Ireneo Funes, the eponymous character in Jorge Luis Borges’ short story, “Funes, the Memorious,” lived the first part of his life completely in the moment. Recalling his first encounter with the enigmatic figure, the narrator relates an incident from long ago when he and his cousin Bernardo were racing on horseback, trying to outrun a storm. They heard, suddenly, the sound of footsteps on the brick footpath above. It was Funes.
Bernardo unexpectedly yelled to him: “What’s the time, Ireneo?” Without looking up, without stopping, Ireneo replied: “In ten minutes it will be eight o’clock, child Bernardo Juan Francisco.” The voice was sharp, mocking. (Borges, 1967, p. 36)
In those days, Funes always knew the exact time; he knew about now, but remembered nothing of the past. Later, when the narrator meets Funes, he explains how an accident changed everything.
For nineteen years, he said, he had lived like a person in a dream: he looked without seeing, heard without hearing, forgot everything — almost everything. On falling from the horse, he lost consciousness; when he recovered it, the present was almost intolerable it was so rich and bright; the same was true of the most ancient and most trivial memories. (Borges, 1967, p. 40)
A garbage disposal
The fall left Funes unable to walk, and that paralysis becomes a metaphor for the crushing weight of all remembrances, which immobilize and suffocate. For while he can remember everything, his mind is inundated with every detail about every moment that he has ever experienced — and not only the event itself, but the clear recollection of each time he has recalled that event. Continue reading “The Memory Mavens, Part 10: Memory and History (1)”
The Song of Deborah in the fifth chapter of Judges, according to most scholars, contains some of the oldest material in the Hebrew Bible. However, Serge Frolov in a journal article and an online post notes several clues that should make us suspect that it’s a later work retrojected into the past. For example, he writes:
Another clue is what the text says, intentionally or unintentionally, about the author’s world. The U.S. Constitution was clearly written for a country that practiced slavery. Deborah’s song just as clearly has a monarchic political state in mind. It addresses “kings” and “potentates”; describes those who answered her battle cry as “princes,” “holders of the marshal’s staff,” and “lawgivers”; and portrays Sisera’s mother as a royal figure, complete with “princesses” waiting on her. Archaeology tells us that ancient Israel first became a monarchy in the 10th or perhaps even the ninth century B.C.E. Before that, its population simply had no concept of such aristocratic titles as “prince” for Israelites. (Frolov, 2016)
Given the linguistic content of the material, then, it would appear that someone perhaps even as late as the Babylonian Exile may have written the song in an archaic form of Hebrew as a deliberate affectation.
In any case, my interest at the moment is not so much the song itself, along with its lurid details and grotesque schadenfreude concerning Jael crushing Sisera’s skull (which is apparently an irresistible subject for artists), as its unexpected use in a particular event in British Colonial American history.
Just what are you guys doing over there?
Many of the Separatist Congregationalists who left England in the early 17th century tried making a go of it in Holland but eventually came to the conclusion that living among the Dutch presented the temptation of too much freedom. Nor were they happy with the prospect of their children assimilating culturally into a non-English society. The decision to leave Holland and sail to a new, wild continent had little to do with the religious freedom of the individual, but everything to do with the religious liberty and solidarity of the group. Within their new, ideal community, they would stay focused on what they believed to be important and would bind themselves together via a legal compact.
Ostensibly, though, this self-enforced deportation from Mother England would be temporary. Their example may, they reasoned, serve as an object lesson on how free and pious people should live together. Of course, the Separatists represented a small percentage of Puritan dissenters; most had decided to remain and resist. Michael Kammen, in his essay entitled “Some Patterns and Meanings of Memory Distortion in American History” says: Continue reading “The Memory Mavens, Part 9: Social Memory Distortion (1)”
In foreign policy, the United States — especially in the last hundred years or so — has tried to have it both ways: assiduously following the Constitution and domestic law, as well as keeping within the dictates of international agreements, while at the same time aggressively maintaining an empire with far-reaching hegemony. In doing so, the executive branch often finds itself carrying out actions that conform to the letter of the law, but would seem to violate its spirit.
