Once or twice a year, Academia likes to email me a link to Anthony Le Donne’s page, highlighting the third chapter from his magnum opus. In that chapter, entitled “History and Memory,” he introduces us to Maurice Halbwachs and his “seriously deficient” La topographie legendaire des evangiles en terre sainte: Étude de memoire collective. I had once held out some hope that Le Donne would fix this chapter’s more obvious errors, such as calling Helena Constantine’s wife, but that’s never going to happen. So each time I read it, I sigh and shake my head.
In what ways, specifically, is La topographie lacking? Le Donne noted Halbwachs’s first deficiency was that “he relied heavily upon the account by the pilgrims [sic] of Bordeaux and neglected any part that Constantine played in the localization of holy sites.” It appears by his reference to “pilgrims,” Le Donne doesn’t understand that the first chapter of Halbwach’s book refers to a single Christian pilgrim who probably wrote this work in or soon after 333 CE.
The oldest testimony that we have of a traveler who went to Jerusalem on pilgrimage is a work called “The Account of the Pilgrim of Bordeaux.” We can place the exact date after the phrase: at Constantinople “albulavimus, Dalmatio et Zenophilo consulibus, d.III kal. Jun. Chalcædonia, etc.,” which is to say, 333 CE – 300 years after the passion and death of Christ, 263 years after the destruction of Jerusalem in by Titus, 198 years after the reconstruction of this city (Ælia Capitolina) by Hadrian. The voyage to Jerusalem by Helena, the mother of Constantine, occurred around 326 CE. (Halbwachs 1941, p. 11, my translation)
[translator’s note] Wess. 571, 6-8, “Item ambulavimus Dalmatico et Zenophilo cons. III. kal. Iun. a Calcedonia et reversi sumus Constantinopolim VII kal. Ian. cons. Suprascripto.” In the year 333, CE, these two men – Flavius Valerius Dalmatius and Marcus Aurelius Zenophilus – served joint consuls. See: Cuntz Otto and Gerhard Wirth. 1990. Itineraria Antonini Augusti et Burdigalense. Stuttgart: Teubner. See also: Stewart Aubrey and C. W Wilson. 1887. Itinerary from Bordeaux to Jerusalem [Itinerarium Burdigalense]: “The Bordeaux Pilgrim“; (333 A.D.)
Any fair reading of the text must recognize the heavy reliance on the pilgrim’s work. After all, it starts on page 11 and rambles on for 52 pages. Why did Halbwachs spend so much time referring to the pilgrim’s itinerary? He was forthright about his reasons for doing so.
Consider this text: how could we not take some time to study it? It is a unique remnant, closest to the period in which the events recounted in the gospels would have taken place, before which we find only a few texts in the writings of the early Church Fathers, but no continuous account from someone who witnessed the places. (Halbwachs 1941, p. 11, my translation)
He reminds us that the next instance we have of such an itinerary comes fifty years later with the Peregrinatio ad loca sancta by the Galician nun, Egeria (Ætheria).
Fifty years is a long time in a century where, after the construction of Constantine, many new traditions were quickly established. Moreover, in this second 60-page text, Ætheria’s journeys to Sinai, Mount Nebo, Mesopotamia and Cilicia – i.e. places mentioned only in the Old Testament – take up a significant part. Ætheria lived in Jerusalem for three years. She emphasizes ceremonies that take place on different days of the year around the Holy Sepulcher and Calvary, on Mount Zion, at Eleona, and on the Mount of Olives. She describes them meticulously and vividly; but there are only a few topographical indications. (Halbwachs, 1941, p. 12, my translation)
Notwithstanding this heavy reliance, a fair reading of the text must also acknowledge that Halbwachs does not rely solely upon our pilgrim, but quite often uses his work as a kind of baseline — a foundation upon which to compare other descriptions and analyses. Each successive account gives us a new perspective, but the pilgrim’s account is the first nearly complete itinerary of the sites — all the more valuable, because it describes the situation directly after Constantine and Helena made their marks on Palestine.
(I will note here that Halbwachs mentioned Constantine by name over 30 times, which I think you’ll agree is a rather unusual way to “neglect” the emperor. We’ll return to that theme later on.)
