Having given a summary of the papers delivered during the Social Memory session in the Historical Jesus section at SBL, I know want to highlight why it was a “blow up” and offer my interpretation of the ensuing audience interaction. After a round of strong papers, each presenter was given the opportunity to respond in the same order as originally delivered.
Chris Keith primarily answered Paul Foster in his rejoinder. The reason for Keith’s response was that Foster gave what I think was an awfully uncharitable dismissal of Keith on account of a blog response to an article Foster wrote arguing that memory studies are a “dead end” for historical Jesus research (Keith’s blog post is available here). Foster made it sound as though Keith’s well-founded criticisms were childish and petty. Keith protested the fact that Foster’s article argues against memory studies as employed by Richard Bauckham, but ignore his own more nuanced approach, as well as that of Anthony Le Donne and Rafael Rodríguez. In his SBL paper Foster essentially described Keith as whining that his work was not paid sufficient attention when Keith et al did not merit attention because according to Foster, their work is not really historical Jesus research.
I thought Keith’s response was incredibly gracious, saying that while he also has qualms with Bauckham’s use of memory theory he maintains that his work is historical Jesus research. There was a palpable sense of “Oh no he didn’t” in the audience when Foster jibed Keith, but I thought Keith’s response was irenic. In general, I thought Foster failed to engage in the argument made by Keith, Le Donne and Rodríguez and Allison, among others. It seems to me that Foster wants to continue to operate historical Jesus studies by the criteria approach. It made me wonder if he has read Jesus, Criteria and the Demise ofAuthenticity. If he has, what would he say in response? Is there a review in order?
I don’t remember Crook’s response particularly well (!), but it was clear that he did not think he was correctly understood. In fact, I vividly recall one point during the Q & A, when Crook slammed his hands on the table, jumped up and exasperatedly exclaimed, “If that’s what you think I’m saying, then I’m not being heard!” In a comment he made in the previous post, it became clearer to me what he was saying. He sees the work of Keith, Le Donne and others (in Jesus, Criteria and the Demise of Authenticity) as definitive for making the Quest for the historical Jesus impossible. He believes, however, that it is still possible to study the way Jesus was remembered. He is simply convinced that there can be no confidence in memories about Jesus as more authentic/historical than others.
Crook’s argument did not convince me because it seemed that he was drawing on a different kind of research and that his epistemological assumptions were too strict to make any historical claims. I was a bit surprised to see Crook drawing primarily from an essay by Baumeister and Hastings published in 1997. Perhaps the article is seminal, but it would seem that research in collective memory has become more nuanced in the last fifteen years. Also, Crook often referred to memory studies that occur in laboratories, but it would seem that these individual studies in memory would have limited value for collective memory theory. One example that interested me was Crook’s recognition that while there are numerous stories circulating about Ned Ludd, he never existed. But, how can such a historical judgment be made? Just because false memories circulate and can be planted in individuals does not mean that we cannot come to some fairly conclusive historical judgments. Surely Crook is correct to see that memory theory ought to temper and nuance the way historical judgments are made, but does that mean they cannot be made at all?
Perhaps I’m not giving Crook his due. I wanted to ask more questions, but the audience was jumping to ask questions and I didn't get a chance. Unfortunately, some of the comments occasionally deteriorated into lengthy pontifications from the audience, but I think that speaks to how strong the reactions to the session were. I cannot emphasize enough how fantastic session this was. If you're interested in more, check out Chris Keith's reflections and the ensuing debate in the comments over at Jesus Blog.