The application of social memory in the Gospels has picked up steam in recent years. As such, it was inevitable that critical assessments of it would emerge on the heels of critical applications of it. Paul Foster has recently published a largely negative assessment of it in his essay “Memory, Orality, and the Fourth Gospel: Three Dead-Ends in Historical Jesus Research,” JSHJ 10 (2012): 191–227. As many know, Foster is an immensely productive New Testament scholar as well as one of the genuinely nicest people you’ll meet. I have great respect for him and like to think that I enjoy his friendship. This essay is provocative, as I suspect it was designed to be, and as such gets some things right and some things wrong. I’ll concentrate here just on the first section, which treats memory. Regardless of your thoughts on this issue, you really do need to read the article. Foster is never one to ignore.
Foster’s chief complaint is that memory theory is being used “as a means of validating the historical authenticity of the Gospels” (191). He refers to it as a “trendy” way of “claiming the community memories of early believers provide reliable access to the historical Jesus” (193). This point about “reliable access” and similar assertions is important to his complaint because he repeats it throughout this section (191, 193, 198, 202). For Foster, memory theorists really aren’t doing anything that the form critics weren’t doing (202), despite the fact that they disparage the form critics (198).
Foster is right to complain about some scholars who simply assume that memory theory affirms the historicity of the Gospels. As someone who has been working with social memory theory for over ten years now, I can say with utter confidence that the theory in and of itself does not directly address the historical reliability of the tradition. The problem with memory theory is that there’s really no such thing as memory theory. There are many types of memory theories (cognitive, cultural, social, collective, autobiographical), each with their own emphases. And across the broad spectrum of scholars and disciplines participating in the discussion is any opinion you might want to find. Want someone who says that memory is reliable? There’s several sociologists who will be happy to demonstrate that to you. Want someone who says that memory is unreliable? There’s several social and cognitive psychologists who will be happy to demonstrate that to you.
Biblical critics, including Foster, can cherry-pick from all these sources, which is why I’m generally quite suspicious of any biblical scholar attempting to use memory theory whose footnotes are too thin. At the end of the day, though, what social memory theory does is address the complex relationship between the present and the past in any event of commemoration. It does not at the outset predetermine whether any act is more present or more past; each act must be assessed on its own. In some cases, the past may force itself upon the present. In other cases, the present may successfully re-write the past in its own image. But there is no standard “way” that social memory works in this regard. I’ve said this in print in at least four places, but apparently I need to take out a billboard. The general point keeps getting lost in second-hand representations of the theory, and Foster’s assessment is not immune on this count, so it needs to be said emphatically: Social memory theory does not inherently favor the historical reliability or historical unreliability of the Gospel tradition.
It is not the business of the theory to do the work of the theorist. Individual arguments by scholars are what establish historical reliability or unreliability. Thus, although Foster is right to criticize those scholars who assume the theory supports the reliability of the Gospels, he’s wrong to assume that the theory necessarily speaks against them. The theory (if it even is a theory) itself is simply a tool that addresses historiographical complexity. The one who wields the tool must sort out that complexity.
Furthermore, Foster participates in a recent trend of skewing the field in scholarly presentation by citing only those scholars who fit the author’s schema. In this instance, Foster ignores scholars such as me, Rafael Rodriguez, Anthony Le Donne, et al., who employ social memory and conclude against the historicity of various traditions. (He also ignores Philip Davies’ application of cultural memory theory to ancient Israel in Memories of Ancient Israel; hardly an apologetic tract!) It simply is not the case that Gospels scholars employing social memory theory are myopically concerned with affirming the historicity of the tradition, but one would get this impression from the article and its repeated blanket statements that people use memory to verify the Gospels.
