘punishment seen by all’; and Marcus Cornelius Fronto scoffed at how Christians could ‘worship a crucified man, and even the instrument itself of his punishment’. One of the earliest visual representations of Jesus carved into a wall near the Palatine Hill in Rome (ca. late second century CE), the Alexamenos graffito, is one of mockery, depicting the Christian Alexamenos paying homage to a naked figure on a cross with the head of a donkey, scrawled with the words: ‘Alexamenos, worship [your] God!’ (Gulotta 2017, p. 333, emphasis mine)

There’s even more after that; the paragraph continues. But slow down. Take a breath. The power of the Gish Gallop is its sudden rush of data points, so many that the listener will be lucky to recall any one of them once the flood has subsided. Bewildering the opponent adds to the mystique of the speaker. “He knows so much!” they whisper among themselves.

The weakness with the Daniel Dash is persistence. We can look away. We return to the page, and it remains. The Gallop is ephemeral, but the Dash hangs around. When I read the above passage, I immediately thought to myself, “Suetonius never wrote that.” I had the luxury of pausing in mid-dash. I could take time to think. I could even stop and shoot Neil an email.  read more »


2016-06-12

The Motiveless Behavior of Fairy-Tale Characters

by Tim Widowfield
A picture by Gustave Doré of Mother Goose read...

A picture by Gustave Doré of Mother Goose reading written (literary) fairy tales (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In true stories, as well as most conventional fiction, when characters move about, do things, say things, and interact with one another or with their environments, they operate logically. That is, we understand their motivations. The chicken crosses the road not simply to get to the other side, but because she wanted something over there.

Motiveless motion

On the other hand, characters in fairy tales operate differently. They don’t act like real people. In their book, Social Memory: New Perspectives on the Past, James Fentress and Chris Wickham explain that within folk tales (of which fairy tales are a subset), everything follows convention — the setting, the plot, the characters — all of it must follow the formula. And so people do things that in real life would raise serious questions. However, in their fairy-tale setting, we suspend disbelief.

In ‘The Juniper Tree’, the mother does not ask how and why she has become pregnant, nor how or why she is to die in giving birth. Similarly, there is no particular reason why Ann-Marie gathers her brother’s bones and buries them under the juniper tree; she just does so. The father is given no personality at all; he merely serves to accomplish the thematic business of eating the ‘beast’.

This motivelessness is typical. The behaviour of fairy-tale characters is governed by a set of themes which specifies the way in which a particular series of actions must be performed, and it is this thematic logic, rather than a character’s psychology, that is frequently behind the character’s action. Even though there is nothing in the story that gives Ann-Marie reason to know this, she must bury her brother’s bones at the foot of the tree that marks his mother’s grave because this is the way the particular narrative motif works. Unless the bones of the slaughtered beast are gathered in its ‘skin’ and placed beside its mother, it cannot be resuscitated. (Fentriss and Wickham, 1992, p. 65, emphasis mine)

Essentially, in these stories people serve functional purposes. As the authors put it, they are “embodied functions.” In fact we would be committing a categorical mistake if we focused on their psychological motivations. It’s much the same in the stories we read in the gospels. Consider the tale of the disciples walking through the wheat fields, deciding on the spur of the moment to eat some of the grain. read more »


2016-03-28

Bart Ehrman: Jesus Before the Gospels, Basic Element 3: Oral Tradition

by Tim Widowfield
English: Rudolf_Bultmann Deutsch: Rudolf_Bultmann


(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the previous post, we looked at the basic element of form criticism. Bart Ehrman in Jesus Before the Gospels uses the findings of the form critics to explain a commonly held assumption in NT scholarship. Many, if not most, of today’s critical scholars believe the stories found in our canonical gospels survived orally over a period of decades before anyone wrote them down. We refer to this phenomenon as “oral tradition.”

Basic Element 3: Oral Tradition

Traditions, the form critics held, were transmitted orally within the Christian community until at some point people began to commit them to papyrus. The author of Mark presumably constructed the first gospel from (1) stories that were still only preserved orally, (2) written traditions preserved only as Jesus’ sayings (logia), and (3) narrative fragments already preserved in writing.

