Baker Academic

Friday, November 29, 2013

The SBL Memory and Historical Jesus Session--Chris Keith

I thoroughly enjoyed participating in the Historical Jesus program unit session on social memory theory this past SBL alongside Rafael Rodriguez, Zeba Crook, and Paul Foster.  It was no doubt lively, as Foster accused me of being thin-skinned and I accused him of publicly shining his halo. 

To a large extent, though, I confess that it felt like two groups talking right past one another.  Someone on Facebook or the blog said we have different views of "history" and "truth" and I think this is accurate.  Rodriguez and I both gave overviews of social memory theory, arguing that it is not a replacement for historiography but has implications for it because it addresses the nature of "tradition."  Those implications are not insignificant, as they indicate to us that the game of historical Jesus studies as it has been played is broken; thus we are not interested in playing that particular game anymore.  We both believe that historical Jesus studies is still vibrant and possible, but we dismiss the attempt to quest after the historical Jesus by atomistic approaches to the tradition that attempt to separate the past and the present in the tradition too neatly.  Crook argued that experimental psychology indicates that memory distortion means that we cannot quest after the historical Jesus at all and are thus at a New No Quest.  Foster argued that Rafael and I are not doing historical Jesus research as defined by Meier, Crossan, Sanders, et al.  Jens Schroeter made a cameo from the audience, dropping some thunder from on high and reinforcing the point that social memory theory is not antithetical to historical critical research; rather, it provides hermeneutical perspective on what it means to transmit and write "history."

Like I said, it was a lot of two groups talking past one another.  This was perhaps especially true with regard to my and Foster's interactions.  I would say, "The old game is broken and we're not playing it anymore."  He would respond, "But you're not playing the old game."  These aren't verbatim quotations but it's certainly the gist and we seemed to move in more than one circle of this nature.  And this wasn't the only circle.  Rodriguez would say, "We only have interpretation."  Crook would respond, "That's the great postmodern cop-out."  Rodriguez would say, "It's not a cop-out if it's true."  And so it went....

The debate really crystallized for me in a series of interactions during Q&A, however, and I regret not pointing out their significance then.  Foster had earlier asked how social memory theory addresses the question of the saints rising from the tombs in Jerusalem in Matthew (the so-called Matthean zombies of Matt 27.52-53).  I said that, of course, I did not regard this as historical but that there is still a lot of historical information about the historical Jesus to be gained from the question "Why did Matthew commemorate Jesus in this manner?" rather than simply "Did this happen?"  In other words, we should still try to explain historically why Matthew thought what he did about Jesus because these thoughts are related to the historical Jesus in one form or another.  (This doesn't mean that they're automatically historically accurate; only that they're on an interpretive trajectory that started with Jesus' life.  Dale Allison has recently approached the temptation narratives similarly in his Constructing Jesus, and it's convincing to me.)  Paul was, of course, unsatisfied with this answer, saying that this is not historical Jesus research as defined by Meier, Crossan, Sanders, et al.  And he's right about this.  Rafael and I both said at the beginning of our presentations that we weren't doing business the way it's been done, and I agree with what Rafael said during the session--it was maddening that it seemed the debate never involved our proposals about the nature of the tradition but only whether this was old-school historical Jesus work, which we'd already said it wasn't.  Then, later in the discussion, Greg Monette, who provided the image attached to this post, asked Paul how he would deal with the Jerusalem saints.  Paul went on to make a series of comments that could have come straight from Bultmann's History of the Synoptic Tradition.  One of the first things out of Paul's mouth was, "Well, this is Matthean redaction, so this is the first issue" or something to that effect.  As far as I understood him, Paul's point was that since this seems to be the interpretive work of Matthew, this is one strike against the possibility that it's historically accurate.

This right here is where Rodriguez and I would disagree with Foster in terms of method and where Foster reveals himself as a historical positivist.  This approach assumes some historical baseline (Mark? Q?) from which Matthew has departed, and that by departing he has moved away from the historical truth.  "Matthean redaction" here then disqualifies the tradition in some way from historical Jesus discussion, or at least renders it suspect.  To say it again, such an approach is essentially still reflective of historical positivism because it assumes that there is some neutral historical baseline. 

In my opinion, though, Foster never really answered Greg's question.  He only made comments about the nature of the tradition.  But labelling something "redaction" only names the problem; it does not solve it.  For, what in the Gospels is not ultimately redaction?  What isn't the interpretive work of an author (or community)?  Once one strips away the redaction, what is it that is supposedly there?  These are rhetorical questions because there is no neutral historical baseline to be excavated.  Labelling something as the interpretive work of early Christians cannot rule something out of historical discussion because the interpetive work of early Christians is all that we have and all we've ever had . . . even for eyewitnesses.  More to the point, the interpretations are the only way that we can have the historical discussion at all.  From our perspectives, then, the interpretations of the evangelist are what enables the work of the historian, not what militates against it.  The historical work still must be done on any particular issue, and this is why, as Schroeter forcefully emphasised in the style of Thor among mere mortals, historical-critical discussion is not antithetical to memory approaches and actually works hand-in-hand with them.  "Memory" only gives a hermeneutical perspective on what it means to approach the past.  In other words, Rafael and I are both also interested in asking whether Jesus really did say or do things and believe we can, in many cases (but not all), come to firm conclusions.  We're just not naive about the nature of the Jesus tradition that we have to use in order to come to those conclusions. 

For example, and to answer the question about the Matthean zombies from a memory perspective, I would say that this stems from the author's (or "community's" if your prefer that) conviction that Jesus raised from the dead and thus inaugurated the expected end-time resurrection.  It's probably not historical and stems from their present beliefs and a scriptural lens BUT--and this is the important difference--those beliefs and the conviction that they should use a scriptural lens are themselves connected to the past and indicate that the historical Jesus did certain things (i.e., did and said things in the actual past) that lead some people in some circumstances to believe that he had inaugurated the end.  Those interpretations thus ask for us to commence the historical work of asking what types of things he could have said and done and how they might have been received by various audiences in various ways (that is, how different groups could have understood or misunderstood him) in order to lead to the convictions we see in Matthew's Gospel.  In short, and to repeat again, the interpretations allow us to commence asking questions about the historical Jesus.  But they do not predetermine our answers and scholarly proposals, which will inevitably be based on historical-critical argumentation in light of the socio-historical circumstances and judged by our peers as more or less plausible.  The important thing, though, is that a particular tradition need not and should not be exiled from the historical Jesus discussion altogether just because it's "redaction" . . . everything in the Gospels is "redaction" in one form or another.

I have little doubt that Foster would respond to this by saying that this isn't historical Jesus work as it's always been defined.  We would then agree, but assert that it's how historical Jesus work should have been defined and should now be defined.  He would line up Meier, Crossan, and perhaps Sanders behind him.  We would line up Hooker, Allison, and Schroeter behind us.  Like I said, it's largely two groups talking past one another and I really think it simply boils down to whether a given scholar believes he or she can uncover a historically neutral image of the past.  Rafael and I don't think a scholar can.  But we aren't paralyzed by this conviction or think, as does Zeb Crook, that we've entered a New No Quest.  We think this simply indicates that we need to be more sensitive to the nature of the tradition that we're using in putting our questions to it and to think more intricately about what it means to write "history" in the first place.


Note: all comments are moderated by an anonymous third party.