Baker Academic

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The "Blow Up in Baltimore": Why It Was Disappointing - Le Donne

A couple months ago I posted a recording of a much-discussed recording of the papers and conversations of Paul Foster, Chris Keith, Zeba Crook, and Rafael Rodríguez. You can access the audio (albeit it faint - headphones will help) here. I was very grateful to have most of this Historical Jesus session recorded (thanks to James Crossley) because I was unable to attend.

After all of the discussion of this session, I was eager to hear what I missed. But I must say that I found it ultimately disappointing. The discussion was lively, but it could have been better informed. I'm thinking specifically of the paper by Paul Foster. I don't begrudge Paul for taking a skeptical position as to the value of "memory research" for the study of ancient history. Skepticism has always been a part of the game in Jesus studies. Par for the course, really. Most disappointing is that Paul had published his paper previously and was criticized for his deficiencies. Yet many of these deficiencies remained unaddressed in his presentation.

Chris Keith wrote a rebuttal to Foster's “Memory, Orality, and the Fourth Gospel: Three Dead-Ends in Historical Jesus Research,” JSHJ 10 (2012): 191–227. One of Chris' main criticisms was that Paul neglected many of the important voices in NT and memory studies (see further here). Paul's essay, instead, focuses on Bauckham and a few others who do not represent the wider conversation. Importantly, Paul read a draft of Chris' rebuttal before his presentation in Baltimore. Yet rather than fortifying his presentation by interacting with the wider field, Paul simply reiterated much of the same content and thus repeats errors of oversight made the first time around. What struck me most was that instead of thanking Chris for his critical engagement, Paul derided him (mocking tone noted) for suggesting that some of Chris' own work might have been addressed. I have absolutely no reservations when I say that no New Testament scholar has written more about social memory theory than Chris Keith. Moreover, Chris' work is among the most erudite in the field. Lest you think that I'm simply defending a friend, consider:
Keith, Chris. “The Role of the Cross in the Composition of the Markan Crucifixion Narrative.”  Stone-Campbell Journal 9.1 (2006): 61–75. ———. “The Claim of John 7.15 and the Memory of Jesus’ Literacy.” New Testament Studies 56.1 (2010): 44–63. ———. “A Performance of the Text: The Adulteress’s Entrance into John’s Gospel.” Pages 49–69 in The Fourth Gospel in First-Century Media Culture. Edited by Anthony Le Donne and Tom Thatcher. European Studies on Christian Origins/LNTS 426. London: T&T Clark, 2011. ———. “Memory and Authenticity: Jesus Tradition and What Really Happened.” Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kunde der älteren Kirche 102.2 (2011): 155–77. ———. Jesus’ Literacy: Scribal Culture and the Teacher from Galilee. LHJS 8/LNTS 413. London: T&T Clark, 2012. ———. “The Fall of the Quest for an Authentic Jesus: Concluding Remarks.” Pages 200–05 in Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity. Edited by Chris Keith and Anthony Le Donne. London: T&T Clark, 2012. ———. “The Indebtedness of the Criteria Approach to Form Criticism and Recent Attempts to Rehabilitate the Search for an Authentic Jesus.” Pages 25–48 in Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity. Edited by Chris Keith and Anthony Le Donne. London: T&T Clark, 2012. ———. Jesus the Controversial Teacher. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014. ———. “Prolegomena on the Textualization of Mark’s Gospel: Manuscript Culture, the Extended Situation, and the Emergence of Written Gospels,” forthcoming.
And more is on the way soon. One would think that Paul, who is a very intelligent and kind person, might have fortified his deficiencies by interacting a bit with his co-presenter's primary area of research. I find it quite strange that he chose otherwise.

