Social Memory Theory: A New Method with Same Old Assumptions and Results

A new methodological approach to the study of Scripture, known as “social memory theory,” appears to be gaining steam in New Testament biblical scholarship. Scholars such as Chris Keith, Anthony Le Donne, and Rafael Rodriguez have co-opted the theory in their quest for the historical Jesus. Others, like Tom Thatcher, have chosen social memory theory to investigate other aspects of the gospels, such as why John wrote his gospel. The theory is being heralded as holding promise for the future of biblical studies.

But what is social memory theory? Is it a legitimate method to use in the study of Scripture? I will argue in this post that, contrary to its newly crowned status as the hope for progress in biblical studies, social memory theory is really a method with the same old assumptions and results of modern (i.e., classical liberal) biblical scholarship and thus ought to be abandoned. Specifically, I will argue that it continues the old modern, liberal view of Scripture as a mere human product that simply encapsulates the subjective memories of its authors, resulting in the denial of the doctrines of inspiration and inerrancy.

What Is “Social Memory Theory?”

Social Memory theory is often attributed to having roots in the work of the sociologist Maurice Halbwachs (1877-1945). His main thesis was that memory is not merely individual, but “collective,” in the sense that individual people remember things according to cultural structures. Halbwachs observed, “It is in society that people normally acquire their memories. It is also in society that they recall, recognize, and localize their memories.”[1] Since this is the case, everyone’s personal memory is not really private; everyone’s memory is formed out of social norms. As Thatcher puts it, “At the moment of initial experience, we interpret and categorize sensory data according to group language, logic, and norms. At the moment of remembrance, we package and present our past experiences in group language to make our past sensible to others.”[2] In other words, peoples’ memories are formed by the biases of their community as well as their own, making it nearly impossible to discern between objective (or “authentic”) and subjective (or “inauthentic”) interpretations of the past. As Rodriguez explains,

Neither individual nor collective identity represent static entities or ‘things’ that can be analysed apart from the other. They are dynamic and fluid, constantly under construction as my own projections of my self interact with feedback and identifications of ‘me’ that I receive from others. . . . The memorial narratives I tell myself and those around me interact with feedback and narratives I receive from others. Both ‘personal’ and ‘collective’ memory, therefore, are continually being negotiated as objects and subjects of social interaction; both are mutually constituting and ‘intrinsically social.’[3]

What this means is that the memories of a particular person cannot be separated from one’s cultural thought patterns. Memory is a social phenomenon, using ideas and language inherited from one’s own culture, hence the term “social memory.” As such, one’s own memories (or thoughts for that matter) cannot be separated from society’s own memories. As Rodriguez goes on to say, “Memory does not . . . preserve the past in a way that allows for the separation of historical fact and later interpretation.”[4] Or, as Thatcher eloquently describes it, “Once memory puts things into the same category, they tend to bleed into one another, and once they get mixed up, it’s hard to pull them apart again—somewhat like removing the chips from chocolate chip cookies after they’ve been baked.”[5]

A main emphasis that social memory theorists make is that memory does not function like a file folder in which an individual places memories of the objective past. “Memory is not a content, a fixed body of data about the past,” states Thatcher, “but rather a social contract, an agreement about how the past should be conceptualized and discussed.”[6] More metaphorically, quoting social memory theorists, Rodriquez writes, “Our memories no more store little replicas of the outside world made out of mind stuff than do the backs of our televisions.”[7] Memory, then, does not store past events. Indeed, as I have written elsewhere, Le Donne argues that memory is merely an interpretation of one’s perception of the world. The end result is that memory is purely relative to one’s culture and subject to one’s own biases.

Although social memory theory sounds like rank postmodern skepticism at best or relativism at worst, social memory theorists in the biblical studies area often ensure readers that this is not the case. For example, Rodriguez argues that “social memory doesn’t focus on issues of ‘historicity.’ . . . The relationship between history and images of the past . . . have to be assessed on other grounds.”[8] Thatcher and Keith express the same sentiment. For example, Keith states, “Lack of complete access to the past is not the same as a complete lack of access to the past.”[9] As we’ll see more fully below, however, the problem is that social memory theory is built upon the idea that individual memory (which is biased) and social memory (which is also biased) are so intertwined that the difference between authentic and inauthentic history cannot be distinguished clearly. Social memory theory, therefore, really is postmodern relativism at worst or skepticism at best.

“Social Memory,” Modernism, and Scripture

Social memory theory and the method used by modern (i.e., classical liberal) biblical scholarship have several assumptions and results in common. Probably the best representative of classical liberal biblical scholarship was Rudolph Bultmann. As I have written elsewhere, he was a major player in the quest for the historical Jesus movement. In order to find the “authentic” Jesus—the one who really lived in history in first-century Palestine—Bultmann applied the method of “demythologization” to Scripture. This method assumed that nothing could be truly known about the Jesus of history by studying the Christian Scriptures. Instead, one had to recognize that Scripture was a mixture of “what really happened” and the authors’ interpretation of what really happened. To get to the Jesus of history (rather than the Jesus of faith), one had to “demythologize” the biblical text—peel away the mythology like one peels the husk from the corn cob—to find the truth of who Jesus really was. The reason why Scripture contained all these myths was because the authors themselves were products of their time and were concerned about issues relevant to them. For Bultmann, then, Scripture was inauthentic history. The result was he denied the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture. Scripture became merely a human product, stitched together with multiple and differing (even contradictory) pictures of Jesus.

Although some scholars believe that social memory theory is “postmodern” (Le Donne) or even neither modern nor postmodern (Keith), it does not change Bultmann’s approach to Scripture much. Social memory theory continues Bultmann’s assumption that Scripture does not represent the true Jesus of history—the one who lived, died, and was resurrected in first-century Palestine. The reason is because Scripture contains both “authentic” and “inauthentic” history, both being so intertwined that it becomes nearly impossible to distinguish the two.

