Biblical History and Cultural Memory

Since we now know that very many biblical images of the past (patriarchs, exodus, wandering, conquest, perhaps David and Solomon, too) are not authentic ones, it is our responsibility to discover how better to describe them, which means understanding what their real purpose is.

Following essay based on Memories of Ancient Israel: An Introduction to Biblical History, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008.

By Emeritus Professor Philip Davies
University Of Sheffield, England
April 2009


Cultural or collective memory (also known as “social memory”) has become a major issue of the last fifty years in several fields. The concept originated within sociology but has more recently taken in psychology and history (see especially Zerubavel E, 2003; Zerubavel Y., 2005) to become an interdisciplinary area of investigation (see Middleton and Edwards, 1990). Its particular value is in its recognition not only that “the past” is always something created rather than simply recorded but also that recollection serves to create and sustain identity. Thus, while the effect of memory is to reproduce the past, its function is in truth orientated towards the present, to which the past is constantly adjusting itself (or to the future, when identity determines action).

Cultural memory has recently been applied to biblical studies and especially to the biblical narratives about the past. I have made use of it in a couple of recent books (Davies 2007, 2008), but the dangers in using the term are almost as great as its advantages. Indeed, nearly all the issues can be related to the term itself.


Let me begin with “memory.” This word for most people implies the recollection of something that happened. Much the same is true of the once popular (and still widely-used) term “tradition” to refer to biblical narratives about the past. But just as folklore studies have shown how easily “tradition” can be invented, so scientific studies of both individual and collective memory have shown that this too is subject to invention and revision (Middleton and Edwards supply a very good description). The process of conjuring up an image of the past (as we should always think of it) is affected by both personal and social identities. This fact should be fairly obvious: without memory one can have no sense of identity, only of being or self, but just as images of the past provide identity, so one’s changing identity modifies one’s images of the past. Anyone who has revisited places known from the past or discussed past events with others who also witnessed them can verify how deceitful memory can be.

So “memory” is the right term, precisely because as a cultural process it replicates individual memory. It is, of course, also a part of individual memory: only individuals can actually conjure up images of the past. Collective memories have to be embedded in individuals. But the sense in which societies can be legitimately said to “remember” has been well illustrated by Connerton, who draws our attention, among other things, to learned habits of behavior, including rituals, as ways in which such “memories” are literally “incorporated.”

The role of cultural memory in shaping ethnic identity has already been well explored (Assmann 1992 has been particularly influential), and particularly in the case of ancient Jewish identity (Mendels 2004, Mendels [ed.] 2007; Yerushalmi, 1996). The creation of the State of Israel is itself the culmination of centuries of Jewish memory: the memory of expulsion (which is itself a creation since the Jewish diaspora was created largely by voluntary migration) and the “memory” of an ancient occupation that no individual ever experienced. Indeed, the major (perhaps the only) unifying element in “Judaism” is the appropriation of a Jewish memory, an act that transcends religious and non-religious Jews.

This brings me to the term “cultural.” Is it preferable to “collective” or “social” memory? Each of the terms is appropriate, but emphasizes a different aspect. I personally prefer “cultural” because it points to the role of memory in shaping identity, rather than an opposition to “individual.” But while all these terms are appropriate, none of them should be too narrowly construed. Shared memory can belong to groups of all sizes—married couples, families, gangs, classes, professions, neighborhoods, clubs, nations, religious communities. And of course between “individual” and “collective” memory there is no strict opposition. Indeed, Halbwachs maintained that individual memory was actually impossible; unaided by others we could not construct a sequential narrative at all, only isolated incidents with an imperfect chronological context. Whether or not he is correct (and he use dreams as his main argument against individual memory), every individual’s identity comprises not only personal images but also those shared between members of a group. As individuals, our identity is largely made up by the groups we belong to. Never mind the genes!

Cultural Memory and “Biblical History”

What is the value of “cultural memory” to the biblical historian? First, it introduces a concept that has both an empirical and theoretical body of knowledge. The same might be said, it is true, of “tradition,” but “tradition” as such confined to folklore studies, and the scope for empirical investigation of folklore is much more restricted than it is to individual and group memory. We should not simply use cultural memory as a more modish name for “tradition” (as does Smith, 2004).

A second value of cultural memory is to focus the attention of the biblical historian (should we retain that word?) on the memory itself rather than the event it conjures. Since we now know that very many biblical images of the past (patriarchs, exodus, wandering, conquest, perhaps David and Solomon, too) are not authentic ones, it is our responsibility to discover how better to describe them, which means understanding what their real purpose is. The old dichotomies of “history” vs. “fiction” or “truth” vs “falsehood” are obsolete and never were appropriate to an authorship who lacked reliable access to knowledge of the past). Certainly, historians of ancient Palestine still want and need to know what “really happened” because without that knowledge we cannot evaluate the memories themselves. But since the biblical memories contain sometimes events that occurred and sometimes things that did not happen (and things that did happen, but differently), “historicity” cannot any longer be any issue of principle: the Bible cannot be “true” or “false” any more than human memory can be: we can only consider each memory on its merits—and in the case of biblical memories, these are usually unverifiable.

