How did Ancient Audiences Remember Jesus Chronology?
In the 21 years since Richard Bauckham’s “John for Readers of Mark,” historical Jesus studies has embraced memory research. How much of Bauchkam’s argument would stand if we reframe John’s audience as Rememberers of Mark?
One point worth challenging is Bauckham’s argument that John 3:24 (“for John was not yet thrown into prison”) evoked the text of Mark 1:14 (“after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee”). While the logical contingency of this connection is self-evident (especially to readers who can examine both texts at once), it is NOT feasible to suppose the listening audience, hearing John 3:24, could spontaneously recall the exact text of Mark 1:14. First of all, the mnemonic residue of a narrative is not verbatim discourse but a story (Mieke Bal, Seymour Chatman). More significantly, a given listener could not necessarily be expected to recall a single plot point mentioned only once in the first several minutes of a 90-120 minute long recitation. Such recall would be doubtful immediately following a recitation, let alone months or years later. Even supposing repeat hearings bred “familiarity” with Mark’s Gospel, as Bauckham argues, there is no guarantee that listeners would hone in on that particular plot point as a significant detail. If any listener failed to remember so much as the word “after” in Mark 1:14, they would necessarily fail to do what Bauckham’s argument supposes they must have done.
Against all this, I would like to suggest that Mark’s entire Gospel collectively provides a repetition of the one key idea to which John 3:24 actually alludes: that John “came before” Jesus to “prepare the Lord’s way.” Ergo, Jesus’ prominence followed John’s; ergo, John’s arrest precedes Jesus’s public debut. Specifically, I will argue that this idea is conveyed multiple times in a variety of ways throughout the Gospel of Mark. As my argument unfolds, however, I will be forced to conclude that this same key idea--also found in the double tradition of Matthew and Luke--was probably contained in the oral tradition as well. Although this means John 3:24 cannot be used as evidence for John knowing Mark I should disclose that I find other arguments to that point quite convincing. That is, I do believe John knew Mark, although I am less certain that all of John’s audiences did. Therefore, in considering what content informed John 3:24, I hope it will be clear that my personal interest is to explore the hermeneutics of audience memory with regard to chronology. If Bauckham’s argument for verbatim recall is unfeasible, then what would have been feasible?
How could John’s readers be expected to know when Jesus went into Galilee?
In psychological studies of human memory, serial order is notoriously challenging for human memory. At the World Championships of Memory, five of the seven competitions involve remembering long chains of data explicitly in sequence. [The difficulty most people seem to have with the task of remembering sequence is what prompted me to begin my theoretical research on Time in Memory.] Although there is much left to learn in this area, we are most fortunate to have the work of cognitive scientist William Friedman (“Memory for the Time of Events,” 1993), who has shown that remembering a sequence of events depends on recalling information with temporal implications. At its root, the process of “constructive remembering” initially depends on which bits and pieces of memory arise during basic recall. From there, the process of re-assembling those bits and pieces into something coherent is often subject to distortion if not outright failure. As we all know from experience, of course, memories can sometimes be accurate, sometimes inaccurate, sometimes roughly correct, and sometimes fuzzy or vague, but the salient point here is that even reliable memory always results from a process of cognitive reconstruction. This brings us back to temporal context. According to Friedman, reconstructing a timeline mnemonically depends on recalling bits and pieces which happen to imply their own temporal sequence or correlation. Simply put, some bits of memory can date themselves relatively. When the content of memory implies its own temporal relationship to some other prior or subsequent event, that implication provides a relative “date” for the memory. When the content of a memory contains no temporal implications, that memory cannot be remembered as part of any event sequence.
