Baker Academic

Monday, December 2, 2013

Jens Schröter Weighs In, Giving Further Reason to Buy and Read his From Jesus to the New Testament—Chris Keith

During the Q&A of the Memory and Historical Jesus session at the SBL, Jens Schröter stood up and argued forcefully that “memory” is not antithetical to historical-critical research.  It is rather, he said, a hermeneutical perspective on what it means to approach the past.  In this context, he noted the contributions from Koselleck, Droysen, and Collingwood on what it means to write “history.”

Now, to defend myself slightly (I’ll let the others defend themselves), I want to make clear that I was asked to speak specifically on social memory theory, which begins with the work of Halbwachs in the twentieth century.  This is why I did not bother to go earlier and did not discuss, for example, Nietzsche either.  But Jens’s point is entirely correct and it was a missing element of the discussion.  I followed up on email with him and thought I’d put his comments here, with his permission of course:

Dear Chris,
I must confess that I was quite disappointed with the session on Monday. From my view, the specific contribution of memory (“Erinnerung”), at least as I would define it, to historical criticism was not made clear.  For me, the criticism that memory theory is not historical-critical research was useless because I have never and would never defend a view that claims they are the same. In my perspective, the category “Erinnerung” was never meant to replace or to question the meaning of historical criticism. I would also never argue that every kind of “memory” (i.e. every story about Jesus in the Gospels or other early Christian literature) is of the same value because it is some sort of “Jesus memory.” Also not clear in the discussion is how one has to distinguish between different stories about Jesus in early Christianity. Of course, individual and also collective memory can be distorted, but this is another usage of the category. For me the decisive point is that “Erinnerung” is a hermeneutical paradigm that makes us aware that every image of the past is in need of interpretation and historical imagination. That is true for ancient as well as for modern historical-critical Jesus accounts. As Koselleck puts it: “The sources hinder us to make certain claims about the past, but they do not tell us what we have to say.” This is what he calls the “power of veto” of the sources. In interpreting the sources, creating images of figures and composing narratives of the past we need imagination (“Einbildungskraft”) as Collingwood calls it or interpretation as Droysen puts it. Therefore, “Erinnerung” can never replace historical critical evaluation of the remains of the past. But it can make us aware that it is always our picture of the past and therefore an inextricable combination of present and past. Thereby, it is self-evident that since the rise of historical criticism we have to evaluate the sources critically. But with this undertaking we will never get behind the sources but always create our own image of the past, influenced by our own cultural values, our knowledge of the sources and our questions that we bring to the sources.

What was especially disappointing for me in the session was that this hermeneutical discussion, present in English, French and German speaking research since the 19th century, did not play any role. Therefore, the importance of “memory,” understood against this background, for hermeneutical and historiographical discussions about Jesus and early Christianity today, was not made clear.

All Jesus portraits are based on interpretation, combination of the remains from the past and historical imagination, because – here I repeat myself – the sources do not tell us what we have to say because they are not themselves the past and critical evaluation does not lead by itself to an image of the past. I have used the term “Erinnerung” especially for this mixture of present and past that characterizes all accounts or images of figures and events of the past – ancient and modern alike, although ancient historians worked under different epistemological presuppositions and with other methodological tools than modern scholars

Jens’s comments are important for at least two reasons.  First, he is entirely right that we overlooked the significance of “memory” for what it means in our historical work today in our (i.e., my and Rafael’s) attempts to explain what it meant for the ancient authors as “historians.”  To put his point in language he uses elsewhere, we are of course never getting “behind” the sources.  We are rather re-presenting the sources and narrativizing what could have been.  Indeed, the remains of the past only become “sources” in the process of narrativizing (see below).  In other words, even after historical criticism does its work of critically examining those remains, the remains do not offer explanations of themselves automatically.  The historian must weave a narrative of possible past reality that necessarily draws upon his or her own historical imagination and incorporates the remains of the past.

Second, it’s clear to me now that one stumbling block in the discussion has been the slippery nature of the word “memory.”  I am, for example, quite willing to refer to the infancy Gospels of the second century as “Jesus memory” as well as the first-century Gospels as “Jesus memory” even though I would treat these texts differently in terms of historiography.  And I do not think this is illegitimate because of the similarities in the transmission process.  (Jens tells me he agrees with this point.)  Both represent the past in light of the present, and this is the core insight of social memory theory and theories of history alike—memory is always a presentation of the past on behalf of and in light of the present.  But, as I said, this does not mean that we treat the late second-century infancy Gospels and the first-century Gospels the same historiographically.  Both are receptions of the “past” in their respective presents, but the past that the infancy Gospels receive is mainly the first-century texts.  They simultaneously provide both constraints and the basis for innovation; that is, they attempt to fill in gaps in the Jesus story but do so with familiar interpretive perspectives.  Thus, for example, the innovation of a child Jesus that kills other kids is a creative reception and development of the first-century texts that portray Jesus as having control over life and death.  The Jesus of the infancy Gospels, clearly, is not the historical Jesus.  With the first-century Gospel texts, we have greater warrant to assume that the “past” that they receive, develop, and re-present in their respective presents includes the impact of the actual past of Jesus of Nazareth.  (I, for one, also give great credence to the idea associated variously with Gerhardsson, Hengel, and Bauckham, that Jesus’ surviving followers exerted considerable—but not universal—control over the development of the early Christian memory of him.)

