Saturday, February 17, 2007

Book Note: Memory, Tradition, and Text: Uses of the Past in Early Christianity (Alan Kirk and Tom Thatcher, eds.)

I wish to draw attention to an edited volume that I think is dealing with an extremely important subject, but one that has been largely neglected in biblical studies - social memory theory, what I have come to call "communal memory" in my own writings. The book contains a very good introduction to social memory theory and a number of specific studies applying the theory to biblical and extra-biblical texts. Sociologists and anthropologists who have studied social memory for decades now have shown us that communities as well as individuals create and commemorate their pasts in terms of their present experiences and social realities - that no history is a record of what actually happened, but a reimagining of what the community wishes to remember happened. The articles in this book provide a significant challenge to many of the assumptions we have made as scholars in biblical studies, including the very items we have been discussing on this blog. What kind of history do our gospels relate? Why did the early Christian literature emerge? Ritual? Ethics? Can we ever know the historical Jesus?

Memory studies are highly significant, so much so that I think the field of biblical studies cannot move forward honestly without embracing this large body of social scientific research and making it part of our baseline operation. I plan to post soon a more comprehensive discussion of communal memory theory and its implications for our period and literature with a starting bibliography, highlighting significant research from social scientific journals and books. But for now, I recommend Memory, Tradition and Text as a quick plunge into this material and its application to biblical studies.

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