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Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Jesus Conference Roster: Joan Taylor—Chris Keith

The 2016 Memory and Reception of Jesus in Early Christianity Conference at St Mary's University, Twickenham will feature a paper from our London colleague (at KCL), Prof Joan Taylor.  Joan has made substantial contributions, including The Immerser: John the Baptist within Second Temple Judaism and The Essenes, the Scrolls, and the Dead SeaReaders of the Jesus Blog may also recognize Joan as the organizer of the fabulous conference at KCL and subsequent collection of essays on Jesus and Brian: Exploring the Historical Jesus and his Times via Monty Python's Life of Brian.  She has also served as a guest blogger on the Jesus Blog with the post "Jesus was a Refugee."

Joan presented a paper previously at St Mary's for the 2015 Cities of God? Conference, and it's our pleasure to welcome her back for this conference.  She'll be presenting on "The Reception of Images of Jesus prior to Constantine," and thus on the early visual/archaeological portrayals of Jesus.

If you'd like to hear Joan's paper, meet her, and tell her what a stroke of genius the "Jesus and Brian" project was, join us on June 10 and 11 by registering here.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Hays, Goodacre, the Q Theory, and the Force of Prior Consensus—Chris Keith

I'm grateful to Baylor University Press for sending over a copy of Richard Hays's magnum opus, Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels.  I'm eagerly anticipating reading it fully and have made a start.  One of the things that struck me in the "Introduction" was his overview of his working assumption about the sources for the Evangelists.  Here it is:

"I share the consensus position of the majority of New Testament scholars that the Gospel of Mark is the earliest of the four canonical Gospels and that both Matthew and Luke drew upon Mark as a source.  I do not, however, place any weight on the hypothesis that Matthew and Luke independently made use of a hypothetical common source, designated as 'Q.'  There is no extant manuscript of such a source, nor is there any reference to it in the surviving documents of earliest Christianity.  It seems to be equally probable--indeed more probable--that Luke knew Matthew and that the verbal agreements between these two Gospels can be explained in this fashion rather than through positing a hypothetical Q source."  (Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels, 13)

Hays's opinion on Q, especially as reflected in the italicized portion, is actually just about mine.  I don't feel that I have a dog in this fight, really, but address the matter briefly in my current book project.  I'm agnostic on Q, leaning toward Q atheism.  If there is a Q, that's fine.  But we don't have any real evidence of one.  (Yes, yes, I know.  Q supporters will point to Matthew and Luke as evidence, but for me, this is somewhat assuming the argument.)  There's no manuscript evidence, and no testimony among the post-apostolic and patristic tradition.  In contrast, before we found a manuscript of the Gospel of Thomas, we knew there was one circulating in the early Church; before we found a manuscript (or something that could be a manuscript) of the Gospel of Peter, we knew there was one circulating in the early Church; and etc. etc. for the Gospel of Judas, et al.  I think this is more significant than is often thought, and in my mind is more significant than the fact that previous generations of scholars took Q as a consensus position.  I'm also convinced that Q makes the most sense on the basis of a particular theory of the transmission of the Jesus tradition, and I don't think that transmission theory is correct. 

Now I don't think those little observations are going to change anyone's opinion on Q and I'm sure Q supporters will have a ready response that might show up in the comments.  BUT, what struck me was how Hays makes these claims and supports them with a single footnote after that last sentence, where he directs readers to one book and one book only:  Mark Goodacre, The Case against Q, published originally in 2002.  Some while back I asked on this blog whether Mark Goodacre is still in the minority on Q.  I know Mark actually is not necessarily a fan of people using him to dismiss the Q theory too easily because he is afraid that it sometimes lets them off the hook from doing the actual work on the Synoptic tradition that is necessary.  But here in this major publication of Hays (Goodacre's colleague at Duke) is further evidence that Mark's position is not quite the minority position that it was when he first took up the mantle of Goulder and Farrer.  We should probably add that this is the second recent major publication on the Gospels in the early Church that has rejected the Q hypothesis, the other being Francis Watson's Gospel Writing.  I have no doubt that the Q supporters are currently typing away a response, but it's hard to deny that there's a trend moving in this direction.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Jesus Conference Roster: Ruben Zimmermann—Chris Keith

The 2016 Memory and the Reception of Jesus in Early Christianity conference in the Centre for the Social-Scientific Study of the Bible at St Mary's University will feature a paper from Ruben Zimmermann entitled, "Memory and Jesus' Parables."

Ruben is Professor of New Testament Studies at Johannes Gutenberg-Universitaet Mainz.  For several years now, he has led major research projects on characterization, ethics, parables, and other topics, producing massive edited volumes, including the Kompendium der Gleichnisse Jesu.  Several years ago, I heard Ruben give a fabulous paper at the SBL.  It was, for me, the best paper I heard that year, and it was, I think, in the John, Jesus, and History session.  Ruben was arguing for the inherently hermeneutical nature of evaluating historical "sources."  Someone in the audience took him to be claiming that there was no such thing as just "raw evidence."  That's not exactly what he was claiming, but the questioner then thought that he had stumped Ruben by saying, "What about archaeological evidence?"  I remember Ruben's response verbatim:  "Have you ever heard stones speak?"  His point, of course, was that all evidence, including archaeological evidence, requires interpretation.