For example, I recall that my toddler said “airpwane, boom, hot” when he saw 911 happen on TV. If I someday forget his birth year (1999) and the date of 911 (2001), the context of “airpwane, boom, hot” naturally implies that my son was born a year or two before that national tragedy. If I can recall that bit of memory, I can recall the sequence of those events. This works with false memories also. On our anniversary in April of 2011, my wife and I saw Thor at the movies. She liking it less than I did, I joked it may as well have been my birthday, which happens to be in July. Years later, seeing a statement that Thor was released in April 2011 and Captain America in July 2011, I incorrectly believed the statement to be wrong because I thought I recalled that Thor was the movie we saw “for my birthday.” Despite the fact that I recalled information inaccurately, that bit of false information did contain temporal context which allowed me to sequence events. Thus, with either true or false information, this is consistently how mental chronology happens. As often as the subject recalls a bit of information with temporal implications, her natural faculties for constructive remembering may then proceed to employ that information accordingly.
Thus, Friedman’s work reframes this inquiry helpfully: What memorable information in GMark indicates that Jesus’ ministry was subsequent to John’s?
Turning to the Gospels in this regard leads us to the work of Jesus scholar Dale Allison. While researching cognitive science, Allison discovered that memory for details is far less reliable than memory for broad, general impressions. For example, if a given person claims to remember a once-spoken phrase with verbatim accuracy, that claim should rightly be seen as questionable, perhaps highly questionable at best. On the other hand, if a recurring pattern of information emerges from across a given collection of purported quotations, that recurring pattern itself might be worth considering as a reliable attestation of some actual memory. Allison says, “As our recollections become increasingly tattered and faded, they are disposed to retain, if anything, only the substance or ‘gist’ of an event,” and cites research scientist Daniel Schacter as saying, “remembering the gist of what happened is an economical way of storing the most important aspects of our experiences without cluttering memory with trivial details.” When applying these insights in his own work, Allison seeks to identify patterns of what he calls “recurrent attestation” across the Gospels, patterns which might indicate the gist of a memory, a general memory which he could then deem to be somewhat reliable. [For more on ‘gist memory’, see Allison's The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus (2009) and Constructing Jesus (2010).]
In sum, Allison’s manner of doing things aims to verify the potential accuracy of ancient testimony, and clearly this is not my goal at present. However, it does seem intuitively straightforward to apply these same insights in the opposite direction. That is, given the text of Mark’s Gospel as a whole, we might try to locate patterns of recurring information which might--by their very repetitive redundancy--by more likely to stand fast in the memory of those audiences who listened to recitations of Mark. If we find such a pattern, indicating a probable gist, this would approach the opposite end of the mnemonic spectrum from Bauckham’s thesis; rather than needing an audience to remember the exact wording of a once-spoken phrase, perhaps via superhuman levels of perfect recall, we would only need to rely on the public reader’s simple repetition of similar words and ideas, trusting that such redundant content itself will naturally facilitate the remembering of that general idea in the form of a gist.
There is one possible hang up. What is the “gist” of a temporal sequence? Fortunately, although Allison has not talked about remembering chronological sequence, we do not need to theorize in defining a temporal gist. Thanks to Friedman’s work, we only need to identify a pattern of information (conveying a single idea) which happens to imply something about temporal sequence. Any piece of information will do, as long as the context includes some aspect of sequentiality.
So, then, we may reframe the question one last time: What frequently repeated information in GMark (when remembered collectively) could indicate that Jesus’s ministry was subsequent to John’s?
