November 14, 2023

Eyes and Ears, Stories and Words

 Paul of Tarsus once noted that some Corinthian believers longed to see signs and wonders while others longed to hear wisdom through oratory. Ostensibly, Paul's allegations describe two distinct factions: one being a sub-group of predominantly Jewish Corinthians who liked Peter because he spoke in tongues and healed people, and the other being a sub-group of Greek Corinthinans who liked Apollos because of his scriptural knowledge and rhetorical prowess. Still today, as we all painfully know, some Christians seek miracles while others prefer preaching. To both groups, Paul said that no human mind had conceived the rewards of inclining one's heart towards God.

 Feel free to stop reading at this point and incline yourself thusly. The rest of this piece is going to explore the "eyes" and "ears" distinction a bit further. However, instead of miracles and preaching, I'd like you to consider that stories can leave behind, in your mind, both words and images.

 If you're sticking around, please bear with me now for a paragraph or two on cognitive technicalities.

 In the information processing model of cognitive psychology, scientists distinguish auditory input from visual input in a number of ways. The classic model of "working memory" includes a "phonological loop" (in which songs can 'get stuck' and through which you quickly memorize names or phone numbers) and a "visuo-spatial sketchpad" (where you visualize images, albeit faint, fuzzy, fragmented, and/or distorted images). In this theoretical model, both of these two components feed into the "episodic buffer" where a third component (a theoretical "chief executive") coordinates bits and pieces of previously encoded sights and sounds (a.k.a. "trace memories") and reconstructs as much as possible your memory of the previously lived situation. In this way, psychologists have accounted for separate input (eyes and ears) and separate encoding (images and sounds), but processing and manipulation of information takes various pathways as our future selves continue to store up, re-code, and reconstruct various permutations of combined audio-visual memories.

 One curious phenomenon in all this is that WORDS can become informational content in both categories. Historically, most common experiments for memory have involved a collection of words, either in list form or on flash cards. In these studies, participants will usually rehearse the words in some way: seeing them, speaking them, hearing them. The phonological loop can preserve a few seconds of rehearsal and the visuo-spatial sketchpad can preserve a few sketchy images of the word list and/or flash cards. This flexibility illustrates precisely why words are so useful as rhetorical tools and  so powerful as conceptual placeholders; it is not merely that words serve as tags for ideas in our minds but that words persist across various "modalities" of sight, sound, and speech. You can even copy a word list repeatedly through writing. Although we should rightly forget about educational theories that some students prefer one modality over all others, the research on learning is at least clear that reviewing the same content in multiple forms does provide an advantage. 

 This modal advantage also puts words above images in at least one respect: you cannot rehearse mental images through recitation or graphic transcription. You cannot speak pictures. You cannot write pictures. In the case of visual input from unique lived experience then we must admit you cannot even look at such a mental image more than once. Moreover, words provide empirical evidence for laboratory researchers. The established field of cognitive linguistics is widely renowned while the budding field of studies on "event memory" is still struggling to get past reading comprehension. Incidentally, one modestly promising development is the comparison of body-camera footage to self-reporting summaries of personal activity (e.g., walking to the campus library, finding a book, and returning to the psych lab).

 Now, here comes the difficult bit. Something occurred to me today which bothers me greatly.

 If proficiency depends on repeated practice, our brains have less opportunity to become adept at manipulating visual memories. Even illiterate people learn many different ways of processing verbal information. We all get lots of practice at thinking about words. But images? Although we can strengthen visual memories through repeated viewings of the same photos, same artwork, or the same movie scenes, it seems perhaps that only avid readers receive the opportunity to become adept in the skill of constructing situation models while receiving narrative discourse. Further, it seems that perhaps only avid readers from childhood have a chance to put in the proverbial 10,000 hours of practice required to become experts at visualizing a narrated situation. To speculate even further, it may be specifically that we do not develop this talent to its fullest without being an avid reader from childhood of fiction, specifically. 

