Baker Academic

Monday, June 27, 2016

Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 8)

In this final installment of my serial review of Bart Ehrman's Jesus before the Gospels, I want to briefly address his final chapter ("In Conclusion: A Paean to Memory"), which is less than seven pages long (pp. 289–295), and then assess the book as a whole.

Ehrman's concluding "paean to memory" is a beautiful reflection on the relative importance of historical-critical work. Knowing that this-or-that event happened in history is important, and Ehrman acknowledges that his work as a historian focuses narrowly on questions of what did or did not happen. Christianity, "widely seen as a 'historical' religion" (p. 291), sometimes (often?) places a high premium on historical actuality. What matters, often enough, to Christians is not simply what their sacred texts say but more so that the events those texts narrate actually happened. The truth of, say, the Acts of the Apostles resides not just in its worldview or narrative theology but rather in its portrayal of actual events in space and time. As a result, Christian readers who encounter Ehrman's writings may perceive him a threat to the integrity of their religious identity.

This is not Ehrman's intent. "But in my judgment there is more to Christianity than history. And there is more to life, and meaning, and truth than the question of whether this, that, or the other thing happened in the way some ancient text says it did" (p. 291). He goes on to describe the Gospels as "so much more than historical sources," which in my view is exactly right. Ehrman does not offer the example of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, but I think Luke 10.25–37 offers us instructive case. Never did a man going down from Jerusalem to Jericho fall into the hands of robbers, only to be neglected by a Jewish priest and Levite headed uphill and cared for by a Samaritan passerby. And nobody thinks either Jesus or Luke intends to speak of an actual event. When historians argue about the "authenticity" of this parable, they are arguing whether or not Jesus actually told this story. The story itself, everyone acknowledges, is fictional.

And yet the Parable of the Good Samaritan is true. It's truthicity ("truthiness" was inappropriate in this context) has nothing to do with its historical referentiality. This is a question of genre. If a history textbook claims that the Battle of Britain was provoked by the British invasion of Belgium, it is not just wrong but false. History books claim to narrate the past, and though they include matters that are not, strictly speaking, historical (e.g., interpretations of events, narrative plot structures, cause-and-effect relationships, etc.), their claims are evaluated on the basis of their historical referentiality. But other genres do not depend on this relationship. The obvious example is literature: The truth (perhaps value is a better term) of Charles Dicken's A Christmas Carol depends in no way whatsoever on the historical reality of Ebenezer Scrooge. For that matter, A. A. Milne's characters express simple-but-profound truths about friendship and life, even though no one wonders about a talking bear in a hundred-acre wood. And so, while I usually was more annoyed than anything when Ehrman's argument relied on unanswered rhetorical questions, I found this spot on:
At the end of the day, I find it troubling that so many people think that history is the only thing that matters. For them, if something didn't happen, it isn't true, in any sense. Really? Do we actually live our lives that way? How can we? Do we really spend our lives finding meaning only in the brute facts of what happened before, and in nothing else? (p. 292)
These are appropriate questions, and Ehrman does, eventually, hint at answers: "Our lives are not spent establishing the past as it really happened. They are spent calling it back to mind" (293). This, I think, is a lovely sentiment.

So what's the verdict on Jesus before the Gospels? I once accused Ehrman—in another venue and on another topic—of being "coy." In some ways, that charge does not apply here. Ehrman uses the intuitively pejorative term distorted memory to refer to "false memories" or "memories" of events that did not occur. At some point stories were told in such a way that people who heard them thought they narrated actual events or teachings from Jesus' life, but those stories did not. Ehrman does not hide behind the technical use of the term distortion in order to "sneak in" a negative connotation; when he is doing historical critical work, he is relying on that negative connotation.

In other ways, however, the charge of being coy is apropos here as well. Ehrman too often relies on insinuation and unanswered rapid-fire rhetorical questions that are framed so as to make disagreeing positions seem unreasonable, when often enough the questions themselves are problematic (e.g., pp. 24–25). This is an understandable rhetorical move; I myself often feel tempted to argue in this fashion. But doing so—whether I am doing it or Ehrman—is usually a sign that my argument is not as clear or as precise as I would like it to be. "You don't really think such-and-such, do you?" is not a helpful historical argument, even if it is often effective, and Ehrman retreats to this rhetorical device too often.