In his book, Jesus’ Literacy: Scribal Culture and the Teacher from Galilee, Chris Keith says of his own work, “It is important to underscore that I am not advocating a conservative retreat to a literalist approach to the Gospels as pure images of ‘what really happened.’”[10] Indeed, “from the perspective of social memory theory,” argues Keith, “scholars in search of authentic Jesus traditions might as well be in search of unicorns, the lost city of Atlantis, and the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.” In agreement with Le Donne, Keith goes on to say, “Not only are there no longer Jesus traditions that reflect solely the actual past, there never were.” In other words, there never was an authentic, objective history of Jesus enscripturated. The Gospels are nothing but subjective interpretations of Jesus: “In other words, there is no memory, no preserved past, and no access to it, without interpretation. The Jesus-memory approach therefore agrees with the criteria approach [e.g., the method that Bultmann employed] that the written Gospels reflect an interpreted past of Jesus.”[11] Just like Bultmann, then, the text of Scripture contains myth (“interpretations,” if you wish).

Thatcher agrees with this sentiment when it comes to the Gospel of John. Using social memory in an attempt to answer the question of why John wrote his Gospel, Thatcher argues that the picture John paints of Jesus is one that is not “equivalent to the disciples’ initial empirical experiences of Jesus.” John “does not treat his accounts of those experiences as raw recollections of moments from Jesus’ life.”[12] Following social memory theory, Thatcher believes John’s memories of Jesus are intricately intertwined with those memories of his community. Thus, in contrast with the modern approach, it is impossible to “peel away” the inauthentic parts (or memories) of John’s Gospel from the authentic parts. But, ultimately, the modern assumption still stands: Scripture is not an authentic picture of who Jesus was—it is a mixture of authentic and inauthentic material. It is utterly impossible, argues Thatcher, to get to “a simple recall of [Jesus’] deeds and words that could somehow provide a virtual experience of his ‘real’ person. If such a thing ever existed, it is now gone forever, and comes to us embedded in a combination of recollections, Scriptures, and theological conclusions.”[13]

Since Scripture is a mixture of authentic and inauthentic historical material about Jesus, it follows that the pictures of Jesus that the Gospel writers paint do not always agree. This is what one would expect, considering each writer has his own bias. In fact, it is what one would expect in a process that involves redactors adding and modifying Scripture over a period of time, which is also assumed in social memory theory. Keith describes the writing of Scripture as an evolving process: “It was the process whereby there were only ever interpretations/memories of the past to begin with, to which other interpretations—that grew from, approved of, disagree with, contradicted, but, in the least, were in dialogue with and thus to some degree constrained by, the earlier interpretations—were added until the final product was a result of that interpretive activity”[14]. Thus it is no surprise to see Keith, in his work Jesus’ Literacy, arguing that the Gospels give contradictory claims concerning Jesus’ ability to read and write.[15]

Concluding Remarks

Applying social memory theory to the Gospels (or all of Scripture, for that matter) leaves one with merely the biased perspectives of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John situated in their own cultural contexts, an assumption which modern, classical liberal biblical scholarship began. Scripture does not give access to the authentic, one and only Jesus of history. In short, “We are only able to access the remembered Jesus,” as Keith plainly says. [16] We have no direct access whatsoever to Jesus himself. All we have are inferences when it comes to knowing if the Gospels portray actual history. “What one may draw from the text [of the Gospels] with regards to ‘actual history’ are indeed inferences. . . . There is no objective apprehension of past reality.”[17] We can speak only what is plausible regarding what the Gospels say what Jesus said and did, “but not what is definite.”[18] Logically speaking, then, I cannot see how the old hymn should not be changed to: “my faith is built on nothing less than Jesus’ inferred blood and plausible righteousness.” This, of course, follows logically from social memory theorists’ analysis because the foundation for our knowledge of Christ is Scripture. But is this what Christians truly desire to say, and is this what they believe? Do we have only human educated guesses as to whom Jesus was?

But what about the qualification that social memory theory does not entail that nothing truly can be said about the Jesus of history? Recall that Keith argues that even if we cannot have full access to history, we may have some access to history through Scripture. This qualification, however, only takes us right back to Bultmann’s modern method of biblical criticism. Remember Bultmann argued that one can actually “peel” away parts of Scripture and get to the authentic, historical Jesus. But Keith, et al., are essentially saying the same thing when they argue that Scripture is a mix of authentic and inauthentic stories of Christ. This is exactly what Bultmann argued. The only difference is that social memory theory argues that one cannot peel away the inauthentic parts to get to the authentic. So, we are left with skepticism, which in my opinion is actually worse than modernism. Instead of having the ability to get to the Jesus of history through Scripture, now we have no certainty at all that Scripture has recorded the actual history of Jesus. All we have are inferences and best guesses.

Another problem with social memory theory when it is applied to Scripture is that it begs the question, or reasons in a circle, just like the modern/liberal method. Biblical social memory theorists state that disagreement among the Gospel writers exists (we get different “portraits” of Jesus), and they use social memory theory to explain why. But applying the theory in this way is actually an incorrect use of it. Social memory theory is supposed to be collective, which is to say that individual memory is informed and shaped by society; individual memory and social memory are “shared,” or working from the same “framework.” If this is so, then how is it that the Gospels contradict? Aren’t the Gospel writers all working from the same social framework, i.e., first-century Palestine? And wouldn’t social memory theory be applicable only if they were working from the same framework? I have not seen any argument from social memory theorists that each of the four Gospels work from different social frameworks. It is merely assumed, and thus they commit the fallacy of begging the question. The modernists did the same thing. Bultmann used particular criteria to “demythologize” Scripture, while at the same time assuming the New Testament authors contradicted one another. So, as we can see, social memory theorists are doing nothing new; they are building upon their modern predecessors: they assume the very things they wish to conclude or explain.

In addition, it should be noted that social memory theorists continue to accept the modern/liberal notions that Scripture has been redacted and produced through a process of evolution. These are merely assumed and never argued for. And so, again, this begs the question because they are attempting to account for the so-called contradictory accounts in the Gospels while accepting premises that have yet to be argued for (that the accounts contradict).

