Monday, June 25, 2007

Article Note: "The Generative Force of Memory" (Werner Kelber)

I am knee-deep in memory studies again as I push forward with the analysis of the memory experiments I conducted a year ago with four groups of students. I just finished reading a brief but hefty article recently published by Werner Kelber in Biblical Theology Bulletin 36 (2006) 15-22. As usual, his discussions coincide with my own work and progressive thinking about the transmission of the Jesus traditions among the early Christians. It is an honor in so many ways that I am his successor at Rice, not the least being that we think alike on many issues. He was a pioneer that has opened so many windows for us to now peer through.

These are some highlights from this article:
It is deplorable that biblical studies has remained in the dark about the study of memory and the study of orality-scribality, especially when these are highly developed fields of study that have become completely integrated in other disciplines including history, anthropology, medieval studies, literary criticism, sociology, ethnic studies, philosophy, and so forth.

Memory in the gospel tradition is not cold memory, or passive memorizing. Rather it represents a (re)constructive remembering, with two purposes - to maintain the past but to make sense of the present. This is the function of social memory [what I call communal memory in my own publications like Recovering the Original Gospel of Thomas] and explains the living traditioning within early Christianity.

The scribal evidence points away from the theory that there was an original text that became variant. The variability means that it is impossible to differentiate between primary and secondary recordings of a text. We must become comfortable with the polyphonic nature of the traditions and the fact that the recovery of a single original saying of Jesus is probably impossible.
So here you can see a number of items we have been discussing on this blog in the last couple of months come together in Kelber's article. This is a great summary of where our field is right now, or at least what some of the main ideas are that are fermenting in many of our publications and teaching. I have to say that I think we are witnessing the beginning of a revolution that, if pushed forward successfully, will completely overhaul our field both in terms of approach and content.

13 comments:

JD Walters said...

James Dunn's recent book, "A New Perspective on Jesus" is a superb application of memory theory to explaining the origin and transmission of the Jesus tradition. Richard Bauckham in his new book "Jesus and the Eyewitnesses" also devotes a chapter to the psychology of memory. Of course these scholars are arguing for a more conservative view of the Jesus tradition (i.e. more of it was accurately preserved) than the likes of Kelber. I definitely think that memory studies can throw significant new light on the study of the New Testament, but I doubt that it will erase long-standing differences among conservative and liberal scholars. Both groups will try to use science to support their conclusions, the conservatives in arguing that the canonical Gospels accurately recorded the Jesus tradition, and liberals in arguing that oral tradition was used ideologically and that it changed to suit the needs of the emerging Church.

Leon said...

I am very much in favor of anything science can do to help our understanding of history. But one thing to keep in mind and one question:

1) We should be wary of assuming that only we in the West have an objective approach to history, while so-called primitive peoples are steeped in myth or faith or childlike innocence about the world. I believe (though I don't claim to have proof for this) that all peoples or cultures on earth have a grammar of history. Their grammar may be different from ours, but if we could understand their grammar, we would see that they too had a sense (perhaps imperfect) of objective truth versus subjective distortions.

2) Did I read somewhere that people in an oral culture have better memories than those of us who are accustomed to reading texts? I thought someone once did a study involving an oral storyteller who learned to read, and when he did, his memorizing capacities diminished. Is there anything like that?

Leon Zitzer

Geoff Hudson said...

OK, so you think you might be able to guess what people were really thinking/remembering 2000 years ago. So what! All you can finish up saying is that a particular text may not have said this, but originally said that. Now this process, I can accept. It doesn't have to be particularly 'scientific', it will never be 'proof' but it has to be better than naive literalism. For those who have any knowledge in the field, the process is mostly logical common sense, particularly when you take into account human nature and previous traditions or beliefs. There is no better hunting ground for observing blatant historical distortions than some of the writings attributed to Josephus - I find there is so much unbelievable, naive literalistic tripe written by scholars who specialise in Josephus, most of whom have backgrounds somewhat coloured by biblical studies.

April DeConick said...