 In reality, of course, almost every human person has some imagination ability, but on that scale we could say everybody has some degree of physical ability as well. Some can run. Some cannot even walk. In my musings above, I am talking about the difference between walking around and becoming an athlete. Some readers naturally build worlds while receiving a discourse. Other readers mainly wait for the speaker to get to a point, and such readers will otherwise struggle when pressed to prioritize their imaginative function. Such readers may even stare in disbelief when one suggests that imaginative function should be a default process when receiving narrative content for general purposes. Particularly savvy operators know that stories are often just vehicles for agendas. They feel justified in looking down at those of us who take stories too seriously.

 I now present today's disturbing thought, albeit prefaced with a disclaimer.

 It has been said, rather rudely, that sometimes unintelligent persons prefer authoritarian leaders because parrotting such leaders spares trusting dimwits from having to think for themselves. To whatever extent this is sometimes the case I would like to offer as much sympathy for the individuals in question and condemnation for the leaders who abuse their simple trust. In contrast to this sad situation, and the unhelpful mockery and stereotyping of it, I have a more refined hypothesis to suggest.

 Specifically, I am wondering today whether some adult persons who are indeed rather intelligent may sometimes develop a cognitive predisposition for processing verbal discourse as predominantly if not strictly semantic information. In other words, I wonder if we might be able to demonstrate that some adult brains have a measurable deficiency in forming mental models of situations being narrated (and/or described) by verbal discourse. If so, then it would seem natural to suppose that such adult persons would be more likely to rely on labels and categories in explaining their views, while adhering rather  dogmatically to stock phrases and boilerplate sound bites. 

 If so, it would seem somewhat futile to urge such people to engage their imagination while reading. One can neither easily nor adeptly perform skills which require muscles atrophied through lack of use.

 Getting back to Paul and the Corinthians, I must remind myself that first century Christians as a group were largely ignorant, almost wholly uneducated, and not often blessed with even modest intelligence. To such people, the tentmaker form Tarsus proclaimed optimistically that inclining themselves towards the divine was a worthy activity, one that held promise of rewards that go beyond any kind of familiar human experience.

 For the sake of my projects, however, I feel more daunted than ever. It is one thing to urge narratological reconstruction when speaking to those who have been acculturated to avoid thinking imaginatively about the words of the New Testament. It is another thing to promote this procedure when speaking to those (and yes, I mean professional scholars) who may be cognitively disinclined to engage in this kind of imaginative thinking.

 Shall I, then, simply continue... Anon?

October 31, 2023

The Nature of Historical "Knowledge" for Early Gospel Audiences

 As Dunn said with orality decades ago, here is another default setting that we need to reset.

 Even if your hermeneutic of the Gospels considers "ideal readers" or "the authorial audience" instead of reconstructing actual first century readers and hearers, we should not assume that early Jewish/Christian knowledge about their own recent history would equate to a list of key facts. Their word of mouth style of posterity was quite unlike a wiki stub cribbed from an old World Book, and I mean different not only in form or format. I mean that ancient historical knowledge was quite different than our modern concept of factual knowledge as something learned from official sources who verified the information before passing it down. The difference is also more complex than simply imagining that ancient people were generally more susceptible to authoritarian pronouncements and biased spin, because that also happens to some degree in officially verified publications. That common danger has never not been part of telling stories about the past.

 The difference I am getting at starts with Dunn's notion that we need to reckon with a culture of orality but I believe it goes farther. We need to think about memory and storytelling. Specifically, we need to think about the fact that our limited cognitive capacity means that only simplified explanations had the potential to gain widespread adoption as "common knowledge" about what happened in the past. 

 For example, consider the contrast between the stories Josephus tells to his audience of upscale Roman elites, on the one hand, and the stories Josephus reports had been told among common folks back in Judea and Galilee. 

 To explain the fall of Jerusalem to his privileged peers, Josephus offers a complex set of justifications that rely on various factors of culture and politics, ultimately suggesting that the governing class in Jerusalem didn't mean to oppose Rome until they were forced into it by the spontaneous guerilla assault on that insufficiently prepared Legion from Antioch. (Obviously, I compress greatly; but see Mason's History of the Jewish War, 2016.) 

 To explain the Nabatean conquest of the fortress at Gamala (Gamla), Josephus tells us, folks in Galilee said that God was punishing Herod Antipas for having executed John the Baptist.