Of course, the most significant problem that has been lying behind the entire discussion up to this point is that social memory theory continues the assumption that Scripture contains inauthentic material. This clearly does away with the doctrines of inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture, which state that Scripture has been breathed out by God (2 Tim. 3:16), and as such contains no errors (because God cannot err). Even the unity of Scripture is discarded because the Gospels, for example, give differing and contradictory accounts of Jesus. Moreover, social memory theory leaves us with no way of discerning what material is authentic and which is not. At best, therefore, we are left with skepticism as to the veracity of the biblical text.

What is ultimately at stake here, then, is the authority of Scripture. The undermining of the trustworthiness of Scripture is nothing new: the modernist did so and now the social memory theorist is doing so. There is nothing new in social memory theory. It is simply old assumptions with the same results dressed up in a different suit. But the poignant question is this: do we desire to follow in the footsteps of modern biblical scholarship, which led many to deny the Christian faith and which turned many Christian colleges and universities from orthodox Christianity to “progressive biblical education?” The path has been made before, and it is being made again.

Grace,

Peter Jay Rasor II

NOTES:

[1] Maurice Halbwachs, The Social Frameworks of Memory, ed. and trans. L. A. Coser, On Collective Memory (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 38;quoted in Rafael Rodriguez, Structuring Early Christian Memory: Jesus in Tradition, Performance and Text (London & New York: T & T Clark, 2010), 42.

[2] Tom Thatcher, Why John Wrote a Gospel: Jesus—Memory—History (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 56. For a brief overview of social memory theory, see also Alan Kirk and Tom Thatcher, “Jesus Tradition as Social Memory” in Alan Kirk and Tom Thatcher, eds., Memory, Tradition, and Text: Uses of the Past in Early Christianity (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2005).

[3] Rodriguez, Structuring, 43-44; emphasis mine.

[4] Ibid., 57.

[5] Thatcher, Why John Wrote a Gospel,119.

[6] Ibid., 108.

[7] James Fentress & Chris Wickham, Social Memory (Oxford & Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 1992), 31; quoted in Rodriguez, Structuring, 57.

[8] Rodriguez, Structuring, 63-64.

[9] Chris Keith, Jesus’ Literacy: Scribal Culture and the Teacher from Galilee (London & New York: T & T Clark, 2011), 67. See, Thatcher, Why John Wrote a Gospel, xvii. Thatcher, for example, says, “From time to time you may wonder what any of this might say about the ‘historicity’ of the Gospel of John or of specific sections of that text.  While I will talk about John’s historical consciousness, this book does not address the historicity issue, not even implicitly, and no part of my argument should be taken as an attempt to support or challenge any of John’s claims about Jesus.”

[10] Keith, Literacy, 61.

[11] Keith, Literacy, 61; Anthony Le Donne, Historical Jesus: What Can We Know and How Can We Know It? (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2011), 70.

[12] Thatcher, Why John Wrote A Gospel, 23.

[13] Ibid., 166.

[14] Keith, Literacy, 63.

[15] Keith, Literacy, 146, 168-69. Keith states, “The synoptic debate . . . reveals an early Christian social memory that is corporately confused or, better, in a state of disagreement on the matter of Jesus’ scribal-literate status” (146; emphasis mine). He goes on to explain the reason why he accepts an illiterate Jesus: it is “not simply because most people were scribal illiterates, but because the sources have conflicting claims and the socio-historical context suggests that one of those claims (scribal illiteracy) has a far greater likelihood than the other (scribal literacy)” (168-69; emphasis mine). In other words, the reason he takes Jesus to have been illiterate is because he believes that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John [and even non-canonical sources] contradict one another and that Jesus’ historical context disallows literacy. Although the latter reason is specious and debatable, the former reason is serious: Scripture contradicts itself. Keith also gives many more examples where the synoptics disagree, see, e.g., Keith, Literacy, 126, 142-45.

[16] Keith, Literacy, 66.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

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29 Responses to Social Memory Theory: A New Method with Same Old Assumptions and Results

  1. Jon Weatherly says:

    I think that this critique is unfair at almost every point.

    It does not take into account what the notion of “the Jesus of history” specifically signifies in current scholarship, thereby not reckoning with the clear outcome of much of the work that is critiqued here, namely, that the fact that the Gospels contain memory shaped by culture and experience *does not* require that one tease apart the historical from the unhistorical. In fact, the Gospels are on a par with other books that articulate memories and are likewise no less historical for that.

    The comparison to Bultmann does not consider differences as well as similarities, and the differences are considerable. One could have asked for consideration of the differences among the four individuals whom you name as well. Do they all see things in exactly the same way?

    I find it puzzling that you criticize the application of this method as circular and assumption-based. You seem to advocate merely a different assumption: the Gospels are Scripture, and so they are historical.

    Approaches like Social Memory Theory may offer biblical scholars some means of addressing the impasse that has existed in the evaluation of the Gospels not just since Bultmann but since Schleiermacher. I sense in this post an unwillingness to engage those questions except at the level of “assumption.” Because I am not a Calvinist, I cannot simply embrace presuppositional apologetics as this post would seem to require. I would prefer to look for opportunities to explore what can be known and understood about the processes that give rise to books like the Gospels, and in that exploration to find grounds to challenge the conclusions of those who dismiss the Gospels as “faith” in opposition to “history.” This approach forecloses such a possibility.

    And so to characterize “what is ultimately at stake” as “the authority of Scripture” is, to say the least, unfair. I find that the authority of Scripture, more specifically its very historical foundation, is affirmed, not denied, by exploring issues such as these.

    • prasor says:

      Jon,

      I want to thank you for your reply and taking the opportunity to dialogue about this important issue. Your reply is short but is packed with several lines of thought I would like to address. I, therefore, humbly request you to apply patience and consider my reply. I have numbered my responses to make it a little easier to read.