More problematic, in my view, is Ehrman's dependence on sources. He reveals to his readers that, "[f]or about two years now I have spent virtually all my free time doing nothing but reading about memory" (p. 2), but his citation of memory studies seems to me rather anemic. It is difficult to get a precise measurement because there is no bibliography included in the book, but scanning the endnotes suggests that Ehrman cites a total of thirty-four sources that I would categorize as "memory studies." The majority of these he cites only once, and on more than one occasion those citations are misleading (e.g., he cites Schwartz's approbation of Maurice Halbwachs's claim that memory adapts the past to "the beliefs and spiritual needs the present" [p. 7, citing Schwartz, Abraham Lincoln and the Forge of National Memory, 5] without mentioning that Schwartz also critiques Halbwachs on this very point: "Considering Lincoln's image as a mere projection of present problems is as wrong as taking it to be a literal account of his life and character"; Schwartz, p. 6; see also my critique of Ehrman's use of Ulrich Neisser's study of John Dean's testimony). Perhaps even more problematically still, Ehrman engages almost none of the New Testament scholarship concerned with memory. Unless one includes Birger Gerhardsson's Memory and Manuscript (which does not, strictly speaking, engage "memory studies"), he only mentions Richard Bauckham's book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. There's no mention of scholars such as Chris Keith, Alan Kirk, Anthony Le Donne, Tom Thatcher, Michael Thate, or myself. (Chris Keith is mentioned in the acknowledgements, but none of his works appear in the endnotes.) When he mentions Dale Allison, Richard Horsely, or Werner Kelber, he does not address their engagement with memory studies. This is especially worrisome when Ehrman complains that New Testament scholars, as a group, have largely ignored memory studies. When Ehrman does engage media studies among New Testament scholars, he draws attention to the form critics, whose work is largely seen as out-of-date.

In the end, I cannot endorse or recommend this work as an engagement of memory scholarship for New Testament research. As I said in Part 1 of this review,
I was excited when I first heard rumors, in the aftermath of a 2013 panel on memory and the historical Jesus, that Ehrman was going to engage memory studies. I was part of the early wave of Jesus historians and NT scholars who have turned to questions of memory—and especially social/collective memory—in order to recalibrate the study of Jesus and Christian origins. I care about this topic, and adding a name as big as Bart D. Ehrman to the list of historians recognizing the importance of memory in some way justified my own work.
Perhaps my initial excitement helps explain my disappointment with this book. I had hoped Ehrman would advance the discussion of memory and the New Testament, perhaps with reference to his own expertise in Christian texts outside the New Testament canon, the manuscript tradition of New Testament texts, and so on. Instead, I do not think he has accurately grasped even the current state of memory and the New Testament.

I have tried at every point to engage, summarize, and evaluate Jesus before the Gospels fairly and respectfully. I have literally read every word of this book, and where I have critiqued it I have tried to provide specific examples and quotations from the book itself. Moreover, I have not critiqued this book for its bearing on theological matters or questions of faith. If anything, his concluding "paean to memory" should be welcomed by people of faith even if they continue to disagree with his historical judgments. This book is flawed in its historical and exegetical judgments. This book must stand or fall on these bases and not on its theological merits, since Ehrman is not writing a theological book.

Oh . . . one last thing. I have not enjoyed panning this book; as I said, I started reading Jesus before the Gospels with enthusiasm and high hopes. Whenever commenters here or on Facebook have characterized this serial review as combative (e.g., "Rodríguez vs. Ehrman," or something similar), I have winced a little. I've read and reviewed this book so carefully precisely because I have such respect for Ehrman as a writer, thinker, and scholar, and I hope that hasn't been lost among all the criticisms. I recently met someone who read both Ehrman's book and my reviews and who told me he thought I was being too kind in my review; that was both surprising and a bit encouraging. Whether kind or unkind, I hope I have been fair. And if/as you read this or any other book by Bart Ehrman (or anyone else, for that matter), I hope you, too, will evaluate it fairly.

Okay; you can stop watching 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)

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Quarterly Quote of the Month about Jesus for this Week

Playboy Magazine: How large a role does pure ego play in your deal making and enjoyment of publicity?
Donald Trump: Every successful person has a very large ego.
PB: Every successful person? Mother Teresa? Jesus Christ?
DT: Far greater egos than you will ever understand.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 7)

Chapters 6 and 7 of Bart Ehrman's Jesus before the Gospels pursue a different topic than do previous chapters. The earlier chapters addressed, more or less, Jesus before the Gospels (that is, how scholars think the early Christians remembered and talked about Jesus in the decades between the life of Jesus and the writing of the Gospels). Here, however, Ehrman turns his focus onto the early Christian texts themselves—rather than what came before them—and describes them as collective memories of Jesus. Ehrman first discusses the Gospel of Mark (Chapter 6); he then addresses other, mostly later Christian texts in Chapter 7, with examples from within the canon (Gospel of John, Paul, Q, and Gospel of Matthew) as well as beyond the canon (Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Judas, Marcion, and Theodotus). But first, Ehrman begins Chapter 6 with a discussion of collective memory and mnemo-history.

