Tuesday, April 3, 2007

The Second Tendency of Communal Memory

The second tendency of communal memory follows the first - retrospective reconstructions of the past are largely achieved by adapting old traditions and historical facts to the beliefs and spiritual needs of the contemporary group. These remembrances do not represent the sum total of what actually happened, but are fragments of the past that have been rearranged and reconnected into a new interpretative framework. This results in a new "original" picture that aligns the contemporary community with its past, present, and future.

The process is akin to an artist creating a mosaic from shards of glass that have been broken or retooled or rearranged to fit a new vision. Some of the shards end up in the trash while others are placed side-by-side in such a way to create a new pattern. Unlike the artistic process, the process of maintaining communal memories is largely unconscious.

This means that the early Christian literature not only is a remaking of the past for the present, but it is a fragmentary past that is recreated. To understand the fragments, the reader has to be privy to the bigger picture to which it relates, or the frame that holds it all together. The text will not tell us the whole story, but only bits of the story, and it assumes the rest. Our job is to try to understand the assumptions, the rest of the story that is missing.

This also means that the fragments have been chosen and rearranged, not willy-nilly like someone heaving a basket of shards down a stairway. But the unconscious process is driven by conscious agendas, to understand the past in certain ways that will explain or justify the present. There is a sense of normation going on, bringing the shards into an order to provide the normative picture for the group.

So there will be shards that are forgotten or diminished in importance. Here I think of my work on the Gospel of Judas - how this text provides us with some of the shards that went missing from the apostolic tradition particularly in terms of the normative struggle over the faith tradition, its rituals, and its authority.

The apocryphal literature is SO IMPORTANT for many reasons not the least of which is its preservation of the lost shards. Much of this literature shows us that the story created by the apostolic churches about the faith that was handed down to them from the Twelve (the same everywhere in all the churches across the world), is a story they created as their normative story. The apostolic churches in the second century were not the dominant, although they told the story in such a way that they appeared dominant. And when they became dominant, they burned the literature of those who represented other opinions, so that it came to appear that they were the only Christians who had anything to say.

So again, we return to the theme of this blog. If we want to really understand early Christianity, we can't do it from the canonical literature alone. We have to try to recover the lost shards and the diverse voices of other Christians whose communal memories are different from the apostolic (and our own).


gdelassu said...

Gosh, I agree that the non-canonical literature is important, but I am a bit skeptical that it can be understood to represent any "lost shards." How would we know?

We do not stand outside communal memory. We are reworking history for our own purposes today just as others before us have done. As such, any shards we might "recover" would be just as likely to be new shards which we have imported for our own present purposes. Besides, even if we did, by happy accident, end up re-appropriating one of the lost original shards, how would we ever establish it as such, absent the unbroken original for comparison?

April DeConick said...

Dear "Gdelassu,"

Their identification is not as difficult as it may seem. What you are recovering is the communal memories of a different community which allows a comparison. The lost shard is not necessarily "history" as in what actually happened - but "history" as it was remembered. The apostolic literature only preserves certain memories in certain ways. So to have a comparative - to see how other Christians preserved their memories in other ways (or similar ways) is absolutely invaluable. Why wouldn't we want such a comparison? Why wouldn't we want to investigate the shards of others?

Geoff Hudson said...

I think of shards as being dangerous brittle fragments of glass that can easily fly. Historians of Christianity usually wear protective clothing when they are treading over the shards of Christian history.

We have been told history by winners. Were the Jews such a difficult nut to crack militarily? Did Vespasian mount a campaign of attrition starting in Galilee? Did Titus conquer Jerusalem? Was Masada the final glorious episode in the crushing of the Jews? We only have the Flavians to give us their answers. May be if Nero and his supporters had survived to tell the tale we might have some of those shards. May be all the Judean fortresses had been taken by Neronian forces before they were let into Jerusalem by friendly supporters. May be Nero didn't then plunder Jerusalem, but merely destoyed most of the temple except for the sanctuary where the prophets worshipped. May be Nero was a supporter of the prophets - the christians had flourished under Nero. After the death of Nero, may be Titus simply took the opportunity to ransack Jerusalem for its wealth - after all, Vespasian used Jewish wealth to finance various construction projects including the Colosseum. May be the Flavians then commissioned their own version of history, Christianity, and Judaism for that matter.

gdelassu said...

The apostolic literature only preserves certain memories in certain ways. So to have a comparative - to see how other Christians preserved their memories in other ways (or similar ways) is absolutely invaluable. Why wouldn't we want such a comparison? Why wouldn't we want to investigate the shards of others?

Indeed, why would we not? I agree, as I said at the beginning of my earlier post, that the study of the non-canonical literature is important. My only quibble is with the language of "recovering" shards of memory lost (deliberately or accidentally) by the apostolic communities.

April DeConick said...

Dear "Gdelassu,"

I wish I had a single easy answer for you about how this can be done. In fact, the methodological approach used will depend on what question you are asking of the texts, and what shards you are interested in. This will vary.

For instance, my own work on the Gospel of Thomas has recovered an early kernel of sayings - a speech gospel from Jerusalem, dating 30-50 CE. I used a variety of methods to get at this, including literary criticism, historical criticism, social memory approaches, orality theories, and a new form of tradition criticism.

My work on the Gospel of Judas has recovered a form of Christian Gnosticism in the mid-second century which was at odds with the apostolic churches and which criticized them for what they considered to be inept ritual activities (baptism and eucharist) and disfunctional theology based on infanticide (the killing of God's son) perpetuated by none other than the cursed Judas. It is clear from this study that the apostolic church was not the dominant church yet, that they began developing more sophisticated theology in response to these Gnostic criticisms, and that there was a very vicious struggle between the apostolic Christians and the Sethian Gnostic Christians with very serious and very nasty accusations being hurled by both sides. And the time? Only a couple of decades after the Pastorals are written! The Sethians believed that they were the true Christians and that all the others were ignorant and in their ignorance worshiped the creator of this world rather than the supreme God.

Think about how much more we can learn about early Christianity when we add to the apostolic memories all the memories of the Christianities that did not survive. Their memories give us a foil for the apostolic, so that we can see what perhaps they wished to vanquish or deny and what threatened them so much that they felt the need to adjust their own theology and practices in response.