Baker Academic

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Paul Foster’s Provocative JSHJ Article—Chris Keith

The application of social memory in the Gospels has picked up steam in recent years.  As such, it was inevitable that critical assessments of it would emerge on the heels of critical applications of it.  Paul Foster has recently published a largely negative assessment of it in his essay “Memory, Orality, and the Fourth Gospel: Three Dead-Ends in Historical Jesus Research,” JSHJ 10 (2012): 191–227.  As many know, Foster is an immensely productive New Testament scholar as well as one of the genuinely nicest people you’ll meet.  I have great respect for him and like to think that I enjoy his friendship.  This essay is provocative, as I suspect it was designed to be, and as such gets some things right and some things wrong.  I’ll concentrate here just on the first section, which treats memory.  Regardless of your thoughts on this issue, you really do need to read the article.  Foster is never one to ignore.

Foster’s chief complaint is that memory theory is being used “as a means of validating the historical authenticity of the Gospels” (191).  He refers to it as a “trendy” way of “claiming the community memories of early believers provide reliable access to the historical Jesus” (193).  This point about “reliable access” and similar assertions is important to his complaint because he repeats it throughout this section (191, 193, 198, 202).  For Foster, memory theorists really aren’t doing anything that the form critics weren’t doing (202), despite the fact that they disparage the form critics (198).

Foster is right to complain about some scholars who simply assume that memory theory affirms the historicity of the Gospels.  As someone who has been working with social memory theory for over ten years now, I can say with utter confidence that the theory in and of itself does not directly address the historical reliability of the tradition.  The problem with memory theory is that there’s really no such thing as memory theory.  There are many types of memory theories (cognitive, cultural, social, collective, autobiographical), each with their own emphases.  And across the broad spectrum of scholars and disciplines participating in the discussion is any opinion you might want to find.  Want someone who says that memory is reliable?  There’s several sociologists who will be happy to demonstrate that to you.  Want someone who says that memory is unreliable?  There’s several social and cognitive psychologists who will be happy to demonstrate that to you.

Biblical critics, including Foster, can cherry-pick from all these sources, which is why I’m generally quite suspicious of any biblical scholar attempting to use memory theory whose footnotes are too thin.  At the end of the day, though, what social memory theory does is address the complex relationship between the present and the past in any event of commemoration.  It does not at the outset predetermine whether any act is more present or more past; each act must be assessed on its own.  In some cases, the past may force itself upon the present.  In other cases, the present may successfully re-write the past in its own image.  But there is no standard “way” that social memory works in this regard.  I’ve said this in print in at least four places, but apparently I need to take out a billboard.  The general point keeps getting lost in second-hand representations of the theory, and Foster’s assessment is not immune on this count, so it needs to be said emphatically:  Social memory theory does not inherently favor the historical reliability or historical unreliability of the Gospel tradition

It is not the business of the theory to do the work of the theorist.  Individual arguments by scholars are what establish historical reliability or unreliability.  Thus, although Foster is right to criticize those scholars who assume the theory supports the reliability of the Gospels, he’s wrong to assume that the theory necessarily speaks against them.  The theory (if it even is a theory) itself is simply a tool that addresses historiographical complexity.  The one who wields the tool must sort out that complexity. 

Furthermore, Foster participates in a recent trend of skewing the field in scholarly presentation by citing only those scholars who fit the author’s schema.  In this instance, Foster ignores scholars such as me, Rafael Rodriguez, Anthony Le Donne, et al., who employ social memory and conclude against the historicity of various traditions.  (He also ignores Philip Davies’ application of cultural memory theory to ancient Israel in Memories of Ancient Israel; hardly an apologetic tract!)  It simply is not the case that Gospels scholars employing social memory theory are myopically concerned with affirming the historicity of the tradition, but one would get this impression from the article and its repeated blanket statements that people use memory to verify the Gospels.  