While I still have serious problems with Zeb's assessment of the field, his presentation was a model of professionalism. Crook had previously published a similar essay on memory distortion. I took him to task quite directly in my response essay (“The Problem of Selectivity in Memory Research: A Response to Zeba Crook.” JSHJ 11 [2013]: 77-97). Zeb remained courteous in his rejoinder and conceded a few points. I don't retract any of my criticism of his essay, but I should say that I regret the tone that I sometimes take in that essay. I'm sure that I could (and should) learn more from him. To his credit, Crook took the time and effort to fortify his Baltimore presentation to include a wider range of research.

Crook's thesis is that serious study of "memory" leads us to another "no quest" in Jesus research. I still maintain that he needs to interact more fully with Barry Schwartz, Rafael Rodríguez, Jens Schroeter, Alan Kirk, Tom Thatcher, etc. While none of the scholars I've listed are confident in the Gospel's reliability by default or overlook the features of memory distortion, none of them would argue that historical Jesus research is futile, or impossible, or hindered by memory research.

It was clear by the end of this session that Paul Foster and Zeba Crook (I'm thinking specifically of the Q&A) continue to misrepresent the wider field of social memory theory. This conversation might have been much more constructive if one or either had simply interacted with Barry Schwartz or Jens Schroeter. Indeed, they both had ample time to do so between the publications of their initial papers and their presentations in Baltimore. The result was that Chris and Rafael (both experts in memory) and Zeb and Paul (both new comers) talked past each other.

I would have liked to hear Paul and Zeb interact seriously with mnemonic triangulation. It has been my project for sometime to demonstrate that (1) all memory is refracted, (2) much of memory refracts in ways that can be charted, (3) the episodes in the Gospels where refraction is most pronounced can provide clues as to the tendencies of the remembrancers. Finally, if we find evidence that multiple episodes in the Jesus tradition are explicit attempts to create counter memories, we can postulate the common sphere of intelligibility for both mnemonic trajectories. If so—and here we depart from previous stages in historical Jesus research—the episodes that are the most clearly "redacted" can give us the most to work with toward historical reconstruction.

Or, in lieu of triangulation, perhaps Paul and Zeb might have addressed the gains and losses of Dale Allison's attempt at mnemonic impressionism. Dale had argued that even passages that have been traditionally labeled "fiction" can contribute to a general impression (cf. Dunn's idea of impact) of Jesus' historical teaching and character. As such, instead of bracketing out the fictitious or panning for nuggets of "historical" material, we get the "gist" of Jesus first and foremost. I have found Allison's method quite helpful in recent years.

The observations that memory "distorts" and that the Gospels are therefore "distorted" are much too superficial to be helpful. Chris Keith, Barry Schwartz, Rafael Rodríguez, Jens Schroeter, Alan Kirk, Tom Thatcher, etc. are all very well aware that the proof of eye-witness testimony does not support a conservative notion of reliability. It was clear that Paul Foster was hoping to have an argument with Richard Bauckham on this point. If he had prepared to discuss the wider work of social memory theory, I have no doubt that the conversation would have been richer.

For more on social memory, see here. See also this recent exchange (both the post and the comments are quite interesting).



  1. Thanks for this Anthony. Let me say a few things about my own paper.

    a) I did not think of my Baltimore as a fortification of my previous paper. "New No Quest" was a new position for me, and what I did in my JSHJ paper was different.

    b) I believe that Paul made the point in his response that his paper was *not about* the people he wasn't talking about. It was about Bauckham and Dunn (or whatever). My point here is that it's not fair to criticism people for what they do not argue. I can be faulted in my JSHJ article (and accepted the criticism) that "consensus" was hasty language. Chris objected that people who use memory theory aren't good memory theorists, and on this I'm sure he and Paul and I (and you Anthony) agree. But they are using memory theory, and as such they're fair targets. I say this more about my own work than Paul's, since I don't need to defend Paul.

    c) I was asked to talk about how I feel memory theory intersects with HJ studies, and I presented my personal and emerging position. Again, Anthony, you assume that because I don't cite the scholars you name, or actually because I don't agree with them on every point, I haven't read them. I have read them. They didn't alter my growing pessimism about the Quest.

    d) For example, I'm pretty sure I referred to "gist" memory in my paper. I don't see evidence that "gist" memory is more reliable than detail memory. Gist memory can be distorted beyond recognition too. So no, "gist memory" does not *necessarily* (or obviously) get us closer to historical material.

    e) Neither in my opinion does triangulation, which is really just Multiple Independent Attestation combined with memory theory. It's a provocative idea, and not without its strengths.