The power of collective memory—or what Maurice Halbwachs called "the social frameworks of memory" (les cadres sociaux de la mémoir)—is largely invisible, as is the social construction of knowledge in general. We largely take the world in which we live for granted. That is, until we encounter another world, and we run smack into the existence of other ways of perceiving, interpreting, remembering, and responding to the real world. Rikki Watts, in his near-classic book, Isaiah's New Exodus in Mark, describes an experience of this when an American professor used the phrase, "Four score and seven years ago," which his (American) classmates recognized but he did not (see pp. 30–32). Ehrman describes a similarly disorienting experience when he moved to the American South in 1988 and encountered phrases such as "War of Northern Aggression" (pp. 227–28). Our social context performs a constitutive in determining how we remember the past (and even which past we remember!), and changes in that context do indeed often result in changes in the past one encounters in the present.

This gets us to the primary thesis of these two chapters, that each of the various Christian authors—whether or not their work(s) is/are included in the New Testament—remembers Jesus in ways that are determined by the history and current interests of whatever social group they belong to. Paul reflects communities that have no interest in the life or teaching of Jesus and really only care that Jesus died and was raised. Mark's community rejects any notion of the kingdom of God as present now but eagerly expects that it will be revealed in the very near future. John's community experienced or was experiencing a sharp conflict with the synagogue. And so on and so forth. These diverse situations of memory produce what Ehrman calls
"a kaleidoscopically varied set of images" of Jesus (p. 256), an image that I think could be useful for perceiving and interpreting the significances of Jesus among his early followers. I do think Ehrman over-emphasizes the significances of differences between the Gospels and other early Christian materials, and he exaggerates, I think, the causal connection between different textual images and different contexts of memory. Even so, "the kaleidoscopic memories of Jesus" is an image that I can work with.

But I want to focus on Ehrman's brief survey of collective memory research (especially the work of Halbwachs and Jan Assmann), which I think suffers from some pretty basic misunderstandings. Ehrman contrasts "episodic memory" (remember: "recalling things that happened to you personally"; p. 18) with collective memory; he says, "There are other kinds of memory, and one of them involves remembering the past of our society. For that reason, memory is studied not only by psychologists but also by social scientists—both the anthropologists interested in oral cultures . . . and sociologists who explore how memories of the past come to be constructed and discussed by various social groups" (p. 228). The next paragraph begins: "That different social groups 'remember' the past (not their personal past, but the past of their society) in different ways will make sense to anyone with a wide range of experience." This, unfortunately, is not what social (or collective) memory is, especially not in the stream which flows from Halbwachs's work. To be sure, Halbwachs was explicitly and programmatically concerned with the ways in which the memory of individuals depended on her social environment. In the preface to The Social Frameworks of Memory, Halbwachs begins with a possibly apocryphal anecdote of a young girl who was forcibly (?) removed from any social cues that might've helped her recall details even of her personal history. In fact, Halbwachs singles out "psychological treatises" for particular censure for thinking that individuals actually ever remember the past as individuals, as beings distinct from their social contexts:
One is rather astonished when reading psychological treatises that deal with memory to find that people are considered there as isolated beings. These make it appear that to understand our mental operations, we need to stick to individuals and first of all, to divide all the bonds which attach individuals to the society of their fellows. Yet it is in society that people normally acquire their memories. It is also in society that they recall, recognize, and localize their memories. (Halbwachs, Social Frameworks of Memory, 38; my emphasis)
In other words—and this is a point that many NT scholars miss—"social" or "collective memory" (I prefer the former) refers to a dynamic of memory as such and not to a particular kind of memory (i.e., not "the past of their society" as opposed to "their personal past"). Memory—not episodic memory or procedural memory or eyewitness memory or cultural memory; just memory, full-stop—is a social phenomenon, and it is constituted, conveyed, and transformed via social processes.

Ehrman actually recognizes this aspect of Halbwachs's work (which he calls a "rather radical claim"; p. 230) and summarizes it nicely (see pp. 230–33). So it is all the more unfortunately that Ehrman continues to draw such a stark distinction between accurate (or what he regularly calls "gist") memories, on one hand, and distorted memories on the other. Memory itself is subject to processes of selection, interpretation, communication, contestation, and evaluation. All of these are distorting forces (e.g., regarding "selection," why do we remember words and events leading up to Jesus' crucifixion but not the crucifixions of the two men next to him?), but these are also the forces that preserve and transmit memory across generations (e.g., the selection of Jesus' crucifixion as a meaningful event—and not the other two crucifixions that day—preserves traces of events that, otherwise, would be completely lost to us, as are, for example, any crucifixions that took place on the following Passover). Anthony Le Donne has called these "refractions" instead of "distortions," and for good reason. We read distortion pejoratively, akin to falsify, mar, or deface, like what Laszlo Toth did to Michelangelo's Pietà
in 1972. But in memory studies, distort doesn't necessarily have these negative connotations. Some distortions obscure, yes. But other distortions, like those perpetrated by the lenses of a telescope, provide clarity and focus. When scholars of memory say that memory does not provide access to the past as such but only to images of the past, they are not bemoaning the loss of some pristine truth and resigning themselves to make do with imperfect witnesses to the past. They are, instead, recognizing that all knowledge of the past—whether what an average person "knows" about her national history or what an historian researches in archival records—is only an approximation of the past.