Ruben has mainly published in German, but just this past year, Fortress published (what I believe is) his first English book, Puzzling the Parables of Jesus: Methods and Interpretation.  I haven't read this yet.  I'm supposed to be reviewing it for a journal and they have yet to send the book.  But I've heard great things about it and am eagerly anticipating it, not the least because he supposedly take a "memory approach" in it.  This study will undoubtedly inform his presentation, and I'm told that he will engage critically with John P. Meier's recent volume of A Marginal Jew, which similarly focuses upon parables. 

If you'd like to hear Ruben's paper and then drink a beer with him at dinner, join us at the conference by registering here.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Why Many Liberals promote Anti-Jewish Theology

We don't know that we're doing it most of the time—or so I am convinced—but when we liberals mix politics and theology we tend to repeat and promote a particular brand of anti-Judaism. I call it the mythological foothold and it goes like this: Jesus was a radical, reformer, liberator, hippie, and/or shit-disturber. So far so good. If I must choose between Jesus-as-icon or Jesus-as-iconoclast, I will choose door #2 (although #2 can be overstated in our neat world of binaries). After we have decided that Jesus is a champion for the 99% (of course he was) we need to set him against a backdrop of oppression, corruption, greed, hypocrisy, and/or legalism. Luckily we have a longstanding myth (in the senses of both falsehood and meaningful narrative) that the Pharisees or "the Jews" generally were oppressive, corrupt, greedy, hypocritical, and/or legalistic. We then elevate Jesus by creating a myth of "the Jews" or "the Pharisees" over which Jesus can triumph. This mythological foothold is as old as Christianity itself.

Need modern examples? Take this bit of devotional writing from Jimmy Carter. Now please keep in mind that I love me some Jimmy. I'm impressed with any nonagenarian who builds houses for the poor while battling cancer. But Carter has been preaching Jesus as an anti-Pharisee for decades. For example:

During almost ten decades in the South—and throughout America—very few of us, even in our churches, condemned or criticized total racial segregation. We accepted the legal premise of “separate but equal.” . . . Even the most enlightened pastors would say, “Well, that’s a social problem. We just preach the gospel.” We shake our heads now, but that’s the way we lived back then, and that was the way we had lived for generations. We accepted the “fact” that we white folks were “superior” and that people of a different color were “inferior.” 
In the time of Christ, the Jews believed that Gentiles stood outside the purview of God’s covenant with Abraham. Naturally, this caused Jews to feel superior. But in this encounter with the people of Nazareth, his hometown, Jesus emphasized that God want to bless all of us, simply because God loves us. . . . Jesus says, “Love others, regardless of who they are.” Let’s pray that we might eliminate discrimination, animosity, and grudges from our lives as followers of Jesus Christ (Through the Year with Jimmy Carter, 204.)
So there you have it. According to Carter, American racists are just like "the Jews" of Jesus' day. 

Or consider this especially lamentable statement by Pope Francis: the Pharisees were “rigid on the outside, but, as Jesus said of them, ‘rotting in the heart,’ weak, weak to the point of rottenness.” Again, nobody I know would accuse Francis of impure intentions. I choose the examples of Carter and Francis because I admire them a great deal and believe that they are committed to the infrastructures of peace. This would include inter-religious understanding. Both have done far more than I will ever do to make the world a better place. But somehow we liberals repeatedly lack self-awareness when it comes to parroting anti-Jewish rhetoric. Examples of this are numerous and varied (see my chapter on "underdogma" in this book for a fuller treatment). At least I think that it is a lack of self-awareness and not overt anti-Semitism that brings this out.

So I want to give the benefit of the doubt to a complete stranger (to me) named Mark Sandlin. Sandlin and I would probably get along great if ever we met. Perhaps we'd have suds and find ourselves in a tattoo parlor. Perhaps we'd both get Amy Grant lyrics inked into our necks and share our deepest secrets. Surely, our politics are similar. But I must take issue with this statement: "while the Pharisees encouraged discrimination against women, tax collectors, the poor, and even Samaritans, Jesus went out of his way to radically include them all." Surely Mark Sandlin means no harm. But this is the sort of statement that reinforces an anti-Jewish ideology with a particularly catastrophic legacy.