    I'd like to close with a re-iteration of my Baltimore paper, because it doesn't feel like (from what you wrote here) there I was understood. I said many many times there that what was driving me to the a no quest was NOT the belief that memory is hopelessly unreliable. It's that people are *unable to distinguish* between reliable and unreliable memory. That for me is the kicker. Then in my paper I presented 10 memories of Matthew, each of which he presents exactly like any other, but which some cannot possibly be actual memories of Jesus. Finally, my point was not that memory theory leaves us with nothing to say about Jesus. It's that it leaves us with more to say about his followers than him. I do not think that manufactured memories (of which there are many in Matthew) tell us anything about Jesus. They tell us about how his followers felt about him. That's valuable, but that's not the Quest for the historical Jesus any more. I am well aware some people disagree. That I don't agree with them doesn't mean I haven't read them.

    1. Thanks Zeb, I cannot reply in full at the moment, but I will say that you've misunderstood me on the topic of triangulation (your point e above).


    2. Quite possible, though I didn't say very much about it! Perhaps let me clarify that MIA+MT is what *I* see when I look at your triangulation, not intended to suggest it was what you were thinking.

    3. Prof. Crook,
      Would you mind expanding a bit on what you mean by "unable to distinguish between reliable and unreliable memory."

      It seems to me that if you can identify "manufactured memories" in Matthew, for instance, of which you maintain that there are many examples of, then you have precisely distinguished between reliable and reliable memories. For instance, you assumed that "Jesus had followers" ("They tell us about how his followers felt about him") was a reliable memory, something you gained no doubt from your reading of Matthew, among others. How is that you distinguished that that was reliable, but that other material/traditions/sayings were not?

      From a philosophical viewpoint, if we as humans could not distinguish between reliable and unreliable memories, we should have never discovered that memories were unreliable. But we do knew that some memories are unreliable (which actually presupposes the reliability of memory, "My memory of what happened is right, yours is wrong."), which suggest that there factors, criteria, whatever, which actually help us distinguish between reliable and unreliable memories.

      I suspect, however, you have something different in mind. I'm hoping you can unpack it for us (certainly for me, anyway) so that we can get your meaning precisely.

    4. This comment has been removed by the author.

    5. Zeb, in further reply to your first comment:

      a) I quite appreciated the difference between your two essays.
      b) As you say, you cannot speak for Paul.
      c) If you have read the scholars that I mention and have simply chosen to neglect them, you've clearly under-appreciated their importance. Moreover, we will continue to disagree about your general representation of the field.
      d) Your suggestion of a dichotomy between "gist memory" and "detail memory" and your phrase "closer to historical material" deepens my suspicion that your default tends toward historical positivism. My guess is that this is precisely where our assumptions of what constitutes "historical Jesus" research diverge.
      e) Triangulation as I've adapted from Theissen and Winter and (yes, put in conversation with memory distortion patterns) does not get us "closer to historical material." It is valuable not in isolating an authentic core (cf. Multiple Independent Attestation), but in measuring trajectories of evolution from mnemonic pre-event orientations, through memory events (including "false" memory, however rare), to multiple and varying commemorative practices.

      Finally, my post above wasn't meant to take you on in a direct way (as opposed to my response to your JSHJ essay). I will say, however, that I don't think that a "No Quest" ever happened outside of Nazi Europe and is simply not possible in historical Jesus studies. One last point, it seems that your entrée into this discussion is focused heavily on a few studies that examine the most extreme possibilities of false memory. Most of the time (and the work of Ebbinghaus et al. should fill out any appeal to Loftus on this point) the qualifier "false" is not a helpful way to refer to memory. False memory does indeed happen. No doubt. Further, memory is only possible in a world of evolving intelligibility. So there is no memory that corresponds to the actual past in a way that engenders certainty. The positive element of this is that the continuity of memory distortion is the rule, not the exception (you wouldn't get this impression from Loftus et al.). And if memory is most often continuously intelligible, and if (a la Schudson) memory distortion moves in typical patterns, the evolution of memory can be charted.