So when Ehrman draws from collective memory research in order to articulate the claim that "the study of collective memory can tell us more about who is doing the remembering in the present than about the actual persons and events they are recalling from the past" (p. 241), he has not allowed the complexity of memory studies to sufficiently affect his understanding of the relationship between past and present, between traces and reconstruction, between identity and power. As a result, the program he pursues in these two chapters—viz., reading the texts as memorial records of the remembering communities' presents—is too simple. We cannot easily read texts and lift the circumstances of their present from their constructions of the past. Sometimes, the past is uncomfortable, even traumatically so. Sometimes, the past resists our will to remake it. And whether we find the past comforting or tortuous, we are constituted by the pasts we remember. This does not mean we can easily lift the past off of the texts we read; neither past nor present are easily distilled from the text.

We are nearly finished with our serial review. In one final post, I will summarize Ehrman's final chapter, "In Conclusion: A Paean to Memory" (which is less than seven pages long) and offer some concluding thoughts on the book as a whole. 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)

Monday, June 20, 2016

Italian Westerns and the Radical Bible

The Italian Westerns of the 60s and 70s were tied up with discussions of radical politics, the recent fascist past, and, obviously, understandings of religion, Christianity and the Bible, including some Jesus. The most famous to TJB readers are probably Sergio Leone's Dollars Trilogy but there are countless others, including a number which were part of the debates in Italian politics which were typically more sympathetic to questions of violence than in British debates. Here is a discussion of some of these issues and a context where revolutionary priests were not like English vicars, at least the cinematic ones. Thanks to Culture Matters for hosting this.
Not mentioned in the article is how these films might be of relevance for historical Jesus studies, particularly in the treatment of banditry which is a kind of combination of Hobsbawm on social banditry and Fanon on the wreched of the earth. Plus, Pasolini (whose film on Matthew's Gospel is likewise part of such debates) turns up with his revolutionary Bible.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 6)

After such a long hiatus—it has been over a month since I reviewed Chapter 4 of Jesus before the Gospels—I've finally been able to return to Ehrman's discussion of memory, tradition, and the historical Jesus. You'll recall that Chapter 4 addressed the topic, "Distorted Memories and the Death of Jesus." Chapter 5 ("Distorted Memories and the Life of Jesus"; pp. 179–226) provides a similar discussion, though now focusing primarily on the Gospels' accounts of Jesus' teaching and, secondarily, on his reputation as a miracle worker. Once again, it will be important to recall that Ehrman uses the term distorted memories to refer to "incorrect recollections" (p. 302 n.3); a "distorted" or "false" memory—Ehrman uses the terms synonymously—"involves a memory that is wrong" (p. 19).

Ehrman begins the chapter with a brief mention of Alexandre Luria’s study of a man he calls “S,” a man who seemed incapable of forgetting anything, and the debilitating consequences of his condition. However, Ehrman quickly leaves “S” behind to consider the question, “Are memories stronger in oral cultures?” (pp. 181–93).
Here Ehrman engages the comparative and anthropological research of Milman Parry and Albert Lord, Jack Goody, Jan Vansina, and David Rubin; these are all seminal works in the study of tradition, oral tradition, oral history, and memory. (Readers may recall that I vigorously criticized Ehrman in my review of Chapter 1 for not addressing works like these in a chapter whose title signals a consideration of “Oral Traditions and Oral Inventions.” I’m glad to see some discussion of these authors here.) Ehrman turns to these works to discover whether they substantiate the claim one often hears that non- or pre-literate cultures “have better memories, since, after all, they have to remember more simply to get by” (p. 182). Ehrman immediately presents his answer (“The consensus among both anthropologists and culture historians, in fact, is quite the opposite of what we might assume about oral cultures”) and spends the next eleven pages substantiating that answer. As he presents it, “The thesis of this chapter is that traditions in oral cultures do not remain the same over time, but change rapidly, repeatedly, and extensively” (p. 183). We will return to Ehrman’s treatment of the anthropological scholarship below.

