Baker Academic

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 7)

Chapters 6 and 7 of Bart Ehrman's Jesus before the Gospels pursue a different topic than do previous chapters. The earlier chapters addressed, more or less, Jesus before the Gospels (that is, how scholars think the early Christians remembered and talked about Jesus in the decades between the life of Jesus and the writing of the Gospels). Here, however, Ehrman turns his focus onto the early Christian texts themselves—rather than what came before them—and describes them as collective memories of Jesus. Ehrman first discusses the Gospel of Mark (Chapter 6); he then addresses other, mostly later Christian texts in Chapter 7, with examples from within the canon (Gospel of John, Paul, Q, and Gospel of Matthew) as well as beyond the canon (Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Judas, Marcion, and Theodotus). But first, Ehrman begins Chapter 6 with a discussion of collective memory and mnemo-history.

The power of collective memory—or what Maurice Halbwachs called "the social frameworks of memory" (les cadres sociaux de la mémoir)—is largely invisible, as is the social construction of knowledge in general. We largely take the world in which we live for granted. That is, until we encounter another world, and we run smack into the existence of other ways of perceiving, interpreting, remembering, and responding to the real world. Rikki Watts, in his near-classic book, Isaiah's New Exodus in Mark, describes an experience of this when an American professor used the phrase, "Four score and seven years ago," which his (American) classmates recognized but he did not (see pp. 30–32). Ehrman describes a similarly disorienting experience when he moved to the American South in 1988 and encountered phrases such as "War of Northern Aggression" (pp. 227–28). Our social context performs a constitutive in determining how we remember the past (and even which past we remember!), and changes in that context do indeed often result in changes in the past one encounters in the present.

This gets us to the primary thesis of these two chapters, that each of the various Christian authors—whether or not their work(s) is/are included in the New Testament—remembers Jesus in ways that are determined by the history and current interests of whatever social group they belong to. Paul reflects communities that have no interest in the life or teaching of Jesus and really only care that Jesus died and was raised. Mark's community rejects any notion of the kingdom of God as present now but eagerly expects that it will be revealed in the very near future. John's community experienced or was experiencing a sharp conflict with the synagogue. And so on and so forth. These diverse situations of memory produce what Ehrman calls
"a kaleidoscopically varied set of images" of Jesus (p. 256), an image that I think could be useful for perceiving and interpreting the significances of Jesus among his early followers. I do think Ehrman over-emphasizes the significances of differences between the Gospels and other early Christian materials, and he exaggerates, I think, the causal connection between different textual images and different contexts of memory. Even so, "the kaleidoscopic memories of Jesus" is an image that I can work with.

But I want to focus on Ehrman's brief survey of collective memory research (especially the work of Halbwachs and Jan Assmann), which I think suffers from some pretty basic misunderstandings. Ehrman contrasts "episodic memory" (remember: "recalling things that happened to you personally"; p. 18) with collective memory; he says, "There are other kinds of memory, and one of them involves remembering the past of our society. For that reason, memory is studied not only by psychologists but also by social scientists—both the anthropologists interested in oral cultures . . . and sociologists who explore how memories of the past come to be constructed and discussed by various social groups" (p. 228). The next paragraph begins: "That different social groups 'remember' the past (not their personal past, but the past of their society) in different ways will make sense to anyone with a wide range of experience." This, unfortunately, is not what social (or collective) memory is, especially not in the stream which flows from Halbwachs's work. To be sure, Halbwachs was explicitly and programmatically concerned with the ways in which the memory of individuals depended on her social environment. In the preface to The Social Frameworks of Memory, Halbwachs begins with a possibly apocryphal anecdote of a young girl who was forcibly (?) removed from any social cues that might've helped her recall details even of her personal history. In fact, Halbwachs singles out "psychological treatises" for particular censure for thinking that individuals actually ever remember the past as individuals, as beings distinct from their social contexts:
One is rather astonished when reading psychological treatises that deal with memory to find that people are considered there as isolated beings. These make it appear that to understand our mental operations, we need to stick to individuals and first of all, to divide all the bonds which attach individuals to the society of their fellows. Yet it is in society that people normally acquire their memories. It is also in society that they recall, recognize, and localize their memories. (Halbwachs, Social Frameworks of Memory, 38; my emphasis)
In other words—and this is a point that many NT scholars miss—"social" or "collective memory" (I prefer the former) refers to a dynamic of memory as such and not to a particular kind of memory (i.e., not "the past of their society" as opposed to "their personal past"). Memory—not episodic memory or procedural memory or eyewitness memory or cultural memory; just memory, full-stop—is a social phenomenon, and it is constituted, conveyed, and transformed via social processes.

