Thursday, June 02, 2011

the new historiography of Jesus: step 1—memory

Yesterday I moved past Dale Allison's preface and began reading the first chapter, "The General and Particular: Memories of Jesus" (1–30), of Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History (Baker Academic, 2010). As the title suggests, Allison begins his historical discussion of Jesus by providing an excellently researched and documented discussion of memory and, especially, all its vagaries.

I'll have much to say about this shortly, but I want to start by noting that historical Jesus scholarship seems to be moving beyond the so-called "Third Quest" and entering a new phase of its own history. In the Third Quest, the first step of scholarship was to apprehend something of Jesus' "Jewishness"; in this new phase, the first step is to explore the processes of memory and the recovery/reconstruction of the past. Whereas earlier Jesus scholarship neglected memory completely (because the Gospels weren't thought to be memory but were primarily expositions on the interests and conflicts of the early church projected back onto the figure of Jesus), the new historiography of Jesus recognizes that memory refers to so much more than simply "recall of the past." Memory is the retrieval and reconstruction of the past from which we perceive we have come within the circumstances and concerns of the present with which we must contend. Memory is about both the past and the present. And this is precisely what we have in the Gospels.

No, this isn't a "Fourth Quest" (how quaint that would be!). If anything, it's a post-Quest. How ironic, then, that the language of "questing" comes from Albert Schweitzer, that early-twentieth century champion of the failed apocalyptic prophet, and that Allison, an important heir of Schweitzer's legacy, is an important voice in historical Jesus scholarship after the Quests! Other voices would include Anthony Le Donne, Jens Schröter, Chris Keith, Samuel Byrskog, Richard Bauckham, and others. (And, of course, I would include myself here.) While some of us (e.g., Bauckham) turn to memory out of a conviction that the Gospels are or include eyewitness testimony about the life of Jesus, most if not all of us recognize that discussions of memory provide us with an apropos critical perspective from which to approach the Gospels even if the Evangelists themselves never saw or heard the prophet from Nazareth. We all remember a past much deeper and broader than simply our own limited fields of experience.

So Allison begins his discussion of memory by painting the canvas black. He appropriately sets the stage in the first sentence: "The frailty of human memory should distress all who quest for the so-called historical Jesus" (1). He immediately sets out a series of nine of memory's "sins," consequences of the "leaks and dissociat[ions]" of the human capacity to recall the past (2–8). Not surprisingly, Allison (who cites a broad range of memory studies) often references the work of Elizabeth F. Loftus, who perhaps more than any other researcher and experimenter has demonstrated how capable of being "messed with" is human memory. The conclusion vis-à-vis memory is stark:
Given what we now know about human recollection, given that "the past is produced in the present and is thus malleable," one researcher, Elizabeth Loftus, has opined, half seriously, that our lawcourts should administer this oath to witnesses on the stand: "Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, or whatever it is you think you remember?" (8; citing Olick and Robbins, "Social Memory Studies," 128, and Loftus, "Memory Faults and Fixes," 127, respectively)

I am unable and unwilling to oppose anything Allison says about memory (at least up to this point); in all this he is exactly right. And yet I do object that the malleability and demonstrably fluid nature of our recall of the past are not weaknesses that the historian must overcome but rather resources that enable the past to persist across the ever-shifting present and make historiography possible in the first place. Or, to pick up a metaphor I dropped above, my canvas isn't as black as is Allison's. For example, in another sentence with which I generally agree, he writes, "As our recollections because increasingly tattered and faded, they are disposed to retain, if anything, only the substance or 'gist' of an event" (11; my emphasis). True. And yet I balk at the narrative underlying this sentence, viz. that memory, like a photograph left out in the wind and sun, tatters and fades at the onslaught of time. Certainly memories can fade. Just as certainly memories can change and even be retrojected. But memories can also persist, become more vivid and stark, take on clearer significances, teach more important lessons, and so on. In fact, memory does not either become clearer or more obscure; often memory's clarity or obscurity depends just as much on what or why we are trying to recall some thing.