Suddenly, the answer may seem obvious. As is well known, the idea that Jesus’ public activity belongs to the time of John’s inactivity is conveyed repeatedly in GMark by phrases like “he who comes after” and “preparing his way” (1:2,3,7,8,9,14; 2:18-20; 6:14,16,, 8:28; 11:30-32). In Mark 1:2-3, Isaiah conveys this idea three times (“I send my messenger ahead… will prepare… make ready”). In Mark 1:7-8, the baptizer himself says, “After me One is coming… I baptized [past tense]... he will baptize [future tense]… . ” In Mark 1:9 the context of the interaction between John and Jesus is that one has been working and the other has just arrived. Obviously, Mark 1:14 also contributes to this pattern explicitly (Bauckham’s mistake was relying on this one verse alone) and the pattern does not stop here. In Mark 2:18-20, in which John’s disciples are said to be fasting, but Jesus’ disciples are eating and drinking, Jesus explains that his own disciples still have their bridegroom with them presently, alluding directly to John’s imprisonment. This bit of the tradition reinforces the idea that one ministry followed after the other because the context shows a correlation between Jesus’ public presence and John’s public absence. Later, Mark 6:14,16 has Herod Antipas both hearing and repeating reports that Jesus was actually John risen from the dead, which repeats the idea once again that John’s public profile was replaced by Jesus’. The phrase in v.16 has Antipas explicitly supposing that John has died and then risen, so the baptizer has been sequentially replaced by the one who is “raised from the dead.” Two chapters later, Mark 8:28 returns to this idea that some people think Jesus is John. In this instance this remark is more subtle but it reminds the audience of the previously mentioned idea of replacement; also, logically, Jesus would less likely be mistaken for John if John were still active. Finally, Mark 11:30-32 has Jesus speaking about John in the past tense, and the crowds remembering John “to have been a great prophet,” reminding the audience of GMark that John is still dead during this part of Jesus’ storyline. In all these references, a general pattern of information is attested recurrently, the “gist” of which is that Jesus came after John. Moreover, the statements made about John being presently active, collectively, are narrated in close proximity to one another near the beginning of the Gospel. In turn, the statements referring to John in the past tense, along with the statements referring to John’s absence, altogether, collectively, are narrated only after the previous collection of material had concluded. Finally, in the broadest possible overview, the material narrated in the earliest period of narrative time (i.e., before Jesus was active) includes multiple references indicating that John was presently active, while the material narrated in the much larger period of narrative time (i.e., while Jesus was active) includes multiple references indicating that John was presently inactive.
In sum total, therefore, we have a strongly recurrent attestation of the idea that Jesus’s public ministry belongs to the same time period when John’s public ministry was over. This, I suggest, is the relevant “gist” memory most naturally formed by familiarty with GMark and most naturally evoked by John 3:24.
Now, someone might object that John 3:24 explicitly evokes the baptizer’s imprisonment, whereas most of the references I have just catalogued above do no such thing. To that, I simply suggest that John being thrown into prison was obviously the end of his ministry. This correlation is obvious if John’s audience knew that John was arrested because of his ministry; it remains obvious if they merely deduced that he could not continue public ministry from prison. In short, any explicit reference to arrest or imprisonment is de facto a reference to the necessary cessation of public activity. Granting this much (either intuition or audience knowledge, and not necessarily both) is no great hermeneutical stretch.
As I said, my personal interest was to theorize audience memory for Jesus chronology. Having done that now to my own satisfaction, the work thus far now requires me to chase down a few tangents.
It must be noted that Bauckham’s argument depends on his supposition that the chronological datum expressed by Mark 1:14 was unlikely to have been part of the oral tradition. This supposition can be easily tested by examining material from beyond the Gospel of Mark. In fact, although the list is not long, the basic idea that Jesus’ ministry was fully subsequent to John’s ministry is recurrently attested in multiple streams of non-Markan tradition. (It should go without saying that I neglect to mention the Matthean and Lukan parallels to the Markan material because they are plentiful but inconclusive.) For one unique example, Luke’s infancy narrative has both Gabriel and Zechariah stating explicitly that John “will go before” (Lk.1:17,76). More significantly, there is the prominent bit of “double tradition” in which John’s disciples ask Jesus their master’s question from prison (Matt 11:2-19=Luke 7:18-35); perhaps more clearly than elsewhere, this episode reflects the idea that John’s imprisonment was a contextual aspect of the time period during which Jesus ministered in Galilee publicly. Apparently, the source of this tradition supposed its audience would both recognize and accept the correlation between Jesus’s public presence and John’s public absence. Beyond these few references, it is also worth noting the significant absence of John’s presence in any traditions which portray Jesus’s public presence in Galilee. Not a single synoptic pericope (nor a single Johnannine pericope, for that matter) ever depicts John being active after Jesus had made his public ministry debut down in Galilee. Altogether, therefore, this additional material demonstrates the same basic idea recurring in multiple streams of Gospel traditions, which means it is possible that oral tradition (rather than Mark’s Gospel) could have generated the requisite “gist memory” evoked by John 3:24.