Ehrman actually recognizes this aspect of Halbwachs's work (which he calls a "rather radical claim"; p. 230) and summarizes it nicely (see pp. 230–33). So it is all the more unfortunately that Ehrman continues to draw such a stark distinction between accurate (or what he regularly calls "gist") memories, on one hand, and distorted memories on the other. Memory itself is subject to processes of selection, interpretation, communication, contestation, and evaluation. All of these are distorting forces (e.g., regarding "selection," why do we remember words and events leading up to Jesus' crucifixion but not the crucifixions of the two men next to him?), but these are also the forces that preserve and transmit memory across generations (e.g., the selection of Jesus' crucifixion as a meaningful event—and not the other two crucifixions that day—preserves traces of events that, otherwise, would be completely lost to us, as are, for example, any crucifixions that took place on the following Passover). Anthony Le Donne has called these "refractions" instead of "distortions," and for good reason. We read distortion pejoratively, akin to falsify, mar, or deface, like what Laszlo Toth did to Michelangelo's Pietà
in 1972. But in memory studies, distort doesn't necessarily have these negative connotations. Some distortions obscure, yes. But other distortions, like those perpetrated by the lenses of a telescope, provide clarity and focus. When scholars of memory say that memory does not provide access to the past as such but only to images of the past, they are not bemoaning the loss of some pristine truth and resigning themselves to make do with imperfect witnesses to the past. They are, instead, recognizing that all knowledge of the past—whether what an average person "knows" about her national history or what an historian researches in archival records—is only an approximation of the past.

So when Ehrman draws from collective memory research in order to articulate the claim that "the study of collective memory can tell us more about who is doing the remembering in the present than about the actual persons and events they are recalling from the past" (p. 241), he has not allowed the complexity of memory studies to sufficiently affect his understanding of the relationship between past and present, between traces and reconstruction, between identity and power. As a result, the program he pursues in these two chapters—viz., reading the texts as memorial records of the remembering communities' presents—is too simple. We cannot easily read texts and lift the circumstances of their present from their constructions of the past. Sometimes, the past is uncomfortable, even traumatically so. Sometimes, the past resists our will to remake it. And whether we find the past comforting or tortuous, we are constituted by the pasts we remember. This does not mean we can easily lift the past off of the texts we read; neither past nor present are easily distilled from the text.

We are nearly finished with our serial review. In one final post, I will summarize Ehrman's final chapter, "In Conclusion: A Paean to Memory" (which is less than seven pages long) and offer some concluding thoughts on the book as a whole. Continue to watch this space.

Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 1)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 2)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 3)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 4)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 5)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 6)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 7)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 8)


  1. Rikk E. Watts, not Rikki Watts :-)

    1. Danny: He goes by Rikk, but his name is Rikki E. Watts. I pay attention to this for two reasons: More broadly, people regularly misspell my name. More narrowly, my sister's name was Rikki (same spelling). ;-)

  2. Thanks so much for these reviews. As a very interested but total layperson, they are teaching me a lot.

    1. Thank you for this comment, unkleE. It's very helpful to hear that these posts are helpful to at least someone.

      Be well!!

  3. From what I've gathered from your reviews so far (which, if I may geek out for a moment, have been an absolute joy to read), it sounds like Ehrman is hammering a square peg into a round hole—sloppily using memory research as a way to arrive at conclusions he's already been arguing for years. I don't want to be uncharitable to Ehrman, but is that the impression you're getting from the book?