      To say "people are *unable to distinguish* between reliable and unreliable memory" (as you do) and allow this notion to be the "kicker" is to become disinterested in a fascinating topic prematurely. I do hope that I was able to convey in my _The Historiographical Jesus_ that there is much and more to be gained after the false dichotomies of historical positivism have been exposed. Any discussion of memory that ends with the realization that memory is distorted is superficial. This is only where the discussion begins for me.


    6. Thanks Anthony.

      I can see how I would be seen as a historical positivist. It's hard to shake a long-standing perspective, and I continue to work on it. But in my defence, I think memory theory can be used to think about different issues, not just to think about those issues differently (though that too, of course). I wholly endorse your (and Chris's and Alan's and Werner's and Jens's) attempts to conceptualize memory as reception. I think there is considerable value and much more to say in that regard.

      But I am, I admit, also interested in reconstructing the past, even in limited ways. In that regard, I am interested in finding out if there is a way we can get behind people's memories (my own included) in any way that allows us to know that happened (and what did NOT happen). To my mind, historical positivism should be a charge levelled at those who think they can reconstruct the past as it actually happened, which does not include me. It should not be used of me just because I am interested in distinguishing more from less reliable versions of the past. I am also interested in textual criticism, which I think allows us to differentiate more from less reliable manuscripts, but I do not for a second think we have the original New Testament.

      And while I appreciate your caveat that "all memory is distorted," I disagree that this renders obsolete the attempt to differentiate types, rates, or extents of distortion. I take my inspiration for this from Jan Assmann, who (as you know) points out that "some memories are more distorted than others and some traditions more invented than others" (“Ancient Egyptian Antijudaism: A Case of Distorted Memory,” in _Memory Distortion: How Minds, Brains, and Societies Reconstruct the Past_. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995, 366). My point is that, to my mind, there is room for both your interests and mine in the field, and I think the theorists support us both. I don't see myself representing the field when I make my case; I see myself being deeply troubled by what some theorists have claimed about memory, and using that to think about the work I do.

      Finally, I don't think I agree when you say that you do not use triangulation to isolate an authentic core (unless I have misunderstood you). On p. 129 in _HIstorical Jesus_ you conclude that "we can say with confidence that there was a historical memory that motivated both counteractions" (Mark's and John's competing memory of the temple saying of Jesus). On the next page: "By determining the single most likely cause that best explains both branches, the historian can make a historical claim with confidence..." and it's where the gospels disagree that "we can most confidently postulate historical memory." What does "historical memory" mean if not memory (however distorted) of an actual thing said by the actual Jesus? Either you use triangulation to support the reliability of a memory, or you begin by assuming historical reliability in order to illustrate the process of triangulation. I have concerns about either route taken.

    7. Anthony, I wrote a longer comment, but then I read Zeba’s comment, and I’d rather you spend more time responding to him than you do to me!

      But when you respond to Zeba, please take seriously what he has to say about his lingering historical positivism. I don’t read Zeba to say that the past can be recovered with scientific precision. I DO read him to say that he’s concerned about memory distortion as a problem, that the further memory distorts from some idealized “G-d’s eye view” of “what really happened,” the more danger there is of history being used in harmful and immoral ways. I don’t know if he’s right, but he’s making a point that is worth a careful reply.

