Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Constructing Jesus 1 (S)

I've wondered if I should code my posts occasionally, to help various people know which ones to skip ;-) For example, this one would get an S for Scholarship. That would mean I am dealing with material on a scholarly playing field, which has different rules from a church playing field.

W might then stand for Wesleyan, which would tell a potential reader that I am dealing with the particulars of my denomination, ordination, and place of employment.  The titles usually make my political and personal posts clear enough...

One of my goals for the Advent to Easter period is to read through Dale Allison's final historical Jesus book, Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History. I've never met Allison, but I like him. I like him because I sense he is someone who really tries to let the chips fall where they lie. He is friendly to faith but doesn't cook the books.

Last week I read the first chapter of his book, "Memories of Jesus." His first chapter has two basic points, as far as I can see: 1) "memory is fuzzy" (13) and 2) "We are rightly more confident about the generalities than about the particulars" (19). The rest of the chapter is details, clarifications, and objections.

Memory is Fuzzy
1. Long term memory is reconstructive (fills in missing elements), reproductive (accurate reproduction of material), and involves imagination.
2. Post-event information is often incorporated into memory.
3. Present biases often get read into earlier memories--our present selves read into our former selves.
4. Memories tend to become less and less distinct over time.
5. The order of how things happens gets moved around.
6. We create patterns out of our memories that serve our self-interests.
7. Groups rehearse memories that they hold dear.
8. Put into stories, memories take on a beginning, middle, and end.
9. Vivid memories are no more accurate than others.

This is the most important contribution of the chapter. While so much historical Jesus scholarship has atomized the biblical texts and pursued the historicity of small sayings, Allison protests that it is rather the themes that appear repeatedly that are most reliable. For example, the gospels repeatedly present Jesus casting out demons and healing. These are some of the most likely reliable memories of Jesus of all (from a historian's standpoint) because they are general impressions that are pervasive.

Allison thus rejects the classic criteria of authenticity from the "New Quest for the Historical Jesus," which was oriented around arguing over each individual saying one by one.  Allison, by contrast, argues that we need not be able to prove beyond a reasonable historical doubt any one healing or exorcism story to affirm that Jesus was accurately remembered as healing and casting out demons.

He also clarifies and answers objections. For example, he is not saying we have to stop with generalities, only that generalities are the place to start. So Jesus was a teacher, beyond the likely historicity of any one bit of teaching.

Next chapter is very long: "The Eschatology of Jesus." I'll have to break it up into chunks.


Rick said...

"Memory is Fuzzy"

I recall hearing Richard Bauckham discuss this in an interview, and here is a summary of his view as reviewed by Craig Blomberg:

"Traditions are labeled and identified with sources. Sometimes those sources form a group, as with the Twelve, but the danger in applying the study of social memory associated with Halbwachs, suddenly popular in various biblical circles, is that no room is left for individual memories' distinctives. Three dimensions must be distinguished: "(1) the social dimension of individual recollection, (2) the shared recollections of a group, and (3) collective memory" (p. 313)--that which no one member of the group actually recalls but which all have been told about repeatedly. The last of these is what social memory theorists often study and apply to the Gospels most, even though it is the dimension, within the first generation of Christianity, that least fits!...
What needs further analysis, therefore, is eyewitness memory. Without a doubt, vivid and important events in someone's life, especially as a young person or young adult, can stay with them for decades, especially if frequently rehearsed and/or retold. When gaps occur in one's memory, however, they may be filled with other memories from similar events on separate occasions. Overall, in daily life, though, memory successes far outnumber memory failures. All these trends need to be applied to the formation of the Gospels much more than they have been heretofore."

Sorry for the length of that, but I do think it speaks to the distinctions that need to be made when talking about recall/memory.

Looking forward to the continuation of your series.

Ken Schenck said...

Allison mentions both Bauckham and Dunn in this chapter and he does not completely disagree with them. He considers Bauckham a little more optimistic than likely, but he clearly aligns more with him than with, say, Crossan.