Reading the works of the Memory Mavens (specifically, those self-professed experts in the English-speaking world), you might have the impression that Halbwachs had missed the mark with this book. As I mentioned in other posts, Anthony Le Donne and Barry Schwartz had little good to say about it. Le Donne insisted it was “seriously deficient in many ways” (Le Donne 2009, pp. 43-44). Schwartz wrote:
Halbwachs’s greatest failure is his inability to see commemoration as anything more than an elaborate delusion.
It is not just that localizations distort history; the more they distort the better they work. Halbwachs advances a pejorative conception of collective memory, one that distrusts and works to undermine established beliefs. He assumes that memory, as opposed to history, is inauthentic, manipulative, shady, something to be overcome rather than accepted in its own right. That commemoration is a selective celebration rather than an inferior version of history escapes Halbwachs. He cannot fully grasp what sacred sites accomplish, how they transmute reality to mobilize and sustain religious sentiment and, above all, elevate Jesus and sustain faith in what he did and represented.
(Schwartz 2005, p. 49, emphasis mine)
After several paragraphs of scolding Halbwachs, he proclaimed:
From the social memory standpoint, then, our object of study is not the authenticity of the Gospels; it is rather the Gospels as sources of information about the popular beliefs of early Christianity.
(Schwartz 2005, p. 50)
Are we to infer that Halbwachs didn’t know that? After reading Halbwachs’s introduction (which today’s scholars will not do), we might come away with a different interpretation. In his essay, Schwartz was focused on gleaning information about what happened in first-century Palestine. He chastised both Bultmann and Halbwachs for their skepticism under this section header: The Cynical Discipline (p. 45). He suggested that both men smugly swept aside all gospel evidence, happy to declare any and all traditions as inauthentic.
“Just wait a bit. Soon there will come a new species of men – narrow, hard, and systematic – who will go further in the direction of ruthless criticism and denial. Then you will miss Mr. Renan.”
Over the past several weeks, I’ve been working on an English translation of Halbwachs’s La topographie légendaire des Évangiles en Terre Sainte (The Legendary Topography of the Gospels in the Holy Land). A paperback version with its vivid red cover, sitting at the foot of my bed, has been catching my eye for many months. Recently, I finally picked it up and started reading it again, happy to find that he wrote in not some impenetrable scholastic French, but in a rather conversational (yet still quite proper) register.
I had three years of French in an American high school, so my competence is suspect. However, starting several years ago I’ve been working at getting better with the help of Duolingo and Pimsleur. That said, I often find myself entering sentences into various online services to compare my translations to theirs.
The Original Source
One of the sentences that popped out at me was this one from the last paragraph of the introduction:
Si, comme nous le croyons, la mémoire collective est essentiellement une reconstruction du passé, si elle adapte l’image des faits anciens aux croyances et aux besoins spirituels du présent, la connaissance de ce qui était à l’origine est secondaire, sinon tout à fait inutile, puisque la réalité du passé n’est plus là, comme un modèle immuable auquel il faudrait se conformer.
(Halbwachs 1941, p. 9)
I have translated this passage as:
If, as we believe, collective memory is essentially a reconstruction of the past, if it adapts the image of ancient events to the beliefs and spiritual needs of the present, knowledge of what was originally there is secondary, if not outright useless, since the reality of the past is no longer there as an immutable model to which one has to conform.
(Halbwachs/Widowfield 2023, bold emphasis mine)
It sounded awfully familiar. And then I remembered a Halbwachs quotation in Memory and Identity in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity that I hadn’t been able to find in the original text. Schwartz wrote:
In The Legendary Topography of the Gospels, he declares, “If, as we believe, social memory is essentially a reconstruction of the past, if it adapts the image of ancient facts to the beliefs and spiritual needs of the present, then a knowledge of the origin of these facts must be secondary, if not altogether useless, for the reality of the past is no longer in the past.” (Halbwachs 1992b, 7).
(Schwartz 2014, p. 19, bold emphasis mine)
Back in the day, I had been confused, because Schwartz’s bibliographical citation for “Halbwachs 1992b” contained this note:
Translated into English as pages 193–235 in On Collective Memory. Edited and translated by Lewis A. Coser. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. [orig. 1941]
The unsuspecting reader (in this case, me) might think La Topographie had been translated in its entirety and placed at the end of the English translation of On Collective Memory. However, if you’ve read my series on the Memory Mavens, you will recall that it was only the final chapter — the conclusion — that Coser translated.