      In my limited view, memory theory has not adopted any particular take on the relationship between memory and “what really happened”. As you’ve discussed, there are optimists among the memory theorists, who think that memory gives us a reasonably reliable guide to “what really happened.” There are also pessimists, and people like you who are somewhere in the middle. But no memory theorist I’ve read consistently approaches this topic in a way that eliminates the importance of “what really happened.” I don’t think it’s right to suggest that there’s something wrong with Zeba’s thinking, because he thinks about “what really happened.” Certainly, Dale Allison thinks about “what really happened,” when he argues for the superiority of memory “gist” over other ways to construct memory.

      I think Zeba is also right to stress the difference between distorted and manufactured memory. Not all distortion is unintentional and unconscious, and I don’t think we can assume that distorted and manufactured memory can be plotted or “triangulated” in the same way.

      With that said, I look forward to your response to Zeba.

    8. Zeb, you've asked what I mean by "historical memory."

      In brief, I refer to "historical memory" if the parties involved in the mnemonic process believe that they are conveying a perception of the external. This to my mind is different (albeit overlapping in cognition) than a memory of a fiction. By fiction, I do not mean "false memory" (which I would say is the exception, not the rule) but something like a parable or a lie - where one or both parties understand the story or statement to have derived from wholesale imagination (i.e. perceptions of the internal).


    9. That's a response rich in theoretical nuance, I'll give you that. And I believe you too that this is what you mean. But do you honestly think that your Eerdman's readers, or anyone else, thinks in such nuanced theoretical terms -- without any assistance -- when you conclude that "the historian can make a historical claim with confidence" thanks to memory triangulation? You might well not be intending to use memory theory to make claims about gospel reliability, but I suggest that your choice of words cordially invites your readers (of that particular book) to draw such a conclusion.

    10. I do attempt to nuance and complicate the nature of perception in that book. At least I try my best to do this and make it accessible. In fact, I start the project by discussing access to mental content. So I try to put it out there front and center.

      But you aren't the first person to suggest that I've got some sort of hidden agenda with that book.

      Truth be told, if you read it backwards it says, "Paul is dead."


    11. Zeb, you've brought up the publisher of Anthony's book several times now since SBL and before, so I feel compelled to ask' "What does the publisher matter?" Surely we as scholars are supposed to judge the arguments in books and not the publisher of the book. If others fail to do that, and thus read Anthony in a way he does not intend, that can't be his fault. Regardless, I can testify that some people do think in such nuanced terms and, furthermore, there are many traditional "Eerdmans" readers who took Anthony's arguments as anything but a defense of historical reliability. I do not exaggerate when I say that his failure to sing the song they expected cost him his job. If the book did issue the invitation you suggest, they soundly rejected it.

    12. Chris, of course publisher is part of the equation. Brill and De Gruyter books expect a certain readership. A small Eerdmans or IVP paperback surely assumes another. I think it's hard to imagine that the average Brill reader would have come to the nuanced definition of "historical memory" that Anthony presented above. I think it's flatly impossible that the average Eerdmans paperback reader would have. Given how the book is written (wonderfully!), you and I are clearly not the intended readership of that book. And of course we are, as writers, responsible for how we are interpreted (to a certain extent, of course). I can't tell you how many times I've had to change the wording of my writing in order to address the hair-brained misunderstanding of a reviewer. If I'm not clear, it's my fault.

      I have always been 100% on Anthony's side in that whole debacle. But let me clarify. I sense a massive tension in that book. Throughout, Anthony presents discussions, data, and anecdotes that undermine our confidence in perception and memory, yet on every other page he is saying things like 'our memories are trustworthy' (sorry, I'm at home, so I don't have the book in front of me to quote directly) and 'we can conclude historical memory with confidence.' So the "invitation" I'm sensing is NOT one think in terms of infallibility, but in terms of nuanced reliability. Surely, that alone would be enough to get one fired from that sort of place. But I do hate to speculate about such a vile and hurtful situation. That's not my intent. Nor is it to blame Anthony. I believe in academic freedom, and any place that doesn't does not deserve to call itself a university. My only point here is that there is a deep tension in that little book, and I think it's more likely than not that many readers would come to the same conclusion as I did: that memory theory gets us back to things Jesus actually said or did.

