Baker Academic

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

My Reply to Zeba Crook - Le Donne

A while back I posted about my response to Zeba Crook's JSHJ essay. If you're signed up for (free), you can have a look at it here.  (Content removed for legal reasons.) Today Dr. Crook responded:
In fact, no he does not have a "beef" even "to a lesser extent" with Allison (as the short rejoinder makes clear), nor does he come close to placing Allison in the same category as McIver (in any way other than an interest in the gist of Jesus). And nor, does he refer to Le Donne as "conservative." And no less, Le Donne is complimented and set apart from the other repeatedly in the article. Sorry folks, no irony here.
Zeb, thanks for checking in. To provide a bit of context, I'll paste your abstract:
Crook Abstract
Memory theory is being used, if not explicitly to buttress the reliability of the gospel portraits of Jesus, to do so implicitly by shifting the search away from the ipsissima verba Jesu toward the memory of Jesus. Rather than argue about what Jesus did not or did not say – the reliability wars – scholars now sidestep the issue by arguing that memory is inherently reliable in a broad or general way. Thus, the gospels are reliable not at the level of detail, but at the level of broad memory, impact, or gist. In this paper I argue that such optimism can only come by selectively quoting the troubling work of memory theorists, and by ignoring the full implications of memory theory.
and mine:
Le Donne Abstract
Zeba  Crook  argues  that  there  is  an  emerging  consensus  that  the  Gospels  are reliable historical narratives by those to have applied ‘memory’ theories to historical Jesus research. Crook argues that this emerging consensus betrays a selective reading of research done on ‘memory distortion’ in interdisciplinary study. This essay demonstrates that Crook misunderstands and misrepresents social memory theory both in and outside Jesus studies. A better understanding would have properly represented the spectrum from theoretical ‘presentism’ to ‘continuitism’ in memory applications/adaptations.
I do thank you for the kind words you say about my book in your essay. It does seem, however, that throughout your essay you refer to "conservative scholars" generally. As I am your chief conversation partner in this essay and you take issue with my use of the word "reliable", I could not help but understand the phrase "reliability wars" to be suggestive of warring camps.  I would be interested to know: who are these warring camps in your estimation?

As to your treatment of Dale Allison, I'll stick by what I wrote (pp.90-92) in the essay:

In addition to injudicious selectivity in his works cited, Crook only selectively represents the voices that he engages. I will demonstrate this by using two recent quotations from Dale Allison. I use these quotations because Allison is listed by Crook as a scholar who has used ‘memory theory’ to support the idea that a general impression was left by Jesus and that this impression is probably represented in the Gospels. Crook suggests that Allison might be unwittingly contributing to ‘the emerging  sense  of  optimism’  among  Jesus scholars.  In  Crook’s  summation, Allison argues that it is ‘reasonable to think that there were some reliable memories of Jesus’ mission and character’. Crook then suggests that Allison is leaning too hard toward the ‘reliability’ of the Gospels. Compare Crook’s summation with the opening line of Constructing Jesus: ‘The frailty of human memory should distress all who quest for the so-called historical Jesus’. Allison spends the next ten pages enumerating and detailing the nature of human frailty. This heavily footnoted lament cannot be reproduced here, but in a recent publication Allison summarizes:
[T]he quest for the historical Jesus is essentially an endeavor to recover accurate human memories. So I wondered what I would learn if I spent some time in the recent scientific literature on cognition. When I finally found time to undertake the task, I quickly became dismayed. Human witnesses, it turns out, habitually misremember. Memory is reconstructive as well as reproductive and so involves imagination. It deteriorates over time. It is typically a function of self-interest. It is sculpted by narrative conventions. It regularly moves events forward and backward in time. It is altered by post-event information. And it recurrently often assimilates to present circumstances…  The  facts,  if  one  looks  into  them  with  an  open  mind, are sobering, and I take them to be of considerable importance for our discipline. They require for instance some skepticism about our sources, none of which can be immune to the systematic sins of human memory… Another upshot of the fuzzy nature of human memory is that we have even more reason to be skeptical of the simplistic distinction between the authentic and the inauthentic.
If, as Crook suggests, Allison returns to an optimistic position in Constructing Jesus, this optimism is so understated that it has been lost on almost every reviewer. Crook suggests that Allison would do better to consider the possibility that the Gospels are entirely fabricated. But consider this statement by Allison toward the end of Constructing Jesus:

Have we made an analogous mistake with the Gospels, failing to get their genre right?… [P]erhaps light fiction is also the category into which we should  place  the  Gospels.  In  recent  years,  several  scholars  have  called attention to the possible affiliations between the canonical Gospels and Hellenistic romance, or between the Gospels and Homer. It is perhaps too early to know whether this recent take on the Gospels will lead to a dead end or to a new world of profitable discourse. In the latter case, we will have to rethink much, and perhaps the proposition that the Gospels contain in part or in whole ‘purely metaphorical narratives’ will become not just credible but blindingly obvious.  
So,  contrary  to  Crook’s  suggestion,  Allison  does  indeed  consider  the possibility that the Gospels are entirely fictitious, but Crook gives us no indication of this. In this section, Allison cites Axel Knauf, Richard I. Pervo, Dennis MacDonald, Clare K. Rothschild, Thomas E. Phillips and Olav Sandnes. One does not need to agree with Allison’s suggestion to recognize his judicious consideration of this topic. In contrast, Crook’s comparative treatments of the Ned Ludd tradition and the ritual abuse media coverage in the 1980s cite none of these works. Crook puts forth his thesis citing only Arthur Droge in a single publication. Is no other New Testament scholar  worth  noting?  More  to  the  point  of  this  section,  Crook  fails  to mention Allison’s contribution to this topic and then suggests that Allison might not have considered it. I will leave it to the reader to decide whether or not Allison’s view concerning the reliability of memory and the content of the Gospels is overly optimistic. But I think not. Crook has cast Allison in an optimistic light by association and by ignoring the gist of Allison’s argument. Crook’s selectivity cannot be considered judicious in this case.