The Duck Test
War and diplomacy, domains in which precision in word choice matters, are fertile grounds for Newspeak. Consider, for example, the frequent use of the words “conflict” and “police action” after World War II. The U.S. government has tended to avoid the word “war,” because it has a definite meaning, a specific basis in law. For the U.S., it means that Congress has approved a formal declaration of war against another sovereign state or group of states. The new terms play a role in American “freedom of action” (viz., the use of violence and the constant threat of violence to advance policy) while apparently staying within the boundaries of the law.
Consider, as well, President John F. Kennedy‘s use of the term “quarantine” during the Cuban Missile Crisis, deftly avoiding the word “blockade,” which is a legal term that signifies an act of war. The administration called it a quarantine for diplomatic purposes; however for the purpose of exercising power, it did the job equally well. It quacked like a duck and walked like a duck, but calling it a duck might have precipitated World War III. (As it was, we were closer to doomsday than we realized.)
Finally, consider the terms “detainee” and “unlawful combatant” as used by American administrations in the wars that followed the September 11 terror attacks on U.S. soil. “Prisoners of war” have a distinct status in international law, and all signatories to the Geneva Conventions have agreed to treat those prisoners according to a detailed set of protocols. Yet the Bush administration said that despite the all the quacking and the cloud of feathers, those waddling birds were not ducks.
Terms of Art
In the social sciences as well, we have terms of art that refer to specifically defined concepts, conditions, events, etc. It drives experts in psychology, well, a bit mad when authors in popular media incorrectly use terms like schizophrenia. Notice that I deliberately avoided the word “insane,” since that’s a term of art in both the clinic and the courtroom. It is especially important when writing about a particular subject matter to use terms of art only for their intended purpose. Moreover, if you (unadvisedly) choose to redefine a well-established term of art, then you should clearly state what you’re doing up front.
The realm of memory theory, including the psychological study of personal memory and the sociological study of group memory, has its own terms of art. I offer the following examples.
I present these two here because I have lately seen Memory Mavens misuse them in the similar ways. Specifically, they incorrectly use a term of art to describe a general condition or event. Doing so muddies the water; it confuses the experts who know how the term ought to be used, and it misinforms the general public who trust scholars and expect them to know what they’re writing about. Continue reading “The Memory Mavens, Part 7: When Terms Matter”
In a similar fashion, some modern authors seem all too ready to conflate Halbwachs’s generalized treatment of the “localization” of memory with his specific discussions about locations, places, etc. To be fair, we might argue that part of the problem is Halbwachs’s use of the term.
Localizing individual memories in social frameworks
So let’s try to be clear from the start. In his 1925 work, Les cadres sociaux de la memoire, partially translated in On Collective Memory (see Chapter 3, “The Localization of Memory”), he explains that recent individual memories “hang together” only if we can place them within an overall framework. That is, they make sense to us when “they are part of a totality of thoughts common to a group.” He writes:
To recall them it is hence sufficient that we place ourselves in the perspective of this group, that we adopt its interests and follow the slant of its reflections. Exactly the same process occurs when we attempt to localize older memories. We have to place them within a totality of memories common to other groups, groups that are narrower and more lasting, such as our family. (Halbwachs, 1992, p. 52, emphasis mine)
In its first iteration, then, localization in general refers to two things: (1) the placement of individuals within the perspective of a group and (2) the placement of individual memories within the larger framework of group memories. Hence, for Halbwachs, we cannot understand how memory works unless we take into account the associations between individual recollections and the group or groups to which that individual belongs.