    13. Well, we're just going to have to disagree on the readership of Anthony's book and what an average reader would think. I think the book is nuanced because it's a complex discussion and, despite writing it at an accessible level, Anthony did not boil down things simply that can't be boiled down simply. I consider you a friend and a colleague, and I say that with all sincerity. I have learned much from you. But I think also that you're dabbling in making judgments about people's motives and that's very dangerous territory. You have just come very, very close to advocating that we literally judge a book by its cover, or at least the publisher on the cover. I don't think we can afford, either, to make broad-brush statements about a general readership of any of these presses. I suspect that Bart Ehrman has as many Eerdmans books on his shelves as Craig Blomberg has Brill books on his. I've published with Baker Academic, Brill, T&T Clark, and have contracts with Mohr Siebeck and Oxford. What does that make me? A conservative masquerading as a critic or a liberal using evangelical publishing houses for book sales? More importantly, how would you or anyone else know? You wouldn't. So I think it would be better, and more productive, to focus on what's actually said and arguments that are actually made than speculate upon what a given author is trying to do with a given book unless he or she explicitly states it. Otherwise, we do that with beers in hands in personal conversations, not in public venues in my opinion. And let me say for the record as someone in the know, that I am 100% sure that Anthony did not write that book for an evangelical audience. Why he chose a historically-evangelical press is his business and I'm sure he has a good explanation, just like Dale Allison has a good explanation for why he publishes with Baker Academic sometimes and just like I do for the presses I work with and you do for the presses you work with. It's my suggestion that we move forward by focusing upon the arguments, not the publishers, because the discussion of the arguments has been immensely productive and I think we could all agree that we've learned from each other.

    14. Thanks Chris. I tried to be as careful as I could be. I explicitly did not ascribe motives to Anthony. My comments were limited to the prose, not the person. Also, you're reading too much into my comment about presses. It has nothing to do with people/types belonging to one press or another. It's that your Brill book and your Eerdman's book are going to look different and are going to assume a different readership. I didn't think that was a controversial statement.

      The point I was trying to make is that I am an intelligent, highly trained, and careful reader who has read Anthony's Historical Jesus three times now with two different classes of students, and I did NOT see Anthony's answer to what "historical memory" means coming. Can I really be that uncommon?

    15. Of course, brother, you're one in a million. :) (Too wide of a doorway not to walk through it!)

      I have no idea how common your reading of it would be, but I do know there are other understandings of it out there.

  2. What I mean, John, is that cognitive scientists and psychologists have shown that people themselves, those who hold the memories, cannot distinguish when their memories reflect reality and when they have been distorted. The memories always feels equally real or equally vague. There aren't qualitative differences between accurate and inaccurate memories. It is also recognized that it's even hard for the outside observer to distinguish accurate from heavily distorted memories. That is, if I relate a story to you about my childhood that I have badly mangled, you will be in an even worse position than me to know the difference.

    My additional point is that a gospel writer like Matthew likely cannot which of his collective memories (Since he wasn't an eye-witness, we're not talking about eye-witness memory) are accurate and which are not. In my paper I pointed out that Matthew gives no indication that he thinks the parable of the mustard seed was more or less accurate than his story of the Jerusalemite Zombies. That's a useful example I think because it's an instance were we CAN tell the difference between possibly historical and impossible memories. But did Matthew think there was a difference? I doubt it. I think he though both were real. Now, we can tell that the zombie story is a manufactured memory, but how do we distinguish between a story like the parable of the mustard seed and the conversation between Jesus and John at the baptism? Both are presented as reliable memories, and neither are fantastic. Hence the problem I'm troubled by: there is nothing there to help up know the difference between real and distorted memory.

    Now, I didn't mention another part of my paper. I used to think that the tradition Quest criteria could help us get to that more vs. less reliable memory. But Chris's and Anthony's Demise book killed that hope in me. It's Anthony's fault!!