Monday, May 23, 2016

The Jesus Conference Roster: Sandra Huebenthal—Chris Keith

Photo from
One of the presentations that I'm most anxious for at our upcoming "Memory and the Reception of Jesus in Early Christianity" conference is that of Sandra Huebenthal.  Sandra holds the Chair of Exegesis and Biblical Theology at the University of Passau.  Sandra's Tuebingen Habilitationsschrift is one of the most thorough applications of collective memory theory to the Gospels and was published as Das Markusevangelium als kollectives Gedaechtnis by Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht in 2014.  In it, she approaches (as the name suggests) Mark's Gospel as collective memory.  Among many other things, in this important study she criticizes yours truly for still wanting to have the historical discussion about Jesus since she thinks that the insights of memory theory lead to greater attention to the interpretations of Jesus in the text but also to a more agnostic approach to historical matters.  Although Sandra sometimes does not get as much attention in English-speaking scholarship, she is really one of the leaders of this discussion and has been for some time.  She's one of the most knowledgeable scholars about the theory itself, and one of the more insightful "memory" NT scholars I've read.  In addition to Alan Kirk's introductory essay on social and collective memory, I very, very highly recommend Sandra's essay "Social and Cultural Memory in Biblical Exegesis: The Quest for an Adequate Application" (in Cultural Memory in Biblical Exegesis, Gorgias Press, 2012), where she has this great statement:

"The good news is that social memory theory has finally found its way into Biblical Studies.  The bad news is that it is often unclear . . . what social memory theory really is about." 

Sandra will be presenting on "The Reception of Jesus in Mark's Gospel" and if you want to hear her and meet her, you can register here.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Jesus Conference Schedule of Times and Presenters—Chris Keith

For those contemplating attending the 2016 "Memory and the Reception of Jesus in Early Christianity" Conference, here is the tentative roster of speakers and times.  You can register for the conference here.  If you have any questions, please don't hesitate to write to me at  I should probably add that places are beginning to fill up and we do have a cap on the number of people who can attend due to space issues.  So if you're thinking of coming, you may want to go ahead and register.

Memory and the Reception of Jesus in Early Christianity (June 10–11, 2016)
St Mary’s University, Twickenham

All speakers confirmed.


1:30–3:00        Session 1
                        1:30–2:05        The Memory Approach and the Reception of Jesus
                                                Chris Keith
                        2:05–2:40        Reception of Jesus in Paul
                                                Christine Jacobi
                        2:40–3:00        Discussion

3:00–3:30        Coffee and Tea

3:30–5:00        Session 2        
                        3:30–4:05        The Psychology of Eyewitness Memory
                                                Richard Bauckham
                        4:05–4:40        Reception of Jesus in the Gospel of John
                                                Helen Bond
                        4:40–5:00        Discussion

5:00–5:30        Coffee and Tea

5:30–7:00        Session 3 (Keynote)
5:30–6:30        Memory and Theories of History       
Jens Schröter
6:30–7:00        Discussion

7:00                 Dinner


9:00–10:30      Session 4        
                        9:00–9:35        Memory and Narrative
                                                Samuel Byrskog
                        9:35–10:10      The Reception of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel
                                                Sandra Hübenthal
                        10:10–10:30    Discussion

10:30–11:00    Coffee and Tea

11:00–12:30    Session 5        
                        11:00–11:35    Memory and Media
                                                Alan Kirk
                        11:35–12:10    The Reception of Images of Jesus Prior to Constantine
                                                Joan Taylor
                        12:10–12:30    Discussion

12:30–2:00      Lunch

2:00–3:30        Session 6
                        2:00–2:35        Memory, Identity, and Mimetic Ethics
                                                Ruben Zimmermann
                        2:35–3:10        The Reception of Jesus in Talmudic Literature
                                                James Crossley
                        3:10–3:30        Discussion

3:30–4:00        Coffee and Tea

4:00–6:30        Session 7
4:00–4:35        Memory and Liturgy
Rafael Rodríguez
4:35–5:10        Reflections on the Past, Present, and Future of the Memory Approach
                        Anthony Le Donne
5:10–6:30        Panel Discussion

6:30                 Dismiss

Monday, May 16, 2016

The Jesus Conference Roster: Alan Kirk—Chris Keith

The "Memory and Reception of Jesus in Early Christianity" conference at St Mary's University on June 10-11 will also feature a presentation from Alan J. Kirk.  Alan is a University of Toronto (Kloppenborg) grad who initially made his name in Synoptic Problem research.  He has also written extensively on the Gospel of Peter in recent years.  More important for this conference and for readers of the Jesus Blog, Alan is really the source of the "memory approach" in English-speaking scholarship.  Alan wrote a short chapter in Tom Thatcher and Bob Fortna's Jesus in Johannine Tradition that was an application of social memory theory to the dating of the Gospel of Peter, specifically as it related to that text's relationship to the Gospel of John.  Alan had come upon the theory by mere chance after finishing his PhD, and it's actually a funny story involving pools, academics, and a fortuitous misunderstanding.  At any rate, reading Alan's chapter prompted Tom Thatcher to propose that they put together a Semeia volume on this "social memory theory," and that became the seminal work, Memory, Tradition, and Text: Uses of the Past in Early Christianity (2005).  I still consider Alan's introduction to "Social and Cultural Memory" in that volume to be the single best introduction to what the terms of the theory mean and how the theory relates to the discipline of Biblical Studies.

