Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Blow up in Baltimore (Part 1 - Summary)

For me, the highlight session of this year’s SBL was in the Historical Jesus section devoted to social memory theory. While I’m not particularly interested in Historical Jesus (HJ) studies as a scholarly discipline, I am interested in social memory theory and its application to biblical studies. Also, if for no other reason than the fact that I’m a Christian I am interested in Jesus. Before offering a brief description of the four papers delivered and the ensuing discussion, I’ll first provide a little background to the debate. For those who are already somewhat familiar with the recent debate about social memory theory in HJ studies might prefer to skip the next paragraph and get right to my summaries of the papers. 

Although the relevant history goes back further, I begin with the book edited by Chris Keith and Anthony Le Donne, Jesus, Criteria and the Demise of Authenticity. In this compilation of essays released in August of 2012, Keith and Le Donne put the nail in the coffin of HJ studies based on the criteria approach, whereby scholars use a set of criteria for discerning how authentically historical a particular action or saying is. In February of 2013, Paul Foster published an article in Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus provocatively titled: “Memory, Orality, and the Fourth Gospel: Three Dead-Ends in Historical Jesus Research”! Foster argues that “memory studies” offer no “significant advance in accessing the 'historical Jesus', as that term is usually understood.” Le Donne announced the publication of thearticle and soon after Keith offered a brief response to Foster on their co-authored Jesus Blog

The first paper, “The Past Approaching and Approaching the Past: The Contribution of Memory Studies to Historical Jesus Research” delivered by Chris Keith, was aimed at describing the value of social memory theory as a tool for HJ research. He addressed four issues to which social memory theory is relevant (1. Transmission of Oral tradition, 2. Criteria of Authenticity, 3. New Historiography and 4. Historical Reliability of the Gospel tradition). Keith showed, I think convincingly, that social memory theory requires recognizing that HJ research cannot practice business as usual because social memory theory provides a more accurate description of the way history works, but it does not do the work of the historian.

The second paper, “Memory Distortion and the Historical Jesus” read by Zeba Crook made the provocative argument that memory studies make HJ research impossible! Crook’s argument is that memory studies show us not how to refine an approach to HJ research but rather destroys any attempt to do so. Crook’s paper was punctuated by a helpful, and at times hilarious, power-point. Needless to say, Crook’s bold thesis was the most controversial prompting disagreement from just about everyone.

The third paper, “An Uneasy Concord: Memory and History in Contemporary Jesus Research,” given by Rafael Rodríguez argues that social memory theory provides a more accurate description of what the gospels actually are, and so are more suitable for doing HJ research than the previous criteria approach. The two major payoffs for HJ research are that (1) events/sayings cannot be removed from their narrative contexts in order to be evaluated for their historicity and (2) any evaluation of history must account for the production and reception of the narratives as they are. Rodríguez offered a helpful example in showing the relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus in Matthew's gospel.

The last paper, “Memory: Help or Hindrance in Historical Jesus Research?” was given by Paul Foster. His essay was by far the most narrow in focus, arguing primarily against Richard Bauckham’s use of memory theory for judging large portions of the gospel tradition as historically reliable. In general, however, Foster sees memory study practiced by Le Donne, Keith and Rodríguez as a categorical error when employed for HJ research. Foster considers memory theory a helpful way to trace the history of tradition, but not useful for making judgments about the historical Jesus.


Anthony Le Donne said...

thanks Tyler, very helpful intro.

Zeba Crook said...

Just to clarify: I didn't say that Historical Jesus research is impossible. I argued that "the Quest" characterized by the search for things we can know with certainty about Jesus, is rendered impossible by work on memory distortion, and by our inability to differentiate between accurate and inaccurate (and sometimes wholly manufactured) memories. I did admit that other projects are possible (how Jesus was remembered)

Unknown said...


Thanks for your clarification. As I looked through my notes I realized that you said that the Quest was destroyed not the possibility of doing historical Jesus research.