Kirk, Alan and Tom Thatcher, Memory, Tradition, Text: Uses of the Past in Early Christianity (Semeia Studies; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2005). (


Message of the Book:

This volume applies the findings of memory studies—specifically social or group memory—to the field of biblical studies. In an effort to get past the black-and-white, either/or of form critical studies—where an event either happened as it is narrated or it is considered to be an invention of early Christianity—these authors ask if we might better understand the formation of Christian traditions if we examine the layering evolved when a group begins to “remember” events together, giving these events meaning, which in turn provides identity and a functioning social framework for the group.

Social memory exists when a group begins to define itself by telling stories about important foundational events, supplying those stories with contemporary interpretations and relevance, and then allowing those stories to create identity. There are other approaches to creating these memories as well, such as rituals (e.g., the Eucharist and Baptism), calendars with holy days, and reenactments of important events.


Kirk introduces social memory in the introductory essay “Social and Cultural Memory” which explains in detail what I summarized above. Then Kirk teams with Thatcher in the first essay titled “Jesus Tradition as Social Memory”. According to the authors the old paradigm presented the memory of Jesus as a “finite activity” limited to original disciples and associates (p. 26). The paradigm shift suggested in this book understands the Gospel traditions to evolve, beginning with events, factoring in the oral tradition and the contemporary challenges faced by the community that give these memories new meaning.

There are a couple more essays that attempt to apply the social memory approach to the broader Jesus tradition including Barry Schwartz’s “Social Memory and Christian Origins: Prospects and Obstacles” and Richard A. Horsley’s “Prominent Patterns in the Social Memory of Jesus and Friends”.

Most of the essays examine a smaller piece of the puzzle. Thatcher’s “Why John Wrote a Gospel: Memory and History in an Early Christian Community” examines an early community where the telling of Jesus stories became a complicated matter as competing narratives arose. The Fourth Gospel was written in order to “freeze” the tradition giving an authoritative version by which others must be compared.

Holly Hearon’s “The Story of ‘the Women Who Anointed Jesus’ as Social Memory: A Methodological Proposal for the Study of Tradition as Memory” is a fascinating juxtaposition of the variegated “woman anointing Jesus” story and its three versions in the Gospels. Hearon examines where the tradition remains constant, where it differs, and what the differences tell us about interpreting the tradition, e.g., to anoint someone’s head is to act like a prophet, but to anoint feet is to act as a slave.

Arthur J. Dewey’s essay “The Locus of Death: Social Memory and the Passion Narratives” and Kirk’s “The Memory of Violence and the Death of Jesus in Q” examine how the earliest Jesus traditions don’t say much about the details of Jesus’ Passion, e.g., the hypothetical Q, the Pauline Epistles, the Gospel of Mark. Yet this doesn’t mean the memory of Jesus’ death wasn’t prominent whether it be memory by means of rituals like the Eucharist or how “Q” seems to tie Jesus’ death into the tradition of rejected prophets indicating that the earliest Christians seemed to give “meaning” to Jesus’ death in line with this tradition.

Georgia Masters Keightley dives deeply how ritual preserves memory in “Christian Collective Memory and Paul’s Knowledge of Jesus” indicating that while Paul did to know Jesus in Jesus’ life he did share in the community memory through the rituals and traditions passed along to him.

Philip F. Esler’s “Collective Memory and Hebrews 11: Outlining a New Investigative Framework” challenges simplistic ideas about “intertextuality” asking us to factor in oral traditions and shared cultural narratives about figures that we find in the Hebrew Bible like Abel and others. This Christian text creates a “rival memory” to that of Israel making these ancients people who stand in the stream that leads to Christ (p. 161).

Antoinette Clark Wire’s “Early Jewish Birth Prophecy Stories and Women’s Social Memory” compares the many miraculous birth narratives of the Hebrew Bible, and their function as stories told to women about to give birth, with the Gospels and their portrayal of Christ’s birth and its meaning.

In “Reading the Gospel Of Thomas as a Repository of Early Christian Communal Memory” April DeConick has written a very insightful essay reexamining the community that created the Gospel of Thomas asking what the disciple’s questions in the narratives tell us about the concerns of this group. In short, the imminent return of Christ did not happen so this community has begun to reinterpret their apocalyptic eschatology as a more mystical experience with Christ who is present.

The book ends with two response essays: Wener H. Kelber’s “The Works of Memory: Christian Origins as MnemoHistory” and Schwartz’s “Christian Origins as Memory-Work”.

Concluding Thoughts:

For me, this was one of those books that shifted my paradigm for historical studies. While the events “behind the text” remain important we cannot access those events without asking how the relaying community’s social memory informs these narratives. For many critical scholars the use of the Hebrew Bible to give meaning to Jesus’ life has convinced them of complete fabrication, but might it be easier to understand Jesus’ life as being interpreted through the framework of the stories known to Jesus’ people, whether that be miraculous birth narratives to explain unique and important people or Jesus’ message reinterpreted by communities like the Johannine and Thomistic communities who faced diverse challenges tower the end of the first and into the early second centuries? Likewise, confessional scholars might be forced to rethink their apologetic desire to prove that certain events happened just as they are recorded as if the Gospels, Paul, and others provide us with something like modern news reporting and historiography (which may have higher standards, but are often as apt to misinterpret events as the ancients).