“Memory studies” have become the “new thing” among scholars seeking to identify our earliest indicators of the historical Jesus. Before memory studies there were the “criteria of authenticity” that were used as a tool to identify the more reliable or original pieces of the gospel narratives. Those criteria have not been completely replaced, certainly not among all scholars searching for the historical Jesus, but “memory studies” have certainly gained in prominence. The name that is very often mentioned as a pioneer in understanding how “collective memories” of societies are formed is that of the French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs. The main point Halbwachs developed was that social memories are formed as a result of contemporary needs. The past that we as a society “remember” is what is meaningful for our own identities and outlooks today.
One day I would like to cover some of Halbwachs’ demonstrations of that particular point. But for now, I want only to mention one detail: what Halbwachs had to say about the so-called “memories” preserved by the “oral traditions” of Jesus that eventually fed into the gospel narratives.
(Another post I’d like to do, partly because it is in some ways quite amusing (sadly amusing, unfortunately), is the responses of quite a few biblical scholars who, while acknowledging the importance of Halbwachs to their use of memory theory, quickly inform their readers that Halbwachs was terribly mixed up and confused and flat wrong about how memory relates to the study of the “historical methods” biblical scholars use to track down (or nearly track down) the historical Jesus!)
Anyway, here is what Halbwachs had to say about oral traditions that are assumed by scholars generally to be the primary sources of our canonical gospels.
From Revelations & Mysticism to Earthly Biographical Narrative
First, Halbwachs explained the thesis he holds for the origin or creation of the “memories” that we find in the gospels. He writes that the earliest Christian documents knew no historical outline or biography of Jesus:
Things look different when it comes to the story of the Gospels. The facts of which they speak have not retained the attention of historians. Josephus does not mention them. According to Renan, the account of the death of John the Baptist, as it appears in the Gospel of Mark, would be “the only genuinely historical page in all of the Gospels.” In the authentic epistles of Paul, we are told only that the son of God has come to earth, that he died for our sins, and that he was brought back to life again. There is no allusion to the circumstances of his life, except for the Lord’s Supper, which, Paul says, appeared to him in a vision (and not through witnesses). There is no indication of locality, no question of Galilee, or of the preachings of Jesus on the shores of the lake of Gennesaret.In the Apocalypse of John, which is, according to Couchoud, together with the epistles of Paul, “the only Christian document that can be dated with certainty in the first century,” all we are told of Jesus is that “he died and was resurrected, but not suffering or crucified.” Naturally, no specific location is provided either.
(Halbwachs, On Collective Memory, p. 209)
Halbwachs noted that the earliest biographical narratives about Jesus appeared late, certainly post 70 CE, though he took them even later, noting that there is no independent witness to their existence until the second century. What Halbwachs proposed was that the need for historical accounts of the life of Jesus in Palestine did not arise until late in the first century or even well into the second century. Before legendary narratives of Jesus appeared there were only “apocalyptic revelations”, “mystical beliefs and visions”.
Halbwachs thus discounted the thesis that the gospels documented in any way “authentic traditions” that went back to the early first century.
This thesis excludes authentic traditions, those that went back to the events themselves. The latter, one believes, did not take place.
The Assumption of Oral Traditions Cannot Yield Historical Data
So what ought a historian make of the view that oral tradition lies behind the gospels? Halbwachs explains:
But it does not exclude tradltlons in the first [century], oral form these fictitious tales would have taken before being written down.8This idea of oral traditions moreover puts the whole thesis in question: what means do we possess to determine to which date the oral traditions refer? How can we determine whether they are authentic or not if we cannot come to grips with them and cannot determine at what moment they were formed? In any case, since no authentic text allows us to disprove the hypothesis according to which the Gospels were imagined tales, we must now determine what this means in regard to localizations in the Gospels.
8. According to Renan also, one third of the text of Luke (Lucanus or Lucas, disciple of Paul in Macedonia, member of the Church of Rome after 70) is to be found in neither Mark nor in Matthew. He would have been largely dependent on the oral tradition.
(p. 210 – bolding in all quotations is my own)
Indeed. How can we know if the first “oral tradition” was not composed, say, in 50 or 60 or 70 CE? And what were the circumstances that led to a story-teller creating that first story?
This brings us to Halbwachs’ second point: how the geographic settings indicate the novelistic character of the gospel narratives.
