Baker Academic

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Two Differing Points of Departure for Jesus and Memory - Le Donne

Yesterday I posted this reflection on the so-called (and perhaps misnamed) "Blow Up in Baltimore." My post basically questioned Paul Foster's conversational focus. I did also refer to Zeba Crook's paper indirectly. Zeb helpfully commented on this post regarding his thesis that memory studies leads to a new "No Quest" of Jesus research. I am quite happy that he chimed in because I think his comments reveal a great deal about our two different defaults.

Put simply: Zeb ends with the realization memory is problematic (at best) and "false" (at worst), and that people sometimes cannot tell the difference; whereas this realization is where I begin. He writes:

Thanks for this Anthony. Let me say a few things about my own paper.

a) I did not think of my Baltimore as a fortification of my previous paper. "New No Quest" was a new position for me, and what I did in my JSHJ paper was different.
b) I believe that Paul made the point in his response that his paper was *not about* the people he wasn't talking about. It was about Bauckham and Dunn (or whatever). My point here is that it's not fair to criticism people for what they do not argue. I can be faulted in my JSHJ article (and accepted the criticism) that "consensus" was hasty language. Chris objected that people who use memory theory aren't good memory theorists, and on this I'm sure he and Paul and I (and you Anthony) agree. But they are using memory theory, and as such they're fair targets. I say this more about my own work than Paul's, since I don't need to defend Paul.

c) I was asked to talk about how I feel memory theory intersects with HJ studies, and I presented my personal and emerging position. Again, Anthony, you assume that because I don't cite the scholars you name, or actually because I don't agree with them on every point, I haven't read them. I have read them. They didn't alter my growing pessimism about the Quest.

d) For example, I'm pretty sure I referred to "gist" memory in my paper. I don't see evidence that "gist" memory is more reliable than detail memory. Gist memory can be distorted beyond recognition too. So no, "gist memory" does not *necessarily* (or obviously) get us closer to historical material.

e) Neither in my opinion does triangulation, which is really just Multiple Independent Attestation combined with memory theory. It's a provocative idea, and not without its strengths.
I'd like to close with a re-iteration of my Baltimore paper, because it doesn't feel like (from what you wrote here) there I was understood. I said many many times there that what was driving me to the a no quest was NOT the belief that memory is hopelessly unreliable. It's that people are *unable to distinguish* between reliable and unreliable memory. That for me is the kicker. Then in my paper I presented 10 memories of Matthew, each of which he presents exactly like any other, but which some cannot possibly be actual memories of Jesus. Finally, my point was not that memory theory leaves us with nothing to say about Jesus. It's that it leaves us with more to say about his followers than him. I do not think that manufactured memories (of which there are many in Matthew) tell us anything about Jesus. They tell us about how his followers felt about him. That's valuable, but that's not the Quest for the historical Jesus any more. I am well aware some people disagree. That I don't agree with them doesn't mean I haven't read them.
My reply:
a) I quite appreciated the difference between your two essays. 
b) As you say, you cannot speak for Paul. 
c) If you have read the scholars that I mention and have simply chosen to neglect them, you've clearly under-appreciated their importance. Moreover, we will continue to disagree about your general representation of the field. 
d) Your suggestion of a dichotomy between "gist memory" and "detail memory" and your phrase "closer to historical material" deepens my suspicion that your default tends toward historical positivism. My guess is that this is precisely where our assumptions of what constitutes "historical Jesus" research diverge. 
e) Triangulation as I've adapted from Theissen and Winter and (yes, put in conversation with memory distortion patterns) does not get us "closer to historical material." It is valuable not in isolating an authentic core (cf. Multiple Independent Attestation), but in measuring trajectories of evolution from mnemonic pre-event orientations, through memory events (including "false" memory, however rare), to multiple and varying commemorative practices. 
Finally, my post above wasn't meant to take you on in a direct way (as opposed to my response to your JSHJ essay). I will say, however, that I don't think that a "No Quest" ever happened outside of Nazi Europe and is simply not possible in historical Jesus studies. One last point, it seems that your entrée into this discussion is focused heavily on a few studies that examine the most extreme possibilities of false memory. Most of the time (and the work of Ebbinghaus et al. should fill out any appeal to Loftus on this point) the qualifier "false" is not a helpful way to refer to memory. False memory does indeed happen. No doubt. Further, memory is only possible in a world of evolving intelligibility. So there is no memory that corresponds to the actual past in a way that engenders certainty. The positive element of this is that the continuity of memory distortion is the rule, not the exception (you wouldn't get this impression from Loftus et al.). And if memory is most often continuously intelligible, and if (a la Schudson) memory distortion moves in typical patterns, the evolution of memory can be charted. 
To say "people are *unable to distinguish* between reliable and unreliable memory" (as you do) and allow this notion to be the "kicker" is to become disinterested in a fascinating topic prematurely. I do hope that I was able to convey in my The Historiographical Jesus that there is much and more to be gained after the false dichotomies of historical positivism have been exposed. Any discussion of memory that ends with the realization that memory is distorted is superficial. This is only where the discussion begins for me.
My continued hope is that this conversation about Jesus and Memory is just beginning. I also hope that my conversation with Zeb is just beginning.


1 comment:

  1. "...I don't think that a "No Quest" ever happened outside of Nazi Europe...."

    Now there's a statement that I expect to be remembered in multiple ways.