Let me illustrate. If I'm trying to remember the squint of my wife's eyes as she smiled on our first date, or the color of her sweater on the night I proposed, the vagaries of the last ten years will certainly have tattered and faded my memory of the events. (To be honest, I'm only guessing that she was, in fact, wearing a sweater, since I proposed in early January and I certainly do remember that it was a very cold day.) If, however, I'm recalling the woman herself who once laughed at my jokes or accepted my proposal, my knowledge and memory of her is clearer now as we approach our tenth anniversary than it was even the day after the events in question. I know more about my wife now than I did then, and my understanding of her in 2011 is better than it was in 2001. So in 2011 I'm positioned to remember 2001 in ways that I wouldn't have been able to in 2001. In some ways my memory today is indeed tattered and faded. But in other ways it's clearer and crisper.

Despite the differences, I think Allison has exactly the right end of the stick (if the stick = how to engage historical Jesus research). As a beginning point, Allison offers the following conclusion about how to appropriate the data provided by the Gospels, a conclusion which differs categorically and fundamentally from work such as that proposed by the Jesus Seminar:
Given that memory is "fuzzy," that we remember the outlines of an event or the general import of a conversation better than the details, that we extract patterns and meaning from informational input, it would be peculiar to imagine that, although their general impressions of Jesus were hopelessly skewed, Christian tradents somehow managed to recall with some accuracy, let us say, two or three of his similitudes or parables and a handful of one-liners. . . . If general impressions are typically more trustworthy than details, then it makes little sense to reconstruct Jesus by starting with a few of the latter—perhaps some incidents and sayings that survive the gauntlet of our authenticating criteria—while setting aside the general impressions that our primary sources instill in us. The larger the generalization and the more data upon which it is based, the greater our confidence. The more specific the detail and the fewer the supporting data, the greater our uncertainty. (13, 14)

So Allison begins by looking not for isolated facts from which the historical Jesus will slowly but surely emerge, like a newer-model Terminator, out of the morass of the Gospels. Instead, he's looking for general impressions (16). Now, anyone familiar with Allison's work will expect him to find that most general of impressions at work in the Gospels: that Jesus was a prophet of the apocalypse. We'll see. But for now Allison's insights rightfully and helpfully set the program for historical Jesus scholarship of the second decade of the twenty-first century. The new historiography of Jesus begins with the Gospels as memorial artifacts, as plausible and coherent presentations of Jesus of Nazareth in the context of the challenges and concerns of his followers in the mid- to late-first century CE. Much critical work remains. But that work expressly is not filtering the Gospels through a battery of criteria and then trying to fit together the remaining textual shards into a critical reconstruction.

1 comment:

David Medici said...

I am sorry to find a rather uninformed and ill-nuanced understanding of memory. If your presentation of Dale Allison's discussion of memory is true in the main, then I would encourage you to acquaint yourself (and Allison) with the studies of the kind of "memory" associated with preserving traditional or cultic material. This kind of memory is not the what-color-of-sweater-was-she-wearing kind of memory. It was a highly formalized practice in which precise reproduction of the original was required, innovation was forbidden, and lengthy speeches and written passages were committed to learning. Even today, in Jewish, Arab, southeast Asian and other cultures there is considerable continuation of the practice.

In first-century Jewish culture disciples were expected to memorize their master's words exactly, and the master often cast his teaching in poetry, parallelism, rhythm and pithy metaphor to facilitate memory. Additionally, first-century disciples were also expected to write their master's words. It was unthinkable that a disciple should not have acquired the ability to write sufficiently well to record his master's teaching. Jesus' disciples, one must remember, were reared in the synagogue, where reading the Torah was not only the expectation but the mark of manhood following bar mitzvah. Also, several of Jesus's disciples were professional men for whom writing would have been required. Recall also that Act records that a good number of priests and Pharisees became disciples of Christ after his resurrection. There would have been no shortage of literate eyewitnesses or literate recorders of the testimonies of the eyewitnesses.

The belief that people, and the disciples in specific, would have forgotten the words of Jesus is based upon retrogressing modern attitudes toward memorization and a complete ignorance of what an oral culture actually did (and does) with the kind of material that an rabbi's teaching was deemed to be.

Acquaintance with the facts of first-century discipleship practices, pedagogical techniques, etc., would produce a more enlightened assessment of Allison's work.

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