      (1) You state that my critique “does not take into account what the notion of ‘the Jesus of history’ specifically signifies in current scholarship.” In a sense you are correct. I dealt with that issue in another blog post (you can find it under the title “A Wake-up Call” on my blog). That being said, allow me to reiterate the essence of current “Jesus of history” scholarship: “the Jesus of history” refers specifically to the reconstructions of biblical scholars of who they think Jesus was. The problem is that those who are involved with the quest for the historical Jesus do not believe that Scripture gives an accurate, objective, historical description of who Jesus was. And this is what I specifically take issue with in this blog, as many other Christians who believe in the inerrancy (as traditionally understood) would.

      (2) You follow up your previous statement by claiming that, because I do not understand biblical scholarship, my critique does not “[reckon] with the clear outcome of much of the work that is critiqued here, namely, that the fact that the Gospels contain memory shaped by culture and experience *does not* require that one tease apart the historical from the unhistorical. In fact, the Gospels are on a par with other books that articulate memories and are likewise no less historical for that.”

      In find this statement very puzzling for a couple of reasons. First, you are in fact claiming the very thing I am critiquing: you are clearly claiming here that the Gospels contain “unhistorical” material. You are agreeing with the social memory theory that Keith, Thatcher, Le Donne, and Rodriguez employ, namely, that the Gospels contain both historical and unhistorical material about Jesus, so much so that the two are intertwined and cannot be separated. So, logically speaking, you would have to affirm skepticism as to what is authentic and inauthentic material in the Gospels. Indeed, you don’t even seem to care, stating that we’re not “required” to “tease apart the historical from the unhistorical.” As a professor at a Christian institution, I find this very troubling: you obviously cannot affirm the inerrancy of Scripture (as traditionally understood); you believe that Scripture contains historical errors (even though you may not know what parts may be).

      Second, your statement that the Gospels are “shaped by culture and experience” and is thus “on a par with other books that articulate memories and are likewise no less historical for that” is especially revealing. It is clear that, for you, Scripture is just like all other history books. This, again, is the very point of my critique. Evidently, Scripture is just as “distorted” (a social memory term) as all other history books in your view. This also clearly undercuts the doctrine of inspiration and inerrancy (as traditionally understood), which, again, is the point of my blog.

      (3) You also comment that my “comparison to Bultmann does not consider differences as well as similarities, and the differences are considerable.” There is only one similarity and one difference between social memory theory applied to Scripture and Bultmann’s method that are relevant here: 1) social memory theory agrees with Bultmann and the modernists that Scripture does NOT give an accurate historical picture of Jesus, and 2) social memory theory disagrees with Bultmann et al. that the unhistorical parts of Scripture can be “peeled” away from the historical parts. As many disagreements as a biblical social memory theorist may have with Bultmann, et al., he agrees on THIS one main point: the Gospels do not contain objective, accurate, historical material about Christ. This was the point of Thatcher’s chocolate chip cookie metaphor: the chips and dough get so mixed up that one cannot discern the authentic (historical) and inauthentic (unhistorical) parts of the Gospels. Remember, too, Keith specifically said that he was not “retreating to a conservative” stance of the Gospels that believes that they represent “what Jesus actually said and did.”

      (4) You comment, “I find it puzzling that you criticize the application of this method as circular and assumption-based. You seem to advocate merely a different assumption: the Gospels are Scripture, and so they are historical.”

      I find this comment puzzling because 1) my view is not even expressed in my blog; my view is not the issue—social memory theory is, and 2) your comment implies that you don’t assume that the Gospels are historical. As to the former, even though I have not expressed my view, I don’t mind briefly sketching it here: I have already studied (and continue to study) the historical reliability of the Gospels, and I have concluded and continue to conclude that they are historical and are Scripture and inerrant (as such, this is not a circular argument). I would find it quite troubling to learn that a professor at a Christian college or university does not know whether the Gospels are Scripture and historical as well as inerrant. Do you believe they are, or are you still considering the issue? As to the latter ( 2) ), why would a professor at a Christian college (or any Christian for that matter) NOT assume the Gospels are Scripture, historical, and inerrant? Does a professor need to always begin with Apologetics in all his courses? Does a Christian always have to reinvent this wheel every time he comes to Scripture? Of course, if a professor does not believe the Gospels are in fact historical, etc., then it is clear why he wouldn’t assume them to be so. Do you assume them to be recorded objective history as to what Jesus actually said and did? If not, why not? It seems from the thoughts you’ve expressed above that you do not.

      (5) You also say, “Approaches like Social Memory Theory may offer biblical scholars some means of addressing the impasse that has existed in the evaluation of the Gospels not just since Bultmann but since Schleiermacher.” What “impasse” are you talking about? Are you talking about how liberal biblical scholarship has viewed Scripture as containing both truth (authentic/historical material) and error (inauthentic/unhistorical material)? If so, then you, again, are illustrating my exact point: social memory theory continues the modernist/liberal assumption that Scripture does not convey objective, accurate history. Moreover, I find it perplexing that social memory theory will provide a way out of such an “impasse.” Why? Because social memory theory believes that the historical and unhistorical cannot be “teased” apart, as you say. In my view, it’s a throw your hands up approach: it doesn’t matter what is truth and what is error in the Gospels. (Of course, I don’t accept that there are errors, or unhistorical material, in the Gospels).

      (6) You then state, “Because I am not a Calvinist, I cannot simply embrace presuppositional apologetics as this post would seem to require.” I would like to know how you came to that conclusion. You provide no support for such a statement, nor have I expressed my view on apologetics in this post. This post is about social memory theory and its application to biblical studies, not apologetics. Also, I would like to know exactly what you mean by “Calvinist” and “presuppositional apologetics.” It seems to me that you are using those terms differently than what I am used to.

      (7) You continue, “I would prefer to look for opportunities to explore what can be known and understood about the processes that give rise to books like the Gospels, and in that exploration to find grounds to challenge the conclusions of those who dismiss the Gospels as ‘faith’ in opposition to ‘history.’ This approach forecloses such a possibility.”

      First, as I stated in my blog, according to social memory theory, the Gospels arose just like all other texts: through a mixture of subjective interpretations of someone’s encounter of Jesus through the lens of his culture, and then those interpretations redacted. And THIS is the problem with social memory; it entirely undermines inspiration and inerrancy. Do you believe that God did not protect his Scripture from “memory refraction/distortion?”