Without going into a study of the composition of the Gospels, one can say that the tales they introduce concern in general two clearly distinct regions of Palestine: Galilee and Jerusalem.9 The first concerns the Sermon on the Mount and contains the preachings and miracles that are supposed to have occurred on the shores of the lake of Gennesaret. The stories located in Jerusalem concern essentially the Passion. In Galilee we find discourses, above all in the form of parables; in Jerusalem we have facts, actions, events, which are the only ones, moreover, to develop the mythic drama that would be at the origin of Christianity on the human level. The Galilean materials are more or less independent of this mythic drama. Let me also add that localizations are essential for the events. It would seem that the Messiah could have been arrested, judged, crucified, and resurrected nowhere other than in Jerusalem. There had to be specifiable relations between the respective places. These localizations formed a system that was part of a definite spatial framework. This was not the case for the parables, the discourses, and the miracles. They were not necessarily placed at one location or another. Many of them in fact are localized in only a very vague fashion in Galilee, on the shores of the lake, or they are not localized at all.
9. This is what struck Renan and accounts for what is called the Palestinian dualism in his Vie de Jesus. Renan has noted “the striking agreement of the texts and the places.” “By this he means that the Galilean idyll fits in well with the charming nature of the countryside and its inhabitants, whereas the drama of the Passion is at home in gloomy Judea, in the dessicated atmosphere of Jerusalem. But one may wonder whether this is not simply a private fancy …. The antithesis that he established between northern an southern Palestine results so little from an actual vision of the places that he had formulated it already in a note prior to his Palestinian voyage and also in his introduction to the Song of Songs” (Alfaric, Les manuscrits, p. xxix). But the study of the texts themselves suffices in effect to suggest this supposition.
See the curious note of Taine regarding Renan: “He read a big piece of the Vie de Jesus to me … He gathers all the sweet and agreeable ideas of Jesus into the period of Nazareth, and, by omitting the sad facts, creates a happy, mystic pastoral. Then, in another chapter, he puts all the threats and the bitterness he tells of into his account of the voyage to Jerusalem … Berthelot and I told him in vain that this was to replace a legend with a novel, etc.” (Alfaric, Les manuscrits, pp. lviii-lxi).
Many books and articles have addressed the two-part structure of the Synoptic Gospels: the fruitful ministry in Galilee spoiled only by scribes or Pharisees visiting from Jerusalem who chance to catch Jesus perform a miracle on a sabbath, for example, and the second part of the voyage to Jerusalem to suffer and die.
The Galilean episodes and teachings are, as Halbwachs points out, quite independent of the mythic drama upon which Christianity was founded. It is as if the evangelists wrote knowing that only at Jerusalem could the messiah be “arrested, judged, crucified and resurrected.” The parables and miracles, on the other hand, could be placed anywhere or nowhere in particular or in “only a very vague fashion in Galilee.” I think that Galilee did have other prophetic reasons for being chosen as the locale for Jesus’ teaching ministry (compare Matthew 4:14-16 with Isaiah 9:1-2), but Halbwachs’ point is well made, I think.
Halbwachs adds that we find confirmation of the significance of this geographical structure in the earliest resurrection stories where the disciples were told to return to Galilee in order to see the happy ending to their ordeal.
One may of course assume that the part of the Gospels that occurs on the shores of the lake was written on the basis of those local traditions which the Galileans preserved when they were in Jerusalem, or when, after the war of the Jews, they had moved to other regions. But (and this is the hypothesis on which I base myself at the moment) one can also assume that the Galilean part of the Gospels had been imagined toward the end of the first century or at the beginning of the second by a group that knew the places and situated the discourses and miracles there in a more or less arbitrary manner.
No wonder so many biblical scholars who mention Maurice Halbwachs write somewhat nervously, even defensively, about Halbwachs own views on reasoning about the nature of historical evidence and its relation to memory theory.
Halbwachs, Maurice. On Collective Memory. Translated by Lewis A. Coser. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 1992.
Originally published in 1941 as La topographie légendaire des évangiles en Terre sainte. Étude de mémoire collective.
We tend to forget that before the First World War broke out, pundits of all stripes debated as to whether workers in European nations would actually fight. That is, would they align themselves to their nations or to their class? In the end, the socialists decisively lost that argument, with the overwhelming majority of workers marching to the frontlines, dying in unheard-of numbers in a futile struggle.
Culture, language, religion, and the land itself bound workers to the nation-state, whether or not the existing governments protected their interests. The common bond of labor meant little in comparison to the granfalloon of the state.
