This volume of the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus is dedicated to issues of method related to the application of the so-called “memory approach” to the study of the historical Jesus. As will be clear, although numerous scholars are convinced of the value of sociological approaches to memory for the quest for the historical Jesus, their opinions diverge on precisely how such approaches are valuable. Thus, these essays offer a snapshot of some contemporary opinions. The research that undergirds them was first expressed at the Memory and the Historical Jesus Conference on June 9–10, 2016, hosted by the Centre for the Social-Scientific Study of the Bible at St Mary’s University, Twickenham.1
Collectively, the following essays demonstrate that, although there are some points of commonality, much is still be settled among those who are using “memory” in the quest for the historical Jesus. Two of the essays, those by Jens Schröter and Samuel Byrskog, focus on the important hermeneutical aspects of bringing the past into the present. Schröter’s article was delivered as the keynote of the 2016 csssb conference and can be taken as programmatic for the “memory approach,” particularly since many scholars would date the emergence of this distinct approach in historical Jesus studies to his 1997 monograph, Erinnerung an Jesu Worte. In his article Schröter points out that the memory approach does not contradict historical-critical Jesus research. By contrast, it makes use of such an approach. The specific contribution of the memory approach can be described as a hermeneutical reflection on the interpretation of the tradition from the perspective of later social frameworks. In his contribution, Byrskog emphasises the importance of a sense of time, and the experience of early Christian existence between the past and the present. Early Christ-followers, he argues, remembered and communicated their decisive past through recurrent narrative patterns (specifically the chreia and diēgēma), suggesting that these short episodes represent the intersection of memory, narrative and time. The component parts of the New Testament gospels are therefore open to form critical analysis—not in an attempt to reveal the “brute facts of history,” but better to understand what it meant for them to negotiate their past in order to make sense of their present.
The essays by Richard Bauckham and Ruben Zimmermann both engage other scholarly approaches critically. Bauckham argues against Dale Allison’s “gist theory” of memory, in which Allison asserted that human memory is better suited for general themes than particular details, and that psychological approaches to memory paint an overall negative image of humans’ ability to remember.2 Bauckham argues instead that psychological studies of memory give historians more reason to be optimistic about the potential reliability of memory. He therefore here continues to build upon the argument for “eyewitness testimony” that he initially articulated in his Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, now in a second edition. Zimmermann’s article draws upon his own extensive research on the parables of Jesus in order to argue against the recent fifth volume of John P. Meier’s A Marginal Jew, in which Meier argues that only four of Jesus’ parables can be regarded as “authentic” by historians. Placing the memory approach in contrast to Meier’s usage of the criteria of authenticity, Zimmermann seizes on the important methodological matters that emerge from Meier’s affirmation of only four parables of Jesus as historical when Jesus was widely remembered to have been a frequent teller of parables.
Anthony Le Donne closes this collection of articles with a spirited and thoughtful response to each one. As an important voice in the memory approach,3 and a participant at the 2016 csssb Conference, he is well-positioned to assess the ways in which the memory approach is making progress, as well as the work that has yet to be done. His article highlights a number of areas where greater precision and/or clarity will provide important studies in the future.
For a variety of reasons, including the fact that we are conscious that, other than one of the editors, this special edition of jshj features all white men, we wish to stress that this volume does not represent the full breadth of the “memory approach” to Jesus studies or even the full breadth of the 2016 csssb Conference from which it derives. That conference solicited presentations that would lead to two different publications. The essays featured here are strictly related to issues of method and the historical Jesus. The significance of “memory,” “reception,” and the complex relationship between the inherited past and the unfolding present extend beyond merely the historical Jesus, however. More broadly they apply to the hermeneutical crafting of images of Jesus (or any figure) by remembering individuals and groups, whether those among the first generations or subsequent generations. In this light, the vast majority of the presentations from the 2016 csssb Conference will find their publication home in the forthcoming three-volume The Reception of Jesus in the First Three Centuries, edited by Chris Keith, Helen K. Bond, Christine Jacobi, and Jens Schröter, due to be published in 2019 by Bloomsbury T&T Clark. The Reception of Jesus in the First Three Centuries is a first-of-its-kind reference work that features essays that assess the reception of Jesus in various literary, archaeological, and ritual contexts that spread across Judaism, Christianity, and pagan traditions. This reference work, it should be noted, does not involve the historical Jesus; its focus is on the portrayals of Jesus in pre-Constantinian Christianity, including the later reception of earlier portrayals of Jesus. The present jshj volume complements The Reception of Jesus in the First Three Centuries, however, in the sense that we, as the editors, believe that a proper grasp on the nature of the Jesus tradition—in all its variety—as “reception” should be the first step for anyone wishing to tread farther and make pronouncements about the historical Jesus.
With a minimal amount of navigation, video recordings of most of the lectures from that conference can be found at the St Mary’s University, Twickenham Youtube page: https://www.youtube.com/user/yourstmarys.
See especially Dale C. Allison Jr., Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010), 1: “The frailty of human memory should distress all who quest for the so-called historical Jesus.”
See especially Anthony Le Donne, The Historiographical Jesus: Memory, Typology, and the Son of David (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2009).