      Second, I do not see how social memory theory will “challenge the conclusions of those who dismiss the Gospels as ‘faith’ in opposition to ‘history.’” The whole point of biblical social memory theory is that there is mixture of historical and unhistorical material in the Gospels and the two cannot be separated. How is this a challenge to the “faith/history” split? The best that social memory can do here is to discard the entire “faith/history” split for skepticism (because social memory still affirms error in the Gospels). I don’t see how this is any better.

      Finally, you say that my “approach” forecloses any possibility to challenging the faith/history split. What method is that? I don’t recall laying out a method, unless you’re referring to your assumption of my “Calvinist” presuppostional approach, which I also did not lay out in my blog.

      (8) Lastly, you say, “I find that the authority of Scripture, more specifically its very historical foundation, is affirmed, not denied, by exploring issues such as these.” This statement, in all honesty, I do not understand, considering what you have stated thus far. How is the historical foundation of Scripture affirmed when biblical social memory theorists and yourself state that the Gospels have historical and unhistorical material in them? Furthermore, how is the historical foundation of Scripture affirmed when biblical social memory theory states that the historical and unhistorical parts of Scripture cannot be separated? Remember: it’s all one big chocolate chip cookie. How is one supposed to discern the historical from the unhistorical? The point of social memory is that you can’t.

      In conclusion, I would like to say that I have spoken to some of the biblical social memory theorists about my arguments in this blog. Some of them have said that they have understood my logic (although they may not agree with it) and that others have expressed the same critique of their work. So, I don’t believe I’m going out on a limb here nor being “unfair.”

      • Jon Weatherly says:

        Peter, your assertion that I find a mixture of historical truth and unhistorical material in the Gospels is simply false. I do not, and it is utterly inaccurate to infer as much from my comments. If you are puzzled by my and others’ assertions that your critiques are unfair, you need look no farther than that.

        I find further discussion with you on this matter impossible as long as you attribute to me and others views that I do not hold.

        • prasor says:

          Jon, thank you for your response. Since I have evidently misunderstood your view, could you please clarify what you meant when you said that “the fact that the Gospels contain memory shaped by culture and experience *does not* require that one tease apart the historical from the unhistorical”? Specifically, what do you mean that it is not required to “tease apart the historical from the unhistorical” parts of the Gospels?

          Also, what is the “impasse” in biblical studies that you referred to in your first comments?

        • Rich Hoyer says:

          Jon,
          I read your response to Peter the same way Peter did. Your response appears to say that, with regards to the Gospels, it is not necessary/possible to distinguish between the inaccuracies in memory from that which was accurately recalled. If this was not your intention, please clarify.
          Rich Hoyer

          • Micah says:

            I certainly don’t speak for Mr Weatherly, but I must admit I thought his response was crystal clear.

            I’m normally a fan of continued communication, but if I wrote “I find that the authority of Scripture, more specifically its very historical foundation, is affirmed, not denied, by exploring issues such as these” and you heard “the Gospels contain unhistorical material” then I’d probably quit too.

          • prasor says:

            Thanks, Micah, for your comments. I am glad that Jon’s comments were clear to you. For me and others, however, they seemed to imply contradictory ideas. For, on the one hand, Jon states that we need not “tease out the historical from the unhistorical” and then he affirms that the Gospels are entirely accurate historically. Those of us who were confused by his comments see these statements as contradictory when juxtaposed. In addition, as I explain in my blog post above, part and parcel of biblical social memory theory is that Scripture contains historical and unhistorical material, and they are so intertwined that the two cannot be teased apart (cf. Thatcher’s chocolate chip cookie metaphor and Keith’s quotes above in the blog). So, if one affirms social memory theory AND the historical reliability of Scripture, a contradiction arises. It’s for these reasons that some of us have been confused as to Jon’s view and have asked for him to clarify what he means. I would also like to emphasize that I’m not the only one who has interpreted his statements this way. In addition, I’m not the only one who has understood biblical social memory theory as I have laid out above. Interestingly, I had one particular social memory theorist respond to my critique by saying that he understood my logic and that others have critiqued his work the same way I have. Getting back to clarifying statements, I don’t see how asking for clarification and asking for honest, courteous discussion would incite someone to decline the invitation to clarify. I’ve been asked many times to clarify some of my unclear statements and have never declined, and I’m glad I haven’t because it allowed me to clear up misunderstandings of my view. So, I’m not sure why someone would not want to clarify his or her viewpoint when it has possibly been misunderstood. To just reply by saying that I don’t know what I’m talking about, I’m ignorant, I’m a Calvinist, I don’t have comprehension skills, etc. are simply attacking me as a person (ad hominem fallacies) rather than having a dialogue about the issues. If you could clarify what you think Jon means by his statement that we don’t necessarily have to “tease the historical from the unhistorical” (see his first reply here under the comments section), I would be very appreciative of that. I know you don’t speak for him, but maybe you can help me understand since it’s clear to you. Thanks, and God bless!

    • Matt Summers says:

      “You seem to advocate merely a different assumption: the Gospels are Scripture, and so they are historical.”

      Yes, I would advocate that “the Gospels are Scripture, and so they are historical,” *even though* it is circular reasoning.

      Whether or not circular reasoning is used, doesn’t necessarily negate the truthfulness of the conclusion.

      • Micah says:

        I certainly agree with both parts of that circular argument. But when you say that you “advocate” that approach, do you mean that you find it a useful one when discussing the topic with those not already convinced? Or simply that the truth of both is self-evident to a believer?

        In general, tautology doesn’t make for a strong apologetic.

  2. Danny says:

    I am not sure if I understand all that is being said in this discussion. What does appear clear is that one of you believes that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are God-breathed and one does not. I just read a few hours ago that Paul asked the Corinthian church a very uptodate question. 20 Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.

    Is one side of this discussion advocating that the God who created us and sent his only Son to save us is not capable in insuring that we know accurately who he was (is)? Is the great confession of the church of history, “I believe that Jesus is the Christ…but I can’t really know who he was or if he was?”