♦ The context of transmission

Most of them assumed that tradents preserved the bulk of the sayings and stories for many years orally within the context of the early church. Here’s how Rudolf Bultmann put it:

[T]he gospel tradition did not arise within a literary movement, but had its origin in the preaching of Jesus in the life of the community of his followers, in their preaching, teaching, missionary work and apologetics. This is what one would expect not only from the oriental origin of Christianity, but above all from the fact that the earliest community formed part of Judaism and carried out its activity in the forms of Judaism, which were those of the synagogue and the teaching of the scribes. The spoken word was dominant, fixed forms had come into being, great use was made of the memory in preserving and reproducing what was heard, and the basis of everything was scripture. (Bultmann, 1961, pp. 90-91, emphasis mine)

He has described the general form-critical understanding of oral tradition. More recent research has added to our understanding of this process. In the first phase, Jesus himself preached and performed certain acts. His disciples remembered and retold those stories. Jan Vansina and other experts in oral tradition would call this the oral history phase. Once the tradition moves outside the sphere of eyewitnesses and direct memory, either because of geographic or temporal distance, we reach the second phase.

In phase two, the community that inherited the traditions of and about Jesus preserved them through memory and the telling and retelling of the traditions. The context of the transmission is, above all else, a social setting. It depends on the community of believers telling stories in an internal (preaching to believers, worship, catechism, cultic practices) and external (preaching to nonbelievers, apologetics) setting.

Ehrman appears to understand that context quite well. For example, he writes: read more »


2016-03-20

Bart Ehrman: Jesus Before the Gospels, Basic Element 1: Maurice Halbwachs

by Tim Widowfield

jesusbeforeNearly a year ago, while reading Bart Ehrman’s blog, I became aware that he was writing a book on memory. That news gave me no joy. My sense of unease, if not distress, did not diminish even when he said he had spent practically all of his spare time for two years reading up on the subject, because one never knows which Bart is going to show up.

Will we get the Bart who writes careful, well-written, meticulously researched books (some of the best in the genre) or will we get the one who skims the surface, makes inexplicable mistakes, jumps to conclusions, and wastes our time with recycled material? Well, let’s find out.

Basic element: Maurice Halbwachs

Ehrman writes:

[Maurice] Halbwachs had a rather extreme view of how we remember. He thought that literally all of our memories are social memories, that we can’t actually have any personal, private memories, but that every memory we have is necessarily influenced by, shaped by, and provided through our various social contexts. Not everyone agrees with that view, but on one point there is much wider consensus. We—whether as individuals or as members of a collective—“remember” the past because of its value in the present. (Ehrman, 2016, Kindle Location 268, emphasis mine)

I’ll grant you that you can find social memory practitioners today who will (if only for the shock effect) flatly state, “All memory is social memory,” but Halbwachs had a much more nuanced view of the matter. As I said in a previous post, “Halbwachs differentiated between the autobiographical memory of a person and the collective memory within which individuals participate. But neither resides in a vacuum. There exists a symbiotic relationship between each type of memory.”

When we reflect on our personal memories, we rely on social frameworks — language, mores, religious beliefs, shared history, etc. — to make sense of them. On the other hand, collective memory is maintained within the personal memories of the individual minds within the group. Or, more simply: Personal memories depend on social frames for context, while social memories depend on individual brains for storage.

♦ Two Types of Memories

I will cite Halbwachs as I did when I took Ehrman to task last April: read more »


2015-12-10

Metonymy, Messianism, and Historicity in the New Testament

by Tim Widowfield
Jesus uppväcker Lazarus, målning av Karl Isaks...

Jesus Raising Lazarus from the Dead — Karl Isaksson, 1872-1922 Kategori:Målningar (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Recently, I happened to notice a post on James McGrath’s site concerning a paper by Tom Thatcher about Jesus as a healer and a “controversialist.” As I take it, that term describes a figure who is no mere contrarian, but rather one who makes controversial statements or engages in controversial actions to stimulate debate or to educate and elucidate.

Thatcher presented his paper, which apparently isn’t yet available to the public, at the Society of Biblical Research’s 2015 Annual Meeting in Atlanta. His session, entitled “Jesus as Controversialist: Media-Critical Perspectives on the Historicity of the Johannine Sabbath Controversies,” bears the following abstract:

Apart from scattered sayings with clear parallels in other texts, it remains the case that the Johannine discourses are almost categorically disregarded as useful sources for the message of Jesus. Consistent with this approach, the dialogues of Jesus in John 5–10, which include some of the most significant Christological statements in the Gospel, are generally discounted whole as reflections of the Johannine imagination. The present paper will utilize insights drawn from media-criticism to propose a more holistic approach that seeks to identify broad patterns in John’s presentation that reflect widely-accepted themes in the message and program of the historical Jesus. Close analysis reveals that the discourses in John 5-10 are prompted by specific acts of protest by Jesus (the two Sabbath healings) that are directed toward the brokers of the Jerusalem great tradition. Against the establishment claim that he is a “sinner,” Jesus contends that his widely-documented activity as a healer would be impossible were it not sanctioned by God: If God objected to healing on Sabbath, then how could Jesus do so? One may reasonably conclude that the more elaborate theological statements in this central section of the Gospel are in fact grounded in three widely accepted conclusions: that the historical Jesus was a healer; that he challenged conventional views of Sabbath; and, that he openly opposed the Judean religious establishment. (Thatcher, 2015, emphasis mine)

read more »


2015-11-11

What’s Wrong with the Word “Pericope”?

by Tim Widowfield
English: From Gospel lectionary Mt. Athos Dion...

