Previously, I’ve shared these blog posts inspired by the now quite famous “Blow Up in Baltimore”: Chris Keith’s Social Memory Theory and the Gospels: Assessing the First Decade (video); The SBL Memory and Historical Jesus Session; Less Serious Observations on the SBL Memory Session; and Jens Schröter Weighs In, Giving Further Reason to Buy and Read His From Jesus to the New Testament; Tyler Stewart’s The Blow up in Baltimore (Part 1 – Summary) and (Part 2 – The Sparks); and my own “big picture” summary: 2013 AAR/SBL Annual Meeting Report (2a): “The Blow Up in Baltimore”.
I’ve come across a few more entries now. First, Judy Redman has done a couple of posts linking psychological memory research with social memory studies: Memory in real life (1) and Memory in real life (2). Second, Michael Kok’s SBL and social memory and The SBL and Social Memory Discussion Continues…
Also, according to a Facebook update from Anthony Le Donne the session was recorded and we’ll hear more about it soon!
The last few days I’ve been thinking to myself, “If Paul Foster’s view is correct that all we can ‘know’ about Jesus is what a positivist historiography allows us to affirm broadly about Jesus’ life, then is there anything more to say?” Keith, Le Donne, Rodriguez, Thatcher, and others have presented a way of knowing that isn’t limited merely to the few bare bone facts that we can uncover at the bottom of the Jesus Tradition, but instead it has allowed the tradition itself to give us a knowledge of Jesus that may be distinct from that which was sought by the Questers, but knowledge nevertheless. If Foster is correct, and if I’ve understood his argument, I wonder if any further discussion about the historical Jesus is an exercise in futility since the bare minimum has been said already and to say more would be to affirm more than the bare minimum.
The issue here is fundamentally what can be known between what is written, and what is remembered.
The value of deriving knowledge from what is written is evident. What is written is a snap-shot in time of someone’s thought about something, for better or worse. The meaning of the words themselves may be subject to some interpretation, but at the end of the day, semantics only stretch so far (language being the first filter)
Add to this the historiography of form and criticism to flavour the tone and context of the words and I think the social memory theorists have something of a valid criticism, that knowledge derived through these secondary means is speculative and off. Unfortunately that criticism is no less try of using memory theory itself.
Memory theory is just that ‘theory’.
The real smoke and mirrors here is that people, meaning post-modern people are in a frantic quest to deny object truth. Post-Modern scholarship wants desperately to detach itself from the mere appearance of objectivity – use of social memory theory is absolutely ‘post-modern’. So how better to do that than by constructing a pseudo-science that purports to understand how individuals and social classes ‘remember’?
People simply don’t want to be held accountable for their interpretations of the plain meaning of words. A social memory construct then is a rather convenient ‘straw-man’.
Thanks Brian for the link and nice to chat with you at SBL. I think you ask a really good question that, if Paul Foster is judged to be correct, then perhaps we have to be content with a minimalistic list about what we can reconstruct about the historical Jesus with confidence (conceding that the flesh-and-blood Jesus was so much more than that) as done by an E.P. Sanders. But perhaps in the case there would be other interesting questions to ask about what we know about Jesus’ social context that could have given rise to the Jesus movement or about the reception of Jesus from the New Testament to the present. With 2000 years, there are a lot of PhD theses that could be written on that!
Thanks for the link and nice chatting with you in Baltimore. I think you ask a really interesting question: if Paul Foster is judged to be correct, perhaps we would have to be content with a minimalistic list about what we could reconstruct with confidence about the historical Jesus as in E.P. Sander’s work (though conceding that the flesh-and-blood Jesus was much more than our reconstructions). However, perhaps there would be other interesting questions about the social context that gave rise to the historical Jesus or the reception of Jesus from Christian communities/texts to popular culture to different periods of academic scholarship. With 2000 years that allows for lots of PhD theses to explore!
It was great talking to you as well. I agree that if Foster is right that doesn’t mean there aren’t avenues of research worth pursuing. There may be some great ones, but it would seem historical Jesus studies have accomplished all that was possible. I’m not so sure I think that, which is why I am interested in seeing where social memory theory and adjacent approaches might take us.
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