Jesus Against the Scribal Elite

Friday, February 1, 2013

Cultural Memory and Secondhand Interpretation - Le Donne

In reply to this post, Bill asks:
1. Isn't "tradition" (the oral transmission of Gospel material) a *form* of social or collective memory? What's the crucial distinction here?
2. I agree that eyewitnesses are rarely perfect, and thus hardly proof of accuracy, but do you agree or disagree that first hand memory is generally more accurate than second or third hand information?
3. Same question as 2, but I want to say, "first hand journalism" instead of memory. Just for hypothetical grins.
The short answer to number one is that "tradition" is the default way to think about what we might call cultural memory. But this default position is a concept that is far too rigid to communicate how cultural memory functions within a society (or as it intersects with autobiographical memories). At the risk of oversimplifying, tradition (how biblical scholars use this concept) is a calcified and surface-level aspect of cultural memory. Tradition might not render explicit the standard ways of interpreting a culturally defining episode, for example. The concept of cultural memory allows much more fluidity and creativity into the discussion. Werner Kelber has suggested that we should just stop using the word "tradition" when it comes to the Gospels.  I'd like to keep it around a while longer, but point out the differences between tradition and cultural memory... as I kind of just did.

On Bill's second point, firsthand memory is very valuable and can have an authoritative affect within the sphere of communicative memory (Aleida Assmann suggests that communicative memory is one to three generations of "living" memory). But firsthand memory is not always better than secondhand memory. Sometimes, a secondhand interpreter can have a more compelling and more plausible understanding of a figure/event. For example, Sherlock Holmes. Holmes knows what to select from an eyewitness testimony and interpret it "better". Yes, fictional... but totally awesome. If you'd like real examples, one might point to reinterpretations of black soldiery in the civil war. It took generations for historians to do a passable job with this data.  Within the Gospels, Matthew sometimes renders an event more plausibly than Mark because he understands contemporary Jewish categories better (e.g. Jesus' procession into Jerusalem). Just a few examples.



  1. "I'd like to keep [ the term "tradition"] around a while longer, but point out the differences between tradition and cultural memory... as I kind of just did."

    Why? Or perhaps better, how can you identity the differences in the gospels?


    1. Hi Eric,

      Thanks for your question. I'm not sure that one is able to point out differences between memory and tradition in the Gospels themselves, as if the two were distinct categories. I'm not sure that one is a subset of the other either, although that might be a better way to think about it.

      The usefulness of cultural memory has more to do with the function of the text within the group for which it becomes an identity marker.

      Perhaps Chris will say more about the ways that texts functioned with primarily oral cultures in another post. Or perhaps he won't. He is sort of the Charlie Sheen of the New Testament world - you really can't predict what he's going to do next but you're pretty sure it will move the needle.

    2. That's the first time I've ever been referred to in Sheen-ish terms. I'm honored, I think. A post on texts in an oral culture would be good. For the time being, I think it's useful to think of texts as an instantiation of cultural memory; perhaps not a surface but a snapshot. Along these lines, I'd say another good analogy appears when one looks at the critical apparatus of a Greek NT. Clearly, the tradition, or memory for that matter, was greater than any one manifestation of it. I also like Jens Schroeter's reference along these lines to the Gospels being "receptions" of early Christian memory.

  2. Thanks for the reply. Though I need to catch up a bit on how cultural memory theory (or theories) is being used in NT studies, I'm down with the program. I just found it interesting that you'd want to keep "tradition," despite its baggage.

    That said, tradition as a stabilized (I think you said calcified) form of cultural memory, and so is a subset of cultural memory, makes sense to me. Might we think of "tradition" as something like an "official" account of a community's memory then? Something that reflects a particular, dominant subgroup's version of its history/identity, something that contests and is contested by rivals memories?

    I'm thinking here of postcolonial theorist Homi Bhabha's ideas about national identity and the difference between a "pedagogical" discourse (say, the narratives and rituals that make the news on 9/11 every year) and a "performative" discourse (the narratives that counter the idea that America became 'one' on that day by highlighting the continuing existence of racial and religious tensions, etc.) Or maybe that's too rigid or limited an idea of "tradition"?


  3. Thanks very much, Anthony. I am thrilled with your answer to point two, and for point one it seems you're saying the distinction is mainly about connotations and conversational trajectories within the guild, which makes sense.

    I had been thinking more in terms of strict meanings. It's amazing how often I still stumble over (read: overlook) the fact that the context for a lot of this is just *in house*.

    Anyway, I think I see now that equating "memory" with "tradition" could be a sly way for some to recycle old ideas in new terms, whereas you feel passionately that the new ideas are actually much more involved, and worth being explored in their own right.



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