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
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)