Still, one can hardly blame the intelligentsia, the ruling classes, the capitalists, the bankers, and others for doubting whether the lower classes would fight. After all, the upper classes of Europe and America had enjoyed a long tradition of camaraderie and mutual understanding. The Tsar of Russia had much more in common — culturally, economically, and politically — with a factory owner in Paris than with some faceless peasant breaking his back in Ukraine.
One can easily understand the French workers’ response in 1914 since the very survival of France was at stake. But what of the British? Would they fight for “the integrity of Belgium”? In short order it became clear: They would fight and die in the trenches alongside the French.
From the start, the fighting was furious and deadly, with casualty rates unknown in previous wars, including the American Civil War, which had hinted at the coming horrors of mechanized, industrialized warfare. So when the nations in the Western Front agreed to a Christmas truce, the combatants on the ground appreciated the time figuratively to lick their wounds.
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.
30 years it gives. Thirty. That’s one generation by some calculations. That’s how long we can expect a cultural memory of John Lennon to (have) last(ed) by oral communication alone. After 30 years the memory needs a written communication in order to survive.
I don’t know how that little bit of research finding will feed into studies of “oral tradition” and “memory theory” related to Christian origins. I’ll have to take some time to master the various definitions and concepts of the Nature article and only after that will I feel I might be in a position to think through any implications.
Others may be well ahead of me in this regard, however. I’m open to learning something new.
[This post has been waiting in draft status since 19 February 2015. This year I’m going to try to finish up some of the series we’ve left dangling on Vridar. –taw]
A considerable number of New Testament scholars have recently jumped on the memory bandwagon (see, e.g., Memory, Tradition, and Text, ed. Alan Kirk). Characteristics of this movement include an appeal to social memory and cultural memory as a way to explain ancient literary documents, combined with an often strident rejection of the criteria of authenticity used by many Historical Jesus scholars.
Neil and I generally agree that the criteria approach is useless for uncovering the “real” Jesus. However, besides debunking the criteria on the justifiable grounds that they are circular and do not work, the Memory Mavens also attempt to delegitimize them by tarring them as the misbegotten progeny of the form critics (see Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity). To put it more crudely, they view them as Bultmann’s Bastards.
In this post we’ll demonstrate how the criteria of authenticity actually grew out of the existing criteria of antiquity — i.e., the arguments that source critics employed to address the Synoptic Problem. Further, we’ll note that early historical Jesus scholars used nearly identical criteria in an attempt to prove the authenticity of some parts of the written gospels. We’ll show how the form critics adopted those criteria to try to identify material that came directly from Jesus by way of oral tradition. And we’ll see once again that this new crop of NT scholars is curiously unaware of their own heritage.
What’s in a name?
Recently, while out on my daily walks, I’ve been listening to Bart Ehrman’s course, How Jesus Became God, from The Great Courses (don’t pay full price; use Audible.com), and something he said struck me. While discussing the legendary Joseph of Arimathea, he noted that the apparently older tradition found in Acts 13:29 has a group of unnamed Jewish leaders take Jesus down from the cross an bury him in a tomb.
What appears to be happening here is a phenomenon that occurs throughout the gospel tradition. As people tell stories about things that happened, they start providing names for the nameless. This can be traced throughout our long Christian tradition. There are a number of people in the gospel stories who are left nameless.
So, who were the three wise men that came to Jesus, if there were three of them? Later traditions named three people. Who were the two robbers killed with Jesus? Later traditions named the two robbers.
When people are nameless, later in the traditions people add names to them. The earlier form of Jesus’ burial was the unnamed they — the members of the Jewish Sanhedrin — but as the tradition developed later, the nameless got named. That would suggest that the Joseph of Arimathea story is a later tradition. (“Lecture 9: Jesus’ Death—What Historians Can’t Know,” bold emphasis mine)
This line of thinking reminded me of the discussions surrounding the Synoptic Problem and the methodology for determining which gospel predates the others. In one sense, Ehrman is right: For any story or parable in the New Testament with anonymous characters, Christian tradition (especially post-canonical) will eventually provide names. Besides the names of the “Three” Wise Men and the robbers at Golgotha, Christians eventually supplied names to a host of unnamed people, such as the shepherds in Luke’s Nativity, the Samaritan woman at the well, and the rich man in the parable of Lazarus.
