Monday, November 14, 2011

what social memory isn't

I'm currently reviewing Maurice Casey's book (perhaps even magnum opus), Jesus of Nazareth: An Independent Historian's Account of his Life and Teaching (London: T&T Clark International, 2010). I met Maurice in 2005 at the British New Testament Conference, where we both presented papers in the BNTC's Jesus Seminar (not to be confused with the Westar Institute's Jesus Seminar). I found him to be a friendly, encouraging, and collegial figure, which matters since he is a very senior NT scholar and I was (am) just getting my feet wet. Also, I consider one of his protégés, James Crossley, a personal friend; Crossley was also the internal examiner for my PhD thesis defense. This book is certainly the results of decades of detailed scholarship, both in the details and in the larger theoretical and methodological issues.

Moreover, the adjective found in the subtitle, independent, should be taken at face value; Maurice affirms a number of traditional conclusions among NT scholars (Markan priority, Jesus spoke Aramaic, etc.), but he also advances numerous arguments that challenge directly some of the most taken-for-granted ideas in our field. For example, Casey affirms Markan priority and the existence of "Q," though he argues that "Q" refers to a number of disparate written sources, in both Aramaic and Greek instead of a single document written in Greek. However, he also affirms that Luke knew and was influenced by Matthew. Anyone familiar with the Synoptic Problem and the discussion in that field will know how controversial it is for one person to hold to all these ideas at the same time.

And it is to be expected that I have some bones to pick with Casey's approach to the historical Jesus. If nothing else, the fact that Casey isn't a confessional scholar (he is forthright about this but not [always] antagonistic) and I am will necessitate areas of disagreement. But I don't think this difference explains all my complaints. Certainly this one has little if anything to do with my faith or his un- (or non-) faith.

In a section of his chapter on historical method, Casey addresses "social memory," a field in which I am heavily invested professionally. He writes, "In recently scholarly work, both rewriting history and telling stories about traditional figures have been drawn together into discussions of 'social memory'" (133). Already this is wrong. Social memory doesn't refer to either "rewriting history" or "telling stories about traditional figures," though both can be aspects of social memory. Barry Scwartz recently wrote,
"Social memory" refers to the distribution throughout society of individual knowledge, belief, feeling and moral judgement of the past as well as identification with past actors and events. Only individuals . . . possess the capacity to contemplate the past, but this does not mean that such capacity originates in the individual alone or can be explained solely on the basis of his or her experience. Individuals do not know the past singly; they know it with and against others situated in different groups, and through the knowledge and traditions that predecessors and contemporaries transmit to them. (Barry Schwartz, "What Difference Does the Medium Make?" in The Fourth Gospel in First-Century Media Culture [ESCO; LNTS 426; London: T&T Clark International, 2010], 225–38 [p. 231 quoted])

I know this sounds complicated, but the gist is that all of us are affected by social forces larger than our individual, personal identities as we remember the past, whether the past of our social groups (e.g., American history, Christian tradition, Western culture, etc.) or our own autobiographical pasts (e.g., my relationship with my wife and/or children, my personal experience of American citizenship, my religious testimony, etc.). The gap between Casey's rather myopic definition of social memory and the field of study that usually goes by the name is hard to overestimate. I once stood on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon; this seems roughly similar.

As a result, Casey very briefly summarizes the famous story in Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, in which Josephus is waxing eloquently about Solomon's divine wisdom and the exorcistic and therapeutic prowess he exhibited. As an example, Josephus tells the story of a first-century CE exorcist named Eleazar who followed one of Solomon's recipes for removing a demon. At the conclusion of the story, Casey writes,
This is an overt declaration that Josephus had made this non-biblical report about Solomon because of its importance in the world in which he himself lived. His whole account is a perfect example of 'social memory'. (134; my emphasis)

No, this isn't. Josephus's whole account is certainly an appropriate field in which to bring questions of social memory to bear; I suspect this story, and a number of others, would help bring to light "the distribution throughout society of individual knowledge, belief, feeling and moral judgement of the past as well as identification with past actors and events" (Schwartz, cited above). But Casey hasn't brought these questions to bear on the text, and I'm surprised that he seems to think that he has.

1 comment:

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