Again, I do not attempt to discern which is more likely, but I must conclude such was at least possible. Unfortunately, this is a major problem for Bauckham’s argument, which depends on his claim that the relevant evocation at John 3:24 could NOT have been garnered from knowledge of oral tradition. Fortunately, John 3:24 was only one of Bauckham’s arguments that John knew Mark. As noted earlier, I am convinced by other evidence that John did know Mark; I just don’t think Bauckham’s argument about John 3:24 offers support for that case.
On a different note, but also in fairness to Bauckham, nothing in my argument precludes the possibility that the original author of John 3:24 did imagine he would successfully evoke Mark 1:14. Highly intelligent and highly literate authors are often known to talk over the heads of their less capable audiences. However, in such a case I would still contend the author got lucky; that his reference likely did work was only thanks to a broad and general memory about John “going before” Jesus and “preparing his way.” Whether that gist of a memory was formed by familiarity with GMark or by familiarity with the oral tradition--or perhaps by familiarity with both--the most likely hermeneutical scenario is now clear. When John’s audience heard the public reader recite “John had not yet been thrown into prison,” their minds would have recalled the basic gist of all that repetitive data about John’s chronological priority to Jesus.
Before closing this examination, we might ask one last question. To what extent was this broad impression historically accurate?
There are significant discrepancies between the Gospels’s narrativizations (Mark 1:14, Matt.4:12, Acts 10:37; Luke 3:19-4:14; John 3:24). Mark puts Jesus’s preaching debut “after” John was imprisoned, denoting a clear sequence but an indefinite time period. Matthew elevates coincidence to causality: Hearing about the arrest, Jesus withdrew; the reaction now seems immediate. In Acts, Luke has Peter tell Cornelius Mark’s simplified version--Jesus’s ministry started “from” Galilee “after” John’s baptizing was over--but Luke’s Gospel complicates the sequence in a way that is quite odd. Narrating John’s ministry up to his arrest, Luke then cuts to Jesus’s baptism, locating it in John’s era but omitting John from the scene. Correlating the start of Jesus’s ministry with his approximate age at the time, Luke then launches into the genealogy until 4:1 says the baptism directly preceded the temptations, after which Jesus enters Galilee and begins his public notoriety. Given this jumble of narration, it is unclear whether “When he began his ministry” (3:23) refers to the baptism (3:19-22) or the “return” into Galilee (4:14), and it is startling that John leaves the narration before he baptizes Jesus. Given the agreement of Acts with Mark’s simplified statement, but comparing Matthew’s precise temporal claim, Luke appears to deliberately obfuscate the details of this otherwise simple storyline. However, against all of these, the fourth Gospel presents Jesus recruiting and making public appearances in Galilee before John was thrown into prison (1:43, 2:1-2,11-12; 3:24; 4:1-3).
Acknowledging such discrepancies used to be seen as cause for dismissal of one or more of these verses as “inauthentic” but the social memory approach of scholars like Chris Keith and Anthony LeDonne suggests this discrepancy is merely a starting point. Comparing the underlying “gist” memory against these narrativizations provides a helpful tension; rather than selectively preferring one version and ignoring the others, a proper historian must try to form a hypothesis which explains all of the data. Perhaps we should begin by seeking out tension between the oldest tradition (the Markan and/or pre-Markan gist) and the youngest (John 3:24).
We may now observe one advantage of having previously identified this general notion of ministerial distinction in time periods. Upon closer inspection, it seems the rhetorical point of John 3:24 is to challenge the very notion it requires its audience to recall! That is, in the minds of the fourth Gospel’s informed audience, if John was not yet done preparing the way, then Jesus should not yet have come after, and yet there is overlap. That is, Jesus was supposed to have come after John, according to what people generally believed, but the fourth Gospel’s third chapter depicts John and Jesus to have been preaching concurrently. One explanation for this could be that--far from assuming his audience recalled the proposition of Mark 1:14--the beloved disciple assumed quite the opposite, that his audience had forgotten the specific detail about Galilee. (I must note incidentally that accepting this explanation supplements but cannot prove the thesis that John knew Mark.) In this view, the statement at 3:24 is necessary precisely because the writer expects the audience to challenge a time period of coincident preaching.