 Although I feel confident that such extreme superstition did not characterize every single historical explanation which circulated among Jewish and Christian people of the first century, I do mean to suggest that something like that level of simplicity was a prerequisite for a story to gain widespread acceptance, or at least to be recognized as the norm of historical knowledge. Thus, if an savvy author was writing to an audience of common folks and said author wished to refer to historical events, the target knowledge would need to be simple. I mean the FORM of that story would need to be simple.

 Briefly, now, here are just a few specific suggestions as to how this might affect our interpretation of some material in the Gospels.

 (1) The parable in Luke 19 is less likely a reference to the singular story about Archelaus and more likely a reference to the larger pattern by which that kind of thing happened repeatedly. That is, many rulers of Judea had sailed to Rome to be granted the rule back at home, including Herod the Great, Herod's oldest son Antipater (unsuccessfully), Archelaus, Antipas (twice, both times unsuccessfully), Agrippa I (who successfully gained the rule of Trachonitis from Caligula and later received the re-unified kingdom from Claudius), and more. Thus, it is far more likely that common pattern (and not the one relatable factoid that Lukan scholars picked up while studying Matt 2:22) which provided a targetable bit of historical knowledge for the writer of Luke to expect from their ancient audience.

 (2) John 2:20 cannot be a reference to anything which required the audience to get out a reference book and perform careful arithmetic. If the number "forty-six" has any hermeneutic significance, my bet is that it was meant to evoke 'a few less than 49', thereby associating the crucifixion of Jesus with the year of the Jubilee (although whether the author meant that symbolically or literally, or both, would obviously require a whole other discussion). My point is whatever historical idea the author was trying to reference, it needed to be simple, obvious, and immediately retrievable.

 (3) Repeated Gospel references to John the Baptist as one who "came before" and "prepared the way" involve a simplified chronological schema which implies a basic sequence no more complicated than 'one before the other'. On this basis, I have previously argued that Bauckham's argument about John 3:24 is misguided to suppose that one allusion in John could prompt a verbatim recall of Mark 1:14 as a specific textual reference.

 (4) Even more broadly, the simplified narrative structure of the basic synoptic storyline is largely built upon another simplified schema with embedded chronology. If the audience knows in advance that Jesus became popular in Galilee and got killed in Jerusalem, they would naturally expect the storyline to begin in Galilee and move to Judea only in time for that death. If this was indeed the likely expectation of most audiences, it could help explain why the earliest writers of narrative Gospels chose to simplify the story structure of Jesus's ministry period, in that way.

 (5) Finally, the one about which I was previously dissertating: the writer of Matt 2:22 could most reasonably have expected those references ("Herod... Archelaus... Judea... fright... Galilee") to evoke only the most impactful events from that overall time frame. Thus, rather than cherry picking a few details from Josephus's account or finding some criteria for deciding how much of that written history might have also been common knowledge, I reconstruct the matter in multiple stages. 

 (example 5, continued) FIRST, from a LITERARY perspective, I extrapolate the vision of events which Josephus apparently had in mind and attempted to convey (e.g., the division of Herod's kingdom was Augustus's original idea and it was not even suggested until Herod had been dead for several months). SECOND, from a HISTORICAL-CRITICAL standpoint, I scrutinize the authorial vision of Josephus (e.g., reconsidering causative factors more comprehensively) and reconstruct my own view of KEY EVENTS as they actually unfolded (e.g., the people of Judea and Galilee spent a year living in complete ignorance about who if anyone was going to emerge, from the ongoing chaos and violent upheavals, as the new overlord of the land of the Jews). THIRD, from the standpoint of social and cognitive memory theory, I perform a PSYCHOLOGICAL reconstruction, this time considering which events (from among those which actually transpired) would have been the most likely to leave a mnemonic traces on a cultural level for decades to come (e.g., Passover pilgrims returning to Jerusalem each year, for many years, undoubtedly would have remembered the massacre of Archelaus each time they walked through the streets where the smallest of children were the first ones to be trampled, and each time they walked to the Temple where the protestors were first assaulted by the armed forces of Archelaus, the apparent king-to-be. FOURTH, on the basis of all the above, I can only then find a reasonable basis for reconstructing HERMENEUTICALLY that the writer of Matt 2:22 most likely expected their audience to believe a few key "facts" based on the general P.o.V. of Judean posterity (e.g., it had appeared from all angles that Augustus split the kingdom in response to the upheavals, and that Archelaus deserved his eventual banishment by Augustus, among other reasons, primarily because of the Passover massacre at his accession). 

