Note: a slightly modified and heavily footnoted version of Dr. Keith's talk appears in the journal Early Christianity, Vol. 6, No. 4, with the update of this excerpt beginning on p. 536.
As the previous discussion has already revealed, undoubtedly the greatest source of contention between critics and supporters of social memory theory in Gospels scholarship has been the employment of theory in arguments for the historical reliability of the Gospels. [Richard] Bauckham, [Markus] Bockmuehl, [Craig] Keener, [Robert] McIver, and others have appealed to memory studies in arguments for the general historical reliability of the Jesus tradition, or at least the fact that it stems from eyewitness testimony. Foster, Crook, and others have countered that memory studies either fail to favor the historical reliability of the Gospels or, in fact, favor the historical unreliability of the Gospels. They have thus characterized appropriations of social memory theory in Gospels scholarship in general as “assertions that social memory validates the historicity of the events it purports to communicate."
The foregoing discussion should suffice for demonstrating that such portraits of social memory theory’s presence in Gospels scholarship are so narrow as to be caricatures. The majority of scholars applying the theory do not use it to those ends. And I suggest here that this to-and-fro over the reliability of memory has obscured social memory theory’s genuine contributions to Gospels scholarship, which reside in its challenges to prior and particularly form-critical tradition models.
First, and perhaps most importantly, social memory theory as a theory does not establish the Gospels as historically reliable or unreliable. It is not the business of theory to do the work of the theorist. There seems to be a logic to which both sides of this debate adhere. It runs like this: If the Jesus tradition is memory, and if memory is inherently reliable or unreliable, then the Jesus tradition is inherently reliable or unreliable. This logic is flawed, however, because “memory is a process, not a thing, and it works differently at different points in time.” Stated otherwise, memory can be both reliable and unreliable. Social memory theory is a tool for understanding the process by which groups conceptualize their individual and communal pasts from the position of the present. And – importantly – historically accurate and historically inaccurate social memories were subject to the same mnemonic processes. Social memory theory is not, therefore, in itself, a tool that establishes or pronounces memory as historically accurate or inaccurate.
As we saw earlier, this doesn't mean that social memory theory is irrelevant for questions of historical accuracy. But it does serve to underscore that the analytical categories of “memory” and “social memory” do not function like a wall socket into which one plugs the Jesus tradition, automatically granting it currency as generally reliable or generally unreliable. Theorizing historical accuracy is more difficult than stating generalizations of memory.
Well said, Chris. Yes, Amen, and Howdydooyah.
I am so stoked about this conference, and I'll hope to post reflections here afterward.
Those of you waiting patiently for part 7 of Remembering Life Stories, please check back in July.