I decided to have a go at offering a “running review” of Bart Ehrman’s new book – a foray into memory and the Gospels. My perspective may be described as that of a memory theory non-specialist, or rather, a memory theory fan who specializes in the social processes of speech and talk in antiquity. I know the folks at the Jesus Blog are reviewing the book, too. So, I encourage interested readers to go there for a memory specialist’s perspective.
I intend my review, or better, reviews, to be brief, offered over time – maybe a chapter at a time; don’t know! In any event, the review will unfold over time so that lauds and criticisms that come early on, may be corrected as the reading experience unfolds.
The lenses through which I will unapologetically read Ehrman’s book will ultimately be construed by a number of interests of mine, some of which I have more expertise in than others – memory, Jesus tradition and the “traditioning process,” speech and talk, gossip, and especially something I imagine as the intersection(s) between speech/talk/gossip and re-membering.
Alright, there’s the net. Here we go.
I read the introduction last night, and will point out just a few things I noticed. First, and as usual, Ehrman’s gift of communicating biblical scholarship to a general reading audience is obvious once again – and a source of personal envy on my part;-). All of us in the academy should recognize that when it comes to communicating complexities to non-professionals, Ehrman is an “angelic doctor” (pace St. Thomas Aquinas!).
That said, I didn’t get past the first paragraph before running into something that bothers me. In discussion about the memory of Jesus in the Gospels, E. (I’ll abbreviate his name since “E” is easier to type faster than “Bart” or “Ehrman”) E. begins by framing the discussion “[d]uring the intervening years (between Jesus’ death/resurrection and the Gospels) – even the years after our Gospels were written – stories about Jesus were in oral circulation” (1; parentheses mine). A lot of scholars limit their focus to the same sort of time frame which, to my mind, neglects the time before Jesus’ death – during his ministry. Of course, some haven’t neglected this time period for the emergence of the Jesus tradition – folks like Birger Gerhardsson.
Jesus was experienced by people when he was alive and doing his thing, and it’s quite safe to say he was talked about a lot – especially after saying and doing things that people obviously thought merited re-membering via gossip and rumor. I think any serious memory-approach to the historical Jesus needs to consider this, and wonder about the many descriptions in the Gospels of Jesus being re-membered in this very fashion.
Related to this is the important point that once Jesus said or did something, that “historical event” was gone, and still is gone. As soon as the event was completed, it was gone. Thus, E.’s constant emphasis on “accuracy” or lack of it in memory processes, seems to be aiming at a target that doesn’t exist. It’s not even a moving target – it’s just not there. And the event that was there, only exists in its being re-membered. And this re-membering likely began immediately after it happened: “What did he just say?” “What did he just do?”
In every edition (I think) of E.’s Oxford Intro to the New Testament, he describes the “oral traditioning process” by appealing to a children’s game – the “phone game” – where a child whispers a sentence to another child who then passes it on in whispers to another, and so on through the group until it comes out all messed up by the time the last child gets the story and shares it with everyone for a good laugh. This always bothered me – probably because it takes no real account of the social and cultural specificity of speech in Mediterranean cultures. In any event, E. explicitly appeals to this simplistic understanding of memory no less than seven times in the introduction, as if this may be the picture-image of memory processes that may ultimately drive the rest of his discussion of Jesus Before the Gospels. I hope it isn’t!
So, now I’ll read on…
Until next time.