    Please unconfuse me.

    • prasor says:

      Danny,

      Thanks for your comment. From my understanding, some of the social memory theorists would NOT deny that Jesus actually lived, died, and possibly even resurrected. What they do deny, however, is that Scripture accurately depicts these events as they really occurred. That being said, logically speaking, their faith in Christ is ultimately existential (or a kind of fideism) because Scripture does not give us an unbiased interpretation of Jesus. So, social memory theorists still do not believe in the traditional view of inerrancy and inspiration, as you correctly say. I hope this clears some things up for you.

      • Danny says:

        Thank you for the explanation. However, I am still a little confused. If I can’t trust that x witness has accurate memory about y, then why should I trust him at all. Y might just be a figment of x’s imagination. What I do recall about John’s quotation of what Jesus said is, “But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you” (John 14:26; NIV). Jesus promised TOTAL RECALL for the apostles. I wonder if John didn’t remember what Jesus said correctly. Maybe Jesus really said that the Holy Spirit would not teach them all things and would NOT give them total recall and John wanted the help so much that his memory played a trick on him? Am I getting way off base on this memory thing? You have to remember that I studied doctrine and philosophy under Jim Strauss back in the 60’s. Scholars may have gotten a lot smarter since then. I have not heard anything from Ron.

        • prasor says:

          Danny,

          Thanks for commenting again and contributing to this conversation. It is interesting that you bring up John 14:26. Thatcher deals with this text from a social memory perspective. He interprets this text to mean that John believes that memory of what Jesus said and did is a spiritual gift, not to just the apostles, but to all Christians. Since this is the case, John did not write his gospel to convey information about Jesus (although it may have some authentic, historical info therein), because all Christians know who Jesus is and what he did apart from Scripture via the Holy Spirit. (Additionally, Thatcher argues that about 95-97% of the Palestinian population of the first century was illiterate and therefore couldn’t read John’s Gospel anyway, so John couldn’t have written down his gospel in order to be read.) So, you may ask, “Why did John write his gospel?” According to Thatcher, it was written to establish a particular interpretation of what Jesus said and did, particularly over and against the anti-christs. For more info on this, see his book Why John Wrote A Gospel.

    • Micah says:

      Respectfully, I would submit that the second sentence demonstrates the first.

      The social memory argument is essentially “Certainly, a writer who records his memories does so within an interpretive framework. But that’s true of every historical work ever. It doesn’t make the Gospels less authentic than any other work of history.”

      • prasor says:

        Micah,

        Your words here make sense as far as they go. The problem, however, is that biblical social memory theory goes further: it affirms, along with Bultmann, et al., that the Gospels are a mixture of historical and unhistorical material. Please read my blog above concerning this. I repeat Keith’s quote here for ease of reference: “From the perspective of social memory theory, scholars in search of authentic Jesus traditions might as well be in search of unicorns, the lost city of Atlantis, and the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Not only are there no longer Jesus traditions that reflect solely the actual past, there never were.”

        • Micah says:

          Come on, Peter, you’re clearly smarter than that. I repeat Weatherly’s quote here for ease of reference:

          “The comparison to Bultmann does not consider differences as well as similarities, and the differences are considerable. One could have asked for consideration of the differences among the four individuals whom you name as well. Do they all see things in exactly the same way?”

          • prasor says:

            I’m not sure what you mean here, Micah. Did you see my original reply to Weatherly in which I deal with this specific statement?

          • Micah says:

            Peter, the comment system on your blog is not sufficient for the type of discussion you want to have. Once again, I’m unable to respond to your comment in its proper place and so am responding here.

            Regardless, you only deal with one small part of the statement and miss the general thrust, which is why I quoted it again. A shorter version:

            “One could have asked for consideration of the differences among the four individuals whom you name as well. Do they all see things in exactly the same way?”

          • prasor says:

            Weatherly’s comment here that you quote is ambiguous. What does he mean when he says “do they all see THINGS the same way?” What “things” is he talking about? Allow me to answer Weatherly’s question based upon my own conjecture: I would say, “yes,” they do see things the same way when it comes to social memory theory (that’s why they all employ it). However, it doesn’t mean they are doing the exact same things WITH social memory in their work, e.g., Keith uses it to say that Jesus was illiterate; Thatcher to say that John did not write his gospel to convey historical information about Christ.

  3. Micah says:

    For whatever reason, I can’t seem to reply to your reply that starts with “I am glad that Jon’s comments were clear to you.” I’ll try replying here.

    You’re clearly an intelligent guy, so to be honest I’m a little baffled by your bafflement. My operating assumption at this point is that you do, in fact, understand what’s been said, and that your claims not to grasp the arguments are false.

    I’ve been wrong many times before, though, and I’m sure I’ll be wrong many times again. On the chance that your confusion is honest, I’ll offer a radical over-simplification that scholars like Weatherly, Keith, and Thatcher won’t give because they’re men of nuance that don’t deal in radical over-simplification. This is not based on personal conversations with any of the men in question, just based on my reading of the materials in question.

    For the past century, it’s been almost impossible to discuss the Gospels with a scholarly non-Christian (or liberal Christian) without debating Q (or variations thereof) and what parts of the text are authentic and which parts are inauthentic. Weatherly’s comment doesn’t claim the in-authenticity of any part of scripture, just points out that to even discuss the topic (especially in reference to what’s referred to as “the historical Jesus”) requires massive argument about how authentic the texts are. Social memory theory is “potent” because IT BYPASSES THAT ENTIRE DISCUSSION. It treats the text as a work of history, instead of treating it as a work of myth that evolved over time. As one attack-mode thinker to another, this is a radically effective flanking maneuver: bypassing hardened defenses and getting a highway going right behind enemy lines.

    Is every person equipped to grasp the implications of this debate? No. And there’s no shame in not grasping other people’s battle tactics. But please try not to shoot your allies in the back when they move beyond your understanding. If Mr Weatherly plainly and clearly affirms the authority and historicity of scripture, proper interpretive technique would be to use that as a starting point for further understanding of difficult pericopes.

