Memory theory is being used, if not explicitly to buttress the reliability of the Gospel portraits of Jesus, to do so implicitly by shifting the search away from the ipsissima verba Jesu towards the memory of Jesus. Rather than argue about what Jesus did or did not say—the reliability wars—some scholars now sidestep the issue by arguing that memory is inherently reliable in a broad or general way. Thus, the Gospels are reliable not at the level of detail, but at the level of broad memory, impact, or gist. In this article I argue that such optimism can only come by selectively quoting the troubling work of memory theorists, and by ignoring the full implications of memory theory.
Birger GerhardssonMemory and Manuscript: Oral Tradition and Written Transmission in Rabbinic Judaism and Early Christianity (Lund: Gleerup1961); Walter J. Ong Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (London: Routledge 1982); Alan Kirk and Tom Thatcher Memory Tradition and Text: Uses of the Past in Early Christianity (Semeia Studies 52; Leiden: Brill 2005).
James D.G. Dunn‘Eyewitnesses and the Oral Jesus Tradition’Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus6 (2008) pp. 85-105 at p. 87. In this work and in Jesus Remembered Dunn relies on the claims of Kenneth E. Bailey ‘Informal Controlled Oral Tradition and the Synoptic Gospels’ Asia Journal of Theology 5 (1991) pp. 34-54 concerning the controlled and reliable nature of oral memory and transmission in Middle Eastern cultures. See Theodore J. Weeden ‘Kenneth Bailey’s Theory of Oral Tradition: A Theory Contested by its Evidence’ Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 7 (2009) pp. 3-43 for a devastating critique of Bailey and see John S. Kloppenborg ‘Memory Performance and the Sayings of Jesus’ Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 10 (2012) pp. 97-132 for a pointed critique of Dunn’s continued acceptance of Bailey’s questionable claims.
Robert K. McIverMemory Jesus and the Synoptic Gospels (Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature2011). ‘Gist’ is also a term that Keener (Craig S. Keener The Historical Jesus of the Gospels [Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans 2009] pp. 144-61) and Bauckham (Richard Bauckham Jesus and the Eye Witnesses [Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans 2006] pp. 333-34 344-46) like.
Le DonneHistorical Jesus p. 32. A similar tension is apparent in Richard Horsley ‘Prominent Patterns in the Social Memory of Jesus and Friends’ in Alan Kirk and Tom Thatcher (eds.) Memory Tradition and Text: Uses of the Past in Early Christianity (Leiden: Brill 2005) pp. 57-78. On the one hand Horsley writes that ‘studies of social memory confirm that social memory of events is not stable as accurate historical information’ (p. 77) while concluding later with the claim that ‘studies of social memory lead … to the conclusion that there was a far greater continuity between Jesus in interaction with his immediate followers and emergent texts such [as] the Q speeches and Mark’s Gospel’ (pp. 77-78).
BauckhamJesus and the Eye Witnesses p. 490. Bauckham’s important book was the subject of a critical issue of Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 6 (2008) and his assumptions about the reliability of eyewitness memory has been shown to be out of keeping with the best psychological research. Judith C.S. Redman ‘How Accurate are Eyewitnesses? Bauckham and the Eyewitnesses in Light of Psychological Research’ Journal of Biblical Literature 129 (2010) pp. 177-97.
Trevor-Roper‘Highland Tradition’ pp. 28-29. The memory of the ancient origins of Highland dress is subtly perpetuated on the website of the Scottish Tartan Authority. Though their write-up accurately dates the tartan kilt to the early eighteenth century the web page in question is entitled ‘Ancient Highland Dress’ http://www.tartansauthority.com/highland-dress/ancient (accessed 20 May 2012). By most ways of reckoning the eighteenth century is not ‘ancient’.
R. CarterMapping the Mind (Berkeley: University of California Press1988) p. 167. See also Dennis Duling ‘Memory Collective Memory Orality and the Gospels’ HTS Teologiese Studien/Theological Studies 67 (2011) pp. 103-13 at p. 106.
SuetoniusLives of the Caesars2.94. See Paul Veyne Did the Greek Believe their Myths? (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1983) for a learned exposition on this tricky question and for more examples of the implausible things otherwise rational people can believe.