Friday, January 23, 2009

What can I contribute to The Jesus Project?

The biggest contribution that I can make to the TJP is in terms of method, bringing into play Social Memory Theory and how it can help us with the recovery of historical figures from the texts that survive. Our field has largely remained ignorant of social, psychological and anthropological models and theories, and has been content to work our materials from a rather shallow pool of understanding. I remain mystified why we keep rolling over the same turf all the time, and now we are back to the discussion that our texts are constructed myths which we can deconstruct (this is no new insight!), and because we can do this, we are comfortable concluding that either Jesus didn't exist historically (he is a fabrication of the ancient mind and their myths) or there isn't enough evidence to say he did (because how can we trust an ancient author who makes things up?).

This reasoning is so flawed that I do not even know where to begin to deconstruct it!

I might start by recommending some reading that has been missed by the majority of academics in biblical studies. If we are really going to talk about whether or not constructed myths have any historical value (which seems to me to be the ultimate goal of TJP), then we better get up to speed fast on what other fields are saying about it. See below a selection of publications that I have found particularly helpful in terms of my own work - but this is just the tip of the iceberg. The field is vast and growing with a huge bibliography.

What Social Memory theorists have found is that all societies create their memories to support their present experiences and to help them move forward into the future as they perceive it should be. This is usually done by taking historical figures and events and reframing them into older myths or legends, and by keying them to older personages and ideas. The best example for us (because we can witness this happening now) might be with Barack Obama. He is already keyed to Martin Luther King, Jr. and to John F. Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln. His own historical story is being framed in terms of our collective memory of Lincoln - so we accepted without too much discussion his train-ride into Washington, D.C. and his use of Lincoln's bible at the inauguration. His story of rising from a middle-class family to the presidency is already shaped by the story of Lincoln's rise from the log cabin to the White House. We are understanding and interpreting Barack Obama (and what we hope he will do) within a certain set of stories and myths from our past.

So this is what we do as communities. This is how our minds operate. We understand our history and what is happening in our present by casting it into familiar forms and tropes. This helps us to deal with things and make sense of things. It gives us hope and meaning. It is a natural process of the operation of our minds and human memory.

But because we do this, does not mean that there is no historical value to our stories. All these people lived and did things. Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Barack Obama. In fact, it is most often the historical people that do great things which we attempt to reframe and mythologize! The people that are average Joes (unless you are Joe the Plumber!) fall into obscurity.

Yes our gospels are theological treatises. Yes our gospels are mythological in their framing of Jesus. Yes our gospels present us with different portraits of Jesus, as do modern scholars who work on the historical Jesus. But none of this suggests even remotely to me that this means that Jesus did not exist as a historical person. In fact, when understood within the communal memory-making process itself, the fact that a Jewish crucified criminal is mythologized as a god that the Romans should embrace as God is highly suggestive that there was such a man, and that there were a group of people who understood whatever he did to be extraordinary. And so they framed and keyed his story with those they already knew, from the Jewish scriptures and from the Greco-Roman classics. And a historical person became an angel and then a god (at least that is my operating hypothesis).

Jan Assmann, “Ancient Egyptian Antijudaism: A Case of Distorted Memory,” in Memory Distortion (ed. Schachter; Cambridge: Harvard University, 1995) pp. 365-378.
Anthony Le Donne, “Theological Memory Distortion in the Jesus Tradition,” in Memory and the Bible in Antiquity (eds. Loren T. Stuckenbruck, Stephen C. Barton, and Benjamin G. Wold; WUNT 212; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2007) 163-177.
Doron Mendels, “Societies of Memory in the Graeco-Roman World,” in Memory in the Bible and Antiquity (eds. Loren T. Stuckenbruck, Stephen C. Barton, and Benjamin G. Wold; WUNT 212; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2007) pp. 143-162.
Barry Schwartz, Abraham Lincoln and the Forge of National Memory (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2000).
Barry Schwartz, "Collective Memory and Social Change: The Democratization of George Washington," ASR 56 (1991) 221-236.
Barry Schwartz, “Memory as a Cultural System: Abraham Lincoln in World War II,” American Sociological Review 61 (1996) pp. 922-923 (908-927).
Barry Schwartz, “The Social Context of Commemoration: A Study in Collective Memory,” Social Forces 61 (1982) p. 393 (374-402).
Barbie Zelizer, "Reading the Past Against the Grain: The Shape of Memory Studies," Critical Studies in Mass Communication 12 (1995) 214-239.
Yael Zerubavel, Recovered Roots: Collective Memory and the Making of Israeli National Tradition (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1995).
Yael Zerubavel, “The Death of Memory and the Memory of Death: Masada and the Holocaust as Historical Metaphors,” Representations 45 (1994) 72-100.
Yael Zerubavel, “Antiquity and the Renewal Paradigm: Strategies of Representation and Mnemonic Practices in Israeli Culture,” in On Memory: An Interdisciplinary Approach (edited by Doron Mendels; Bern: Peter Lang, 2007) pp. 331-48.
Yael Zerubavel, “The Historical, the Legendary and the Incredible: Invented Tradition and Collective Memory in Israel,” in Commemorations: The Politics of National Identity (ed. John R. Gillis: Princeton: Princeton University, 1994) 105-125.


