Baker Academic

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Impact of Memory: A Few Thoughts about Jesus Remembered - Le Donne

In a comment to my post on “memory” in Jesus research, Bobby Gerringer writes:
I note that memory studies applied to the Gospels seem to omit a due emphasis on the intentionality of the rabbi-disciple relationship of Jesus and the apostles. 
It is one thing to merely remember and another to be taught to remember, with a delegated -- and sacred -- task of conveying to others what is remembered. 
The generality of memory, in contrast with neglect of details, may have characterized the method of the rabbi as well as the character of memory generally.
First, I’d like to thank Bobby for his comment as it allows me to make a point about Dunn’s emphasis on the “impact” of memory. My reply to Bobby reads:
The point you are making is made in a very compelling way by Dunn in his Jesus Remembered. Jimmy emphasizes the impact of sacred memory. He speaks of it as the "life blood" of the disciples. It is the force of impact that made Jesus memorable, and worth remembering - thus it is not casual memory that we're talking about.

Further to this reply, I should also point out Dunn’s chapter in this book where he strongly criticizes the model of “social memory”. Here are a few quotes that relate to Bobby’s observation:
…the fact that Jesus was commonly recognized, both by his contemporaries and his disciples, as a teacher. The very term implies a deliberate and structured impartation of knowledge and wisdom, and a concern on the part of both teacher and taught that the teaching be remembered and become part of the disciples repertoire and resource in the practice of their discipleship. In an oral society remembering would be the primary means by which the individual disciple could retain and be able to draw upon teaching in the future (“Social Memory and the Oral Jesus Tradition”, p.185).
Dunn concludes:
According to D. Ben-Amos and L. Weissberg, ‘Tradition is finally nothing but deformed memory’ [Cultural Memory and the Construction of Identity, p. 15]. That seems to me to overemphasize the creative character of remembering as a whole. More to the point here, however, the dictum fails to take account of the considerations marshalled above: of how tradition functions in an oral society; of how repeated instruction can shape a life and become the life-blood of a community; of how tradition can serve as the actively continuing expression of a transforming encounter with the one remembered… (“Social Memory and the Oral Jesus Tradition”, p.193).
While I am a strong advocate for an adapted form of "social memory theory", I have also tried to take Dunn seriously in my own work in terms of the "impact" of memory. The jury is still out on whether or not I've done so with any success. I remember an early draft I wrote of a chapter for the same book. This was the first time that a memory theorist applied the concept of "memory distortion" to the Jesus tradition. I wrote something like "here I follow Dunn in emphasizing the 'impact' of memory"... Jimmy looked over this draft and wrote in the margin, "NOT SO FAR, YOU DON'T!" Those were fun days.

Here is my point: I agree that significant memories serve a different purpose than casual memories, and our brains function differently when there is emotion attached to a memory. But this is not to say that there is any less focus employed to retain what is important about the memory. Perhaps (probably?) even more focus is employed. If so, we have a case of heightened memory "selection" and even more motive to continue to make the memory intelligible in commemorative frameworks (in this case, sacred frameworks). This is why I argue that the more significant the memory is, the more it will be subject to interpretation.

This is not to say that the person behind the memory does not have a large say in the way his/her memory is refracted by subsequent generations.



  1. I have three questions:

    (1) Isn't there a great deal of difference between memories that are "significant" and memories -- in the form of both "doctrine" and demonstrated actions -- that were intentionally framed in order to be remembered?

    (2) Doesn't the element of Lordship and eschatalogical finality in the person and teaching of Jesus -- both of which are preserved in the Gospels and letters -- elevate the level of soundness in the memories of the apostolic churches and their immediate successors? (This would add a fourth qualitative measure, ranging from (a) mere memories to (b) significant memories to (c) intentional didactic memories to (d) intentional (let's say) Dominical memories. (The latter would place the memory of Jesus in the early church in a category of its own.)

    What evidence do you offer that "the more significant the memory is, the more it will be subject to interpretation" -- especially when the teacher who is remembered has communicated emphatically his own interpretation? (Cannot Paul's statements in 1 Corinthians 7:10-12 be taken as evidence that apostolic practice saw a clear distinction between what Jesus talked about -- that is remembered with clarity -- and contemporary situations he did not address in "sacred frameworks?")

  2. Studies show that memory is fleeting and it is almost impossible for the human brain to accurately recall details after all but a shsort period of time. This is illustrated in testimony in court cases.

    So people with a so-called "high" view of scripture want to argue that the biblical writings reflect an unusual level of accurate memory because: 1) devout people would have more and more accurate memory of what their master said, as 2) they lived in a time when people were trained to remember more (maybe since they could not rely on writings?).

    The problem with all that is that it is highly speculative in theory an impossible to prove in the specifics. Put simply, it is wishful thinking on the part of people who want to believe a certain way.

    The evidence that recollections about Jesus are not likely to be unusually accurate includes the differences in the recollections about events and sayings in the New Testament.

  3. My view of Jesus, as an uneducated rural Jew, would prevent him to be (and considered) a teacher. Therefore his message was very limited and he probably repeated same (short but well received) sayings to different audience. That would facilitate, for the ones close to him, the remembrance of those few sayings.

  4. I agree that not all memories are treated the same by our brains. The more "significant" memories are often consciously reflected upon more and are reinterpreted more than "casual" memories. I believe that a person has some control over which memories they focus on and think about. However, some part of memory reinterpretation is out of our control. Sometimes the external environment and situations influence the way we think and what we think about in such a manner that is out of our control. Sometimes things will happen that will evoke a particular memory that we otherwise would not have thought about.

  5. I agree that we have memory "selection." Some choose to completely block out memories, I know that can be the case for most victims of sexual assault and things of that nature. For some, holding on to a specific memory might depend more on whether the memory is associated with happy or sad feelings. For me, one of my best memories is connected with the pain I felt when I broke my back while riding my horse. I remember everything I did at the moment, what I was thinking in my head as the flew off, and being in the hospital.