Many of Alan's publications on memory theory and NT studies have, in my opinion, gone under-appreciated, perhaps because they are often in volumes of collected essays and reference works.  This will soon be corrected, as Bloomsbury T&T Clark will be publishing a collection of Alan's essays as a book in the "Reception of Jesus in the First Three Centuries" monograph series.  LNTS is also getting ready to release his second monograph, a major contribution to Q scholarship and memory theory:  Q in Matthew: Ancient Media, Memory, and Early Scribal Transmission of the Jesus Tradition.

At the conference in June, Alan will be presenting on "Memory and Media."  His lecture will range from Q and ancient media to recent applications of memory theories in NT research, but generally reflect on how "memory" relates to ancient media culture (orality, textuality, scribality, etc.).  If you'd like to hear his lecture or have a cup of coffee with Alan, you can register here.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Written Texts and Oral Expression in Early Christianity

Despite the occasional presence of nascent—and, at times, flowering—animosity between them, the interchange between Larry Hurtado and Kelly Iverson, in a series of articles published in New Testament Studies, is well worth reading. Hurtado and Iverson sometimes talk past one another, and it's not always clear whether they recognize that they are not really talking about the same things. I do think, in the end, that Iverson provides some important correctives to Hurtado's engagement with performance criticism, and Hurtado's clarification that he was correcting "the work of 'some scholars' and 'some of the crucial claims and inferences' (Abtract), referring to 'some advocates' (pp. 327, 329 n. 34), and 'some studies taking a performance criticism approach' (p. 334; emphasis added [by Hurtado])" (Hurtado 2016: 201) represents an important qualification that was not necessarily obvious in the original essay.

Even so, their essays present helpful and significant information about and interpretation of early Christians' production and use of written texts. These are the kinds of discussions from which all of us, I think, benefit in our efforts to understand traditioning processes in the earliest Christian movements.

Larry W. Hurtado. "Oral Fixation and New Testament Studies? 'Orality,' 'Performance,' and Reading Texts in Early Christianity." NTS 60 (2014): 321–40.

Kelly R. Iverson. "Oral Fixation or Oral Corrective? A Response to Larry Hurtado." NTS 62 (2016): 183–200.

Larry W. Hurtado. "Correcting Iverson's 'Correction.'" NTS 62 (2016): 201–6.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 5)

The fourth chapter of Bart Ehrman's Jesus before the Gospels is entitled, "Distorted Memories and the Death of Jesus" (pp. 131–77). Readers will benefit from remembering that Ehrman uses the term distorted memories to refer to "incorrect recollections" (p. 302 n.3); a "distorted"—or "false"; Ehrman uses the terms synonymously—memory "involves a memory that is wrong" (p. 19). This chapter, then, focuses on "memories" of events from Jesus' arrest, trial, and execution that never happened.

Ehrman begins by reviewing the history of the study of how well (i.e., how accurately) individuals remember (pp. 131–48). Of course, the discussion emphasizes how and when memory fails; the "sins of memory" are much more interesting than mundane accounts of memory working just fine. Ehrman briefly describes Hermann Ebbinghaus's (1850–1909) early work on memory and forgetting (Ebbinghaus discovered that forgetting happens fairly quickly and at predictable rates that can be mapped onto a statistical curve) as well as Frederic Bartlett's experimental work on memory and his conclusion that memories are not recalled so much as they are constructed. Perhaps the greatest difference between Ebbinghaus's and Bartlett's experiments, as Ehrman presents them, is that Ebbinghaus "wanted to study memory in a pure form" (p. 132), so he tested his memory of random, "three-letter nonsense syllabus, such as DAX, GUF, and NOK" (p. 132). Unlike Ebbinghaus, Bartlett attempted to student "how we recall things we personally experience" rather than memorizing nonsense. Ehrman's summary of Bartlett's findings is worth citing at length:
When most of us try to conceptualize what it means to remember something that happens to us, we probably have some kind of vague notion that it's like taking a picture with your I-phone. You snap a picture of the moment with your brain, and it's back there somewhere tucked away until you retrieve it. . . . The brain doesn't work like that. Instead, when we experience something, bits and pieces of its memory are storied [sic] in different parts of the brain. Later, when we try to retrieve the memory, these bits and pieces are reassembled. (p. 134)
It is indeed a commonplace in memory studies today that the brain does not store snapshots of the past, to be recalled in ways that mimic replaying a video. Memory doesn't "replay" the past but rather reconstructs the past. This is not so much the "reassembly" of images whose parts—"bits and pieces of its memory"—are stored in "different parts of the brain" (pace Ehrman). Instead, our memories draw upon multiple resources and not simply upon the realia of past experiences in order to reconstruct a sense of what happened. This "drawing upon multiple resources" is a feature of every act of remembering; no memory is free of the dynamics of [re]construction. In this sense, every memory is a distortion of past experience; there is no account of the past that reproduces the past in the present.