  4. It also sounds as though the tension in memory studies is not necessarily one between Christian apologists and those desiring to dismantle the historicity of Christian tradition (an accusation that has been leveled at proponents of social memory theory in the past) so much as it is a debate between two different philosophies regarding historical epistemology. Ehrman clearly holds to a more positivist attitude, hoping to uncover "what really happened," while social memory theorists argue that "what really happened" is never graspable by the historian; only an approximation of what happened via refracted memory is available to us. I suppose this means that social memory theorists would argue for a time of "no quest"?

  5. Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

    Dr. Ehrman suggests that, in Mark’s collective memory, John the Baptist was “the forerunner of one who was greater,” and not the “leader” or “teacher” of Jesus (245). It is my position that his account reinforces the gospels’ refraction (bending) of the most primitive memory:

    Mark 1:1-4, NRSV. 1 “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ (the Son of God). 2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah: ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way (Malachi 3:1a); 3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight (Isaiah 40:3).’ John the baptizer appeared in the (Judean) wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”

    This gospel unit is saying: (1) I am telling you the joyous story of Jesus the anointed one. (2) This is a story of the Lord (YHWH) coming to his people. (3) The story begins with Malachi and Isaiah. (4) Their foresight anticipated the “preparer” role of John the Baptist, an Elijah “type.” (cf. Malachi 4:5-6; Mark 9:13, “…Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased;” cf. Matthew 17:13).

    Memory Options: (1) Mark, familiar with Jewish culture, invented the story from his imagination and personal memory resources in reaction to the Roman pillage. (2) Mark has a memorial (oral and/or written) knowledge of the Jewish scriptures (cultural memory), and (3) writes down his own and/or his community’s memorialized interpretation of these scriptures (social/ communal memory). (4) He/his community ties the appearance of a preacher/baptizer, named John, to these scriptures (social/communal memory).

    Other considerations: (1) Among the gospels, only Mark uses the Malachi “prepare the way” quote. (2) Oddly, only Matthew and Luke align with Malachi’s fire imagery (Malachi 3:2, “For he (the “messenger”) is like a refiner’s fire…;” see Matthew 3:11-12, Luke 3:9, 17). (3) Only Matthew and Luke use JBap to proclaim a day of judgment by fire (4) All four gospels use the Isaiah quote. (5) All four use JBap as the one who “prepares” the people for “the one who is coming.” (6) Two gospels think of JBap as the return of Elijah, either implicitly (Mark 9:13) or explicitly (Matthew 17:13).

    And further: (7) The gospel writers only need ‘approximate description” in the Jewish scriptures to endorse them: (a) Mark changes the “I, my, me” of Malachi to “I, my, you, your;” (b) Matthew and Luke change the image of a purifying fire in Malachi to a destruction image of trees thrown into an unquenchable fire; (c) Curiously, in Malachi “the messenger” has the “fire” purification function of the “coming day,” and Elijah (John the Baptist) acts as the savior mediator “uniting the hearts of parents and children” (4:6) to ward off God’s wrath. To be true to Malachi, Matthew and Luke would need to give JBap the messenger’s function and Jesus Elijah’s function. (d) And all four are telling the story of the human being Jesus but don’t mind using a passage which literally equates Jesus with YHWH.

    So historical plausibly seems to rest, in this explanation, on three criterion: (1) Total gospel agreement: (a) A country preacher/ baptizer “prepared” for “one to come.” (b) The preparer was not the Elijah “type” in Malachi who unites the hearts of parents and children. (2) Substitution for a clear and obvious choice (which would be [b]): Matthew and Luke instead give the preparer a message which includes judgment fire imagery. (3) Total story consistency: “preparation of the way of the Lord” = John setting an example for Jesus of giving folks direct access to deity without resort to temple practices, cf. Mark 11:27-33 and //s. (contra Ehrman’s inferior “forerunner” image which accepts a severely refracted (bent) memory of “preparer” found in the gospels: Mark 1:7, Matt 3:11, Luke 3:16, John 1:27, “not worthy to untie his sandals.”).