A Diachronic Approach to Perception and Memory or Why a Synchronic Jesus should be a Topic of Historical Criticism

The first interpreters of Jesus were not the evangelists, but his very first perceivers: his family, his adversaries, his followers, and his uncommitted audiences. These first contemporaries of Jesus set mnemonic patterns in motion that guided how later interpreters would bend these memories.

By Anthony Le Donne
Biblical Studies,
William Jessup University
November, 2009

Last week a pastor friend of mine repeated a phrase that I have heard often among seminary trained folk: “The historical critical method is passé.” For the preacher and the spiritual educator, issues of date, source, historicity, et cetera are simply not as useful as the virtues of more synchronic approaches. Couple this with the growing number of scholars who have become disinterested in the questions and findings of diachronic approaches, and one might be tempted to affirm my friend’s assessment. Yet, resist though we may the tendencies of previous generations, we forget their advances at our peril.

This is especially true with historical Jesus research, which continues to garner interest from a wide spectrum of readership. Any close reading of the Bible will reveal the reoccurring truth that every author provides details which defy explanation from the text alone. For example the title “Son of David” occurs in all three Synoptic Gospels but only Matthew seems intent on developing its significance.1 If one were to try to gain an understanding of this title from Mark alone, Mk 12:35-37 is entirely ambiguous. Here the evangelist has included a saying to develop the significance of Ps 110 and set the stage for the trial narrative. That the title Son of David was mentioned is incidental, albeit included due to Mark’s general faithfulness to the mnemonic trajectory represented by Mk 12:35-37. Any reader interested to know how this title contributes to Markan Christology or the movement of the plot will be frustrated by its isolation and obscurity.2 Any critical reading of this passage warrants interest in historical development.

But perhaps the most compelling reason to rescue historical criticism from the currents of oblivion is that Jesus remains the most interesting historical figure in the western world. Jesus’ face continues to be plastered on more magazine covers than any other contemporary world leader, rock-star, or social pariah (although Obama has recently given Jesus a run for his money). While the general public might be sick of hearing about the venerated figure of Christianity, they are keenly interested in the historical Jesus. Finally, it must be said that responsible historical inquiry can help to stem the inevitable abuse of Jesus’ name by those in power. The supra-historical Jesus of the “No Quest” years strategically eclipsed Jesus’ Jewishness. One can only wonder what the memory of a staunchly Jewish Jesus would have meant for Europe during those dark years.

Both ends of this readership spectrum demand that the historical critical method is made relevant for this generation. Yet how does one avoid the well-chronicled pitfalls of deconstruction, authorial intent, historicity, et cetera? I have suggested that attention to the nature of human perception and memory provide a good middle-ground between historical positivism and the new historicism.3 Thus I have incorporated hermeneutical aspects from Schleiermacher (what he deemed the “psychological aspect” of the hermeneutical circle), Tyler Burge (known among analytical philosophers for “anti-individualism” or “externalism of mental content”), the recent work of Gerd Theisson and Dagmar Winter,4 and the burgeoning field of social memory theory.5

As Dilthey, Schleiermacher, Heidegger et al remind us, interpretation begins at the very first. As preconceived thought-categories evolve to accommodate the novum, they are also projected upon the novum to render it meaningful. This idea has been well developed in the discussion of contemporary reader-response. It has been less developed by historians in the discussion of Jesus’ initial impact(s) upon the perceptions of his contemporaries. For example, it is often noted that typology is a common literary device in the Gospels. What is new in my work is the idea that literary typology mimics the phenomenon of mnemonic refraction common to human perception. Abraham Lincoln typology was at work in the perceptions of Obama long before he was eulogized, indeed even before he announced his candidacy!6 As with contemporary politicization, the initial perceptions of Jesus were likely colored by intentional Solomon-typology(ies) long before he was venerated in post-Easter memory.

So I take as a presupposition that the first interpreters of Jesus were not the evangelists, but his very first perceivers: his family, his adversaries, his followers, and his uncommitted audiences. These first contemporaries of Jesus set mnemonic patterns in motion that guided how later interpreters would bend these memories.

It is my contention that the objective of the Jesus historian (and all historians) is to the account for and plausibly make intelligible the varying mnemonic trajectories set in motion by a figure’s contemporaries (and, often, the figure him/herself). It is in the critical comparison of these diachronic interpretations that the historical Jesus will be made accessible, not in the recovery of a forgotten past. After all, the past is not what interests the historian. Rather the historian is ultimately interested in how the past was remembered and why.