This emphasis on the Gospels as a whole also misdirects the conversation since several of us have, in the midst of employing social memory, argued for historicity in some instances and against it in others.  Omitting these studies, as well as the crucially seminal work of Jens Schröter altogether, leads Foster to make inaccurate statements like, “It is notable that the current application of memory studies to the Jesus tradition most frequently remains embedded in the theoretical domain, with little attempt to show how the category of memory actually allows for specific traditions to be traced back to the Jesus of history.  Instead, the level of argument appears to have stalled with assertions that social memory validates the historicity of the events it purports to communicate” (198).  First, one sees again here the claim that what people using social memory theory assert is that it validates the historicity of the Gospels.  Some scholars do that; many do not.  And I know for sure that those of us who have been working with it for more than five or six years consider these applications to be a misappropriation of the theory.  (Alan Kirk has a forthcoming essay in a Semeia volume that addresses this very issue succinctly.)  Along these lines, the accusation that Tom Thatcher’s essay “Why John Wrote a Gospel” does not help with the historical Jesus (199) is a red herring; that essay never attempts to address the historical Jesus question.  Second, both I and Anthony Le Donne have done precisely what Foster says no one does in applying the theory to mutually exclusive images in the Gospels, and did so in monographs and, in my case, an earlier journal publication.  It simply is not true that scholars have not applied the method in this way.

A similar lack of familiarity with the discussion emerges in Foster’s claims that New Testament scholars employing social memory theory “do not appear to be cognizant of the fact that within the disciplines from which these theories are imported, the forms used as a break-through in New Testament studies are seen as being outmoded and largely flawed” (226; also 198).  Foster seems mainly to be talking about the scholars he has cited, but again he has cited a slim selection that fits his schema.  He has thus misrepresented not only the New Testament scholars employing memory theory but also the field of memory theory itself.  In terms of NT, he has not interacted with Le Donne or Schröter and has merely cited Kirk without interacting with his work, and I would say that these three, not Bauckham or even Allison for that matter, are by far and away the most important scholars using memory theory, along with Tom Thatcher and Rodriguez.  In terms of memory theory, he cites Halbwachs and mentions Schwartz briefly.  He does not, however, interact with the likes of Barbie Zelizer, Eviatar Zerubavel, Yael Zerubavel, Jan Assmann, Aleida Assmann, Paul Ricoeur, Jeffrey Olick, Michel Foucault, Eric Hobsbawm, Paul Connerton, Edward Schils, Pierre Nora, and many others.  The omissions of Schröter and Jan Assmann are particularly notable in this regard, as well as Nora.  Foster’s accusation that those who use memory theory aren’t aware of the field is incredibly ironic at this point.  Perhaps he’s right about Bauckham, but his criticisms ring entirely hollow for people like Kirk, Le Donne, Schröter, et al.

In short, although Foster is correct to criticize those scholars using memory theory for apologetic purposes, it is a mischaracterization of the field to say that’s the only thing people are interested in or to imply that those scholars are unwilling to conclude against reliability on the same basis.

In a similar fashion, Foster is both right and wrong about the relationship between form criticism and social memory theorists.  Form criticism has often functioned as the punching bag for those of us applying social memory theory, but I also know that I, Alan Kirk, Tom Thatcher, and Anthony Le Donne have, in print, stated that memory theory does not sweep away form criticism but rather addresses its weak points while building upon its strong points.  Form criticism’s focus on the impact of the present community is one of those strong points; its negligence of how what preceded the present community contributed to that community is a weak point.  Thus, despite the impression one would gain from Foster that form criticism and social memory theory are really just doing the same thing, it’s more the case that there’s significant overlap in addition to important distinction.  A serious distinction is that, as Foster recognizes, form criticism focused on the individual unit of tradition in isolation from narrative frameworks, positing a tradition-history of the unit as an isolated unit.  Social memory theory regards this as impossible:  a unit of tradition, whether “historical” or fabricated, never circulated in isolation from narrative frameworks, whether those were its Gospel narrative frameworks or other frameworks. 