This emphasis on the Gospels as a whole also misdirects the conversation since several of us have, in the midst of employing social memory, argued for historicity in some instances and against it in others. Omitting these studies, as well as the crucially seminal work of Jens Schröter altogether, leads Foster to make inaccurate statements like, “It is notable that the current application of memory studies to the Jesus tradition most frequently remains embedded in the theoretical domain, with little attempt to show how the category of memory actually allows for specific traditions to be traced back to the Jesus of history. Instead, the level of argument appears to have stalled with assertions that social memory validates the historicity of the events it purports to communicate” (198). First, one sees again here the claim that what people using social memory theory assert is that it validates the historicity of the Gospels. Some scholars do that; many do not. And I know for sure that those of us who have been working with it for more than five or six years consider these applications to be a misappropriation of the theory. (Alan Kirk has a forthcoming essay in a Semeia volume that addresses this very issue succinctly.) Along these lines, the accusation that Tom Thatcher’s essay “Why John Wrote a Gospel” does not help with the historical Jesus (199) is a red herring; that essay never attempts to address the historical Jesus question. Second, both I and Anthony Le Donne have done precisely what Foster says no one does in applying the theory to mutually exclusive images in the Gospels, and did so in monographs and, in my case, an earlier journal publication. It simply is not true that scholars have not applied the method in this way.
A similar lack of familiarity with the discussion emerges in Foster’s claims that New Testament scholars employing social memory theory “do not appear to be cognizant of the fact that within the disciplines from which these theories are imported, the forms used as a break-through in New Testament studies are seen as being outmoded and largely flawed” (226; also 198). Foster seems mainly to be talking about the scholars he has cited, but again he has cited a slim selection that fits his schema. He has thus misrepresented not only the New Testament scholars employing memory theory but also the field of memory theory itself. In terms of NT, he has not interacted with Le Donne or Schröter and has merely cited Kirk without interacting with his work, and I would say that these three, not Bauckham or even Allison for that matter, are by far and away the most important scholars using memory theory, along with Tom Thatcher and Rodriguez. In terms of memory theory, he cites Halbwachs and mentions Schwartz briefly. He does not, however, interact with the likes of Barbie Zelizer, Eviatar Zerubavel, Yael Zerubavel, Jan Assmann, Aleida Assmann, Paul Ricoeur, Jeffrey Olick, Michel Foucault, Eric Hobsbawm, Paul Connerton, Edward Schils, Pierre Nora, and many others. The omissions of Schröter and Jan Assmann are particularly notable in this regard, as well as Nora. Foster’s accusation that those who use memory theory aren’t aware of the field is incredibly ironic at this point. Perhaps he’s right about Bauckham, but his criticisms ring entirely hollow for people like Kirk, Le Donne, Schröter, et al.
In short, although Foster is correct to criticize those scholars using memory theory for apologetic purposes, it is a mischaracterization of the field to say that’s the only thing people are interested in or to imply that those scholars are unwilling to conclude against reliability on the same basis.
In a similar fashion, Foster is both right and wrong about the relationship between form criticism and social memory theorists. Form criticism has often functioned as the punching bag for those of us applying social memory theory, but I also know that I, Alan Kirk, Tom Thatcher, and Anthony Le Donne have, in print, stated that memory theory does not sweep away form criticism but rather addresses its weak points while building upon its strong points. Form criticism’s focus on the impact of the present community is one of those strong points; its negligence of how what preceded the present community contributed to that community is a weak point. Thus, despite the impression one would gain from Foster that form criticism and social memory theory are really just doing the same thing, it’s more the case that there’s significant overlap in addition to important distinction. A serious distinction is that, as Foster recognizes, form criticism focused on the individual unit of tradition in isolation from narrative frameworks, positing a tradition-history of the unit as an isolated unit. Social memory theory regards this as impossible: a unit of tradition, whether “historical” or fabricated, never circulated in isolation from narrative frameworks, whether those were its Gospel narrative frameworks or other frameworks.
Foster’s essay is important, and as an indication of this importance, just think about the fact that I’ve here addressed only the first third. He has perceptively noted, and demonstrated, some of the illegitimate uses of social memory theory in New Testament scholarship. My criticism, however, is that the situation is a bit—okay, a lot—more complex than Foster’s narrative indicates. Michael Bird described Foster’s essay as a grenade in the playground of historical Jesus scholarship. I’d say rather that it’s more like someone peeing on a corner of the playground. That particular corner of the playground may have needed such treatment, but the playground is bigger than that corner. Don’t take my word for it, though. Go read the essay!