Obviously, this scenario is entirely consistent with the workings of memory, in which specific details are often forgotten while general notions are preserved even when they result in distortions. Sometimes, distortion is advantageous to the survival of memory (cf. Anthony LeDonne), which requires a persnickety historian to come along and revise the account with their painstakingly researched details (cf. Bauckham’s “Historiographical Characteristics of the Gospel of John”). Given that we must hereby do likewise, I will offer the explanatory hypothesis which makes the most sense to me. It is as follows.
It seems highly probable that the Markan detail (that the beginning “after” John was arrested was specifically a Galilean beginning) faded from memory while the general impression (John preceded Jesus) survived. When Matthew took up to revise Mark he was heavily influenced by this general impression, which resulted in Matthew’s oversimplification (that Jesus went into Galilee the instant John ended). When Luke began working from both Mark and Matthew, he felt the tension between their versions of this detail and he first tried to avoid the dilemma with deliberate obfuscation. Later, however, Luke decided Mark’s indefinite “after” was safe enough, so that version got into Acts. Luke’s initial confusion, however, may not have been uncommon. By the time of the fourth gospel, the beloved disciple felt it was necessary to counteract the weight of popular misunderstanding. Thus, John 1-3 depicts Jesus engaging the public increasingly here and there while John was still active, and John 3:24 points out that this does not contradict what they had heard because Jesus did not return north into Galilee until after John was arrested. Altogether, I find this explanation of the tradition(s)’s development to be reasonable, and it might help us answer the ultimate question: what did the historical Jesus actually do?
If we undo my reverse-engineering of Allison’s method, we might take all of this recurrent attestation, ultimately, as the indication of a broad impression which was initially formed by Jesus’s immediate posterity. That is, we cannot be certain how closely Jesus’s public debut in Galilee coincided with John the baptist’s arrest, and we cannot even be certain Jesus’s debut did in fact follow after John’s arrest. However, it does seem the population at large developed such an impression. Therefore, it may have been exactly as Mark says, if not quite as Matthew says, but if it was neither of those ways then it must have been something most people perceived in one of those two ways.
To explain what I mean, consider that Elvis Presley did not invent Rock and Roll, but he did popularize rock and roll for millions upon millions worldwide. In that regard, we require a persnickety historian to teach us the actual roots from gospel, soul, the blues, and rockabilly music, but a scholar of memory can explain that Elvis was remembered as the originator because he was perceived as the originator. In a similar way, I mean to suggest, the Galilean debut of Jesus was remembered as it was perceived. Maybe Jesus began his ministry in Galilee quietly, a la John 1-2. Maybe Jesus began his campaign teaching in synagogues after John was arrested. Maybe neither or both of those scenarios happened. What did happen, evidently, is that public awareness about Jesus was heightened after John’s arrest. That is, Jesus gained notoriety precisely because John’s situation was so unjust. In that climate, as his profile grew, Jesus’s public position became associated with John’s wrongful predicament. As time went on, people in one town or another probably couldn’t remember exactly when Jesus came and preached in their town for the very first time, but they could and did remember the broader pattern of their general impression that--by far--the vast bulk of Jesus’s public preaching ministry in Galilee happened to coincide with John the Baptist’s imprisonment. Thus, perhaps it was with Jesus and John as it was with Elvis and Rock and Roll. Perhaps the true origins were a bit more complicated than the simplified version which the general public believed to be accurate; if so, this would explain why the fourth Gospel depicts Nathaniel and Cana and Jesus overseeing Judean baptisms that he wasn’t performing. But perhaps the simplified version which was so popularized was also close enough to the truth that it could be leveraged as a way of getting back to that truth; and this would explain why the fourth Gospel evoked and upheld the simple story while simultaneously complicating his audience’s awareness about that distortion.
About 4,000 words ago, I set out to ask, How did Ancient Audiences Remember Jesus Chronology?
The answer is, as best they could. A persnickety historian must remember to work with that, also.