We can understand each memory as it occurs in individual thought only if we locate each within the thought of the corresponding group. We cannot properly understand their relative strength and the ways in which they combine within individual thought unless we connect the individual to the various groups of which he is simultaneously a member. (Halbwachs, 1992, p. 53, emphasis mine)
Conceptual localization vs. geographical localization
Before going further, we should note that Halbwachs’ study was seriously deficient in several ways. The first is that he relied heavily upon the account by pilgrims of Bordeaux and neglected any part that Constantine played in the localization of holy sites. Also, he inexplicably presupposed that the Synoptic Gospels took written form in the second century and perhaps over a century after the events to which they attest. This poorly defended position was foundational to Halbwachs’ conclusion that the Gospels are mostly invented and fictive in nature. Halbwachs also misrepresented (and oversimplified) the relationship between Jewish and Christian religious belief.
 Eusebius, Vita Constantine, 2.46; 3.30–32. Constantine’s wife Helena is also reputed to have traveled to Bethlehem and Jerusalem to establish monuments at the place of Jesus’ birth and at the Mount of Olives. See H. Lietzmann, From Constantine to Julian: A History of the Church, vol. 3 (London: Lutterworth, 1950), 147.
Some myths have extraordinary staying power. Because modern media causes us to believe we’re witnesses to real events, we often reject good evidence that disproves what we think we saw and heard personally. I grew up thinking that the embarrassing mistakes Kermit Schaefer presented on his record albums were completely authentic. We all rolled on the floor laughing as we listened to cuts from Pardon My Blooper, but what my family and I didn’t know was that if Schaefer couldn’t obtain the actual recordings, he’d pay actors to recreate them.
“Goodnight, little friends, goodnight.”
Lots of people still think they know Uncle Don referred to his audience as “little bastards” over an open microphone. Even after you tell them that Schaefer forged the recording (with no warnings on the record, by the way), and even after you show them evidence that it never happened, they’re just so sure of their memories, they can’t quite believe it.
There’s something about hearing it on the radio or on a recording, or seeing it on television or in a movie that makes us complicit in the social memory of an event. We don’t think of the event as something “out there” in the past, but rather something we’re part of. In a sense, the event is part of us. So, for example, even a fictional story like The Godfather can become part of the fabric of our memory, especially the cultural memories of place and time: namely, the United States in the early 20th century.
“They changed our name.”
In The Godfather II, we learn that Vito Corleone’s real surname is Andolini, but that the workers processing immigrants at Ellis Island mistook his home town for his last name and made Andolini his middle name. In the public’s mind these sorts of mistakes went on all the time. Sometimes, it turns out, they just bungled the transcription, and people had to live with their new, misspelled names. Worse than that, sometimes, perhaps many times, those faceless bureaucrats would force immigrants who had strange names to change them to something that sounded more “American.”
Yet, despite the widespread belief in such events, it’s all a myth. In fact, in the novel Vito Corleone deliberately changed his own name. And in real life, we know immigrants were not given new names at Ellis Island. The workers who processed immigrants simply took the names from the ship manifests (usually compiled at the port of embarkation) and transcribed them. They had no authority to modify what they found on the manifests, and they would not have had any incentive to do so.
Nor were they confused by the foreign languages of the incoming passengers. Most of them could speak and read those languages (Italian, German, Polish, etc.), or they could rely on translators standing nearby to help them.
This social memory of Ellis Island as a place where heartless government administrators arbitrarily Americanized people’s names corresponds to the family memories of many next-generation ethnic Poles, Italians, Serbs, Croats, Czechs, etc., who learned early on that their name in the Old Country was one thing, but upon arrival, “They changed our name.” Sometimes the new name began with the same letter, but was Anglicized. Or sometimes it was simply translated. So, perhaps Wallechinsky became Wallace or Schmidt became Smith.
Longtime Vridar readers will recall that both Neil and I view the use of criteriology as employed by historical Jesus researchers with a great deal of skepticism. They consistently ask too much of the criteria. We might be able to say, for example, that applying a given criterion can determine the antiquity of a logion (e.g., a traditional saying that may predate both Paul and Mark) but it cannot prove authenticity (i.e., that Jesus said it).