Memra said...

You said: "And a historical person became an angel and then a god (at least that is my operating hypothesis)."

Makes sense to me. The Septuagint (LXX Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures) refers to a coming messiah as the "angel of great counsel" (Isaiah 9:6), and Philo's Logos was called a "second god."

Ancient monotheism had no problem with conferring divinity upon angels or men who acted in God's stead, and by his authority. They did not consider this to be polytheism.

Jim Deardorff said...


And even a non-historical person can become an angel and then a god. Consider the unknown man of Gen 32:24. He wrestled with Jacob. According to Hos 12:4 Jacob had wrestled or striven with an angel, who was equated to the god of Israel in Hos 12:3b and Gen 32:28.

Justin J. Meggitt said...

Thanks a lot for this April - I am sure this kind of contribution is vital to the Jesus Project and the study of the historical Jesus more generally. I do hope you will get actively involved in TJP's work, if you have the time.

As someone who participated at the last meeting of the Jesus Project, I would add that there is a genuine openness about the aims of the project and the Jesus-myth debate really isn't something that most participants are convinced should be a main focus (and there is, as you quite rightly say, a lot more to say about myth than just the question of historicity). However, I do think that NT scholarship does need to be willing and able to address absolutely any question about the historical Jesus that might be posed (in this I think those from previous generations, such as Schweitzer, were rather better at recognizing this).

As someone who works both in the study of Christian origins within a University context and in what in the UK is called continuing education (open-access public engagement with higher eduction), I am acutely aware of the mis-match between academic and public agendas - and whilst this is understandable, unless we address questions that are regularly asked by those outside the field, I think we might be avoiding our responsibilities. Perhaps the US context is rather different in this respect.

Justin J. Meggitt said...

Apologies - I did not mean the last comment to be anonymous.

Justin J. Meggitt

Unknown said...

Funny, I was just talking about this subject to my sons yesterday. While constructed myths call into question the validity of any fact they present, I would have to say that it is easier to believe that they were constructed with a root in historical fact rather than made up out of whole cloth.

The fact that we have no contemporaneous evidence for the existence of Jesus may suggest that he did not exist, but at the same time it is difficult to believe that the message of the Gospels would be compelling to a populace that would still remember the events depicted if those events did not align in even a gross way with their memories. I would have to conclude that the simplest explanation is that the Gospels are indeed based on the life of a real person.

Steven Carr said...

I wonder why the author of 2 Peter had to protest to 'fellow' Christians that his historical Jesus was not a myth.

Paul's letters cover a lot of questions about Christianity from the followers of Jesus, both explicit and implicit questions.

Why do none of those questions ever involve Paul having to explain the meaning of a miracle or parable?

Luke 10:8 'When you enter a town and are welcomed, eat what is set before you.'

I wonder why there was such an almighty fuss in the early church about whether or not Christians should eat some pagan foodstuffs, when Jesus said Christian missionaries should eat whatever food the people they visit set before them

Almost as though their Lord and Saviour had never said anything relevant on the subject.

Did Jesus preach a resurrection?

Why then would Christian converts in Corinth scoff at a resurrection, while Paul feels no need to refer to any teaching of Jesus on the subject?

Let us take a modern religion that has been built on a mythical founder - the Maitreya.

'While the name Maitreya is used by others, their understanding of the World Teacher may not correspond to that presented on this site. Anyone presently promoting him- or herself as Maitreya or the World Teacher is definitely not the same individual we refer to.'

How does this differ from Paul's writings?

2 Corintians 11
For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough.

The trouble with non-existent people is that different groups have different ideas of what this non-existent person should be like.

We see this with the Maitreya.

Do we also see it in Paul's complaint about the different Jesus's?

Benjamin Creme describes the Maitreya as an obscure Muslim living in the East End of London

'In July 1977 Maitreya emerged from His centre in the Himalayas and travelled to London through Pakistan. Since then He has lived in London as an ordinary man concerned with modern problems.'

The Maitreya has 'humbled' himself in the way that Jesus did, to the extent of not existing and not founding any religion.

Or at least , when Paul says Jesus 'humbled' himself, he may mean no more than descriptions of the Maitreya living in the East End of London.

