Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The First Tendency of Communal Memory

I have been wanting to post about this important topic for several weeks, but I just haven't had the chance to sit down and write something coherent due to time constraints.

I ran across Social Memory theories a few years ago when Tom Thatcher asked me to write a piece for a volume that he and Alan Kirk were co-editing called Memory, Tradition, and Text: Uses of the Past in Early Christianity (Semeia 52; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2005). Alan Kirk was kind enough to send the contributors a starting bibliography, and I will always be indebted to him for this.

Once I started reading, I literally couldn't put the books and articles down. I think I drove my colleagues at Illinois Wesleyan crazy talking about it all the time. What excited me so much about it was the fact that these theories explained why and how people's traditions are the way they are, and it was exactly what I had been observing and writing about for years in the early Christian literature. But here were anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists, and historians who had already developed the vocabulary to explain the dynamics. I was so taken by the importance of these theories for the study of early Christianity, that I completely rewrote the manuscript I had almost completed at the time. This rewrite became Recovering the Original Gospel of Thomas.

On to a quick summary of communal memory and one of its tendencies.

In cultures where literacy is minimal and an oral consciousness dominates, the dominant power of the mind is memory. This memory includes not only individual memory (which I think played a large role in the way our traditions were transmitted too), but also social or communal memory, as I prefer to call it. Communal memory is the dimension of remembering that we share as a people. It's our history remembered. It transcends the individual person to include everything about the community - we are talking its literature, its art, its sacred places, its ruins, its holidays, its relics, its rituals, and on and on.

This might not seem like that big of a deal. Isn't this just the traditions a community shares? Yes. But what Social Memory studies have shown is that it is the nature and dynamics of communal memory - its characteristics and tendencies - that are important to understand. I have found the application of these studies to be particularly significant for those of us to consider while reading and interpreting literature produced by the ancient Christians.

Today I will just post the first of these tendencies. Communal memory depends upon shared frames of references within a culture as it thrives on remaking the past into a history with contemporaneous meaning. The way that communal memory functions is not a simple matter of recall, or retrival, or preservation of past traditions and historical experiences. On the other hand, communal memory does not invent new traditions or history out of thin air, because the power of the memory is within the hands of the community which controls it. What communal memory does, however, is reconfigure the past - its traditions and historical experiences - to make it conform to the present experiences and future expectations of the group.

What does this mean for the historical hermeneutic I am developing? It means that the history we read about cannot be what actually happened, but what has been reconfigured as happened. We should not be talking in terms of "reliable" history and "unreliable" history, "authentic" memories and "inauthentic" memories. Such questions of "accuracy" and "errancy" must be replaced with other questions of community identity, membership, authority, experience, interaction and so forth. The issue must become for us, why a particular group of Christians constructed its memories in a particular way at a particular time, rather than how accurately a text depicts what actually happened.

I will post on the second tendency in a future post. For now, a good first read about communal memory is Barbie Zelizer, "Reading the Past Against the Grain: The Shape of Memory Studies," Critical Studies in Mass Communication 12 (1995) 214-239.

11 comments: said...

Many scholars of biblical and Christian history read and interpret the extant texts with an astonishing degree of naivety, focussing on individual words and ignoring context, social conditions, motives, and even simple logic. For years I have been thinking that the history I read, particularly that of the first century, cannot be what actually happened. For example, because Josephus is said to have been descended from the priests, most have assumed that he lived the life of a priest in Jerusalem. But nowhere do the texts say that Josephus ever practiced as a priest in Jerusalem, for example sacrificing animals in the temple. But there are a number of examples of him behaving as a prophet. And of course we know that prophets, like the ‘Essenes’ (who I believe were the prophets), were not so concerned about animal sacrifices. Added to that, is my conclusion that the logic of the text of Life indicates that Josephus was raised in the Imperial Court with Nero of the same age, that Josephus was thus a Roman Jew all along, and therefore could not have been the one captured by ‘Vespasian’ at ‘Jotapata’.

It is obvious that many of the texts we read are heavily edited or garbled versions of their originals. Some may say, “we are not stupid, we know that we are being conned by the writer, but the extant text must have had a real meaning to the editor.” Traditional historians like Martin Goodman, quote the texts, and then cover their backs with phrases like ‘according to Josephus’, indicating that the text may not be correct. Nevertheless, the historian continues without explanation of the quoted text which is used literally to support an argument. One does not have to be stupid.

Unknown said...

