The General and the Particular in Memory

A Critique of Dale Allison’s Approach to the Historical Jesus

In: Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus
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  • 1 1Emeritus Professor, St Andrews, Fife, United Kingdom,

Dale Allison’s book Constructing Jesus begins by describing how memory often leads us astray. As a basic principle for the quest of the historical Jesus, he claims that the general is remembered better than the particular. This article argues that Allison has misunderstood the results of research on memory in cognitive psychology. There is no reason to think that specific events are remembered less well than generalities. Allison fails to distinguish different types of memory and fails to discuss what sorts of events are remembered well. There is strong evidence that memories of “exceptional” events (characterized by uniqueness, importance, emotionality and frequent rehearsal) are especially well retained. The exorcism stories in the Gospels are briefly discussed as an example.

  • 3

    Allison, Constructing Jesus, pp. 2–8.

  • 4

    Allison, Constructing Jesus, p. 10.

  • 7

    Allison, Constructing Jesus, pp. 10–11. The first of Allison’s quotations is from Israel Rosenfield, The Invention of Memory (New York: Basic Books, 1988), p. 76 (I have not been able to access this book); the second quotation is from John Henderson, Memory and Forgetting ­(London: Routledge, 1999), pp. 28–29. Here Henderson is discussing a rather old (1956) study by G. A. Miller, according to which the memory stores information in chunks. This is said to entail loss of detail: “Everyday experiences are not easily ‘chunkable’ without loss of detail – we remember whole events, whole faces, whole conversations” (Allison has removed the italics in his quotation from this source). It is quite clear that Henderson is not talking about “generalization” but about remembering the gist of one specific event, one specific face, or one specific conversation.

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  • 8

     E.g. Craig R. Barclay, “Schematization of Autobiographical Memory,” in Autobiographical Memory, ed. David C. Rubin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), pp. 82–99, here p. 82; Alan Baddeley, Human Memory: Theory and Practice [revised edition; Hove: Psychology Press, 1997], p. 222.

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  • 9

    Allison, Constructing Jesus, p. 12.

  • 10

    Allison, Constructing Jesus, p. 13.

  • 11

    Allison, Constructing Jesus, p. 13.

  • 14

     E.g. William F. Brewer, “What is Autobiographical Memory?,” in Autobiographical ­Memory, ed. David C. Rubin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), pp. 25–47, here p. 26 (the relevant categories are “personal memory” and “generic personal memory”); ­Martin A. Conway, “Autobiographical Memory,” in Memory (ed. by Elizabeth Ligon Bjork and Robert A. Bjork; San Diego: Academic Press, 1996), pp. 165–194, here pp. 170–176 (“event-specific knowledge” and “general events”); Gabriel A. Radvansky and Jeffrey M. Zachs, Event Cognition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), p. 157 (“event-specific knowledge” and “general events”).

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  • 15

    Allison, Constructing Jesus, p. 14.

  • 17

     E.g. Brewer, “What is Autobiographical Memory?,” p. 26.

  • 18

    Neisser, “John Dean’s Memory,” pp. 19–20.

  • 19

    Baddeley, Human Memory, p. 221.

  • 21

    Schacter, How the Mind Forgets, pp. 161–183. Schacter’s seven sins were also unsuitable for Allison’s purposes in that only three of them (misattribution, suggestibility, hindsight bias) are plausibly relevant to the Gospels.

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  • 26

    Allison, Constructing Jesus, p. 22.

  • 27

    Allison, Constructing Jesus, pp. 8–9 n. 47, where he quotes Daniel Schacter, Gillian ­Cohen (“In daily life, memory successes are the norm and memory failures are the exception”) and Patricia J. Bauer. It would be easy to add further quotations from ­cognitive psychologists to the same effect: e.g. Schacter, How the Mind Forgets, p. 6; Schacter, “Memory ­Distortion,” p. 1 (“memory operates with a high degree of accuracy across many conditions and circumstances”), p. 4 (“it is important not to lose sight of the fact that memory is often accurate’); David B. Pillemer, Momentous Events, Vivid Memories (Cambridge, Mass.: ­Harvard University Press, 1998), pp. 56–59; Alice M. Hoffman and Howard S. ­Hoffman, “Memory Theory: Personal and Social,” in Handbook of Oral History (ed. by Thomas L. Charlton, Lois E. Myers and Rebecca Sharpless; Lanham: AltaMira Press, 2006), pp. 275–296, here p. 282 (“Under the vast majority of circumstances, the probability exists that the information provided by memory, like that provided by most perceptions, is ­trustworthy”), pp. 289–290.

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  • 29

    Allison, Constructing Jesus, p. 8.

  • 32

    Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), pp. 355–356.

  • 33

     See, e.g., Schacter, How the Mind Forgets,pp. 31–33; Baddeley, Human Memory, p. 213; ­Cohen, Memory, pp. 159–160.

  • 34

    Schacter, “Memory Distortion,” p. 25. Cf. also Winograd, “The authenticity,” p. 250.

  • 37

    Allison, Constructing Jesus, p. 1.

  • 38

    Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, pp. 330–335.

  • 40

    Allison, Constructing Jesus, p. 9 n. 47.

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    Cohen, Memory, p. 160.

  • 43

    Stephen R. Schmidt, Extraordinary Memories for Exceptional Events (New York: ­Psychology Press, 2012).

  • 45

    Pillemer, Momentous Events, pp. 4–5.

  • 46

    Pillemer, Momentous Events, p. 7.

  • 47

    Pillemer, Momentous Events, p. 12.

  • 48

    Pillemer, Momentous Events, p. 24.

  • 50

    Pillemer, Momentous Events, p. 24.

  • 51

    Pillemer, Momentous Events, pp. 26–29.

  • 53

    Pillemer, Momentous Events, pp. 32–44.

  • 54

    Pillemer, Momentous Events, p. 26.

  • 55

    Pillemer, Momentous Events, pp. 49–51. This definition corresponds quite closely with Brewer’s account of the characteristics of “personal memory”: Brewer, “What is Autobiographical Memory?,” pp. 34–35.

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  • 56

    Pillemer, Momentous Events, p. 59.

  • 57

    Pillemer, Momentous Events, p. 60.

  • 58

    Pillemer, Momentous Events, pp. 61–62.

  • 60

     E.g. Schmidt, Extraordinary Memories, pp. 5, 173.

  • 61

    Schmidt, Extraordinary Memories, pp. 5, 173.

  • 62

    Schmidt, Extraordinary Memories, pp. 5–8.

  • 63

    Allison, Constructing Jesus, pp. 17–18.

  • 64

    Allison, Constructing Jesus, p. 18.

  • 65

    Allison, Constructing Jesus, p. 19.

  • 66

    Allison, Constructing Jesus, p. 20.

  • 68

    Allison, Constructing Jesus, p. 18 n. 78, thinks that “later recall of one incident for the ­purposes of storytelling would likely have involved, to some degree, conflating details from several incidents.” It is a phenomenon of memory that details of one memory may be mistakenly incorporated into another. I think this probably happens occasionally in the Gospels. In this case, the distinctiveness and coherence of each story seems to me to make it unlikely. But in any case, it does not affect the kind of substantial accuracy (accuracy for “gist,” not other details) that is all that should be claimed for this kind of memory.

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  • 69

    Allison, Constructing Jesus, p. 18.

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