However, I now find myself in the odd position of defending at least one criterion against a detractor. In How God Became Jesus, a book intended to refute Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God, Michael Bird writes (in a chapter called “Did Jesus Think He Was God?”):
I’ve used [historical criteria] myself at times, but like others I’ve become increasingly aware of their limitations and become convinced that they do not offer a path to an objective history of Jesus. For a start, trying to sort out the authentic traditions from the inauthentic traditions is not really that easy, for the simple fact that the history of Jesus has been thoroughly welded together with the early church’s proclamation of Jesus at every point. (p. 33)
Bird’s definition of the CoD
I would, of course, shy away from the term “the early church,” especially in the singular, because it implies unity within ancient Christianity. But other than that, Bird and I mostly agree. If any history at all lies within the gospels, it will necessarily be entangled with the theological concerns of the evangelists and the proclamation of Christ by Jesus’ early followers. No historical criterion can reliably separate them.
Bird offers up the criterion of dissimilarity (CoD) as a failed example.
For [a] case in point, let’s consider Ehrman’s use of the “criterion of dissimilarity,” which on his account dictates that a given unit in the Gospels is historically authentic if “it is dissimilar to what the early Christians would have wanted to say about him.” [Ehrman, 96-97] This criterion is well-known and has received a devastating barrage of criticism to the point that I am, to be frank, at a loss as to why Ehrman continues to use it. It jumped the shark about the same time that the TV show Dawson’s Creek did. (Bird, Evans, et al., p. 33, emphasis mine)
If you’re wondering about that Dawson’s Creek reference, I regret to say that the authors continually veer off into stilted pop culture references. Each time they drag one out, I can’t help but picture an awkward youth pastor in Dockers and a sweater vest trying to sound “hip” for the kids. It’s a constant reminder that we are not their intended audience. Here’s another rib-tickler from Bird:
The background to this saying and the explanation for why Jesus was thought to have committed blasphemy is something like a Jewish version of the TV show Game of Thrones. (p. 43)
Anthony Le Donne has published works arguing for a new type of historical study, one that draws upon memory theory, to be applied to the Gospels. He and a number of scholarly supporters believe this new approach can open up a more valid way of approximating the historical Jesus behind the Gospels.
In the opening pages of his opening chapter of The Historiographical Jesus: Memory, Typology, and the Son of David (2009) Le Donne zeroes in on what he believes is a prevalent fallacy among scholars addressing historical questions in the Gospels and Acts. This is that a good number of well-known scholars have argued that an event in the Gospels-Acts that is expressed as some “typology” or fulfillment of an Old Testament passage should not be thought of as historical, or that it should at least be relegated to a status of questionable historicity. On the other hand, events written as facts and that contain no striking overlay of such Old Testament framing should, rightly, be considered historical, or at least be acknowledged as historical in the mind of the author.
Anthony Le Donne quotes Michael Goulder’s explicit expression of this principle:
Where . . . we find passages with no apparent root in symbolism, or with unimportant traces of types, we shall be justified in assuming that St. Luke was setting down a factual story. . . . This will be our first criterion: where there are no types, Acts is intended to be factual.
Where an incident can be accounted for wholly, or almost wholly, on typological grounds, we shall have to be very wary indeed of giving it weight as history. This gives us a second criterion: the thicker the types, the less likely is the passage to be factual.
I agree with Anthony Le Donne completely that scholars who argue for or against the historicity of a passage in the Gospels and Acts on such are basis are succumbing to fallacious and invalid reasoning. But I also believe that Le Donne has succumbed to an unsupportable assumption of his own and that what he proposes as the correction to this wrong argument is just as baseless.
Where Anthony Le Donne is right
It is quite reasonable to suggest that an event that has been framed or crafted in terms of Old Testament passages was originally an historical happening that was later reinterpreted by others through Old Testament prophecies.