  3. This is odd. There’s a lot of disagreement language being thrown around here. But I’m not seeing enough substantive disagreement to justify the language. All seem to agree that, with respect to HJ, our historical materials are the product of memory. All seem to agree that memory distorts, or refracts. If there’s anyone left who thinks that we function like human DVRs, they can read Zeba – and also Chris, Anthony and Dale Allison – and learn how wrong they are.

    What we seem to be arguing about is, what do we do now that we recognize how heavily HJ studies rely on uncertain memory? Again, what seems like disagreement mostly evaporates (for me at least) on closer inspection. There’s no chance that HJ study is going to disappear. And, no one who responsibly does HJ study thinks it can be reduced to a science. The good historians find a middle ground between saying that we can say nothing, and saying that we can say anything certain. There’s room in the middle for responsible optimists and responsible pessimists. I regard Chris as a responsible optimist, Zeba as a potentially redeemable pessimist, and Anthony somewhere in between.

    Zeba, I think there is room here for responsible pessimism, though I’m biased, because I regard myself as a responsible (and I should emphasize, non-professional) HJ pessimist. As a Jew, I act here and elsewhere as a non-appointed (and I should emphasize, non-professional) representative of a people who have been victimized by a Christian anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism that has been informed by bad history believed with too much Christian confidence. I have welcomed the history produced in the so-called “Third Quest,” not just because I think it is better history, but because it is (on the whole) less confident: it has subjected all HJ historical nuggets to “authenticity” scrutiny, judging these nuggets to be inauthentic unless proven otherwise. This kind of scrutiny is too pessimistic, as Chris and Anthony (among others) have argued in their “Demise” book, but I’ve appreciated that pessimism, and I may miss it when it’s gone.

    I think that Chris and Anthony represent a new phase of HJ studies, where the evidence for the HJ will be examined for what it is: memory. This has to be a positive development. Zeba, don’t you agree? Within this new phase, there’s going to be room for optimists and pessimists, and Zeba, I hope you can hang in here as one of the pessimists. Like you, I originally came to this site out of concern for things I’d read (not by Chris or Anthony!), to the effect that the Third Quest concern for authenticity could be replaced by a general embrace of the New Testament as reliable memory. To put it in bluntest terms for Jewish readers, the Third Quest’s assurance that Matthew 27:25 never happened could be replaced by the assurance of memory theorists that something like Matthew 27:25 must have happened. Imagine my relief once I’d READ this blog, to find that nothing of this kind was being said here!

    Zeba, the problem I have with what you’ve said is that it seems to make HJ study impossible … except as an effort to debunk all that has come before. As Bart Ehrman has argued in his critique of your SBL talk, your position seems to argue against any serious study of ancient history, and perhaps against the entire project of history. (Did anyone notice that Ehrman was in attendance at the “blowup”?) Ehrman called your point of view “myopic” and “nihilistic” – and while Ehrman is sympathetic (I think) to memory theory, he’s certainly not in the same camp with Chris and Anthony. (So you shouldn’t feel bad, Ehrman also said that you’re a “really good guy; smart, interesting, fair minded, and from what I can tell, nice and good.”)

    So Zeba, while we are fellow pessimists, I don’t propose to stop studying history. Neither, I suspect, do most historians. Neither, I suspect, do you. So … what do you propose we do when we study history?

    1. Larry, I'm very appreciative of these comments and your sense of the landscape of the discussion. I'm especially appreciative of your description of me as a "responsible optimist," though I hope it's clear that my optimism concerns the possibility of having the discussion and reaching conclusions, not that memory as a category is predisposed toward reliability. In other words, while I'm optimistic that we can reach conclusions about many things, I also think we cannot reach historical conclusions about many other things. I'm perhaps most appreciative of your recognition that acknowledging that the Jesus tradition is memory (or, perhaps better, an artifact of memory) is the beginning of the discussion, not the end of it. I'd agree entirely with this.