When Ehrman turns to discuss “gist memories of the life of Jesus” (pp. 193–226), he begins with a list facts of whose reliability historians can be relatively confident (p. 194). These facts Ehrman refers to as “gist memories,” and from them he draws “a fair outline of information about the man Jesus himself during his public life” (p. 195). But can we go further than these facts? The rest of the chapter identifies distorted memories of Jesus’ teachings (pp. 195–211) and his deeds (pp. 211–26). Ehrman turns to the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5–7) to show how historians might detect contradictions and implausible claims in the traditions of Jesus’ teaching (recall Ehrman’s two criteria of authenticity, introduced on pp. 151–52). In this instance, discrepancies between Matthew and the other Synoptic Gospels, the implausibility of verbatim recall over five decades, and contradictions (in the beatitudes, in Jesus’ teaching on divorce, etc.) all suggest that Matthew’s Sermon is a “distorted memory” (in Ehrman’s sense) of Jesus. He then identifies other distorted memories of Jesus’ teaching, from Matthew’s parables of the wedding feast and the wise and foolish virgins to John’s account of Jesus’ dialogue with Nicodemus. Ehrman continues to identify gist and distorted memories of Jesus’ deeds, focusing specifically on the accounts of Jesus’ baptism (pp. 211–14), his relationship to his disciples, both male and female (pp. 214–20), and finally his miracles (pp. 220–26).

We can level the same criticisms of this chapter that we have made of earlier chapters. First, Ehrman’s strong disjunction between distorted and accurate memories (the latter are now regularly referred to as “gist memories”) simply does not reflect the use of the technical term “distortion” in memory studies, nor does it recognize how distortions (interpretations) are themselves the vehicles that preserve the connection between the past and the present in memory (see my criticism of Ehrman’s discussion of John Dean and Ulrich Neisser). Second, his historical method, which relies on the identification of inconsistencies and implausibilities, is simplistic and only continues the previous (and problematic) criteriological approach to the historical Jesus that has been fairly thoroughly discredited (see Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity [Chris Keith and Anthony Le Donne, eds]; see also Constructing Jesus [Dale Allison]). In other words, it is difficult to see how Ehrman’s engagement with memory studies has changed his approach to the historical Jesus, other than that now he uses the language of memory throughout.

But we should return to Ehrman’s discussion of the comparative anthropological work on tradition and oral performance. Perhaps the simplest flaw in Ehrman’s discussion to point out is the implausible claim (citing Jan Vansina) that, “when testimonies are recited frequently, because of the vagaries inherent in the oral mode of transmission, they change more often than when recited only on occasion” (p. 191; my emphasis). I haven’t consulted Vansina’s book (it’s been years since I read it), but I doubt that Ehrman has drawn an appropriate conclusion from it. He does quote Vansina (“Every time a tradition is recited the testimony may be a variant version”; p. 191, see Vansina, Oral Tradition, 43), but this does not mean that more frequent repetition equals more rapid and extensive alteration. Besides, Ehrman himself doesn’t operate from this principle; he regularly implies that the problem with assuming the Gospels’ historical accuracy lies in the chronological distance between the events they claim to narrate and when they were written, using imagery designed to lead the reader to think of a gap between event and narration without intervening narrations. For example, “Suppose you were asked to recall a conversation, word for word, that you had this time last year. Could you get it exactly right? Suppose you tried it with a speech that you heard once, say, twenty years ago. Or suppose you tried it with a sermon you heard fifty years ago. Would you remember the exact words?” (p. 197). The implausibility of the Gospels’ accuracy, for Ehrman, is based not on the frequent repetition of the material they preserve between Jesus and when they were written; it is akin, rather, to trying to recall the ipsissima verba (“word for word . . . exactly right . . . the exact words”) of “a speech that you heard once.” If Ehrman had dealt seriously with the communal recurrence of the Jesus tradition in the years between Jesus and the Gospels, he might have recognized that inscribing Jesus’ teachings and deeds in tradition was one mechanism for providing for the persistence of the Jesus tradition through time, such that it was recognizable as the Jesus tradition despite its observable flexibility and malleability.

A similar problem exists in Ehrman’s treatment of the idea of a tradition’s multiformity: he recognizes that, “in oral performance, there is actually no such thing as the ‘original’ version of a story, or poem, or saying” (pp. 185–86), but he does not incorporate that insight into his scholarship, as he is still attempting the “extremely difficult” task of “separat[ing] out the elements that have been added or altered to an ‘original testimony’ (to use Vansina’s term) from the gist that represents an ‘accurate memory’ of the past” (p. 193). This problem, however, actually gets us to the fatal flaw, in my view, of Ehrman’s use of the anthropological scholarship. That problem is: Ehrman conceives of a tradition’s malleability and variability through time as a movement away from an accurate original, as distortions of what had once been clear. For example, “Whoever performs the tradition alters it in light of his own interests, his sense of what the audience wants to hear, the amount of time he has to tell or sing it, and numerous other factors” (p. 186). As a result, each performance of the tradition is severed from earlier performances, and the group that enacts, performs, and transmit that tradition loses any connection with its sense of history, of identification with members of previous generations. Indeed, in this view, one wonders why we should use the word tradition at all, since each version or performance lacks any causal or normative connection with earlier versions.