So, Jens is right that it is not the case that all Jesus memory is of the same value, not even in those first-century texts, and I’m not aware of anyone in the younger breed of historical Jesus scholars who would say that it is.  But I can see how our concentration upon the nature of the tradition itself and attempt to explicate the significance of Jens’s point about the ancient historian also working from a mix of past and present (and thus that all Jesus memory is of some historical value though not the same historical value), as well as our (ok, my) willingness to use “Jesus memory” for different types of Jesus memory, could have benefited from better clarity.

For those who are interested in this discussion further, I simply cannot recommend highly enough Jens’s From Jesus to the New Testament (Baylor University Press, 2013), the English translation of his Von Jesus zum Neuen Testament (Mohr Siebeck, 2007).  I am re-reading it in the wonderful English translation of Wayne Coppins and I honestly believe that Jens has here written the manifesto for a new stage of Jesus research.  (Yes, I’m fully aware of the audacity of that claim.  I think it’s true anyway.)  He articulates in great detail what “neutestamentliche Wissenschaft beyond historicism” looks like.  In particular, he gives much greater detail to his points about memory as a hermeneutical perspective on what historians do in their re-presentations of the past.  I leave you with this quotation from p.12–13, which I think sums up also his complaints about the SBL session.  I’ll note also that we will have a panel review of this book at the 2014 British New Testament Conference at the University of Manchester.  I think it would be worth the SBL Historical Jesus group considering something of the same.
“The present-day theory of history stands in the tradition of these insights.  As important as a critical penetration of the historical material is in dealing with the past, there is no way around Droysen’s insight that even criticism does not seek the ‘actual historical fact.’  Likewise, we must not fall behind Weber’s epistemological insight that cultural-scientific knowledge is not able to ground value judgments and the past is always questioned from the interests and with the heuristic methods of the present.  It is indisputable that the historical material first becomes a ‘source’ about the past through the lines of inquiry and instruments of knowledge with which it is processed and through the presentation of investigated facts by the interpreter.  Past facts are always only accessible in the form of various kinds of witnesses about them and are never, by contrast, directly accessible.  The transfer of these witnesses into history therefore represents a complex process of analysis, evaluation, and ordering of the historical material into a coherent course of events.  For this, the interpretive activity of the interpreter—the ‘historical imagination’—is indispensible, for it is only in this way that a ‘source’ for history comes into being from the historical material.  Thus, the sources alone do not lead to conceptions of history, but they guide the interpretations and simultaneously limit the possibilities for appropriating the past.”


  1. Replies
    1. Prof. Crook,

      I am not certain exactly how Prof. Schröter's argument that "we will never get behind the sources but always create our own image of the past, influenced by our own cultural values, our knowledge of the sources and our questions that we bring to the sources" constitutes confirmation of a "New No Quest." I see clear echoes of Collingwood in Prof. Schröter's argument, namely C.'s notion that historical investigation is an imaginative process. The thing is that for Collingwood this imaginative process is a disciplined process. I do not simply say "I think that X and Y occurred in the past," but rather "I think that X and Y occurred in the past because of data A, B, and C." No, it is not "retrieving the past"--as such is impossible absent some sort of time machine--but it is imagining the past, and insofar as our faculties of imagination are adequate to the task of historical investigation and the extant data are sufficient for making reasonable judgments regarding the particular aspect of the past about which we are interested, what is imagined can be considered a more or less reasonable construal of the past.

      This brings us to what I think the single most important contribution of the recent emphasis upon social memory, namely that it has forcefully reminded us that there is no such thing as an uninterpreted past, not in the gospels nor in our own historical work. The task of historical investigation--whether one is studying Jesus or Napoleon Bonaparte--is not to strip away past interpretations so as to "get behind the sources." Rather, it is to ask "How was this person or this event interpreted?" and "Why was this person or this event or whatever interpreted in precisely these ways?" These are questions to which we can give better or worse answers, such quality being judged the same way we would any other empirical argument. Is the answer logically valid? Is it empirically sound? If valid and sound is there nonetheless another answer which, also valid and sound, better accounts for the data? It seems to me that the further we move from thinking of historical-Jesus studies as just another instance of how to make good judgments about the world the more likely we are to end up in methodological mires of one form or another (which mires are almost always indicative of philosophical missteps).

    2. Thanks, Jonathan, for the thoughtful comments. I'm leary to say too much lest it disappears. I don't disagree with you a great deal, however.

  2. What happened to the comments here?

    1. Sorry, I wish that I could say. This is the second time our comments have gone south this week. Apologies!


  3. Thanks for this post. I am not "in the guild" and haven't specialized in NT scholarship but have theological/biblical studies grad education and an ongoing interest, "following" it at a distance. What both you and Jens are saying makes good sense and is important! I think of one rejoinder as this: Even IF we could know something as an historical "fact", it would be meaningless without the necessary, inevitable comparisons and "putting in a framework" for present interpretation that then would take place.

    For example on the "big one" of "resurrection" appearances, I can and do accept that some (maybe most) of Jesus' direct followers saw/experienced something unusual and important. But need that lead me to say Jesus' body had been reconstituted, leaving the grave empty by some miraculous means? No... two separate issues (at least) to me. "Memory" of "seeing" and/or hearing from Jesus after his death does not equate to an historical "fact" of an empty tomb due to "bodily resurrection". But when I blog about this, or comment on others' blogs, considering it an important distinction, I'm not sure if people are either getting it or much care. I don't get much interaction (and I'm "nice" about it all).... Maybe a bit off exact point of the post, but I see it as closely tied.