Foster’s essay is important, and as an indication of this importance, just think about the fact that I’ve here addressed only the first third.  He has perceptively noted, and demonstrated, some of the illegitimate uses of social memory theory in New Testament scholarship.  My criticism, however, is that the situation is a bit—okay, a lot—more complex than Foster’s narrative indicates.  Michael Bird described Foster’s essay as a grenade in the playground of historical Jesus scholarship.  I’d say rather that it’s more like someone peeing on a corner of the playground.  That particular corner of the playground may have needed such treatment, but the playground is bigger than that corner.  Don’t take my word for it, though.  Go read the essay!


  1. It should be said here that Chris is underplaying his own contributions to the field. Even a glance at his Jesus' Literacy deconstructs the argument that "memory theory" has been used primarily to defend the reliability of the Gospels. Add to his voice the choir of Rodriguez, Kirk, Thatcher, Hearon, Huebenthal, Horsley, etc and you get a much wider spectrum of conclusions concerning "historicity". But aside from Schroeter and Thatcher, no NT person has published more on social memory theory than Chris Keith.

    See here:

  2. Chris, I've purchased the article, and read the portion of the article on memory theory. I'll need to read it again a few times, and I may change my mind ... but so far I am disappointed with it, and I think your review of this portion of the article is WAY too kind.

    Despite the tone of many of my comments here, I LIKE the application of memory theory to history. But I also see dangers in this approach, and near the top of my list is Foster's complaint, that memory theory (to an extent in its application, and to an extent just the fact of it) is being used in some circles as validation of the historicity of the Gospel accounts. I agree with you that in theory, memory can be used either to validate or to invalidate a historical tradition or narrative. But I sense a lot more validation than invalidation going on out there. I think that the lean towards validation is in part a reaction against the minimalist tendencies of traditional HJ scholars, but I think that even you and Anthony feed the lean towards validation in ways that are subtle and probably unintentional.

    I was hoping that Foster would talk about this "lean", and help me identify the reasons for the lean. In this, he failed completely IMHO. His primary focus is on Bauckham's "Jesus and the Eyewitnesses". I don't want to dismiss Bauckham out of hand, but I'll note Le Donne's characterization of Bauckham as the "black sheep" of the memory family, and Le Donne's statement that Bauckham might be "doing something entirely different" from the other leading names in this field.

    Foster looks secondarily at Allison's "Constructing Jesus", and I think this is a superior focal point for a critique of HJ memory theory. Unfortunately Foster does not offer any critique of Allison -- instead, as best as I can tell, Foster expresses agreement with Allison. My confusion here stems from my sense that Foster fails to understand Allison's work. For certain, Allison has a gloomy view of the fallibility of human memory, and Foster notes this with evident favor. But Foster fails to remark on what I think to be Allison's thesis, that the "gist" of HJ memory is a reliable (or at least, the most reliable) guide we have to the HJ. Instead, Foster reads Allison to state that memory reliability "is dependent on many other factors that may have had an impact on the way an event is remembered", and while this statement is probably true, it is also vague, useless when it comes to doing history and (I think) poorly represents what Allison wrote.

    I need to read the article again, because I'm struggling to figure out Foster's critique. But I sense a bigger problem, which is where Foster focused his critique. Foster misunderstood Bauckham as somehow representative of this field of study, and he misunderstood Allison altogether. I know that this sounds arrogant, coming as it does from a non-scholar, but I don't know what other conclusion to draw.

    1. Larry, I think you're right about his assessments of Bauckham and Allison. Also, you've put your finger on something important with the "lean" comment. I think some people suspect apologetic motives because social memory theory does offer the texts (what I have elsewhere called) a "methodological position of privilege." In other words, it suggests that you can't really just discard texts, even if on other grounds you regard them as unhistorical. As such, it re-centers the discussion on the texts themselves instead of what's "behind" them. I think some Christians like this move because they have regained the texts in talking about Jesus. Contrary to the apologists and the anti-apologetic naysayers, though, what one regains is not the text as direct (or, for Foster, "reliable") access to the past; you simply regain the text AS access, as the only access. This doesn't imply reliability. Rather, it asserts that these are simply the sources which one must use. Somehow, though, in some cases the assertion that "these are the sources we have to use" is misconstrued as "these are inherently good sources." The second statement is another issue, though.