Of course, you’re probably already thinking to yourself, “What about Jairus and Simon of Cyrene?” You’d be right to ask. These names appear in Mark’s gospel, but they’re missing from Matthew. Does that mean Matthew predates Mark? Ehrman clearly thinks not, because he invariably calls Mark “our earliest gospel.” So what’s going on here?
The third paper of the first day of the Memory and the Reception of Jesus in Early Christianity Conference(10th-11th June 2016, St Mary’s University) was by Richard Bauckham: “The Psychology of Eyewitness Memory”. Helen Bond followed with her paper on the Gospel of John’s use of Mark (see previous post) and then there was a discussion between the two presenter and audience. It was the discussion that I found most interesting.
Richard Bauckham’s talk was indeed about the psychology of eyewitness memory and with little in the way of specific applications to biblical studies. His primary concern appeared to be to assure the audience that though one often hears how unreliable our memories are, including how unreliable eyewitness testimony so often can be in courtroom situations, nonetheless, when it comes to the sort of episodic memory we are talking about when we think of Jesus’ followers, memories are generally pretty sound for most purposes.
Events that are remembered well are those that
are unique or unusual
are consequential, salient
involve us emotionally
And of course such memories are cemented in our brains the more often we rehearse them.
Very broadly we can speak of three types of memory: procedural, semantic or conceptual, and episodic.
Procedural memory refers to remembering how to ride a bike, etc.
Semantic or conceptual memory refers to remembering concepts, book learning, etc.
Episodic memory refers to events that happen to us, the stuff that makes up major events in our lives.
It is the third type of memory that we are addressing when discussing gospel narratives and their eyewitness source material. That type of memory is more stable than the other two. If you are injured in a car crash you are not likely to think back years later and wonder if your injuries resulted from falling off a mountain.
Many stories highlighting the unreliability of memory derive from laboratory conditions and involve semantic or conceptual memory exercises. There is little real-life relationship to these findings. You life-situations are not so vulnerable to forgetting major or unusual events in your life.
All of that makes sense to me. But of course it does not address directly the reliability of the Gospels. For that question Bauckham referred occasionally to his book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.
In sum, to the best of my understanding (and there is considerable external noise in the video) here is Christine Jacobi’s main argument.
Paul’s was indebted to a Jesus tradition conveyed by eyewitnesses and others but what impressed him the most and formed the foundation of his and his community’s identity was the Christ Event itself. This enabled him to justify certain rulings that were in keeping with the meaning of that event and the needs of his churches as they identified themselves with that Christ event, even if those teachings contradicted specific sayings that the tradition attributed to Jesus himself.
Christine Jabobi’s thesis: Pauline letters are part of the early Christian memory of Jesus although Paul was not interested in the earthly Jesus. With traditional materials and his own reasoning, the apostle subordinated the Jesus tradition that was known to him to a comprehensive overarching interpretation of the Christ Event. Paul did not care for historical distinctions between early original material and later interpretations.
Romans 12:14-21 is believed by many scholars to indicate that Paul did know of the Jesus tradition that later found its way into the gospels. The NIV translation:
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.
17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Jacobi explains that many scholars believe Paul took these ideas from those who had been eyewitnesses of Jesus and who were preserving and teaching the words they had heard Jesus speak, the evidence for this being found in the gospels; Luke 6:28
28 Bless those who curse you . . . .
Did Paul take the words of Jesus that he heard from the eyewitnesses of Jesus and did those eyewitness traditions eventually catch up with the gospel authors who set them in writing? Jacobi rightly argues that the evidence can just as validly support the argument that Paul adapted the teachings from other traditions, especially Jewish wisdom literature such as the Book of Proverbs, and that the evangelists who wrote the gospels took the words from Paul and adapted them to make them the words of Jesus.
One scholar, Dunn, argues that Paul could mix the “remembered” words of Jesus with his recollections of Jewish Scripture and use them both as if they had equal authority. Jacobi thinks it unlikely that Jesus’ words would have had such authority so early.
But Jacobi points to other passages in Paul’s writings that explicitly contradict the words of Jesus that the gospels indicated came from the “Jesus tradition”. We are familiar with Paul’s disagreement with Jesus over marriage and divorce. Paul additionally rejected the right, even thought it had been made explicit by Jesus, to be supported by the people he served in his ministry.
I Corinthians 9
14 In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel.
15 But I have not used any of these rights. And I am not writing this in the hope that you will do such things for me, for I would rather die than allow anyone to deprive me of this boast.