But this is not a helpful reading of the scholarship. To focus on only one stream of that scholarship, Albert Lord’s pioneering work, The Singer of Tales, did indeed struggle with appreciating what was traditional about tales composed in oral performance. But in that struggle, Lord nevertheless recognized that, alongside all the factors that endow a tradition with its flexibility and variance, was a causal, normative connection with previous performances. Lord emphasizes that the “oral” phenomena that have caught his interest are, at every turn, traditional:
The singer of tales is at once the tradition and an individual creator. His manner of composition differs from that used by a writer in that the oral poet makes no conscious effort to break the traditional phrases and incidents; he is forced by the rapidity of composition in performance to use these traditional elements. . . . His art consists not so much in learning through repetition the time-worn formulas as in the ability to compose and recompose the phrases for the idea of the moment on the pattern established by the basic formulas. He is not a conscious iconoclast, but a traditional creative artist. (Lord, Singer of Tales, 4, 5; see also pp. 220–21)
Ehrman is right when he reacts to exaggerated claims that one sometimes finds regarding the stability and/or the reliability of oral tradition. Not only are oral traditions flexible, changeable, malleable, but they also often seem to work with a different notion of stability and invariance than we do. But even this should not be exaggerated. Multiform traditions are perfectly capable of preserving a group's sense of cohesion with and belonging to the past that constitutes them. Perhaps the most helpful scholar for readers interested in an updated, even seminal study of the Parry-Lord approach to oral tradition is John Miles Foley (whether his 1991 book, Immanent Art, his 1995 volume, The Singer of Tales in Performance, or perhaps most helpful for the new reader, his 2002 primer, How to Read an Oral Poem). My own book, Oral Tradition and the New Testament (T&T Clark, 2014), is intended as an introduction to Foley's work for students of the New Testament.

When Ehrman describes the fixity of written tradition, he says, “An ‘accurate’ preservation of a tale, a poem, a saying, for most of us, is one that does not vary from its earlier iteration. The reason we think that way is that we have ways of checking to see whether it is the same tradition” (p. 185). This is not quite right. My favorite example, from our own uber- or hyper-literate culture, of a stable but variable “tradition” is the Eagles’ version of “Hotel California” on their 1994 album, Hell Freezes Over. The original was released in February, 1977, and has since become an iconic song not just embodying The Eagles' art but even that era of rock 'n roll. But the 1994 acoustic version is very different. In fact, the audience in the live session in the video above didn't even realize they were listening to "Hotel California" for the first ninety seconds of the song! Even so, the 1994 live version clearly is the same song as the 1977 studio release, and in fact its value as a performance is a combination of both its reproduction of the song we know from the 1970s and its innovative sound and sequence. None of this refutes Ehrman's point that, in our familiarity with print-based exact reproduction, we are used to "preservation . . . that does not vary from its earlier iteration." It is only a plea to remember that even we, with our so-called "print mentality," can accommodate the preservation of tradition alongside and even through innovative variation.

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)

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

reasoning back from the Gospels to Jesus?

I've recently resumed working on the next installment of my serial review of Bart Ehrman's book, Jesus before the Gospels (HarperCollins, 2016). But before we turn our attention to Chapter 5, I would like to address Larry's very interesting comment that was left on the previous installment. In sum, Larry raises a question about the "direction of reasoning": that is, if we knew the historical Jesus (the actual man from the 20s CE) we could likely understand and explain the Gospels, but can we with any real confidence know the historical Jesus having only the Gospels? Also, Larry mentions the very important factor that the significance of "the essential truth" of the historical event or figure we are trying to discern (the true essence of that event or figure) changes as the social context of the remembering present changes. So, in the example of Jonathan Dillon, the watchmaker who repaired Abraham Lincoln's pocket watch, "The first gun is fired. Slavery is dead. Thank God we have a President who at least will try," and "Fort Sumpter [sic] was attacked by the rebels on the above date . . . thank God we have a government" might have been essential synonyms, but they are not so today.

There is much to commend here. The basic fact is, Yes, we are dealing with a problem of directionality. It is quite difficult—if not actually impossible—to move backward from the traces of the past to the actuality of past events, in part because the actuality of past events no longer exists. Even in the relatively straightforward example of Lincoln’s watch, the historian cannot disprove the claim that, within a week of the watchmaker’s having inscribed Lincoln’s watch, a cat burglar exchanged the watch expressing the hope for slavery’s end with one expressing a hope for the reunification of the Union, and that the Smithsonian actually opened this latter watch rather than the former. Perhaps the watchmaker’s testimony is righter than we might think on the basis of the watch found within the Smithsonian’s custody. This isn’t just a silly example; it rather demonstrates the point that even when we have excellent evidence (as in this case), historians do not have the past itself. Hence the common claim that historians trade in probabilities rather than certainties.