    2. Chris, I'd love to see you and Anthony write more about the "lean". I've tried this morning to write where I think the "lean" is coming from, and I can't do it. Not yet anyway. You've done a better job than I was able to do, with your "methodological position of privilege". I also like Allison's move, where instead of some portion of the text being "authentic", nearly all of the text becomes "plausible". But I've understood from old-line historians like John Meier that the Gospel texts are the sources we have to use, so I think that this understanding alone does not explain the "lean". The "lean", if it exists, must be explained in terms of a general move towards seeing these texts as more reliable.

      Maybe the "lean" comes from a postmodernist acceptance of the plausibility of the entire memory tradition, combined with a modernist assertion that history objectively describes what happened.

      Maybe none of this would matter, if what we were studying was the historical Cleopatra. But our understanding of HJ impacts real-world questions of power and authority. Perhaps these questions fall outside of your area of responsibility, but I'm concerned about them.

    3. Larry, in my opinion, if we were studying the historical Cleopatra, the historiographical issues would be precisely the same. Studying Jesus is no different that anyone else in that regard. What is different is the modern faith, social, and political realities that relate to the discussion of Jesus.

  3. Hi Chris/Anthony - Terence Mournet here...I too take issue with Foster's summary treatment of my 'our' work - in which I mean work undertaken in our shared field. Since he covered my own work in the span of a few pages in his article I feel I am able to respond accordingly :-).

    Without taking time to go into detail here - among the many issues I have with his work is that he assumes that the motive behind inquiries such as mine (and Dunn's - even yours) - is to demonstrate historical reliability. That is, that the primary purpose of memory research/orality studies is to argue that we have old, reliable material. While I may indeed conclude that the Synoptics are in a position to convey accurate 'history' - that was not, and is still not, my goal for working through the JT through the lens of oral tradition/etc. (cf. my _Oral Tradition and Literary Dependency_). His assessment of the work of 'our' work misses the intended purpose of what (you?) have intended.

    I will be deconstructing Foster's argument in more detail as I am currently working on this material for my forthcoming IVPAcademic book on the origins of the JT...

    Peace- and I look forward to seeing the both of you at the next conference or similar venue.

    1. Terence, thanks for your comment. I wish it were otherwise, but I have often wondered myself if people (whether Foster or not) are responding to what they assume we're up to rather than what we say we're up to.

  4. Chris, I'd like to emphasize that I'm a nice guy, and that my dog would like me if I had a dog. But Foster's article gets worse each time I read it. I'm thinking of Mark Twain's comment about the operas of Wagner, that they're not as bad as they sound. There's probably some depth and wisdom in Foster's analysis of "The Remembered Jesus" that I'm failing to catch.

    But it seems like he's set up a straw man, not only in his choice of Bauckham, but in his assertion that practitioners of memory-history think they have "reliable access" to HJ. At one point he argues that memory does not give "unadulterated access to an immutable past". Whoever imagined that such access is possible? Or for that matter, who imagines an "immutable past"?

    Foster also argues that the practitioners of memory-history aren't up on the latest results in psychological research. Yet Foster puts forth nothing in his discussion of this research that I didn't already learn by reading Le Donne and Allison. When Foster says (197) that memory provides "no implicit access to the objective reality of past events", doesn't that sound like a quote from Le Donne's "little buch"?

    The oddest business in Foster's article is his claim that the proponents of memory-history have at their disposal "at best a hypothetical assertion" (198). What does this mean? At one point, Foster criticizes Bauckham for proposing a historical model that "is actually unverifiable" (195), as if the problem with Bauckham is that he failed to engage in double-blind studies. I wouldn't be snarky like this, except that Foster later praises the form critics because they applied their theories "to test the formation and historical genealogy of the traditions contained in the Gospels." (198) Test them how?