Dear JD,

Thanks for your comment. I don't personally see this as a conservative v. liberal ideological clash, although I know that this is how it is going to be framed, as you yourself already perceive.

My interest is in historical analysis with no apology for Christianity. The sciences can help us tremendously with this, particularly in the area of memory studies.

But these studies have to be applied by biblical scholars with integrity to the scientific data and scientific theories that have been generated. We cannot try to make the theories say what we want them to say to support the view that the NT gospels are accurate historical accounts because the NT gospels have to be accurate historical accounts.

This is the issue for me - the application of interdisciplinary work in such a way that it maintains the integrity of the scientific data generated by another field.

April DeConick said...

Leon,

Hello. I want to mention to my readers that you have written your own book on the historical Jesus as a Jew. Check it out his own blog - http://historicaljesusghost.blogspot.com

As for your comment here - this will always be the problem of sociological and psychological and anthropological research in relation to biblical studies. We simply cannot study the ancient people directly. All we can study are modern peoples and rely on data from earlier studies on oral cultures before literacy completely wiped them out in the last century.

The assumption is that human beings are relatively the same type of creatures over the centuries, although cultures will always vary.

Ancient people didn't have better memories than modern people, although there were some people that were trained professionally to pass on information. With the early Christian traditions is is very complicated because there is some literacy, a lot of orality, some professionals, a lot of normal people, all passing on information about Jesus for many decades.

How well we remember information in terms of accuracy appears to me to rely more on types of information we are trying to recall than anything else. This is why proverbs, hymns, poetry, rhymes are very stable in transmission, while other material isn't. Think about it. Fill in the blanks:

Eenie, meenie, miney, mo,...

Fuzzy wuzzy was a bear...

One potato, two potato,...

A bird in the hand...

Ring around the rosey...

London bridge is falling down...

I bet you could recite all of these (and more!). But try narrative, and everything changes.

JD Walters said...

Dr. DeConick,

I appreciate your concerns about maintaining the integrity of research. But isn't it at least conceivable that a case for the reliability of the canonical Gospels can be made which does uphold such integrity? I completely agree that no one should be arguing for reliability based on what the canonical Gospels HAVE to be, based on a priori assumptions. But what if there is a case to be made based on sound historiographic analysis? Is there perhaps an a priori assumption going the other way, that studies which vindicate an orthodox interpretation of Christian origins simply CANNOT be 'scientific'? Perhaps this case will not be universally convincing (after all, is there any such thing in historical studies?). But it may be enough to enable a reflective believer to maintain her intellectual integrity. And is there any thing wrong with that?

April DeConick said...

Dear JD,

Wow these are very insightful questions, and books should be written on them.

What it comes down to for me is the position that I think is essential to take if your interest, your goal, is sound historical analysis - it is skepticism. In my opinion, this doesn't mean that we are to assume that our texts are not reliable. What it is though is a position that says, I don't know, and I will try to find out using scientific methods. It is also a position that does not privilege certain texts over others for apologetic reasons.

As for assuming that the canonical texts aren't reliable histories. What all of our ancient texts are are theological "histories" or theological "treatises" - their main interest is theology, to tell a theological story. How much "history" we can reap from these sorts of documents is the big question, and if you understand the creation of religious histories in terms of social or communal memory, then one quickly is faced with the fact that people reconstruct their memories in ways that not only remember their past, but make that past relevant to the present. Reconstructions of our past - both individual and collective - are never the events as they actually happened, but fragments that we fill in with other common experiences or what we think happened or what we would have liked to happen, and so forth.

This doesn't make our texts irrelevant, telling us nothing about history. But it does frame the problem in such a way that recovering that history must be done cautiously.

Geoff Hudson said...

"How well we remember information in terms of accuracy appears to me to rely more on types of information we are trying to recall than anything else."

Clearly the editors of the text attributed to Josephus hadn't forgotten about one Judas. They were so paranoid about him, they splashed garbled recollections of him all over the place, just in case someone twigged who he really was. Such was/is the effect of human nature on 'memory'. Thus the real prophet Judas was changed to Judas the villain. If the editors and players were around we could be quite scientific and give them all lie detector tests. But then many of their naive lies are evident in the extant texts which are all we have. So I don't go a bundle memory studies. But interpretations based on cultural/political contexts, I do.