From the Gospel lectionary Mt. Athos Dionys. Cod. 587 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sometimes I discover the most curious things en route to learning something else. I can’t even remember why now, but for some reason I recently stumbled upon the definition of pericope (peh-RIH-kuh-pee) at the Oxford Biblical Studies Online site.

If you’ve read my posts on the Memory Mavens, you’re no doubt aware that I sometimes refer to a common practice in current NT studies wherein scholars tend to associate concepts, ideas, and even words they don’t like with form criticism. By such association, they dismiss anything they find offensive. “Don’t touch that,” they imply. “It has form-critical cooties.”

Resurrected?

Here’s an unexpected example from Oxford:

pericope

A term used in Latin by Jerome for sections of scripture and taken over by form critics to designate a unit, or paragraph, of material, especially in the gospels, such as a single parable, or a single story of a miracle. (emphasis mine)

Reading that definition, you might get the impression that Rudolf Bultmann and Martin Dibelius resurrected a word that hadn’t been in use for 1,500 years. But can that be true? Well, it would appear the Mark Goodacre thinks so. In a post from back in 2013 he recommends we abandon the term, for several reasons, and concludes: read more »


2015-04-07

Ehrman Misremembers Halbwachs: “Everybody Wants ta Get inta the Act”

by Tim Widowfield
Cropped screenshot of Jimmy Durante from the t...

Everybody wants ta get inta the act!” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Early this morning, I was sipping coffee and catching up on some Biblioblogs. Hey, did you notice we’re number 31 on the list of the Top 50 Biblioblogs? Thanks for reading Vridar! Anyhow, I was reading the latest posts on the Ehrman blog, and lo and behold it turns out Brother Bart is interested in memory.

On 29 March, he told his readers he had lost interest in a project (a commentary on gospels for which we have only fragmentary remains), and was focusing his attention squarely on a book about how early Christians remembered Jesus.

As many of you know, I have spent almost all my research time for more than a year now working on issues of memory. I have now read all that I need to read for my next book, a trade book for a general audience, on how Jesus was “remembered” by early Christians in the decades before any of the Gospels were written. My plan is to start writing on Tuesday. Gods willing, I’ll have the book in draft by the end of April. The idea is to have it published next year about this time, early spring 2016. (Ehrman, “My New Project on Memory”)

I’m somewhat envious. I have clearly not read all I need to read on memory. I will probably still be slogging through my series on memory on into 2018, if I’m lucky. Of course, my interests are quite different from Dr. Ehrman’s, but I’ve found that the subject matter is so vast and difficult to grasp, that I’m still doing basic research, even to the point of re-reading what I thought I had already understood.

Sometimes you can’t read a book until you’ve read it, which may sound like a Yogi-ism, but that’s often the way it goes. Just as individuals need a social framework for memory, so we also need intellectual scaffolding to understand scholarly works on sociology, psychology, history, etc. Often the initial frameworks we construct fail, and we must rebuild them.

If I hadn’t read and re-read Maurice Halbwachs (just as I had to read and re-read William Wrede), I would probably still hold to the incorrect impressions left by the Memory Mavens, especially Barry Schwartz. I would have only a sketch, a caricature of Halbwachs, instead of a more complete understanding, which I’m still trying to gain.

And that brings us to Ehrman’s post from 3 April, in which he wrote:  read more »


2015-03-16

A Tribute to Maurice Halbwachs

by Tim Widowfield
Maurice Halbwachs

Maurice Halbwachs, French Sociologist, 1877-1945

In a recent post on memory theory, I erroneously stated that of The Legendary Topography of the Gospels in the Holy Land: A Study of Collective Memory (La topographie legendaire des evangiles en terre sainte: Etude de memoire collective) was published posthumously in 1941. In actuality, Halbwachs died 70 years ago on this date in 1945, in the German death camp called Buchenwald. His health had failed, and he did not survive to see the Allies free the camp just 19 days later on 4 April.

And sadly, that date as posted on Wikipedia — 16 March — is probably not correct. According to The American Journal of Sociology (see Vol. LI, No. 6), it happened back in February, and that may be right. On the other hand, the official death report from the Buchenwald archives (transcribed here) says it happened on the 15th of March.