    2. Chris, thanks!

      No, I wouldn't characterize you as someone who thinks that memory is predisposed toward "reliability" (I put "reliability" in quotes because I think you're using this word here in a way that's different from how I've heard Anthony use it). I think you're reasonably optimistic that under the right circumstances and after a lot of hard work and careful thought, memory can serve as a "reliable" historical guide. Though I think you're a little bit too good at what you do to be easily categorized.

      Memory may be at the beginning of the discussion, but it's being placed by memory theorists at a critical point of beginning, where it serves as something of a paradigm that shapes and filters everything that follows. I think this is probably a good thing, in that we cannot avoid paradigms, and I think memory serves as a good paradigm. But paradigms work in strange and mysterious ways, so don't count me as 100% comfortable with what you all are doing! I really, truly welcome folk like Zeba who are willing to be critical of this enterprise, and while I'm evidently not getting what he has to say, I hope he keeps saying it.

    3. Larry, if you were 100% comfortable with what we were doing, you wouldn't be you! And, of course, we welcome Zeb as well, as I hope is clear. I hope that points of disagreement wouldn't indicate inhospitality. I'm glad to hear I'm not too easily categorized! I want that put on my tombstone. :)

    4. "Here lies Chris. Probably."

  4. Hi Larry. One thing I said in my now infamous SBL paper is that when I said this is all pushing me towards a "New No Quest" I'm defining "the Quest" in a specific way (anf one that I do not think is that idiosyncratic): The Quest has always had as a central characteristic the goal of reconstructing Jesus' authentic words and actions using criteria meant to distill those from the layers of theological accretion. I don't find the 3rd Quest pessimistic at all! In the variety of 3rd quest books, we are told over and over: read me and find out what Jesus REALLY said, or meant, or did. In THAT regard, I consider The Quest to have been killed by memory theory (because all memory is distorted) by orality (because there can be no single original version of anything Jesus said), and by the Demise book (because the criteria cannot do what they were designed to do). So, my position was more subtle than: there's nothing left to say about the historical Jesus, everyone can stop writing. Perhaps that didn't come through as forcefully as I meant it to in my paper. The Quest is dead, I think, but not the study of the historical Jesus.

    One opportunity that NT scholars get that is uncommon in other fields, esp. those using memory theory, is this: we have multiple sources with the same "memories" construed in different ways. We actually get, therefore, to chart how memories of Jesus were distorted in the process of gospel redaction. I find that very exciting! I don't think it takes us back to things Jesus said, but does show us how memories were changeable by subsequent authors. So, there is an instance of how we can study history.

    1. Wow! Interesting discussion. I think that I am with Zeba as he articulates his position in the post immediately above. I think that the research about memory at the personal and social levels and about oral transmission make it quite clear that we have no hope of finding the actual words or accounts of the actual actions of Jesus short of building a time machine and taking a recorder back to first century Palestine (unless we invoke divine intervention as our guarantor). Part of the reason for this is that no-one in first century Palestine actually cared enough about Jesus' actual words and actions to even try to preserve them in pristine form. They would probably be stunned to think that we do, either.

      While Anthony is correct that "much of memory refracts in ways that can be charted", unfortunately, charting it accurately requires more information about the circumstances in which our available records were recorded and the people who recorded them than we have available to us. For example, one of the oft-quoted criteria is that a simpler story is an earlier one - that the extra details have been added later, but that's not always true. In some circumstances, memory strips detail away as time goes on and just keeps what the rememberer thinks are the important points. And people generally remember things in ways that make life less difficult for themselves, rather than more difficult, so knowing more about the person/people responsible for passing on the particular memories is also important, and information we don't have.

      OTOH, as Byrskog points out (or perhaps I'm oversimplifying his point a little here), these kinds of things apply fairly much equally to the other documents from the same time and we don't throw up our hands in resignation and say "memory theory says we can never be really sure that what we know about Julius Caesar is reliable, so we should give up trying to find out anything about him" and I don't see any reason to do this with Jesus, either. We just need to be aware of the nature of what we're working with and not load it with expectations that it's not capable of fulfilling.