Ehrman's use of distortion as an antonym for "accurate" or "true" memories, therefore, is unhelpful. Images of the past are transmitted to and actualized in the present through the very distortions that Ehrman treats as corruptions (even inventions) of the past an account claims to remember. This is more than semantic quibbling over the term distortion. This gets us to the heart of the question of how memory works to connect past and present. We can explore this question in reference to Ehrman's work. After summarizing Ulric Neisser's analysis of John Dean's memory of and testimony about conversations during the Watergate cover-up, Ehrman offers the following challenge:
In this instance we are talking about an extraordinarily intelligent and educated man with a fine memory, trying to recall conversations from nine months before. What would happen if we were dealing with more ordinary people with average memories, trying to recall what someone said maybe two years ago? Or twenty? Or forty? Try it for yourself: pick a conversation that you had two years ago with someone—a teacher, a pastor, a boss. Do you remember it word for word? (pp. 146–47)
The answer, of course, is no. John Dean struggled to recall any of the facts of conversations in September 1972 and March 1973 in his testimony just a few months later, in June 1973; we simply lack any real basis for assuming that "more ordinary people with average memories" would do better after spans of years.

Even so, Ehrman's presentation of Neisser's findings (which are readily available online and take only minutes to read) is highly problematic. Here is Ehrman's quote of Neisser:
Comparison with the transcript shows that hardly a word of Dean's account is true. Nixon did not say any of the things attributed to him here. . . . Nor had Dean himself said the things he later describes himself as saying. . . . His account is plausible but entirely incorrect. . . . Dean cannot be said to have reported the "gist" of the opening remarks; no count of idea units or comparison of structure would produce a score much above zero. (p. 145; citing Neisser; see p. 107 in the essay linked above)
Later, Ehrman provides another lengthy quote:
It is clear that Dean's account of the opening of the September 15 conversation is wrong both as to the words used and their gist. Moreover, cross-examination did not reveal his errors as clearly as one might have hoped. . . . Dean came across as a man who has a good memory for gist with an occasional literal word stuck in, like a raisin in a pudding. He was not such a man. (p. 146; citing Neisser; see p. 110 in the essay linked above)
One would be forgiven for thinking that Neisser's article finds Dean's testimony fundamentally flawed, that Neisser found it impossible to know anything about the historical Richard Nixon and the events of the Watergate break-in and the ensuing cover-up. Neisser made no such finding. Nearly immediately after the first quote (from p. 107, above), Neisser writes, "Because the real conversation is just as incriminating as the one Dean described, it seems unlikely that he was remembering one thing and saying another" (p. 108; my emphasis). And again, nearly immediately after the second quote (from p. 110, above, with the memorable simile: "like a raisin in a pudding"), even in the same paragraph as that quote, Neisser writes:
[Dean's] testimony had much truth in it, but not at the level of "gist." It was true at a deeper level. Nixon was the kind of man Dean described, he had the knowledge Dean attributed to him, there was a cover-up. Dean remembered all of that; he just didn't recall the actual conversation he was testifying about. (p. 110)
In fact, Neisser goes further:
We are hardly surprised to find that memory is constructive, or that confident witnesses may be wrong. . . . I believe, however, that John Dean's testimony can do more than remind us of [previous memory research, including Bartlett]. For one thing, his constructed memories were not altogether wrong. On the contrary, there is a sense in which he was altogether right; a level at which he was telling the truth about the Nixon White House. (pp. 113–14)
No one reading Ehrman's chapter before reading Neisser's essay would have anticipated this conclusion. Ehrman's selection of quotes has fundamentally altered the point Neisser himself says he is trying to make: that "what seems to be a remembered episode actually represents a repeated series of events, and thus reflects a genuinely existing state of affairs" (my emphasis; from the Abstract).

The biggest problem with Ehrman's distortion of Neisser's research, however, is that it obscures the value precisely of memory's distortions. Dean's testimony conveyed the truth about Richard Nixon, not despite its distortions but precisely through them. As Ehrman rightly notes, Dean did not remember the gist of conversations about which he offered sworn testimony. As Ehrman wrongly ignores, Dean did recall "the common characteristics of a whole series of events" (114). More than this, Neisser recognizes that one of the influences affecting Deans congressional testimony was his preparation beforehand and his likely rehearsal afterwards of details of a conversation, and his testimony about this conversation (on 21 March 1973) reflected the memory of "a set of repeated experiences, a sequence of related events that the single recollection merely typifies or represents" (p. 114; see also p. 111). Neisser calls this repisodic memory (rather than episodic memory), in which "what seems to be an episode actually represents a repetition" (p. 114; original italics).

