Baker Academic

Friday, May 12, 2017

Social Memory: A Hermeneutical Reset

Yesterday Chris Keith treated me to breakfast at Taste of Belgium in Cincinnati. Wonderful frites with a horseradish aioli sauce. But fries served with an omelette? Has the world gone insane? Chris and I (as we tend to do) talked about the past, present, and future prospects of social memory theory in Jesus research. It occurred to me on the drive home that scholars with native fluency in New Testament studies continue to misappropriate the findings of social memory. Either they emphasize the creativity and instability of memory or they emphasize the regular reliability and stability of memory. Both are surface-level observations that fail to see the undergirding hermeneutical reset.

The key question is still "where is history?" If history is "back there in the past" and human memory is creative and and unstable, memory cannot provide access to history. Alternatively, if history is "back there in the past" and human memory is reliable and stable, memory can and does provide access to history. Both conclusions miss the point: history is not "back there." History relates to what is "back there" insomuch as it continues the mnemonic frames and interpretive perceptions of the past. But "history" (like everything under the epistemological umbrella) is something we encounter now. In my reading of him, Ruben Zimmermann (happy birthday!) gets this point. History (and on this point I depart from Maurice Halbwachs) is not something that precedes or undergirds memory.

In order for historians to utilize the findings of Social Memory we don't simply need a new method or new tools or new rules for the road. What we need is a hermeneutical reset whereby the human relationship to epistemology is reconsidered from the ground up.



  1. Right on. This is precisely why the criticism of us for not "replacing" criteria with another methodology is completely missing the point of the proposal.

    1. Soooo ... history is, in fact, what we know about events that happened in the past, on the basis of the evidence we have available to us? Which means that what we know about fairly recent events with a high public profile has the potential to be much, much closer to what actually happened because there are quite a few digital recordings of them and some of the people doing the recordings might even have been aiming to record something that is an accurate account of the event. But when the events of the Bible took place, there was no option for digital recordings and both the individuals and the communities involved in maintaining the records were more likely to be interested using their memories to make sense of who they were in the world they lived in than in producing factual accounts of the events. Which isn't to say that they deliberately made things up (although they might have) nor is it to say that what we have is inaccurate - just that we have no way of judging this. What we *do* have, however, is an accurate account of what the authors understood about the events and how those events impacted on their lives. So, we can't know with any certainty what Jesus actually said, but we can know how he was heard. Which doesn't write God out of the equation. It just puts God in a different place in it.

    2. Judy, thanks for this. I'm not entirely sure how it relates to my comment. Or was it intended to be a separate comment?

    3. A bit of both, Chris. I was having difficulty posting comments for some reason. So the first sentence is about what history actually is. The rest is my current thinking about what we *can* know about the Jesus events. I think that the questions that authenticity criteria attempt to answer are the wrong questions to be asking of the text. They are not the kinds of questions we ask of other accounts of events and people of the time. But at the same time, Christians do regard Scripture as 'inspired by God', which makes it different in their eyes from other accounts of the time.

  2. From Dr. G:

    But suppose I decide there is no point in trying to go to Norway, to try to meet the real historical Professor. But instead I just press the button on my computer to get a copy of his textbook.

    Isn't there a chance I will miss something that the actual Prof., or trying to talk with him, might have told me?

    Maybe I would have missed the horseradish dressing, say?

    1. Dr G, I think this comment is meant for the previous post, right? The answer to your question, though, is that there is MUCH that you'll miss by not meeting the actual Prof Runesson!

  3. Anthony,

    Your engagement of the question "where is history?" appears to be simple version of the terminological shell game.

    The shell game works like this: With conceptual terms (as opposed to nomenclatures), there often are several definitions clamoring for attention. (I am using "nomenclature" more narrowly than Saussure.) Those who wish to back a program represented by one of the terms (and to oppose programs represented by the others) exploit the multidefinitionality of the term by demonstrating the sensibleness of their favored definition, in order to make it appear that their position represents the term's most legitimate unpacking. This makes it appear, to the unsuspecting consumer of the term in question, that the favored definition is indeed the only legitimate way to use the term.

    The best example of this is undoubtedly the argument regularly posed in favor of reader-response hermeneutics: by demonstrating the (event-)reality of something corresponding to readerly "meaning," an argument is made (albeit a ridiculously fallacious one) that meaning per se resides in the reading event. A similar argument is made all the time on behalf of the coherence understanding (note I did not say "theory") of truth. (I’ve published critiques of these arguments.)

    My question for you is: How does your answer to the question "where is history?" differ from the above-mentioned (bogus) arguments on behalf of readerly understandings of "meaning" and (Rortian) social understandings of "truth"?

    In short: there are (at least) two different things going by the label "history": one residing in the past, and one residing in the present. Pressing the legitimacy of one of the labels to the exclusion of the other is not a legitimate argument for how one should do "history".