Geoff Hudson said...

Pie in the sky when you... Such is historical memory study.

JD Walters said...

Dr. DeConick,

Again I don't have much to disagree with in what you say. But I would also maintain that there are good believing scholars who do just that, i.e. approach the topic of historical analysis of the NT with a genuine critical eye. I'm not concerned to argue that point just now. My immediate interest is your approach to canonical/non-canonical texts. More than once on your blog I've read your complaint that some scholars are concerned to marginalize non-canonical texts and defend the canonical ones. There is undoubtedly something to that charge, and I can see the rationale behind that move: if there are reliable non-canonical witnesses to Jesus, then we (i.e. believers) would have to rethink many of our theological ideas about who Jesus was and his significance in revealing who God is. But I'm curious what you think the value of the non-canonical texts are for studying the beginnings of Christianity and the historical Jesus. Do you think that the sayings in GThomas bring us closer to the 'real' Jesus than the canonical Gospels? Or that the Protoevangellium of James has more reliable traditions than, say, Mark? Or perhaps you think that such questions are simplistic, that we should instead be focusing on the socio-cultural processes that shaped the tradition in the first place? But let me put it even more abruptly: if you were to write a biography of Jesus, would you rely mostly on the canonical Gospels, the non-canonical, or about 50-50, or what? I'm sorry if these questions sound naive. They are what an interested 'outsider' (though I'm studying religion in college, I am not concentrating in biblical studies, but I have done quite a bit of reading in the field) is looking for.

April DeConick said...

Dear JD,

That is the question that everyone is interested in. Since I don't have plans to write a book on the historical Jesus I haven't given this the type of critical methodology the thought that I would need to. But let me say this, I would definitely use our oldest sources which include Q and Kernel Thomas and Paul - 30-60CE. This is not to say that later sources wouldn't also be helpful, but I think I would start with the oldest materials. Then I would move generationally if possible, looking at Jesus as he emerges anew in each generation's retelling of his story. I would do this through the second century, covering all the materials. What I would be looking for would be how each generation reforms the traditions to meet its theological needs. The idea would be that whatever they are revising is earlier. I think that is the way I would approach the problem. And honestly, I have no idea what I would find.

Leon said...

Dr. DeConick and JD,

I certainly agree with the point about the type of information that is being memorized. I would also note that any actor can tell you that the better the quality of the writing, the easier it is to memorize, much easier. I also recall hearing a folk musician describe an effort he once made to remember a song he heard long before. When he was able to check how accurate he had been against a recording of the song, he found he had remembered every stanza except one -- that one was the most poorly written. For actors, I think quality of the text has mainly to do with rhythm -- and there are so many kinds of rhythm.

A second point: I find all too often that when scholars talk about recovering the historical Jesus, they usually ignore rabbinic literature. The objection usually made is that rabbinic lit is anachronistic for the 1st century. That objection can be answered, but it would take too much space here. What I would note for now is that almost everything you find in the Gospels, you can find in rabbinic lit. And sometimes not just point for point comparisons, but the same sequence of thoughts. There are far too many parallels to be just a coincidence. This does not diminish the Gospels in any way, but it is extraordinarily helpful to find the same sayings and parables in both because it allows us to see more deeply into what the Gospel words mean. This applies to Thomas too. But I look forward to reading Dr. DeConick's book on Thomas before I make any further comments.

Leon Zitzer

April DeConick said...

Leon,

Again I agree with you. The Rabbinic literature shouldn't be ignored when studying NT. Just because it is written down in the late second century, does not mean that it is not helpful for understanding what was going in in Jewish traditions in the first century. Of course we have to be methodologically astute when doing this, and not assume that everything in the Rabbinic corpus can be retrojected back into the first century. So like all later texts, we should do careful historical work to bring beneficial information to the table.