'Maitreya's arrival in the world was predicted by the English writer Alice A Bailey through a series of books published by Lucis Trust between 1919 and 1939.'

How does this differ from Paul claiming that Jesus had become known through being revealed through the prophetic writings? (Romans 16)

What is the difference between the early Jesus-cult and the religion founded on the Maitreya - a person who does not exist?

Robert M. Price said...

To know whether the very fascinating Maitreya parallel is valid I guess we'd have to know whether this advocate for Msitreya has some specific person (himself?) in mind. Even Madame Blavatsky's Masters turned out to be fictive versions of people she actually knew.

Steven Carr said...

Well,Sherlock Holmes was a fictive version of a real person.

Does this mean that Sherlock Holmes existed?

What is the fiction/reality mix before we can say that somebody did not exist, as we can say that Sherlock Holmes did not exist?

Dr. Dave said...

Thank you for one of the most welcomed "Ah-Ha" moments I have experienced this year. Being introduced to Social Memory Theory has set off all sorts of bells and whistles and fireworks relating to how I have tried to express to my students what the writers and editors of the Hebrew Bible were doing in concocting their texts.

Many thanks for the insight. I shall now carry on your tradition of brow-beating colleagues with thoughts and data as I muddle along this new line of inquiry....

April DeConick said...

Dr. M,

Once it clicks, so much falls into place...thanks for reading my blog.

Daniel Graves said...

Dr. DeConick:

I appreciate your thoughts on this. I have wondered along these lines for some time. This adds a new dimension to the orality-texuality discussions as well. Thank you so much for providing the bibliography... I will seek out some of these resources.

Fr. Daniel Graves
Thornhill, Ontario

Leon said...

The place to begin understanding any historical figure is the culture of that person. No one wants to do this with Jesus. Pharisaic/rabbinic Judaism was not obsessed with Temple, rituals, and purity concerns as almost all scholars still misrepresent. This was primarily a storytelling culture, concerned with spirituality, peace, justice, and due process. If you want to understand the stories and memories of this ancient culture, that would be a good place to begin.

But I am afraid that modern NT scholarship has not changed from that of the 19th century. The goal remains the same: To tear Jesus violently from his home culture. It is easy to make Jesus appear alone and isolated, unique in his profundity: Just erase his fellow Jews from history. How is that for the memory goal of modern scholarship? Until scholars start discussing their fear that the historical Jesus will end up being too Jewish and too much in harmony with his fellow Jews, there will never be any progress in this field. And that is what everyone wants, no progress. Any attempts to expose the prejudices of scholars are firmly censored.

Leon Zitzer

Unknown said...

My only knowledge of "memory" comes from the work of psychologist Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, who has shown that memories can easily be implanted in subjects under laboratory conditions.

"False Memory Syndrome" resulted in jailing a number of innocent people for Satanic Ritual Abuse or child abuse in a very shameful period of our recent legal history.

Can it be shown that Social Memory is any more reliable than personal memory? If not, this is an interesting idea, but it does not seem to add anything to the search for an actual historical Jesus.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post. I think many mythicists are more nuanced in thier views than they are often characterized. Most mythicists I have read already assume that it is possible that a historical Jesus did exist but that his story has been eclipsed by the legendary constructs inspired by him. But the issue seems to be in where we place the burden of proof. Since there is such an absence of contemporary, dissinterested eyewitness evidence, then it seems that the burden of proof should shift to those who would support the existence of a historical Jesus. In other words, just because social memory theory can account for the theologized mythical accounts, that we have, in a way that is compatible with the historicity of Jesus, doesn't mean we can assume that such a historical person is, in fact, at the bottom of the myths - due to the state the of evidence. It seems simpler to assume the mythicist position, until better evidence for a historical character can be brought forward. I think the ubiquity of literary devices, hellenistic mimetic shaping, septuagint-inspired pericopes makes the mythicist position a simpler and equally logical explanation. I am. however, open to more evidence of's just that I have yet to see it.

Anonymous said...

I should add, that the James the brother of the lord has been very convincingly dealt with, in my opinion, by a few mythicists-especially Richard Carrier. Of course this kind of thing is probably impossible to prove, but they offer alternative explanations that are consistent with mythicism and equally as plausible as the traditional interpretation. And the other aspects of the gospels that link Jesus to contemporary history are very easily shown to be literary constructions that are generated by a kind of reverse euhemerism....usually to insinuate a theological statement or other symbolic resonance. I do not mean to convey a pejorative tone in the least... I acknowledge that Dr. DeConick's analysis evinces a mastery of the material, intellectual acuity and academic rigor. But I believe that some mythicist reconstructions, not all, deserve the same acknowledgements.