Compare Luke 10
7 Stay there, eating and drinking whatever they give you, for the worker deserves his wages.
What is going on here? If Paul knows of the same Jesus tradition that is said to emerge later in the gospels then why does he short-change it? Notice that even in the Romans 12 passage on blessing one’s enemies Paul does not appeal to the same carrot that Jesus held out to motivate his readers. Jesus promised those who acted this way a great reward in heaven. Paul, rather, in other passages in his writings appeals to his followers to identify with God himself and to be like the God who revealed himself in the Christ event — that is, to be like the God who revealed himself in the flesh and forgave others before and after ascending to heaven.
In other words, Paul subordinated the words of Jesus to something far more important, far bigger, than discerning their exact form.
What is surprising to Christine Jacobi is that such a hypothesis would mean that the earliest accounts available to us that contain memories of Jesus are highly interpreted and adapted for contemporary needs while the later evidence, the gospels, contain the words of Jesus in a less interpreted and a more original form. One would normally expect to find the reverse in the extant evidence: the earlier containing the more primitive account and the later evidence the more highly interpreted and adapted forms.
Such in summary is my memory of Christine Jacobi’s conference presentation. Jacobi’s hypothesis is built upon the assumption that the gospel authors inherited memorized traditions from eyewitnesses of Jesus. There is no reference in her paper to any arguments that challenge the view that the gospels have written down oral recollections rather than having borrowed from other literature (e.g. Henaut 1993; Brodie 2004). (Although Jacobi does claim, if I caught her words correctly, that Paul’s/Jesus’ teaching to “Bless those who persecute/curse you” is a new form of pre-existing teachings and not directly found outside the Jesus tradition.)
Is it not a simpler hypothesis that Paul adapted teachings from Jewish and Hellenistic literature and that the gospels reframed many of his words and placed them in the mouth of Jesus? Does not this simpler hypothesis account for the same data we find in both the letters of Paul and the Gospels while raising fewer questions about why Paul went to such extreme lengths to distance himself and his words from any acknowledgement to “the historical Jesus of Galilee” whose life was, after all, integral to “the Christ Event” that so completely consumed Paul’s focus?
Chris Keith’s paper essentially outlined the introductory points he has published previously about the nature of the social memory approach to Jesus studies but with an emphasis on defending the originality of what it has to offer New Testament scholars today. Much of the criticism of memory theory in New Testament studies, he begins, even criticism that has passed through the peer-review process, has been inaccurate. It has mischaracterized what the approach is about and failed to engage with the theory and its methodology.
The main point Keith emphasizes is that past events are not remembered (individually or collectively) in a “pristine” state as if preserved whole in a time capsule for our benefit, but are always remembered through the filters of earlier interpretation of the event that we have inherited and our present interests, needs, circumstances, environmental or cultural influences. As a long-time student of history I see nothing controversial about this statement. It strikes me as little more than a truism for any serious historian.
However, I do wonder what such a process of “remembering” means for Chris Keith when he cites as a case study by David Parker(?) the pericope adulterae or passage in the Gospel of John about the woman taken in adultery. The manuscript evidence informs us that this story was not part of the original Gospel yet the story is such a part of our heritage that it inevitably influences the way we read and think about the gospels and the historical Jesus. Knowing that it was not part of the original accounts does not remove its influence over the way we think about Jesus.
I question that claim. If I understand the point correctly, I cannot accept that it is true. Surely scholars have written their own views on the historical Jesus that have no place at all for this story. Traditionally many scholars have attempted to reconstruct the teachings of Jesus entirely by means of comparing data in the synoptic gospels and leaving the entire Gospel of John (not just the pericope adulterae) out of their view completely.
Parker’s (and Keith’s) claim that the story inevitably influences how we think about Jesus is true at a general cultural level; Jesus’ forgiveness of the woman is part of image of Jesus that has come to us through our cultural heritage. But anyone who is interested in a serious study of the gospels by normative scholarly means can indeed construct a “historical Jesus” that allows no place for it.
Or perhaps I misunderstand the point. I am open to being corrected.