There can be no doubt that these historical perceptions overlapped, conformed to socio-typical experience, and evolved according to religious commitment/experience. There can be no doubt that many memories were marginalized, eclipsed by more dominant thought-categories, and “fictionalized” through story-telling. In short, memory always is as much about the collective identity of the remembering group as it is about the object of recollection. It is quite important, then, to recognize that all of the above are features common to “memory refraction.”7 If this is so, then memory has patterns of refraction and thus can be charted, triangulated to a certain degree. Keeping in mind that the historian is not interested in “pre-memory” (i.e., the actual past), the charting and triangulating of diverging memories trajectories is the best means to distinguish memory-stories from invented stories.8

Central to my model of perception and memory is that the mnemonic process is necessarily continuous. The ever-shifting external contexts of memory are (most often) linked. Mnemonic gaps that are unaccounted for and unexpected are generally cause for alarm. Persons and groups tend to require the illusion of mnemonic sameness. And while this illusion is just that, it also guards against attempts to alter dramatically a memory in a short period of time. Most often, memory evolves in predictable patterns and does so incrementally. No doubt dramatic shifts can and do occur, but the key function of memory is to shape identity—I know who I am now because I can remember who I was five minutes ago, ten minutes ago, weeks ago, and so on. Memories held collectively function in the same way.9

Returning to the question of synchronic versus diachronic, most advocates of social memory theory are synchronically focused. The focus is on the remembering community and on how a particular memory functions within a particular group. This speaks also to how a certain memory is telling of a society’s collective identity. These synchronic concerns are quite helpful when dealing with fabricated “memories” for the purpose of politicization. In other words, revisionist history can tell us quite a bit about the propagandist. It is important that these synchronic questions are employed to guide thorough analysis. In addition (and this is not generally acknowledged among social memory folks), it is only a matter of time before one synchronic study is compared to another of a related time period. So (hypothetically) if Richard Horsley presents an essay on “memories of violence in Matthew” and Alan Kirk presents a paper on “memories of violence in Q,” it is to be expected that someone in the audience will ask these presenters to relate their topics to one another. Thus, synchronic analysis inevitably leads to diachronic analysis via academic dialogue. So the study of social memory is fundamentally a manifestation of social memory!

If a mnemonic pattern can be found in Q (i.e., redaction criticism) and this pattern is repeated (or corrected) by Matthew, we are justified to speak of a mnemonic trajectory. Perhaps this is paralleled by Luke or perhaps Luke goes another direction entirely. If (A) certain interpretive movements can be recognized, and (B) these movements are recognizably marked by mnemonic tendencies, and (C) the story/saying in question can be plausibly explained as early and widespread memory, then the historian can postulate the mnemonic sphere that set these particular memory trajectories in motion.10

I will use the space remaining to demonstrate how two dramatically different memory trajectories can be plausibly charted to the earliest memories of the historical Jesus. And here I adapt the ground-breaking work of Theissen and Winter (cited above) within a social memory framework.11

Mark’s trial narrative attributes a saying to Jesus via the accusing words of “false” witnesses:

For many were giving false testimony against him, but their testimony was not consistent. Some stood up and began to give false testimony against him, saying, "We heard him say, 'I will destroy this temple made with hands, and in three days I will build another made without hands. '” Not even in this respect was their testimony consistent. (Mark 14:56-9)

Compare this with a similar saying on the lips of Jesus immediately following his temple demonstration in the Fourth Gospel:

The Jews then said to him, "What sign do you show us as your authority for doing these things?" Jesus answered them, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." The Jews then said, "It took forty-six years to build this temple, and you will raise it up in three days?" But he was speaking of the temple of his body. (John 2:18-21)

There is perhaps no greater disparity of two interpretations of a saying in the Jesus tradition.12 In the first, Mark seems quite embarrassed by this saying, so much so that the evangelist commemorates this saying antagonistically. Notice, however, that Mark does not omit this saying, rather he reframes it. The Second Evangelist is constrained by sayings such as Mk 11:23 and 13:1-2).

On the other hand, the Fourth Gospel spiritualized this saying. In John, Jesus forthrightly claims to destroy (and rebuild) the temple. Then the Fourth Evangelist explains that Jesus was referring to his body. Thus John renders this saying as a resurrection metaphor. Notice that the evangelist does not place this re-interpretation on the lips of Jesus. Rather, the saying is reframed within a clarifying interpretation. Of course, the Fourth Evangelist does refocus the quote in two significant ways: (1) There is a shift from first person [I will destroy…] to second [Destroy…]. This places the possible action of destruction upon Jesus’ adversaries. Perhaps the fact that Jesus did not destroy the literal temple was embarrassing. (2) There is a shift in language from “building”13 to “raising”14 which enhances the desired metaphor.