Third, cultural memory forces us to focus on the identity (and self-identity) of the group to which the memory belongs. The realization that many different groups in antiquity claimed the identity “Jew” or the name “Israel” points to the multiplicity of competing memories, and many of these are represented in the biblical accounts of the past. This in part explains their inconsistencies, for while inconsistency is bad history, it may be very good cultural memory in amalgamating different group “recollection” (A good example is the independent but parallel memories of Ezra and Nehemiah combined into a single episode.) One such amalgamation is the nation “Israel” itself, which has a political counterpart only in a kingdom known by that name (among others) but a religious counterpart in the adherents of the cult of Yahweh (variously defined). The historian’s task is not to try and chase the chimera of a fictitious 12-tribe “nation” (“ancient Israel”) but to identify the groups to which the identity of “Israel” attached (including Samaria). We also need to study the mechanisms by which influential groups can impose their own memories on others, or share them: instances of the former abound in medieval and modern Europe. How did the biblical texts, the products of a small elite (or various elites), come to be accepted as the memories of an entire ethnos? Through the canonizing of the scriptures? Through public ritual (synagogues)? Through an education system? Through the spread of literacy? And how long did this process take?

Finally, and most importantly, the phenomenon of cultural memory can be applied not only to ancient biblical writers but modern biblical scholars. Most of us have the biblical narrative as part of our own cultural memory, if for no other reason than we heard the stories as children and celebrate them at every Christmas and Easter. Most of us have no problem with celebrating events that we know or suspect did not really happen—Catholic or Hispanic or Asian Americans can celebrate the initial “Thanksgiving” of New England Puritans. But some cannot accept that their memories do not correspond to what really happened. Partly the issue has to do with the kind of religious sensibilities that the individual scholar has, or his/her denominational affiliation. By and large, the issue does have to do with religion (usually a belief that biblical memories have to be infallible) rather than with a methodology of doing history. But religious belief is not the sole issue. For it is still the common popular view that the Bible relates real events, and this belief is the result of complacency, laziness, and poor education about the Bible among those for whom biblical scholarship is alien (this includes a few of my university colleagues). Nevertheless, among biblical scholars, we should recognize that the major differences in evaluation of biblical narratives between “conservatives” and “radical” (or whatever the terms) can nearly always be identified with the role and importance of the biblical story as part of contemporary Jewish or Christian cultural memory.

Hence, “Memories of Ancient Israel,” as I titled my last book, has a double meaning: it is both about the memories that ancient groups possessed (and often created) about “Israel” but also about our own cultural memories of that “Israel.” We should ask ourselves whether the “facts” themselves—which are few and fragile and contested enough—have very much significance compared with the memories on which people’s identities and their actions depend. What happened in the past can certainly contribute to who we are now, but what we think happened is far more significant; rather than discount it as bad history, the historian should pay careful attention to it, because it contains the key to most human action.


Assmann, Jan. 1992, 1999. Das kulturelle Gedächtnis. Schrift, Erinnerung und politische Identität in frühen Hochkulturen, Munich: Beck.

---. 1997. Moses the Egyptian. The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press.

---. 2006. Religion and Cultural Memory: Ten Studies, translated by Rodney Livingstone, Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Connerton, Paul. 1989. How Societies Remember, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Davies, Philip R. 2007. The Origins of Biblical Israel, London: T&T Clark.

---. 2008. Memories of Ancient Israel: An Introduction to Biblical History, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Halbwachs, Maurice. 1992. On Collective MemoryEdited and translated by Lewis A. Coser, Chicago: University of Chicago Press (original Les cadres sociaux de la mémoire, Paris, F. Alcan, 1925).

Mendels, Doron. 1992. The Rise and Fall of Jewish Nationalism. Jewish and Christian Ethnicity in Ancient Palestine, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

---. 2004. Memory in Jewish, Pagan, and Christian Societies of the Graeco-Roman World, London: T&T Clark.

Middleton, David and Derek Edwards. 1990. Collective Remembering, London: Sage.

Smith, Mark S. 2004. The Memoirs of God: History, Memory and the Experience of the Divine, Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress.

Yerushalmi, Yosef Hayim. 1982. Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory, Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Zerubavel, Eviatar. 2003. Time Maps: Collective Memory and the Social Shape of the Past, Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Zerubavel, Yael. 2005. Recovered Roots: Collective Memory and the Making of Israeli National Tradition, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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