It is also the case that historians of Jesus do not have sufficient evidence of Jesus’ life to warrant the kind of confidence we might have in our knowledge of the historical Lincoln. With Lincoln, we have actual manuscripts of at least some of his speeches. We have public records relating to and stemming from Lincoln’s public life. We have words and other materials from his contemporaries, both his supporters and his opponents. We are awash in data when we study Lincoln; Jesus scholars can only look on with envy. We have no accounts written by Jesus himself of his teachings. We have no public records (demographic data, bureaucratic documentation, etc.) from Jesus’ day. We don’t even have materials from Jesus’ contemporaries, though the Gospels are not terribly far removed from the time of the historical Jesus (being only three to five or seven decades after him; the closest reports we get from Jesus’ opponents other than those recorded in the Gospels come from the second century Roman historians and the even later Talmudic tradition). In terms of the standard investigation of ancient history, historians of Jesus rely on fairly solid data. But that standard is orders of magnitude below the kinds of data that survive for the study of modern history, which is a pity.

Even so, reasoning backwards from the claim of Lincoln’s watchmaker to the inscription inside his pocket watch actually helps clarify the task of historical Jesus scholarship, especially from the so-called memory approach. While we might not be able to reason backward from “I hope the war ends slavery” to “I hope the war reunifies a divided country,” we would be able to recover the watchmaker’s expectation that Lincoln was a significant figure in the troubles of mid-nineteenth-century America, that those troubles were related to tensions between slave and free states, and that the Union in Lincoln’s day was in dire straits. The watchmaker was able to participate in the effort to express the value of the Union—perhaps without the overt reference to slavery he would later recall—in his own, small way (viz., an inscription where no one would see it), and in doing so he identified the hope of the Union with Lincoln and his tenure in office. Historians would be able to have this fairly clear picture even if they mistakenly thought the inside of Lincoln’s watch read, "The first gun is fired. Slavery is dead. Thank God we have a President who at least will try," when it actually read, "Fort Sumpter [sic] was attacked by the rebels on the above date . . . thank God we have a government."

Larry is right to raise questions about the applicability of the story of John Dean’s testimony against Nixon to our study of Jesus. John Dean’s testimony is only heuristically helpful for Jesus historians. That is, it describes one way that memory sometimes works (and exposes one potential dimension of the truth of historical claims); it does not tell us how memory always works. I would, however, make two final points. First, I did not apply the case of John Dean to the Gospels’ testimony about Jesus; Bart Ehrman did. Second, my point was not that the case of John Dean salvages the historical value of the Gospels. Rather, it was that Ehrman provided a selective portrayal of Neisser’s study and that, to whatever extent we might apply that study to the Gospels, Neisser will lead us to very different conclusions to those drawn by Ehrman.

Friday, June 10, 2016

New Hebrew Bible Scholar at St Mary's: Chris Meredith

In what turned out to be a very nice surprise indeed, St Mary’s University has appointed Chris Meredith. Chris will take up one of the new positions as Academic Directors (teaching) and will be an Internal Affiliate of the Centre for the Social-Scientific Study of the Bible. Chris joins St Mary’s from the University of Winchester where he has been Senior Lecturer in Biblical Studies and Critical Theory and worked extensively on issues relating to teaching and learning and prior to that he was a colleague of mine at the University of Sheffield.

Chris did his PhD with Cheryl Exum on Song of Songs and spatial theory and his research generally combines expertise in philology, literary studies, critical theory, and reception history, as well as a related interest in Walter Benjamin. His publications reveal this broad range and the kinds of things biblical studies can do. He has published work of the more traditional variety, such as:

  • 'The Conundrum of חתר in Jonah 1:13’, Vetus Testamentum 64/1 (2014), pp. 147-152

As expected, Chris has various Song of Songs publications, such as:

  •  Journeys in the Songscape: Space and the Song of Songs (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2013)
  • ‘Eating Amnesia: Revisiting Food and Sex in the Song of Songs’, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament (in press, forthcoming)
  • ‘The Lattice and the Looking Glass: Gendered Space in Song of Songs 2:8-14’, Journal of the American Academy of Religion 80/2 (2012), pp. 1-22

As this already implies, he also likes to look at boundaries:

  • ‘Sodom, City of the Line: Sexuality, Hospitality and the Limits of Interpretation in Genesis 19’, Biblical Interpretation (in press, forthcoming)
  • ‘A Case of Open and Shut: The Five Thresholds of 1 Samuel 1:1-7:2’, Biblical Interpretation 18.3 (2010), pp. 137-157