Come back to Ehrman's original challenge: "pick a conversation that you had two years ago with someone—a teacher, a pastor, a boss. Do you remember it word for word?" (pp. 146–47). Suddenly the challenge is very different. The question is no longer, Can you remember the details of a conversation from two (or twenty, or forty) years ago—the words that were spoken, the appearance of the speaker, the condition of the conversation? Now the question is, Can you recall the broader realities of a conversation from two years ago—the character of the person with whom you were speaking, the kind of give-and-take you might have had with them, and the tenor of a typical conversation? Moreover, imagine that this particular conversation is not one picked merely at random; the conversation you want to remember is one you've remembered repeatedly, before multiple audiences, in multiple circumstances.

Ehrman raises but does not discuss the example of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5–7 (see p. 147). After a declarative sentence informing readers that the Sermon "was recorded about fifty years after [Jesus] would have delivered" it, the paragraph consists of a series of six rhetorical questions. Ehrman's final two questions: "Or did he say something sort of like that on some other occasion—any occasion at all? Which is the gist and which is the detail?" (In an endnote, Ehrman signals that he will return to this example in Chapter 5; see pp. 195–202.) The implication is clear: Neisser's study reveals that none of us are actually able to recall the details of conversations even only months afterward, and so we ought not suppose Jesus said any of the words Matthew records in his famous Sermon.

On one level, this is true. In the twentieth century Jesus scholarship was busy trying to recover the ipsissima verba Jesu, the "very words" that Jesus spoke. Neisser's study warns us of the possibility—even the likelihood—that Jesus didn't say a single word in Matthew 5–7, not even
ἀγαπᾶτε τοὺς ἐχθροὺς ὑμῶν ("Love your enemies"; Matt. 5.44), words even the Jesus Seminar prints in red ("Jesus undoubtedly said this or something very like it"). However, Neisser's study also suggests we should be looking for something else: not the very words of Jesus nor even the gist of what he said, but something true on a deeper (or perhaps "broader") level. Neisser's study, if it's appropriate to apply to Matthew's Sermon (a connection Ehrman himself suggested), raises the possibility that what Matthew says "is essentially correct, even though it is not literally faithful to any one occasion. He [Neisser is referring to John Dean; we are referring to the First Evangelist] is not remembering the 'gist' of a single episode by itself, but the common characteristics of a whole series of events" (Neisser, p. 114). In other words: Yes, Matthew's Sermon on the Mount is a distorted memory, but this distortion is the vehicle that puts us in touch with the Jesus of history; it is not a later interpretation that obscures the historical Jesus and so must first be peeled away.

The rest of the chapter is a surprisingly simplistic discussion of traditional historical Jesus methodology. Ehrman offers two ways to "uncover a distorted recollection of Jesus's life": (i) identifying conflicting accounts in the sources and (ii) simple implausibility (p. 151). Ehrman discusses Jesus' trial before Pilate from both of these angles, and then he examines five additional scenes from the Gospels' accounts of Jesus' final week (the Triumphal Entry, the Cleansing of the Temple, swords in the Garden of Gethsemane, the Barabbas episode, and the rending of the Temple veil), all of which fail one or both of Ehrman's two signs of distorted memory. However, since Ehrman assumes that distorted memory equals false memory, Ehrman is unable even to ask—let alone begin to answer—whether these distorted memories (if we may grant that designation for the sake of discussion) were "right about what had really been going on" even if they were "wrong . . . in terms of isolated episodes" (Neisser, p. 114). In other words, Ehrman misses what's really interesting about memory studies and never goes any further than repeating what he was already saying about Jesus and the Gospels before he took up and read memory research.

Continue to watch this space.

Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 1)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 2)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 3)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 4)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 5)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 6)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 7)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 8)

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Jesus Conference Roster: Richard Bauckham and the Psychology of Eyewitness Memory—Chris Keith

On June 10 and 11, I and the other Jesus Bloggers (except Brant Pitre!) will gather at St Mary's University, Twickenham along with a host of other scholars for the Centre for the Social-Scientific Study of the Bible's conference "Memory and the Reception of Jesus in Early Christianity."  Quite a number of people are already registered, but there's still a few spaces to attend if you'd like to join us.  Information, a list of presenters, and registration (including a special discount for students) are available at this link.  (I'm especially desirous that students attend.  We design our conferences purposefully to be low-key with lots of tea and coffee breaks so that the participants can actually chat with each other.  There are thus lots of opportunities for students to speak with the scholars presenting and attending.)  From what I can gather as the organizer of the conference, many of the presenters (including me) are viewing this conference as an opportunity to clarify precisely what the "memory approach" is and is not, as many of us feel that there's quite a bit of misinformation being reported in journal articles and SBL papers. 

In the lead-up to this conference, I want to introduce a few of the presenters and their topics.  Today's focus is on Richard Bauckham.  Bauckham is Professor Emeritus at the University of St Andrews and currently resides in Cambridge.  Among his numerous, numerous publications, his blockbuster Jesus and the Eyewitnesses caused a tremendous amount of agreement and disagreement and engaged directly with memory theory.  He is currently working on a second edition of that important book, which I'm told is finished and hopefully will be out by SBL.