On the day he died, his one-time student, Jorge Semprún, had the terrible job of erasing the memory of Maurice Halbwachs, his friend and teacher. At the camp office, he explained the ritual that represented the annihilation of a person. read more »


2018-01-02

Who Depoliticized Early Christianity?

by Tim Widowfield

Who killed Jesus and why?

With the Roman occupation of Palestine and its tense atmosphere of messianic hopefuls within the first century CE, the horrors of crucifixion were a real and ever present reality for messianic claimants like Jesus. A reality of which Paul and the first Christians would have been all too aware. Simply put, [Richard] Carrier inadvertently depoliticizes early Christianity. (Daniel N. Gullotta 2016, “On Richard Carrier’s Doubts“, Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, pp. 332-333, emphasis mine)

Do you know who else depoliticized early Christianity? Early Christians. Paul. The evangelists. The early Church Fathers. In short, everyone.

New Testament authors are clear about why Jesus died and who is responsible. According to “our oldest sources” (to invoke a scholarly term), Jesus had done nothing worthy of punishment. As Hyam Maccoby put it:

According to the Gospels, Jesus was the victim of a frame-up. His aims were purely religious, and in pursuing them, he had fallen foul of the Jewish religious establishment, who, in order to get rid of him, concocted a political charge, and managed to hoodwink the Roman governor, Pilate, into believing it. When Pilate still showed reluctance to execute Jesus, they pressed the political charge until he was left with no option: ‘The Jews kept shouting, “If you let this man go, you are no friend to Caesar; any man who claims to be king is defying Caesar.”’ (John 19.7). (Maccoby 1984, “Who Killed Jesus?” London Review of Books, emphasis mine)

Englewood Dam

A narrow, precarious path

The story of Jesus’ death, followed by the successful spread of Christianity as related in the gospels and Acts, reminds me of the road across Englewood Dam. The dam, located northwest of Dayton, Ohio, protects the area from flooding by the Stillwater River. A number of dams in the area, all built after the Great Dayton Flood, have a similar design. The levees on either side are enormous, allowing the reservoirs to retain billions of gallons of water.

The first time I drove across the levee, I was struck by how easy it seemed (if not for the guardrails) to veer slightly to the left or the right, tumbling 100 feet down the embankment into the trees. The story of the Passion follows a similarly narrow, but more circuitous path. If Jesus was a rebel, a brigand, then he really was an enemy of Rome. And that just won’t do, will it? However, if Jesus did nothing but teach and heal, then why would Pilate have put him to death? Somehow, Jesus must have provoked someone to cause this chain of events, but who?

According to the New Testament, it was “the Jews.” The Jewish leaders were jealous of his fame, or else they worried the people would believe in him and cause the Romans to come and destroy them. (See John 11:45-53.) And here we see one of the great uses of the hypothesized historical Jesus. A reconstructed Jesus allows NT scholars in the post-Holocaust world to reinterpret verses like these: read more »


2016-10-07

Form Criticism: Modern Scholarship’s Blind Spot

by Tim Widowfield
Percival Gardner-Smith

Percival Gardner-Smith

In a recent post, Neil discussed Helen Bond’s paper, “The Reception of Jesus in the Gospel of John.” I can’t find a print version of the paper, but the video released by Biblical Studies Online on my birthday, brings me both pain and pleasure. Pleasure, because I also believe the author of the Fourth Gospel knew and used Mark. (See my series, “How John Used Mark.”) But pain, too, because Bond repeats the same mistaken views about form criticism that continue to dominate modern New Testament studies.

I agree completely with her thesis statement:

I see John as a rewriting of those written texts in light of both the cultural memories of his own group and a very particular set of historical circumstances. There’s no doubt that this gospel is distinctive in many ways, with its view of Jesus as the incarnate Logos, the unique Son of the Father, and the bringer of eternal life. And yet, it seems to me that many of these distinctive features can be seen to derive from a creative reflection on Markan material. (Bond, 0:55, 2016 — Note: In this post all bold emphasis in quotations is mine.)

An extremely slim volume

Further, she correctly observes that most scholars thought John knew and used the Gospel of Mark until the publication of Percival Gardner-Smith’s Saint John & the Synoptic Gospels in 1938. But notice who turns out to be the villain in this story.

So, while the extent of John’s familiarity with Matthew has often been debated, there was almost complete agreement, until the early 20th century, that the evangelist was thoroughly acquainted with Mark and very likely also with Luke. With the emergence of form criticism, however, things began to change. (Bond, 1:52, 2016)

I set those last four words in italics to indicate Bond’s ominous tone, reminiscent of Neil on The Young Ones, telling us that Vyvyan has escaped. She continues: read more »