Memory, Orality, and the Fourth Gospel

A Response to Paul Foster with Further Comments for Future Discussion

in Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus
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This article examines and responds to the arguments made by Paul Foster in a recent article in jshj regarding social-memory theory, orality, and the Fourth Gospel, where he argues that recent research in these areas are dead-ends for historical Jesus research. We do not necessarily wish to defend the research he criticizes, but we respond to Foster by pointing out some of the limitations in his analysis and provide further comments to move discussion of these research areas forward. Our comments address his assumption that form- and redaction-criticism accomplish the purposes that he envisions for historical Jesus research and a number of other problematic arguments he raises regarding each of these areas.

Memory, Orality, and the Fourth Gospel

A Response to Paul Foster with Further Comments for Future Discussion

in Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus




 See Vincent TaylorThe Formation of the Gospel Tradition (2nd edn; London: Macmillan1957) pp. 11–21 where he summarizes the major form critics including Dibelius K.L. Schmidt and Bultmann as well as offering his own perspective. Foster says that Bultmann discusses whether a tradition originated ‘either in the life of the early church or in the ministry of the historical Jesus’ (198) citing Rudolf Bultmann History of the Synoptic Tradition (trans. John Marsh; Oxford: Blackwell 1963 [1921; 5th edn 1931]) but without page number. When Bultmann explains his method (such as it is) he does not refer to the ministry of the historical Jesus but to such things as ‘primary tradition’ (3) and Sitz im Leben which he defines as not ‘an individual historical event but a typical situation or occupation in the life of a community’ (4). For a similar critique see Christopher Tuckett ‘Form Criticism’ in Jesus in Memory: Traditions in Oral and Scribal Perspectives (ed. Werner H. Kelber and Samuel Byrskog; Waco tx: Baylor University Press 2009) pp. 21–38 esp. 29–31.


He cites Barry Schwartz‘Collective Memory and Social Change: The Democratization of George Washington’American Sociology Review 56 (1992) pp. 221–36; and Michael Schudson Watergate in American Memory: How We Remember Forget and Reconstruct the Past (New York: Basic Books 1992).


Maurice HalbwachsLes travaux de l’année sociologique (Paris: Félix Alcan1925); et in Maurice Halbwachs On Collective Memory based on Maurice Halbwachs Les cadres sociaux de la mémoire (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France 1952). Halbwachs following Émile Durkheim and increasingly rejecting Henri Bergson’s individualism states ‘It is in society that people normally acquire their memories. It is also in society that they recall recognize and localize their memories’ (Halbwachs On Collective Memory p. 38).


AllisonConstructing Jesus p. 9 n. 47.


AllisonConstructing Jesus pp. 8–9 and n. 46 11 but see also pp. 442–43 where Allison suggests that ‘light fiction’ seems to be an appropriate genre in which we can categorize the Gospels. On the basis of the work of several social-memory theorists Allison concludes that ‘Even for those not thus gifted memory can be especially reliable when handling atypical events that one personally participated in found mentally engaging experienced as emotionally intense and then later rehearsed’ (p. 9 n. 46).


Esp. William F. Brewer‘What is Recollective Memory?’ in Remembering Our Past: Studies in Autobiographical Memory (ed. D.C. Rubin; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1996) pp. 19–66.


BauckhamJesus and the Eyewitnesses p. 334.


Olick and Robbins‘Social Memory Studies’ p. 114. Cf. Frances A. Yates The Art of Memory (Chicago il: University of Chicago Press 1966).


 On these matters see MisztalTheories of Social Remembering pp. 15–16 82–83 95–97; and James Fentress and Chris Wickham Social Memory (Oxford: Blackwell 1992) pp. 32–36 41–75.


AllisonConstructing Jesus p. 11.


BauckhamJesus and the Eyewitnesses p. 333.


Alan BaddeleyHuman Memory: Theory and Practice (rev. edn; Hove: Psychology1997) pp. 221 222 cited in Bauckham Jesus and the Eyewitnesses p. 333.


MisztalTheories of Social Remembering p. 71.


 Cf. EveBehind the Gospels pp. 94–95.