In both Mark and John, the evangelists have refocused the meaning of the saying(s) via context and nuance and not by omission nor dramatic alteration of the saying itself. Specialists of oral/aurality are keen to point out that the ancient mind would not have thought of these differences as different versions or revisions, but rather the “same” telling in different audience sensitive performances. Thus the variability of the saying(s) can be accounted for by the concept of “multiple originals.” Where I go beyond the standard approach of oral/aural specialists, is that I am quite comfortable speaking of the saying(s) behind these two contexts. In the same way that each retelling is an original telling, I would argue that each original telling is a retelling. After all, we are speaking of a hermeneutical circle. Thus each synchronic sphere shows residuals of previous contexts. If memory is an ongoing and fluid process, we should expect an essential continuity from one telling to the next, from oral to textual and back again to oral. In short, the hermeneutical circle (synchronic) is part of a hermeneutical spiral (diachronic).

Jesus’ saying concerning the temple’s destruction serves dramatically different purposes through the lenses of Mark and John. We could say that this memory has been refracted via narrativization and bent in two different directions. Mark aims to prove Jesus’ innocence in his extended apology for the cross. John aims to view Jesus’ entire ministry through the lens of post-Easter experience. Yet the saying itself (the core) is articulated with remarkable uniformity. The best explanation of both passages is that the historical Jesus was remembered to have said something very close to what John and Mark have commemorated via counter-memory.

Notice the ironic result of this method: The passages wherein Jesus’ words are most dramatically reframed are the very passages that are most valuable to the historian. In other words, mnemonic refraction, patterns, and triangulation are most helpful where literary agenda is most evident. It is because Mark and John “distorted” this saying that makes it more plausibly “authentic.” This previous sentence contains two words within scare-quotes because both are carryovers from old-school historical criticism and neither necessitates a dichotomy. In my model, mnemonic refraction is evidence of both fluidity (a la distortion) and stability (a la authenticity). If historical criticism is to survive the next generation of scholarship, it must incorporate the best of synchronic approaches with an eye to diachronic analysis. Thus old dichotomies must be shed in order to maintain the central advances of previous generations.


1 This example is explored thoroughly in my The Historiographical Jesus (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2009). http://www.amazon.com/Historiographical-Jesus-Memory-Typology-David/dp/1602580650

2 For an apt Pauline example, 1 Cor 11:7-12 juxtaposes (and subverts) gender hierarchy. However, verse 10 argues that women need to cover their head during worship, “because of the angels.” While a synchronic approach to 1 Corinthians is extremely valuable most of the time, it is entirely unhelpful in this case. This reference to angels will remain cryptic until a cursory knowledge of the myth of the watchers is acquired (I would recommend beginning with the Book of Jubilees’ retelling of Genesis 6). http://www.sacred-texts.com/bib/jub/jub18.htm

3 Beyond my aforementioned Historiographical Jesus, see also my forthcoming Historical Jesus: A Postmodern Paradigm (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010).

4 The Quest for the Plausible Jesus (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002).

5 For a short introduction to memory theory, see my “Theological Memory Distortion in the Jesus Tradition: A Study in Social Memory Theory” in Memory and Remembrance in the Bible and Antiquity; L. T. Stuckenbruck, S. C. Barton, B. G. Wold (eds.) (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2007), 163-77. For a more comprehensive (and totally awesome) treatment, see James Fentress and Chris Wickham, Social Memory (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992).

7 This is my term. Most memory theorists use the term “memory distortion.” All who use this term are quick to point out that all memory is memory distortion. Because of the indelibly negative connotations of the word “distortion,” I have coined “memory refraction.” Like the results of light through the convex shape of a lens, memory is always “distorted” in order to be intelligible in the present. The lens makes visible what would otherwise be invisible. So too memory is made memorable through distanctiation, conventionalization, narrativization, articulation, etc.

8 Of course, judicious use of “authenticity criteria” is often helpful, so long as the use of these are aimed at discussing early and widespread memories (contra the tendency to relapse toward historical positivism).

9 Social memory theorists take for granted two key suppositions: (1) Memory, both individually and in dialogue, is socially spurred and constrained. (2) Memories are never passively preserved in a kind of “memory bank.” Rather, they are ever-shifting and amorphous in many respects; the perception and employment of memory is an active and fluid endeavor that is continually shaped by external environs.

10 Cf. J.D.G. Dunn’s description of the “impact” of memory (Jesus Remembered (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), esp. Ch.6).

11 For a more thorough examination of this nature see my “Memories of the Temple Saying: A Critique and Application of Social Memory.” In The Fourth Gospel and Ancient Media Culture. T. Thatcher and A. Le Donne (eds.) (London: T & T Clark, 2009), forthcoming via European Studies of Christian Origins.

12 Many memory theories avoid the word “tradition” as it connotes writing rather than oral/aural remembering. I am less convinced of this connotative value.

13 oivkodome,w

14 evgei,rw

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