Bauckham is the only scholar at the conference who will be presenting directly upon cognitive memory research (though I suspect that Alan Kirk will also address the topic in his paper) and his paper is titled "The Psychology of Eyewitness Memory."  I've seen the paper.  I don't want to give away too much, but I'll say this:  Bauckham thinks that Dale Allison got the implications of research on eyewitness memory wrong in Allison's own blockbuster Constructing Jesus.  Want to hear more and hear Bauckham tangle with Allison?  Come to the conference!

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Malbon on Mark's Christology

Elizabeth Struthers Malbon's Mark's Jesus: Characterization as Narrative Christology has loomed large on my shelf for over a year now. Every so often the spine of the book has looked down on me with a severely patient sigh. I knew that I needed to get my mind right. But, you see, I am a hard case sometimes.

Today was able to read a few large portions of the book. I will only offer one observation and one question because I'd like to fish for a larger conversation. Malbon is keen to make a distinction between the Markan Jesus's view, the narrator's view, and the implied author's view. Key here is her claim that the Markan Jesus's view of himself is different from the narrator's view of Jesus. Add to this the speaking role of God in Mark and you have yourself a mosaic of christologies. The "implied author" showcases all views so to set them in conversation.

So here is my question: does the distinction between narrator and implied author help us navigate the problem of "Mark's Christology"?


Monday, May 9, 2016

Congratulations Anthony Le Donne!—Chris Keith

No, no, this is just his second glass.
Over the weekend, Dr Le Donne announced that his application for tenure at United Theological Seminary was approved.  This is great news and I thought the Jesus Blog community would like to know.  Congratulations, Dr Le Donne!

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 4)

After a two-week hiatus, I'm finally able to continue my serial review of Bart Ehrman's recent book, Jesus before the Gospels (HarperOne, 2016). Chapter 3, entitled "Eyewitness Testimonies and Our Surviving Gospels" (pp. 87–130), addresses two questions:
[First,] Are the Gospels based on stories about Jesus that had been passed around, changed, and possibly invented by Christian storytellers for decades before being written down, or were they written by eyewitnesses? [And second,] If they were written by eyewitnesses, would that guarantee their essential accuracy? (p. 88)
Ehrman addresses these questions in reverse order.

The latter question, of course, is answered negatively, and with convincing references to research into memory and eyewitness testimony (pp. 88–100). Ehrman briefly narrates results from studies that indicate not only that people err in recalling details of events they actually did witness, but also that people can even erroneously believe they are remembering events that, in fact, they only imagined (p. 94). In addition to contemporary (20th and 21st century) studies of eyewitness testimony, Ehrman discusses "memories of the Baal Shem Tov," the 18th-century founder of Hasidic Judaism, the accounts of whose life claim access to eyewitness testimony (pp. 95–100). From both of these discussions, both of which emphasize memory's malleability, Ehrman draws a helpfully nuanced conclusion: "[Eyewitness memories] are not necessarily reliable. And, of course, they are not necessarily unreliable either! All of them have to be examined historically to see whether and how far they preserve accurate memories of Jesus and distorted memories" (100).

The rest of the chapter addresses the former question: Are the Gospels based on eyewitness testimony and/or written by eyewitnesses themselves? (pp. 100–130). Ehrman begins, rightly, with a mention of Richard Bauckham's famous book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (Eerdmans, 2006). I reviewed Bauckham's book for Biblical Theology Bulletin; as readers can see, I was (and am) critical of Bauckham's work. However, Ehrman is unnecessarily dismissive of Bauckham ("Outside the ranks of conservative evangelical Christians, very few if any biblical scholars have found Bauckham's case persuasive"; p. 101); the main reason Ehrman gives for rejecting Bauckham's work is rooted in Jesus' and his followers' confinement to poor, uneducated, rural Palestine: "those who were involved with Jesus in his ministry were lower-class Aramaic-speaking Jews in rural Palestine. . . . The same can almost certainly be said about virtually all of his followers" (pp. 101–2). The only person with certain access to eyewitnesses was Paul, and Ehrman emphasizes that, "even though Paul is our one direct link to an eyewitness report, he doesn't give us much information about Jesus" (102–6 [106]). The bulk of the chapter surveys the original anonymity of the canonical Gospels and how they got their current appellations in the mid- to late-second century.