Misunderstanding Historical Positivism and Mnemohistory
Later Keith argues that memory theory turns traditional historical positivism on its head. Again, I find myself questioning his presentation. To begin with, he offers what to me is an inadequate definition of what positivism means as an approach by historians to the past. In Keith’s view as I understand it historical positivism is the belief that the historian can and should “get behind the sources” to recover a purely objective truth or fact of what actually happened. From this point Keith argues that since the past must always necessarily be interpreted to be remembered at all, then it can never be “truly objective reality” but always some form of narrated “myth”.
To justify this view Keith refers to the work of Jan Assmann on mnemohistory. I have addressed Jan Assmann’s interest and what he means by mnemohistory in Tales of Jesus and Moses: Two Ways to Apply Social Memory in Historical Studies and show why comparing Assmann’s history of how historical figures were remembered with other historical tasks such as understanding, say, the origins of the French Revolution (or the origins of Christianity) is seriously misguided.
What Jesus scholars aspire to do (however unrealistic their hopes) is comparable to what Egyptologists do when they uncover and analyze the data in order to find out as far as possible “what happened” in the days of Akhenaten; Assmann’s interest is entirely different. His mnemohistory is a survey of the various cultural myths that appear to have arisen in the wake of the Akhenaten revolution. The two types of historical inquiry are completely different. Both are valid, but they each have quite different agendas.
To see a fuller explanation of historical positivism and how historians have both embraced and moved away from it see R.G. Collingwood, The Idea of History, originally published 1946 but printed and released many times since.
It seems to me that with an oversimplified view of historical positivism Chris Keith has thrown out the baby with the bath water. Historical positivism originated as an attempt to set historical inquiry on a scientific footing. To this end historians believed that they should first establish the “facts” as a scientist establishes the facts, and from that starting point hypothesize and test laws to explain the relationships between those facts. By turning to Assmann it looks to me as if Keith has begun with a view of history that has no interest in the historical origin of a myth, that is, uncovering “the original facts” (this being considered an impossible quest), but only in the various ways the myth came to be “remembered” and mutated through the generations and again in his own time.
But even when mainstream historians rejected positivism (the belief that they could establish historical laws or principles from “the facts”) they did not reject the belief that they could find some form of real substance or “true events” in the past. Of course everything is necessarily interpreted. That again is a truism that needs no elaboration — at least to most historians I know of. (It only seems to be “big news” among some New Testament scholars, it seems to me.) But interpretation of an event does not mean that the event does not have some form of objective reality. We all have our interpretations of World War 2, of Churchill and Hitler. We cannot avoid them. But that does not remove the possibility of knowing that Churchill and Hitler really did do and say certain things, made certain decisions, and that very real and objective events that we can know about did follow as a result. Yes, we view those events through our interpretations. We know that people in other cultures and nations will have different interpretations, but no-one can deny that certain events are real and really did happen.
If I have misunderstood Chris Keith’s point I am more than willing to be better informed.
The difficulty with historical Jesus studies that has given rise to this misguided view of history as being completely beyond reach is that our earliest sources for Jesus, the letters of Paul, write about nothing but the myth of Jesus. Jesus, and what is sometimes referred to as “the Christ event”, is to Paul an entirely theological construct. The same is true of the later sources, the Gospels.
We only come to historical constructs (as distinguished from theological/mythical ones) in the next lecture in the conference, “The Reception of Jesus in Paul” by Christine Jacobi. However, as we shall see, those earliest historical constructs — the model of Jesus teaching and his words being remembered and passed on in various forms until they are set down in the Gospels — are entirely hypothetical. They are entirely extrapolations from the myth itself.
I suspect Chris Keith would respond by saying that all records of history are by nature, inevitably, some form of myth because they must be interpreted in order to be narrated. My response is that yes, but interpretation does not deny the reality of events or persons. Recall my example above referencing the facts and persons of World War 2. We can know there was a real person Akhenaten and series of events that really happened around him — independently of the myths that those events generated.
It does not logically follow that there was no historical Jesus at the start of it all or that Jacobi’s historical construct is wrong. What does follow, in my view, is that it is pointless to ask questions about what the historical Jesus was like or what he said. We simply have nothing beyond the myths to inform us. The only question that the available evidence allows us to ask, as I see it, is how are we to understand the nature of the earliest evidence and how do we account for its origins.
To answer that the historian needs to inquire into not only the character of the world from which our sources emerged but also into attentive literary, redactional and other analyses that deepen our understanding of the nature of those sources.
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.
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. Continue reading “The Motiveless Behavior of Fairy-Tale Characters”
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)”
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.
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)