Last semester I finished my undergraduate degree at the University of Houston. I took a class on the way the Hurricane Katrina community in Houston is developing an oral history of the events that took place. One thing that I noticed is that a given community will allow for things to become part of that oral history and communal memory that make sense to the community, but may not have actually happened. An example of this in the context of Katrina is that there is widespread belief within the community that the gov't (at some level) intentionally blew holes in the levies. This is being included as part of that community's developing history because it makes sense to the Katrina survivors-it resonates with their intuition of how the world works-in the absence of any real physical evidence proving that it happened. This tells me that a community is not immune to things becoming part of what it swears is the truth that have no basis in reality. Are we to reasonably suspect that the early Christian community was immune?

April, you might find some of the research going on with this to be of interest, because there is a great deal of similarity between the katrina survivors and the early jesus movement. They are a marginalized population that underwent an extremely powerful, evocative event; they have experienced a lot of dislocation; they are at odds with the ruling power. I would also think that early post-70 Jewish communities would share some of these things in common.

April DeConick said...


This sounds fascinating, and it certainly would have implications for how the early Christians built their memories. It is how groups do this sort of thing, and the early Christians are not immune. This is why I am trying to start thinking in terms of shifting our discourse to studying why particular authors tell the story in the way they do (and not some other way). I think there are bits of history there, but how to get at them is tough indeed.

I seem to remember some story developing a few years back among the Cuban community in Maimi about the young boy who the government was trying send back to Cuba, and the Maimi community said that the dolphin had saved him and brought him to shore. Do you remember this? Why would this story have developed?

Anyway, I want to know more about the Katrina stories. Where can I learn this?

Unknown said...


That was Evian Gonzalez, IIRC. As far as the Katrina info, I am actually still working on material for that class. It wound up being something of a mess. About 85% of the class got "incompletes" or was dropped from the class by the prof. We are creating a searchable database, and it is a Library of Congress project, so at some point the interviews will be available online. I have some of the interviews on DVD (audio only)and will check with the prof. and share them with you if possible. There will probably be no problem, but since it is a federally funded project, there all kinds of human subject protocols that have to be followed. I will find some of the stuff online and e-mail the links.

On another note, I am a pastor here in Houston (United Methodist) and am trying to get somewhere to here you speak.

About interdisciplanary analysis of NT/Origins issues, Crossan has been someone who I felt made a reasonable attempt to do this, esp. in The History of Christianity. He accessed some work on Eastern European bards of the late 19th-early 20th century, and also some psychological work on memory and eyewitness accounts (which you probably know already).

I really appreciate your blog. I kind of wish I could do some grad. work at Rice.

Unknown said...


One text we used in the Katrina class is Schneider, ...So They Understand Cultural Issues in Oral History. Here is the link:

Schneider goes into the normative role community plays in the creation of oral history. It is the individual storyteller that tells the story, but this telling always takes place within the parameters of the community. Applied to the NT, you see why there are differences, yet similatities, in the canonical books. They were the ones whose telling of the story most closely matched that of the developing "orthodoxy", or whose provenance was so well attested by the community that inclusion was by default.

The question I have is how much does this happen willy-nilly on its own, and how much can be manipulated by the powers-that-be? What is the interaction between a community and an individual charismatic leader to whom the community grants a great deal of didactic authority (Jesus, Paul, etc.) Do leaders create communities, or do communities create the leaders? Or is it a conversation so intricately woven that cause/effect relationships become impossible to tease out?

Obviously (I think), Jesus of nazareth lived. He said things to people, and people said things to him. Some of these spent a great deal of time with him. So I think it reasonable that some of what he said is contained in what we have. Rather than figure out exactly what this might of been (a task which seems impossible to do in a non-agenda driven way), might it be more beneficial to attempt to ascertain what the community parameters of the conversation were? Because I think equally obvious is that the communities did exercise a role in how these stories were told. Does the Nag Hammadi corpus have the story told according to a different community's rules?

Sorry for the ramble.

Unknown said...

Here is another thought: does the Gospel of Thomas represent some things that were common to both communities? With Thomas at the center, would it be possible to map a contiuum from "most orthodox" document to "most Gnostic"? Note: I use "orthodox" as a term to denote a viewpoint that came to be a kind of catholic, Constantinian Roman form of Christianity, not as a stamp of agreement or rightness. Similarly, "Gnostic" is short-hand for views that vary from these handed-down orthodox traditions.

Unknown said...

That's actually The Birth of Christianity, by Crossan.

April DeConick said...


This is all good conversation. Do you have time to meet on campus?

Unknown said...


I emailed you a reply to this.

Nick Kiger said...


Are you familiar at all with the study that Albert Lord has done on oral transmission? I think some of that would add a great deal to the topic. I am working on oral transmission and the prescence of myth in the gospels, especially concerning Jesus for my master's thesis. I have found the Lord/Perry argument very intriguing.


April DeConick said...


Read it cover to cover. It is the best and most exciting book on orality. I can't say enough about it. There are other things to read, but Lord's work is a classic for a reason, and it stuns me how unfamiliar biblical scholars are with it.