Chris is also producing more and more work not only on receptions of biblical texts but also on what the Bible is deemed to be and notions of ‘biblical literacy’:

  • ‘Civic Bible as Civic Breach: Reading Doris Salcedo’s Shibboleth’, Biblical Reception 3 (2015), 161-172
  • ‘Zombie Bible: Stant Litore’s Strangers in the Land and the Conditions of Bibleness', Relegere:  Studies in Religion and Reception 4/1 (2014), pp. 65-84
  • ‘A Big Room for Poo: Eddie Izzard’s Bible and the Literacy of Laughter’, Bible and Critical Theory, 9/1-2 (2013), pp. 61-77

Two contracted books give an idea of what’s soon to come from Chris:

  • Biblia Excrementa: Abjection, Obsolescence and Insurrection in Biblical Reception (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark; forthcoming)
  • The Bible and Spatial Theory: A Guide for the Perplexed (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark; forthcoming)

Chris is a well-known figure in various conferences, including the most important ones like Bible, Critical Theory and Reception, and is involved in steering committees and chairing at SBL and EABS.

But what is also great about this appointment is that, for all the gloom surrounding Biblical Studies, Theology and Religious Studies in the UK, there are places where the subject is growing. The appointment of someone like Chris is an important statement of intent for the importance of biblical studies in higher education, as well as an indication of where the centres of the field are now shifting.  

And if you fancy doing a PhD in the area of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and/or the reception of the Bible and/or critical theory and the Bible and/or spatial theory and the Bible, or something Benjamin, Chris will be taking on new students.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

What is Narrativization and What Can it Do for You?

Greetings from the The 2016 "Memory and the Reception of Jesus in Early Christianity" Conference at St Mary's University. 

Last night Rafael Rodriguez, Bill Heroman, Alan and Sue Kirk and I were enjoying a nice meal at the King's Head in Teddington. I had the gammon steak, a fried duck egg, and chips. I washed it down with a lovely (hoppy, but not too hoppy) local brew called Twickenham Summer Sun. Bill asked about the pie of the week, learned that it was beef and ale, was told that it was delicious, and then ordered a hamburger. It was almost as if he just wanted a burger. If so, why would he ask about the pie of the week at all?

Over supper we chatted about a number of topics. About where babies come from. About how some people believe that the Queen is a reptilian shapeshifter. About, of course, memory distortion. The conversation lasted for over an hour, maybe two.

In our discussion about memory distortion (what I call memory refraction), we all agreed that memory becomes more vague, less detailed, and more supplemented with generic mnemonic patterns over time. We agreed that if the five of us got together for another supper at the King's Head five years from now we'd be hard pressed to reconstruct the conversation with much detail. We might come up with a general outline while forgetting entire portions of the conversation. But we agreed that parts of the conversation would be easier to remember than others.

The conversation included an autobiographical story told by Alan Kirk. Rafael had heard this story before and prompted the story to be told for the benefit of the group. Alan recounted the story. And now we come to the virtues and vices of narrativization. Because Alan had told that story before, because it had a purpose in our conversation, because it had a memory structure (plot line), and for an number of other reasons, that story is a relatively stable memory. In other words, a portion of our conversation was narrativized.

So if the five of us got together at the King's Head pub in five years Alan's story would probably be retold with a high degree of similarity. While other parts of the conversation will become vague (we call this mnemonic distanciation), the narrativized portion of the conversation might not fatigue in the same way. Alan might retell the story slightly different, or with expanded detail, or with a couple lies tossed in for flavor, but the narrative functions as a vehicle for memory (what we call a mnemotechnique). Hooray for narrativization! If used with care, it can reduce the fatigue of distanciation.

But what is narrativization if not itself a form of memory distortion (or memory refraction)? Alan's story has been reduced, details have been emphasized to serve the telos of the story, details have been left out that seem irrelevant to the agenda of the storyteller. A beginning, middle, and end has been imposed upon Alan's past, by Alan, for Alan and friends. Narrativization can indeed be used to deceive or promote an ideological aim. But in this case, we all played along with Alan as if the story was true. Because the story was true.

We all agreed that Alan's story was incapable of representing the past with 100% accuracy. But the story, while not preserving the past, was a useful link to our perceived past nonetheless. Because it was a true story. A flawed, manipulated, distorted, true story. And we all perceived it as such with no great difficulty.

So let's imagine that Rafael, Bill, Sue, Alan, and I got together for Twickenham Summer Sun in five years. If our purpose was to help each other remember last night's conversation the part that was narrativized would be both the most distorted and the most true part of our reconstruction.