  1. I wrote, then deleted, a long tongue-in-cheek comment where I tried to defend the concern expressed by Crook, but not the way he expressed his concern. But I wonder whether Crook is thinking what I am thinking: the so-called Third Quest took a criteria-based approach to create the most pro-Jewish history of Jesus seen to date. One way this happened was that Third Quest historians used criteria to declare as inauthentic Gospel passages like Matthew 27:25 (a passage cited by Crook in his rebuttal) that have been used to justify persecution of Jews.

    I'm a postmodernist, and I see major problems with the criteria-based approach, but I'm not sure it's "good for the Jews" to see 27:25 classified as a "reliable" memory. While I fully understanding that "reliable" does not necessarily mean that there was an event corresponding to 27:25 that actually happened the way it was remembered, I doubt that this subtlety is clear to everyone. Pardon me If I'm not satisfied by anything less than a wooden stake driven through the heart of 27:25.

    1. Larry, I like that we've reached the stage in our relationship where you not only post a comment, but you also post about what you almost commented.


    2. further to the previous, I need a ride to airport and help moving. Are you free Sunday?

    3. If that's what you ask for when you comment, I'd hate to be asked for the things you almost commented.

  2. Anthony, I really enjoyed reading your article on as I don't have online access to the latest volume of the JSHJ. I found your method interesting, and at the risk of misrepresenting you since I have not had the chance to read your monograph, it struck me as a much more sophisticated form of the criterion of multiple attestation. That is, you recognize that we cannot get beyond how Jesus was perceived by those who remembered him but, if we can see the refraction or distortion of memory in textual traditions that are truly independent, we can trace back how the memory may have developed on a trajectory to the memory refractions of earlier communities of Jesus followers. Would that be on the right track or would you want to distance yourself from that as part of the older criteria-based approach?

    1. Mike, thank you for looking to the heart of my thesis and asking for clarification. You have no idea what a relief it is to discuss the primary focus of my work rather than peripheral issues.

      I will have to address your question in an independent post. Soon...


  3. Let me offer a summary of the relevant sections my article, because it seems to have been lost in your exclusive focus how I cite my sources and my treatment of Allison.

    • Pp. 53-56 = the advent of memory studies and orality as a significant advance in HJ studies;

    • Pp. 56-58 = description of the new emphasis on the “gist” of Jesus’ teaching. In this section, in which Allison is named with others I have barely a critical thing to say. IN FACT, at the end of the second, I call this shift in emphasis “a timely and significant advance.” I think average readers would take that as agreement. This is especially the case since in the next independent clause of the same sentence I say: HOWEVER, this shift “is also often accompanied by a concomitant rhetorical shift.” In other words, I am contrasting what just came (which is good) with what follows (which is not): use of memory to make claims about reliability.

    • Pp. 58-64 = my section on those using memory theory to support the natural or inherent reliability of memory. Note, Allison is NOT named in this section, in which I name many prominent NT scholars who unabashedly use memory theory to support the reliability of the gospels. I name you, Anthony, as a complicated case. I find your little Jesus book goes in both directions. But oddly, I don’t associate Allison with the problematic claims about memory’s reliability. That’s because I don’t actually think Allison makes these claims, and consistent with that belief, I don’t say he thinks so.

    • Pp. 64-67 discusses memory distortion.

    • Pp. 67-70 discusses the Luddites. Here, finally comes my second reference to Allison in the whole article (n. 61). Here I acknowledge his claim that some things in the gospels must go back to the HJ is reasonable (because I can’t help thinking the same thing), but I merely wonder out loud what the Luddite biographical details does to *our* shared sense that something must go back to Jesus. I do not use the words that Allison would “do better” to consider the possibility of wholesale fiction because I am not critiquing Allison’s approach. It is reasonable, I am sympathetic, but I wonder whether the Luddite material offers a chilling analogy.

    • Concerning the lengthy quote you provide from a “recent publication” of Allison’s, can I assume this is from his essay in your edited volume (Demise of the Criteria)? The one that was published AFTER my article was written and accepted for publication?

    All this to illustrate, as I’ve said in print and in blog comment, that I do not subject Allison to unfair criticism because I do not subject him to criticism at all. And yet I am charged with injudicious reading.

    Regarding your questions: I see the warring camps to be the Jesus Seminar types (liberal, skeptical) and the Evangelical types (conservative, traditional, inerrantists). Before memory theory came along, these were the two camps in HJ studies (two extremes, really, with everyone else falling in between).

    Question two: I know of no other NT scholars who have drawn analogies between early Christians and Luddites. Hence I was unable to cite other scholars doing so. Droge's work was and remains cutting edge. What else can I say?

  4. Zeb, I think Anthony is without internet for a couple days, but I thought I might interject a comment of my own. I won't add anymore about your article, but after reading your response to Anthony's rebuttal and this post, I think that those expecting some memory showdown at SBL this year in our session are going to be disappointed. I'm sure we'll have an interesting conversation, but if your main point is that the extremes of these warring camps are misapplying memory theory, I agree entirely.

  5. Anthony is in HELL?! How awful ;) I don't want a showdown with Anthony. I want to have a beer with him. You can buy!