    On closer reading, Foster might not be criticizing you and Anthony for failing to do lab work. Instead, Foster might be claiming that you don't apply your theories to the texts. Unfortunately, that doesn't make Foster's claim any less preposterous to me. Foster writes that there have been "a few fleeting attempts to apply the hypothesis of social memory to early Christian texts", and he cites one article by Thatcher. I don't know what to say, particularly since Foster has read Allison. Is Allison's book a "fleeting attempt" to understand HJ in light of social memory, or is Foster claiming that Allison's work is based on some other form of memory?

    Let me be clear. I understand the huge gap that exists between professional scholars and people like me. I'm certain that Foster knows much more about this subject than I do, and I suspect that he's also smarter than me, and probably better looking. I'll also reiterate how much I'm looking forward to a sound and thorough critique of the use of memory in HJ studies. With all this said ... well, I guess I just don't get it, because I don't understand how a respected scholar could write this sort of thing, or why a respected publication would put it into print.

    1. I think that you're dead wrong Larry. I would guess that there are very few people smarter than you. I cannot imagine "moonlighting" in the field of law (although I do have Bruce Willis' hairline) as you do in the field of historical Jesus study.

      And while I'm scratching your back, I might as well scratch my own. In my monograph on the subject, I spend half of the book dealing with NT texts to avoid the very criticism that Foster levels. Moreover my conclusions about the "Son of David" passages do square with the whole "reliable access" accusation.


    2. Anthony, thanks! But seriously, there's a major difference between being a scholar and pretending like I do to carry on like one. Someone here posted about 50 works one would have to read in order to claim basic knowledge about memory studies, and I think I may have read three of them.

      Also, the only thing standing in the way of your being a decent lawyer, outside of the laws we've established to give ourselves a monopoly, is liability insurance.

    3. About that last line, y'know, sometimes even my compliments come out sounding snarky.

    4. Larry, we're sure you're a nice guy! I think you have a pretty perceptive assessment of the essay.

  5. Many thanks for this fascinating post, Chris. I look forward to reading Paul's article. I would be interested to hear Paul's response to your critique, perhaps here or in a guest post?

    1. Thanks, Mark. I invited Paul to comment. We'd be happy for him to have a guest post as well.

  6. Have you thought about submitting your own follow-up article to Foster in JSHJ? I enjoy those type of dialogue articles in journals

  7. Thanks for this very helpful post in responding to some of the critiques and listing several of the scholars involved in social memory research. Since some may see the rejection of the HJ criteria in favour of this newer approach as a way to avoid the tricky issue of ruling any of the tradition "inauthentic" in perhaps some theological contexts, I also appreciate some of your clarifications above. I have called attention to your post and continued the debate at

  8. How can we know what Jesus did in his childhood ?

    All 4 canonical Gospels do not say anything about his childhood.

    Infancy Gospel of Thomas is one such Gospel which portrays the miracles what Jesus in his childhood but scholars reject it as a 2nd century pseudoepigraphia.

    Professor Keith can the application of social memory to other Gospels outside the 4 canonical Gospels bring out other things which Jesus could have done , for example what he did in his childhood ?

  9. Anonymous,
    In answer to your first question, I don't really think we can know much at all about Jesus' childhood in detail. The argument I've forwarded is that all the sources relate in one way or another to the historical Jesus; not that they all relate in the same way. In the case of Inf. Gos. Thom. (which I have treated in this regard in Jesus' Literacy 161-163), the question isn't "Does this second-century source give us direct access to the historical Jesus?" It doesn't. If anything, it gives us access to how second-century Christians creatively received and supplemented the Gospel traditions from the first century. So the important question is "What made Christians in the second century willing to believe these things about Jesus?" A crucial part of that answer involves their reception of first-century receptions of Jesus, and a crucial part of why first-century Christians were willing to believe things about Jesus relates to the historical Jesus. The point is that the historical Jesus set interpretations in motion that placed parameters on how he would be received. It doesn't mean that all subsequent receptions are historically accurate, but that they are somewhere along this trajectory (a word academics despise) that starts with Jesus himself.