Jan AssmannDas kulturelle Gedächtnis: Schrift Erinnerung und politische Identität in frühen Hochkulturen (Munich: Beck1992) esp. p. 56 and Assmann and Czaplicka ‘Collective Memory and Cultural Identity’ pp. 126–29 acknowledge a transitional stage from communicative memory to cultural memory; et in Jan Assmann Cultural Memory and Early Civilization: Writing Remembrance and Political Imagination (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2011). See also Aleida Assmann Zeit und Tradition: Kulturelle Strategien der Dauer (Beiträge zur Geschichtskultur 15; Cologne: Böhlau 1999); Pierre Nora Les Lieux de mémoire (Paris: Gallimard 1984); idem ‘Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de mémoire’ Representation 26 (1989) pp. 7–25; and idem Realms of Memory: Rethinking the French Past (New York: Columbia University Press 1996).


Axel Olrik‘Epic Laws of Folk Narrative’ in The Study of Folklore (ed. Alan Dundas; Englewood Cliffs nj: Prentice Hall 1965) pp. 129–41; Vladimir Propp Morphology of the Folktale (Austin tx: University of Texas Press 1968); M. Parry ‘Whole Formulaic Verses in Greek and Southslavic Heroic Song’ Transactions of the American Philological Association 64 (1933) pp. 179–97; Albert Lord The Singer of Tales (Cambridge ma: Harvard University Press 1960).


Brooke Foss WestcottAn Introduction to the Study of the Gospels (6th edn; Cambridge: Macmillan1881) pp. 163–212 (an exception to his neglect is Bruce Chilton Profiles of a Rabbi: Synoptic Opportunities in Reading about Jesus [bjs 177; Atlanta ga: Scholars 1989] pp. 33 43); Bo Reicke The Roots of the Synoptic Gospels (Philadelphia pa: Fortress 1986); Werner H. Kelber The Oral and the Written Gospel: The Hermeneutics of Speaking and Writing in the Synoptic Tradition Mark Paul and Q (Bloomington in: Indiana University Press 1997 [1983]); Rainer Riesner Jesus als Lehrer: Eine Untersuchung zum Ursprung der Jesus-Überlieferung (3rd and exp. edn; wunt 2.7; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck 1988); idem ‘From the Messianic Teacher to the Gospels of Jesus Christ’ in Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus (4 vols.; ed. Tom Holmén and Stanley E. Porter; Leiden: Brill 2011) I pp. 405–46; Kenneth E. Bailey ‘Informal Controlled Oral Tradition and the Synoptic Gospels’ Asia Journal of Theology 5 (1991) pp. 34–54 (repr. in Themelios 20.2 [1995] pp. 4–11); idem ‘Middle Eastern Oral Tradition and the Synoptic Gospels’ ExpTim 106 (1995) pp. 363–67; Eta Linnemann Is There a Synoptic Problem? Rethinking the Literary Dependence of the First Three Gospels (trans. Robert W. Yarbrough; Grand Rapids mi: Baker 1992); and Armin D. Baum Der mündliche Faktor und seine Bedeutung für die synoptische Frage: Analogien aus der antiken Literatur der Experimentalpsychologie der Oral Poetry-Forschung und dem rabbinischen Traditionswesen (Tübingen: Franke Verlag 2008).


Ruth FinneganLiteracy and Orality: Studies in the Technology of Communication (Oxford: Blackwell1988) pp. 91–101.


FinneganLiteracy and Orality p. 92.


Hans Dieter Betz‘Wellhausen’s Dictum “Jesus was not a Christian, but a Jew” in Light of Present Scholarship’Studia Theologica 45 (1991) pp. 83–110; repr. in his Antike und Christentum: Gesammelte Aufsätze IV (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck 1998) pp. 1–31 esp. 12–16.


William SandayThe Authorship and Historical Character of the Fourth Gospel (London: Macmillan1872) and The Criticism of the Fourth Gospel (Oxford: Clarendon 1905); Arthur C. Headlam The Fourth Gospel as History (Oxford: Blackwell 1948); and John A.T. Robinson The Priority of John (ed. J.F. Coakley; London: scm 1985) reflecting some of his earlier findings.


Appold‘Jesus’ Bethsaida Disciples’ p. 31.


PorterCriteria for Authenticity pp. 82–89.

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