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.” 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.” 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.’
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.” 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.”
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.” 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.” 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.” 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.” 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.’” 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.” 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.” 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.”
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”. 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.
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.  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.” We can speak only what is plausible regarding what the Gospels say what Jesus said and did, “but not what is definite.” 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.
Peter Jay Rasor II
 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.
 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).
 Rodriguez, Structuring, 43-44; emphasis mine.
 Ibid., 57.
 Thatcher, Why John Wrote a Gospel,119.
 Ibid., 108.
 James Fentress & Chris Wickham, Social Memory (Oxford & Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 1992), 31; quoted in Rodriguez, Structuring, 57.
 Rodriguez, Structuring, 63-64.
 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.”
 Keith, Literacy, 61.
 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.
 Thatcher, Why John Wrote A Gospel, 23.
 Ibid., 166.
 Keith, Literacy, 63.
 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.
 Keith, Literacy, 66.