    • prasor says:

      Micah,

      Thanks again, Micah, for your comments and continuing this discussion. Certainly I see your point about how social memory theory is an attempt to by-pass the entire discussion of what’s “authentic” of the old-liberal school. You have not, however, addressed what my blog addresses. From the things that are said in the works of Thatcher, Keith, et al., they also, whether consciously or not, AFFIRM THAT THE GOSPELS ARE A MIXTURE OF AUTHENTIC AND INAUTHENTIC MATERIAL. Again, they may not wish to do this, but the quotes above that I give from their works STRONGLY imply this. In fact, I would say some of them EXPLICITLY say this. LET ME BE CLEAR AGAIN ABOUT SOMETHING: I AM NOT THE ONLY ONE WHO HAS UNDERSTOOD THEIR WORK THIS WAY.

      All this being said, let me ask you how you would interpret quotes such as these:
      “It is important to underscore that I am not advocating a conservative retreat to a literalist approach to the Gospels as pure images of ‘what really happened’” (Keith, 61).

      “From the perspective of social memory theory, scholars in search of authentic Jesus traditions might as well be in search of unicorns, the lost city of Atlantis, and the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Not only are there no longer Jesus traditions that reflect solely the actual past, there never were” (Keith, 61).

      “John’s candid comments underscore the impossibility of ‘going back behind’ the Gospels–at least, behind his Gospel–to what historians today would call an ‘original memory of Jesus,’ to a simple recall of [Jesus’] deeds and words that could somehow provide a virtual experience of his ‘real’ person. If such a thing ever existed, it is now gone forever, and comes to us embedded in a combination of recollections, Scriptures, and theological conclusions” (Thatcher, 166).

      Interestingly, you say that social memory theory treats Scripture as history rather than a work of myth that evolved over time. But see Keith’s comment about how the Gospels evolved until we have what we have today: “It was the process whereby there were only ever interpretations/memories of the past to begin with, to which other interpretations—that grew from, approved of, disagree with, contradicted [!!!], but, in the least, were in dialogue with and thus to some degree constrained by, the earlier interpretations—were added until the final product was a results of that interpretive activity.”

      How am I and others supposed to understand these and other numerous statements? Just because a person affirms the inerrancy and historicity of every part of Scripture doesn’t mean he does. Indeed, when these statements are juxtaposed with statements of affirmation concerning the historicity of Scripture, you have what appears to be a contradiction. Hence the need for clarification.

      Finally, I respectfully request you not to fall into ad hominem attacks when we discuss this issue. So, please do not, like others are doing, attribute me with bad motives (“your claims not to grasp the arguments are false”), trying “to shoot [my] allies in the back when they move beyond [my] understanding,” and as being in “attack mode.” Such attacks are fallacious and have nothing to do with the issue at hand, not to mention they have an unchristian tone to them.

  4. Micah says:

    Hi Peter! I’m sorry if you’ve misunderstood me. I’m trying to clarify a very narrow misunderstanding, not define the strengths and weaknesses of the entirety of social memory theory. As I said, I can’t speak for any of the four authors in question. What I can do is help you understand the way in which you mis-read Weatherly’s specific comment.

    Your entire seven-point response to Weatherly is based on a misunderstanding of a single paragraph. Since you’ve since shown that you do, in fact, now understand what he means, I will look forward to your retraction of your specific claims about his beliefs (claims that are not, despite what you said on his wall, hedged with words like “seems”).

    What you will do, now that you understand Weatherly’s comment about “teasing apart,” will demonstrate whether your misunderstanding was honest or malicious. I look forward to being proven mistaken, and I look forward to apologizing for my mistake. As I said before, I certainly have been wrong many times before.

    • prasor says:

      No, my so-called misunderstanding is not based upon a single paragraph. Weatherly also accuses me of using a circular argument, stating, “I find it puzzling that you criticize the application of this method as circular and assumption-based. You seem to advocate merely a different assumption: the Gospels are Scripture, and so they are historical.” When someone says this, it seems to imply that he does NOT assume Scripture to be historical. Otherwise why would he have a problem with my assumption?

      More importantly, where did I ever say that I now understand what Weatherly means? He still has two statements, that when juxtaposed, contradict each other: (1) “we cannot ‘tease’ the historical form the unhistorical” [this statement clearly implies there is unhistorical material in the Gospels], and (2) “I believe Scripture to be entirely historical and inerrant.” This is what I have been asking all along for clarification. Also, you still have not answered how I’m supposed to understand these quotes and the ones I gave to you, so we still have not made any progress. Until I receive an answer as to how I’m supposed to understand these statements in a non-contradictory way, I’m not going to post any more of your comments. I feel like I’m talking to the wind. All I’m asking is how to make sense of these two comments when placed next to each other. In my view and others, either there’s something we’re missing or they are just plainly contradictory, in which two opposite positions are trying to be maintained at the same time–which is incoherent.

      • Rob says:

        Weatherly did not say, “we cannot ‘tease’ the historical form the unhistorical.” The actual quote is that social memory theory “*does not* require that one tease apart the historical from the unhistorical.” There is certainly a difference between the two. The misquote you offer portrays Weatherly as rejecting the historicity of the Gospels by tacitly admitting the presence of unhistorical elements. The actual statement, however, addresses the way social memory theory functions—differently, for instance, than traditional historical criticism which does attempt to delineate between historical and unhistorical. While the various proponents of social memory theory may (or may not) reject historical elements of the Gospels, Weatherly’s two statements are not inherently contradictory.

        As to the broader discussion, do you find any value in social memory theory; that is, can it function in a supplementary capacity to other tools in our interpretive toolbelt?

