Saturday, November 1, 2008

SBL sessions: Memory and Textuality

I think that the study of human memory is the future of biblical studies. The people that are giving papers in the memory sessions are really on the cutting edge of future methodology. They are setting us on a new course. At least I think so.


Mapping Memory: Tradition, Texts, and Identity
9:00 AM to 11:30 AM
Room: Meeting Room 313 - CC

Theme: Memory and Textuality

Chris Keith, University of Edinburgh, Presiding
Thomas Vollmer, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven
Social Memory and the Dead Sea Scrolls (25 min)
Whitney Shiner, George Mason University
Other People's Texts in the Memory of Non-Judean Participants in the Cult of Jesus (25 min)
Jason T. Larson, Syracuse University
The Gospels as Sites of Memory (25 min)
Sandra Huebenthal, Aachen University
Luke 24:13–35 and Social Memory in Luke (25 min)
Break (5 min)
April Deconick, Rice University, Respondent (15 min)
Discussion (30 min)


Richard Godijn said...

Hi April,

I'm glad you think memory can be important for biblical studies. I am currently teaching a course in memory and memory disorders, so not surprisingly I've been thinking quite a bit about what role memory research can play in biblical studies.

I must say that the titles of these talks worry me a little, because I get the impression that some of these scholars see the gospels as a means to study the memory of the community. I am of course only going by the titles of the papers, so I am in no position to judge their work.

Nevertheless I have a few thoughts I'd like to bring up here.

I think it is an error to see the Gospels as some sort of repository of memories. The Gospels are narratives with a developing plot, characters, events and settings and are replete with narrative patterns (repetition, contrast, climax, chiasm, etc..).

What do these stories have to do with memory? Well, of course the authors had to use their memory to compose the story. This works at several levels.

First, the authors used texts. For example, Luke used two main sources (Mark and Matthew or Mark and Q, whichever you prefer), which already means he would have needed to use his memory. We know that authors in the Greco-Roman world used one text at a time. So this means that Luke would have one text in front of him. The other text can then still influence him, but only through his memory of the text. This is important for the Synoptic Problem. How would the other text have influenced Luke? We can compare predictions of the two-source hypothesis with those of the Farrer hypothesis.

Second, the authors had memory of OT scripture. When working through Mark, Matthew regularly sees a chance to incorporate material from the OT. The Markan text thus works as a memory cue, since something from Mark reminds Matthew of the OT text. This occurs in Mark as well of course, but this is complicated since we do not know his sources.

Third, memory can be helpful in our understanding of secondary orality. If we take serious the possibility that material from the Synoptic Gospels affected the Gospel of Thomas at a time when the Synoptic Gospels were becoming extremely popular and widespread, then we need to understand that sayings from the Synoptic Gospels were not simply copied into Thomas, but that the memory of the Synoptic texts or sayings from these texts influenced the Gospel of Thomas in some way. When we examine this question and understand how memory works we must realize that we are not merely looking for Synoptic redaction in Thomas. Memory simply does not retain redactional specifics. Memory retains the gist and certain 'memorable' features. Just because we do not find Synoptic redaction in a saying in Thomas does not mean that it is independent from the Synoptics, contrary to popular belief (nor does it necessarily mean that it has been influenced by the Synoptic gospels - these two options must always be kept in mind, without presupposing the one or the other).

Finally, the construct "social memory" is something I am a little uncomfortable with. Strictly speaking memories are personal. I don't think anybody would dispute that. Naturally there will be overlap in memories, but my memory of a text or oral performance or event will always be different from yours. The Gospels do not give us direct access to the author's memory and they are even further removed from the community's memory (if it even makes sense to speak of such a thing). I think we should first focus on examining the influnece of the author's memory on his text before we start to speculate about the community's memory.

We could for example examine Mark's Gospel and test whether it shows any evidence of memory of Pauline traditions or Homeric traditions. It is quite plausible that Pauline traditions and Homeric traditions were available to Mark, so is there any evidence that his memory of these traditions has affected his Gospel?


April DeConick said...


You are correct on all counts except social memory (for which there is an enormous amount of literature but it is not psych lit or biblical lit). Your conclusions about compositional theories, OT, and secondary orality are right on mark. But you should not discount the existence of social memory. It is quite significant in terms of being able to come to terms with the way in which traditional memories form and counter-memories erupt and the results of this evidenced by the literature produced.

Richard Godijn said...


Thanks for your response. I will not discount the concept of social memory just yet. However, as a cognitive psychologist I reserve the term memory for “the mental processes of acquiring
and retaining information for later retrieval and the
mental storage system that enables these processes” (alternative definitions are of course possible but most are quite similar to this one). Social memory would then be an emerging property of interactions between individual memory systems within a society. I wouldn't consider this to be 'memory' per se, but I honestly need to study the lit to see how the idea of social memory would be conistent with what we know about human memory.

I wish I could be there at the conference, because it sounds quite interesting.