Ehrman's use of memory studies in this chapter is much more responsible than in previous chapters. He accurately relates the generally problematic nature of eyewitness memory and testimony, which nature Bauckham largely ignored or marginalized. However, here memory research itself is open, I think, to some criticism. Barry Schwartz (whom Ehrman cited approvingly in his Introduction; see pp. 5–8) often complains that experimental research on eyewitness memory is artificially contrived precisely in order to maximize and highlight the very thing it finds: memory's errors. This complaint does not negate such findings; we simply must account for the ways that experience as well as imagination contribute to our memories of things past, so that the distinction between remembering actual experiences and imagined ones is often (if not always) difficult to draw. Even so, Schwartz points out that none of us—apart perhaps from some manifestation of mental illness—lives our life as if our memories were tenuous and prone as often as not to be wrong. Sometimes I forget where I parked my car, but not usually. I never—almost never, at worst—forget where my office is. I may forget my anniversary, but that simply means I have forgotten that this day is my anniversary, not that I have forgotten when I duped my wife into marrying me. Memory is fallible, yes. And sometimes the things we think we remember never actually happened. More common, however, is that our memories of events that actually did happen differ than our experiences of those events at the time.

Again, this is not a critique of Ehrman as much as it is of (eyewitness) memory studies. Ehrman rightly notes that eyewitness memory both is and is not accurate, so that access to eyewitness testimony is not, tout court, a guarantee of that testimony's historical accuracy or its truth (these are two different things). And Ehrman's conclusion on p. 100 (cited above) is appropriate. If eyewitness memory can be either accurate or inaccurate, and if eyewitness claims "have to be examined historically" (p. 100), one wonders what memory studies has offered Ehrman that he did not have before. What gain has memory studies offered Ehrman's understanding either of the historical Jesus or the early Christian traditions about him? I was unable to identify much in this regard, especially since Ehrman rejects that eyewitness testimony played any role whatsoever in the formation of our Gospels.

We might make other observations about Ehrman's approach to "examin[ing] historically" the claims made either by the Gospel-writers themselves or by early Christians (to the turn of the third century CE). After examining the claims made by the second-century bishop of Hierapolis, Papias (which claims Bauckham features prominently throughout his book), Ehrman rejects Papias as a reliable witness even if he were claiming what Bauckham and others say he is claiming.
So can we rest assured about the truth of what Papias says, since he can provide guarantees based on his careful memory? It doesn't look like it. The only traditions about Jesus we have from his pen are clearly not accurate. Why should we think that what he says about Matthew and Mark are accurate? My hunch is that the only reason readers have done so is because they would like him to be accurate when he says things they agree with, even when they know he is not accurate when he says things they disagree with. (p. 118)
This strikes me as an unfair swipe at historians, especially but not only Richard Bauckham. Ehrman has every right to challenge and critique both the interpretation and the reliability of Papias. But when he implies that "the only reason" historians might believe some of Papias's claims but not others is prejudice and bias, he betrays and indicts his own historical craft. After all, Ehrman himself accepts Mark's claim that Jesus "spent almost his entire life in Galilee before making a trip to Jerusalem in the last week of his life" (p. 101), and he similarly accepts (and actually goes further than) Acts' claim that the disciple John was illiterate (Acts 4.13; see Ehrman, pp. 109, 126). But it would be unfair of us to critique Ehrman for wanting Mark or Luke to be accurate when they say things he agrees with, even when he knows they are not accurate when they say things he disagrees with. Rather, Ehrman has made historical judgments, in just the same that Bauckham and others have. We may disagree with any of these judgments; this is the business of history and historiography. But we needn't impugn the integrity of our fellow historians (a lesson I myself continue to learn; see the update at the bottom of the second installment of this series).

One more critique. Ehrman offers a positive proposal for how the originally anonymous Gospels came to be known as "According to Matthew," "According to Mark," and so on (pp. 124–25). He proposes that "some kind of authoritative and influential edition of the four Gospels was published and circulated in Rome," which edition named our texts with the names we know and influenced the rest of the church—all of it!—to accept these names for the four texts that would eventually become canonical. Important parts of this hypothesis are (i) the observation that both Irenaeus and the Muratorian Fragment knew our four Gospels by name in Rome, and (ii) the assumption that Rome exerted sufficient authority in the second century CE to effect this kind of change across the whole of Christianity. This latter assumption deserves quoting at length:
Since Rome was the theological and practical center of Christendom at the time, and since it had so many people—Christians included—coming to and from the city, this edition of the Gospels spears quickly throughout the worldwide church.” (pp. 124–25; my emphasis)
This, however is a thoroughly anachronistic portrayal both of Rome's influence and of the state of Christianity in the late-second and early-third centuries. The historical reality is that, in fact, Rome did not exert this level of influence so early in the history of Christian origins and that Christianity in the late-second and early-third centuries was sufficiently diffused that the Roman church could not command the allegiance Ehrman's proposal requires.

The overwhelming likelihood is that, in fact, the Gospels were originally anonymous (as Ehrman claims). Moreover, claims regarding their authorship are neither verifiable nor falsifiable (despite Ehrman's confidence to the contrary). We simply do not have the extant evidence we would like to know such things. And so the story of how our Gospels came to be known as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John must remain untold.

Continue to watch this space.

Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 1)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 2)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 3)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 4)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 5)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 6)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 7)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 8)