        • prasor says:

          Rob,

          Thanks so much for your comments. In fact, the way you have explained it has made it “click” for me. I see now what Weatherly must be getting at. Of course, you’re not Weatherly, but what you say makes sense–so I hope you’re correct. Now let me put it in my own words: Weatherly himself is saying that the social memory theory attempts to get around the issue of dealing with the modernist claim that there exists authentic and inauthentic material in the Gospels. Why didn’t he just say that? The way he states it can be taken in two different ways; it wasn’t clear at all. Anyway, that being said, I feel I have only come to understand HIS statement. It does not take into account what I wrote concerning the other social memory theorists. They still have said things like “there never were authentic traditions of Jesus that tell us ‘what Jesus really said and did,'” as well as Thatcher’s cookie metaphor. So, I maintain my critique in the blog. That being said, Weatherly still thinks that social memory theory is helpful. We will have to disagree on that (again, see my blog). I don’t think one can hold to the historicity of the Gospels AND employ social memory theory at the same time. The two are antithetical.

          You ask, can social memory theory function in a supplementary capacity to other tools in our interpretive tool belt? To use it as a hermeneutic en toto would be liable to my critique. So, no, I don’t think it is beneficial. Now, social memory may be a good theory to understand how humans in general remember things. I think it makes sense. But to apply it to Scripture undermines the inspiration of Scripture because then we would be saying that God could not protect his Word from being “refracted” or “distorted” in the minds of the apostles and prophets who wrote the Scriptures. So, at the end of the day, social memory theory as explained by those I quote in my blog cannot logically (i.e., coherently) view Scripture to be entirely historical, because they have been refracted through memory. Let me make one qualification: it is always possible that I have misunderstood the memory theorists I quote, but I cannot get any replies from them of how I should understand their statements. To me, they seem quite clear: they are saying Scripture contains mixture of truth and error; so let’s just use social memory theory and not worry about all the errors and half truths anymore. To me, this is just affirming the old assumption that Scripture errs.

          Well, anyway…I’ve said enough. Thanks, again, for the kind conversation.

  5. Barry McCarty says:

    Peter,
    Thanks for your noble labor in trying to breathe some common sense and sound reasoning into the tedious, faith-draining nonsense that passes for New Testament Studies these days. Frankly, I’ve stopped reading most of what’s published in the field because it does not honor the Gospel or build faith, and it just doesn’t make sense. And while my academic field is not New Testament Studies, it IS argumentation and debate, so I do have tools to recognize good evidence and sound argument when I see it. And what I see from the Social Memory Theorists and the Jesus-Couldn’t-Read crowd wouldn’t pass muster in a college freshman debate tournament. It also isn’t interesting enough to pass as mindless banter at a cocktail party, and since I don’t drink, I’m afraid I’ll never be drunk enough to find it so.

    Here are a couple of things I want to know from anyone purporting to represent the field of New Testament Studies: First, do they stand with Luke when he explains his historical method at the beginning of his Gospel, namely that he had carefully examined and recorded the divinely inspired words and works of Jesus just as they had been accurately given to him by eyewitnesses so that his readers might “have certainty concerning the things you have been taught”? It is interesting to me that Luke’s word for eyewitnesses, autoptes ” (to see for oneself), lives on in the our modern term that describes the systematic, scientific examination that a medical examiner makes of a cadaver to determine the cause of death. Luke’s record is the testimony of people who had direct, first-hand knowledge of certain persons, events, or circumstances and were therefore in a position to authoritatively say what happened. (BTW, I’m glad the police CSI in our city hasn’t started hiring Social Memory Theorists to solve crimes.)

    Do they also stand with Luke when, at the beginning of Acts, he uses the strongest Greek word for evidence to describe the “proofs” or “infallible proofs” he has recorded for the Resurrection–a term I have encountered in my own academic field. “Tekmeria” is the same word Aristotle used to describe an irrefutable piece of evidence in a conclusive argument. I don’t know what the Social Memory Theorists are reading, but the Gospel of Luke is a clear, straightforward record of eyewitnesses who arrived at their knowledge of the resurrection through hard empirical evidence. Short form for this first question: do you believe the New Testament is real history?

    My next question flows from the historic western liturgy for the reading of the Gospel in a worship service, a tradition that still lives in the Book of Common Prayer, the Anglican, Catholic, and Orthodox traditions. The minister or person appointed to read the Gospel lifts the Bible and says: “The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to St. Matthew (or St. Mark, etc).” And the people respond: “Glory to you, Lord Christ.” Following the reading, the reader again lifts the Bible and says, “The Gospel of the Lord.” And the people answer, “Praise to you, Lord Christ.”

    Here’s what I want to know of any New Testament Studies professor: can you do that with the Gospel in a worship service? Can you lift the Gospel in the presence of the people of God who come to hear a word from God, and say those words. Can you do that in honestly and straightforwardly, without mental reservation, in the full historic, traditional sense that those words have been spoken by 20 centuries of believers who have held to the faith once delivered, without any of your modern clever word games. And can do it without that arrogant, condescending, smug on your face with which many New Testament scholars approach simple Bible-believing, god-fearing people in the pews. If not, move along. I have no interest in anything you have to say about “New Testament Studies.”

    Peter, you’re fighting the good fight here. Many of us who still believe the Gospel and who labor among real people in the real world who long for real answers from the real Gospel don’t have the time and have lost the patience to wade through the modern waste water of New Testament Studies looking for something of value. Thanks.

    Written on this, the 111th anniversary of the death of B.F. Westcott,
    Barry

  6. Rich Hoyer says:

    What I’d like to know from those who advocate social memory theory as a legitimate approach to New Testament studies is this: Do the Gospels contain errors in memory? After all the nuance and considerations, at the end of the day, did the Gospel writers misremember the events of Jesus’ life or the words of Jesus?

    • prasor says:

      Rich,

      That’s what we’d all like to know. It sure seems that way (re my blog), doesn’t it?

      • Barry McCarty says:

        Did the Gospel writers misremember the words and works of Jesus? Jesus says: No.

        John 14:25-26, “These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.”
        John 16:12-15, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”
        When we read the New Testament, we are reading the very words that Jesus gave to the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit gave to the apostles, and the apostles then gave to the church. Every believer who owns a New Testament holds in his hands, in a permanent, unabridged, and final form, God’s complete, infalliable , and authoritative revelation.