This year’s best session (IMHO) had to be Monday evening’s Historical Jesus Session titled “Memory Studies in Historical Jesus Research” but now known as “The Blow Up in Baltimore” thanks to Tyler Stewart. The presenters and their papers were Chris Keith, The Past Approaching and Approaching the Past: The Contribution of Memory Studies to Historical Jesus Research; Zeba Crook, Memory Distortion and the Historical Jesus; Rafael Rodríguez, An Uneasy Concord: Memory and History in Contemporary Jesus Research; and Paul Foster, Memory: Help or Hindrance in Historical Jesus Research? 

In essence, Keith and Rodriguez argued that the traditional criteria of historical Jesus studies (HJS) constitute an outdated methodology which relies too heavily on both a positivist historiography and epistemology. Instead, their proposal is that we approach our knowledge of Jesus through the avenues of social memory theory (SMT). Crook applauded this argument, but he took it to mean that we cannot really be confident about our knowledge of Jesus since various studies have shown that while human memory functions quite well there is one major problem: the one remembering doesn’t known how to differentiate between true and false memories; therefore, while many of the memories of Jesus may be rooted in the historical Jesus we don’t have any way of knowing which ones are true and which ones are false.

Foster defended the established criteria approach arguing that SMT may be able to tell us about the evolution of tradition, but that is not the aim of HJS. HJS seek to establish the basic, bare-bones data we can know about Jesus. Foster used an analogy which went something like this: a Roman Catholic, a Protestant, a Buddhist, and an Atheist are locked in a room together until they can construct a list of details about Jesus upon which all can agree. What would make their list? This is what we can know about Jesus using historical-critical methodology. The idea here is that this would have to be simple, basic things like Jesus was Jewish, Jesus was crucified, or, in essence, the list of twelve or so things set forth by E.P. Sanders. Now, this is a “big picture” summary, so if you want to know more let me redirect you to Tyler Stewart’s paper-by-paper account of “the Blow Up in Baltimore” (a name he coined): The Blow up in Baltimore (Part 1 – Summary).

I’ve read a bit from the SMT perspective and it seemed to me that Foster couldn’t see a role for SMT in HJS because he didn’t affirm the epistemological undergirding of SMT. For example, in Memory, Tradition, Text: Uses of the Past in Early Christianity edited by Alan Kirk and Tom Thatcher there is an essay by Antoinette Clark Wire titled “Early Jewish Birth Prophecy Stories and Women’s Social Memory” wherein she discusses how Jewish birth stories appear to have functioned in the society into which Jesus was born. These stories brought comfort to pregnant women, gave them hope and idealism that their child may have an important role due to Israel’s God, and certain stories of miraculous births were told of the great men of Israel’s past: Isaac, Samuel, Moses. While we may not be able to reconstruct all the historical details about Jesus’ birth we can tell by the way his birth was remembered and interpreted that Jesus was understood to be a great man in this tradition, one upon whom the graciousness of God resided for a special purpose and mission on behalf of the people of God: just as GLuke presents Jesus’ birth as well as that of John the Baptist.

The older approach would use various criteria in an attempt to parse each little part of the narrative: was Jesus born in Bethlehem or elsewhere? Is it likely shepherds visited him? If so, from where would these shepherds have come and what do we know of shepherds at this time? While these bits of information are still worth discussing we must admit that we are on shaky ground which is why so many attempts to say anything about the historical Jesus reads more like a novel than a critical history.

“The Blow Up in Baltimore” was about more than how to do HJS; it was about how we know anything at all and the nature of our knowledge (in the posts to which I link to below Chris Keith will do a better job of stating what I am trying to say here, so feel free to skip ahead). Now, there are many areas that I need to iron out in my own thinking being that I haven’t been at this all that long, so I hope my attempts to summarize this event and what is at stake make some sense. At the end of the day SMT doesn’t prevent someone from making statements about historical plausibility; rather, it gets to that point from a different angle, so we still need a way of justifying our statements about historicity, but that doesn’t mean the best way to do this is to take the stories as we have them then simply deconstruct them to a kernel which we might preserve. Rather, we must ask how the memories of Jesus show us what it is about Jesus that his earliest follows sought to remember. For example, Jesus’ Passion is presented to us four different ways in the Synoptic Gospels and GJohn. Each seeks to tell us a little something about who Jesus was to these early communities and the impression left by his death upon them. If we boil it down to “did this happen exactly like this or not” we may lose many insights into the person of Jesus preserved for us in the very way these memories were preserved and interpreted (a great example of this can be found in 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” in the aforementioned volume). Is Jesus’ death like that of former prophets? If so, does that mean Jesus was understood to be a prophet? Why did Jesus’ followers write about a figure who had to suffer seemingly combining Daniel’s Son of Man with Isaiah’s Suffering Servant? This approach to the historical Jesus tells us a lot about Jesus because it begins with the impact Jesus made upon his followers: an impact that had to be categorized using narratives and imagery with which they were familiar, mostly from their Scripture and recent national history.

Stewart’s The Blow up in Baltimore (Part 2 – The Sparks) summarizes the discussion afterward, so if you’re still following my ramblings here, I recommend you read his summary. While this “after-the-debate-debate” was quite exciting as the audience got involved, and the panelist exchanged friendly (?) jabs at one another, there was a lack of resolve when all was said and done. This is not a bad thing because both sides of the discussion will benefit from “iron sharpening iron” if you will.

For those interested in following this debate now that the conference is over let me recommend beginning with Chris Keith’s attempt to take this discussion to the blogosphere. To begin he presents his recent lecture “Social Memory Theory and the Gospels: The First Decade”. Then he provides a report in The SBL Memory and Historical Jesus Session followed by Less Serious Observations on the SBL Memory Session. Finally, Jens Schröter Weighs In, Giving Further Reason to Buy and Read His From Jesus to the New Testament provides the perspective of a scholar I wish would have been on the panel, but who contributed vigorously to the discussion afterward. I imagine Stewart may have more to say on his blog and though I haven’t googled around to see who else is talking about it I presume we are not alone.