In a recent post, Neil cited a paper by Dr. Alan Kirk called “Memory Theory and Jesus Research.” While Kirk does an adequate job of explaining the current state of play in memory theory, I couldn’t help but notice yet again some misunderstandings in the ways Memory Mavens remember German critical scholarship in general and form criticism in particular. I’ve been putting off this dismally inevitable task, but the time has come to offer some corrections and commentary.
First, Kirk takes a swipe at William Wrede. He writes:
. . . Wrede’s bifurcation of Markan tradition into surviving elements of empirical history on the one hand and Easter-engendered dogma on the other, with the latter occluding the former, was precursor to the form critics’ model. Of a “historical view of the real life of Jesus,” wrote Wrede, only “pale residues” survive. (Kirk 2011, p. 809-810, emphasis mine)
Kirk argues that the form critics, taking their cue from Wrede, believed memory and personal eye-witness recollections were synonymous and that the Jesus traditions which effectively buried those recollections were something entirely different.
While memory traces of this sort lay at the origins of the tradition, they were a residuum, largely inert with respect to developments in the tradition itself. The salient image was of so-called authentic memories of Jesus coming to be buried under multiple layers of “tradition.” Tradition, in other words, had little to do with memory. (Kirk 2011, p. 809)
How does Kirk’s analysis square with what Wrede actually said? Kirk’s wording may lead the casual reader to infer from the first citation above that Wrede was referring to the general state of Mark’s sources or, to put in another way, the overall character of the various streams of oral and written tradition available to the author of Mark.
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’.
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?
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:
Don’t expect to get much out of this post; I’m just letting off some steam.
This afternoon while we were channel-surfing among several games on DirecTV’s NFL Sunday Ticket, I paused and asked my wife to listen to a sentence from a book I was reading. When I finally finished, she admitted she didn’t understand any of it and asked me if the author was a native English speaker.
Sadly, the sentence was not the product of a single foreign author, working hard to compose in an alien tongue, but of two authors — one from Canada, one from the U.S. — both with PhDs. You might think that having two educated minds working on the same essay would result in better prose, with the excesses of one writer being held in check by the other.
In this case it didn’t work out that way. If anything, Alan Kirk and Tom Thatcher appear to have been engaged in a competition to write the most obscure prose imaginable. As a result, reading their essay, “Jesus Tradition as Social Memory” (Memory, Tradition, and Text, 2005, pp. 25-42) is like watching random words splash over your brain. You recall the act of reading, but you have no memory of the content.
As we know, There are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know There are known unknowns. That is to say We know there are some things We do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, The ones we don’t know We don’t know.
—Feb. 12, 2002, Donald Rumsfeld, Department of Defense news briefing