Baker Academic

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Early Christianity 6.4: "Social Memory Theory and Gospels Research: The First Decade (Part Two)"--Chris Keith

I'm glad to say that Part Two of my article, "Social Memory Theory and Gospels Research: The First Decade," has appeared in Early Christianity 6.4: 517-42.  You can access it online here.  In this second part of the article, I proceed from the methodological discussions of Halbwachs, Assmann, and Schwartz in Part One to assess four issues in current Gospels scholarship: the transmission of the oral Jesus tradition; criteria of authenticity; "the new historiography" in Jesus studies; and the historical reliability of the Jesus tradition.  I also take time to respond to Paul Foster's article that pronounced memory studies as a "dead end" in historical Jesus work.  Readers of the blog will no doubt already know that I disagree with that statement, though I agree with Foster (and Zeb Crook) that memory theory does not, and cannot, demonstrate by itself that any tradition in the Gospels is historically reliable.  I conclude that such pronouncements are always in the hands of scholars using theory, not theory itself.  In other words, in the new historiography in Jesus studies, social memory theory is not a replacement for historiography proper.  It is simply an approach that aids the task of historiography.

I'll also take this moment to note that my SNTS presentation from this past summer, extending my thoughts in this Early Christianity article, will be appearing in Journal for the Study of the New Testament: "The Kerygmatic Narratives of the Gospels and the Historical Jesus: Current Debates, Prior Debates, and the Goal of Historical Jesus Research."


  1. I only get an ad to sell the article when I click on the link.

  2. The reported noncommitted attitude to the actual historical existence of say, a Jesus, seems to clearly owe much to say, Husserl's "phenomenological reduction." Which only tentatively accepts things, even apparent physical objects before our eyes, as known to us not as they are in reality, if they even exist at all. But as knowable to us only in the form of our subjective mental sensations. Or "phenomena."

    But at the same time as this noncommittal attitude is expressed formally in memory theory, at the same time its practitioners have the odd stylistic habit of referring to Jesus, often, in very strongly affirmative language. Strong enough to make many if us doubt the forthrightness of formal endorsements of a non-committed attitude to historical questions.

    Some might respond that a phenomenal Jesus, a Jesus of the mind or spirit only, is still compelling enough to explain the strange vividness of some memory findings, and their inspirational content. But if so, then we are still in the grip of an all too familiar dogmatic theology: the assertion that a Christ of Faith or spirit, is even in itself, alone, still real enough to strongly affirm.

    1. Anthony Le Donne is the most non-committed phenomenon of which I'm aware. He is indeed in the grip of a stylistic habit of referring to Jesus.