Baker Academic

Monday, September 2, 2013

Ruben Zimmermann and the Motto for the New Historiography in Jesus Studies—Chris Keith

Anthony and I have both spent considerable effort in trying to articulate what, in our opinions, memory theory can and cannot bring to the historical Jesus table.  We have done this in monographs, articles, and even here on this blog.  In several personal conversations (admittedly sometimes with people whose passion exceeded their knowledge) I have been accused of being too far to the left (“Oh!  Everything’s ‘interpretation, interpretation’!  So there’s no history?”) and too far to the right (“Are you actually saying that you think we can know something about what really happened?”).  I’m sure Anthony’s had his own version of these conversations, as have many others.

At the core of these conversations is a disagreement over what constitutes “history” and thus the proper goal of historical work.  Everyone brings their own thoughts about these matters to the conversation, and I think that even Anthony and I would have some disagreements in the midst of substantial agreements.  Okay, I know we would—we absolutely go round and round over where one should stop in speculation about the past.  I think he’d agree with me, however, that Ruben Zimmermann has possibly provided the sound bite for what I have called the “new historiography” in Jesus studies.

In a 2011 article in Early Christianity, Zimmerman states, “Es gibt keine Historie jenseits des Textes.  Aber es gibt Historie durch den Text und als Text.”  For those who can’t speak or read German, or pretend like they can, this says, “There is no history on the other side of the text.  But there is history through the text and as text.”

Go forth and spread the good news.


  1. Well ... OK. But which text?

    So long as there's a single history behind the text, we have a basis to consider each text we have, and judge whether there's history "through" or history "as" that text. But if there's no history behind the text, then I don't think Zimmerman is right, or at least he's right only if we're lucky enough to select the right text(s), because if there's no history behind the text, I cannot see a basis for selecting which texts are infused with history, apart from faith.

    Moreover ... what's to stop us from taking history "through" and history "as", and juxtaposing it as the history "on the other side"? If we do this, then isn't Zimmerman wrong? If we don't do this, then haven't we replaced history with memory, or narrative?

    As Anthony encourages us (albeit in a different context) to "self-identify", I should say that I've pretty much bought into the idea of memory history at this point. I'm starting to think that there's no such thing as "history" in the sense that I used to use that term. In the spectrum of "left" and "right" as you've described it, I think I'm falling somewhere to the left. But I'm falling kicking and screaming.

  2. Larry, I think you've read a bit too much into the quotation. Zimmerman never assumes a one-to-one correlation between the text and history. He also doesn't assume that texts always reflect history. His point is that we CAN pursue historical questions by considering the texts as they stand and working with them in that state...rather than trying to reconstruct "get behind" the text. In other words, the only way to talk about what is (or isn't) behind the text is to acknowledge that you cannot get behind it. So the idea that memory does away with history is too hasty. Memory changes what we mean by "history" but doesn't do away with it.

    1. Chris, your critique of my comment is apt, but the problem I tried to raise still stands. If there is no way to get to the history behind the text, we have no standard against which to assess the history within the text. So, if I take my history of the historical Jesus from the Gospel of Thomas, and you take yours from the Gospel of Mark, we stand on roughly equal ground.

    2. Wary to step into the middle of an interesting debate, but here I go.

      Larry, you begin with "So long as there's a single history behind the text..."

      I'm not sure that I want to grant you this premise. Is there a "single history" behind the text? Or are there variously evolving perceptions emerging from a mnemonic sphere that will eventually relate dynamically in social discourse to become a plausible version of these perceptions?

      And I can do that while beatboxing too.


    3. Anthony, I have rarely been this frightened. On the second reading, I think I actually understood your comment. Worse, I think I agree with it. Guess it's time for me to say goodbye to polite society.

      This leaves me with the question Chris posed, though he didn't pose it as a question. Does memory do away with history? Chris says that memory redefines what we mean by history, but this redefinition is a radical one if we can no longer speak of "history" as a singular. There is a point where you CAN do away with something by redefining it.

    4. Really great question. There have been memory theorists who have argued that memory and history are two different animals. Halbwachs and Nora come to mind.

      I tend to think of history as a kind of commemorative activity, which places it under the umbrella of memory, I suppose.

      But it sounds like we're being a bit fuzzy here. History as a discipline is something different than (although related to) "history" as denotative of the "actual past".

      Are we speaking of the latter?


    5. Sorry for delay. Rosh Hashanah plus Shabbat = 3 days off the internet.

      I was reacting to Chris' quote, about there being no "history" on the other side of the text. Whatever we're speaking of as "history" is the meaning of the word used in the quote.

      The quote is confusing if what we're talking about is commemoration. Christians were engaged in commemoration from the earliest days after Jesus' death. "Do this in remembrance of me." This commemoration might predate anything we'd call Christian "text", even if we're willing to define "text" as something oral. We might see commemoration as emerging simultaneously with text. We might see history as consisting of text that intends or proposes commemoration.

      I don't know how to approach the quote if it uses "history" to mean the discipline. We may not like it, but historians have been looking (or trying to look) behind texts for quite some time.

      I guess that in the context of this quote, "history" means the stuff we're supposed to look at (or for) when we do history. I read the quote as saying, don't look for an "actual past", it isn't there. I read the quote as saying, whatever it is that history is, it's stuff found in text. The problem is, if history is solely sourced in text, if it is a purely textual commodity, then history is a literary quality, then there's no meaningful difference between "history" and "story", and it's unclear why we shouldn't leave history in the hands of literature scholars. If history exists independently of text, if an event can be said to have a history even before the event is written down (or embodied in a form of oral history), then there's history "behind" the text.

      Chris says I'm making too much of this. He's probably right. But there's something about where history is sourced, and how we judge what stories are historic, that's critical to the venture.

    6. Larry, you've created an unwarranted dichotomy here. Remember Zimmermann doesn't give us two categories, but three. I think that the category "through the text" is the interesting one. I (as a memory theorist) attempt to look through the text. After all, my approach attempts to advance the historical critical method, not make it disappear.

      I'm uncomfortable talking about history as "the stuff" (as you put it). Of course, you're at the mercy of the vocabulary used above.

      Keep in mind that we translate the German "Historie" into the English "History"... We also translate the German "Geschichte" as "History" too. Some German writers use these as synonyms, some don't. See my The Historiographical Jesus, pp.33–36 for more on this.


  3. I am starting to suffer from the phenomenon when you stare at a word too long and it starts to look like it's not spelled right.

    I was not reading "through" the text to mean something like looking "through" a window. I was reading "through" to indicate a quality of the text, sort of like "throughout".

    This is a crazy idea I have sometimes: even if we want to be thoroughly postmodern and imagine that there is no actual past, the project of history may depend either on our belief (or on someone else's belief) in the myth of an actual past. So even if we think of history as commemoration, I'm not sure that the commemoration can function unless the commemorators think that they're commemorating SOMETHING outside of the commemoration ... even if we theorists believe that the commemoration IS the thing worthy of focus. Same thing for memory: I don't know how memory works if we don't think that we've remembered SOMETHING that exists or existed outside of memory. If we reduce the "actual past" to stimuli that produces memory and provokes us to commemorate, where are we, exactly? Have we taken history and turned it into something like a behavior?