Gosh, the emperor Hadrian used to present himself as Hercules, and the even more illustrious Alexander the Great was presented as the conquering god Dionysus. Mythical overlay of historical events and persons calls for historical explanation, not denial of historicity. Continue reading “A dichotomy fallacy in historical Jesus studies”
My copy of Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity arrived today. I had the impression that there is some curiosity “in internet land” as to whether this work will be of interest among Christ Myth theorists. If I am not judging too hastily, I will say, “No”. Everyone knows that the criteria used to establish “historicity” of a saying or deed of Jesus are shot through with logical fallacies. This has surely been well enough publicized by many mainstream and minorstream scholars by now. Or perhaps I don’t wear the same blinkers as many theologians who confuse apologetics with historical research.
The book does not address historicity. Note the title. It says “Authenticity”, not “historicity”.
There’s an interesting Introduction by Anthony Le Donne that I’d like to post on some time. He surveys the history, especially “American” meaning U.S. history, of historical research related to the Bible and Jesus. It reminds me of the title of a book by Ashleigh Brilliant, I Have Abandoned My Search for Truth and Am Now Looking for a Good Fantasy. (Ashleigh Brilliant, I have read, is always on the warpath against anyone who uses one of his epigrams without first paying him for the privilege, so I hope he doesn’t object to my freely promoting one of his many published titles for him here instead.)
I have long looked forward to doing posts on historiography again, and in the process place the postmodernist historiography in its context. In that series I would certainly refer to Anthony Le Donne’s earlier book, Historical Jesus: What Can We Know and How Can We Know It?. That little volume is a handbook for theologians on how to save or redirect a new quest for the “historical Jesus” through a postmodernist approach to sources.
It contains a foreword by Dale C. Allison Jr. He was the scholar, some will recall, cited by James McGrath as being one of the pioneers responsible for paving the way for a whole new revolution in historical studies across the board. (See my post, New Testament Scholars Are Pioneers In Historical Methods.) McGrath learned from Allison the following:
Here is one way to illustrate how postmodernist historical research into the ‘historical Jesus’ works. The illustration is taken from Anthony Le Donne’s Historical Jesus. Le Donne spices up the explanation with geometric and arboreal diagrams and phrases like “moving on from positivism”, “patterns of memory”, “thought-categories”, “memory refractions” and “spiraling memory traditions”. This is a Good Thing™, because it shields the reader from direct exposure to the befuddling logical circuitry behind it all.
First, find two contradictory Jesus “traditions”.
Next, place these two “traditions” 5 centimeters apart on a sheet of plain white paper on a flat table.
Thirdly, sprinkle lightly with extra-fine grade authenticity powder.
Now, with some geometry tools and an HB pencil, draw straight lines from those two “traditions” to a third point so as to form an equilateral triangle. (Don’t worry about the powder. That will add to the final effect.)
Now erase those straight lines and replace them with spirals. (Replace the scattered authenticity powder.)
You have now recreated the original memory refraction that was further refracted through spirals to reach our extant contradictory evidence.
Finally, focus one eye on the start of each of the spirals, roll each eye back through the spirals to their other point, and you will come to understand how we arrived at our extant contradictory evidence.
Ergo, Jesus existed.
Okay, that was tongue in cheek. But it is not far off what Le Donne writes anyway, seriously. Only in Theology Departments!
History as most generally practiced is about interpretation of the “facts” (or data or evidence — the distinction is important and was discussed at some length in comments here).
Historians seek out evidence from sources of identifiable provenance: diaries, police records, government papers, newspapers, etc. The nature of the sources, the provenance of the sources, are important for the historian in knowing how to assess the reliability or biases of those sources.
The debate among historians of Australian history over the extent of massacres of aboriginal peoples is about interpretation of the “facts” — the facts being the tangible documentary evidence.
It is the same with ancient history. An ancient inscription may be very clear in the tale it tells, such as the rise of Syrian king Idrimi. But how should that tale be interpreted? Is it a true narrative or a piece of mostly fictional propaganda? External witnesses are brought in — what do other texts, remains or monuments indicate? What do we know of the literary style and its purposes elsewhere? Continue reading “Is history a trial?”