 Here endeth my list of examples for today. Feel free to search the blog for previous thoughts on the five topics just reviewed. 

 Now, let me sum up the overall point and be done with this post.

 Altogether, this kind of approach creates a lot of work, and the first reaction of some Gospel scholars may be to scoff dismissively, because what I propose will seem, to them, quite a stretch. Against that likely response, please consider that the popular alternative for centuries has been just to cherry pick a few verbatim factoids as purported by Josphus and then to magically impute those "facts" as the "knowledge" shared by ancient author and audience alike.

 Realistically, I'll be doing well if I can even start this conversation, let alone get the last word. But maybe that is enough.

 As Dunn said with orality decades ago, here is another default setting that we need to reset.


August 23, 2023

Titus carried Galatians

  I went up to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking with me also Titus… But not even Titus, who was with me, being Greek, was compelled to be circumcised. - Galatians 2:1,3

 To support his bold claim that circumcision is no longer necessary for gentile Christians, Paul further claims that the saints in Jerusalem had met Titus without requiring him to be circumcised. For the second claim to support the larger claim effectively, Paul must have expected the Galatians (1) to know who Titus was, and (2) to believe that Paul's claims about Titus were true. The simplest explanation for Paul's apparent expectation is that Paul sent Titus to carry this letter. 

 Supposing Titus delivered Galatians can also explain why Paul references Titus without identifying distinctions. That is, neither "who was with me" nor "being Greek" denotes a unique referent. These phrases do not qualify as identifying remarks because many people could have been with Paul and many people were Greek. I return to the possible meaning of these two phrases below. 

 For context, please observe that Paul has obvious reasons for failing to identify Peter (1:18) and John (2:9), who require no introduction as Jesus's apostles, and also Barnabas (2:1), who requires no introduction because he helped Paul found the Galatian assemblies. As for James, "the Lord's brother" (1:18), Paul's identifying descriptor was undoubtedly mere disambiguation, supposing at least one of the following: e.g., that the Galatians had heard about James the apostle in the same stories they heard about Peter and John, or that James's prominence in Jerusalem was widely known, or that we take Paul to imply that Galatia's other recent visitors from Jerusalem were the same "men from James" who had also disrupted Antioch (2:12). As for Titus, however, we have no cause to suppose that Paul's gentile colleague was himself comparably famous among early Christians in Asia. To the contrary, Paul's acknowledgement that Titus's Gentile status had recently been at issue in Jersualem provides a strong reason to expect the opposite: that Titus was not generally famous among early Christians. This lack of evident fame also refutes the suggestion of F. F. Bruce that Paul was specifically refuting a rumor about Titus previously spread by the 'Judaizers'; if Titus was not famously well known at this point then Bruce's scenario should require Paul to explicitly clarify that he meant the same Titus about whom there were rumors. As noted above, "with me" and "Greek" do not specify one uniquely identifiable person.

 Logically, the above considerations leave us with only two possible reasons why Galatians in four different cities might be expected to know who Titus was without requiring an introduction: either Paul knew that Titus had visited previously, or Paul knew that Titus was visiting concurrently. But if Paul believed Titus was not currently present then we would still expect Paul to clarify which "Titus" (of all the Tituses on earth) was the Titus about whom Paul was speaking. Therefore, the most likely reason, by far, for Paul to avoid identifying this Titus, is because Paul had sent this Titus to Galatia with this letter.

 If we consider the scenario in depth, we find additional reasons to support not just plausibility but strong likelihood. For one, sending Titus offered Paul the strategic advantage of refuting his troublesome opponents by sending an eyewitness who could testify on at least some of the events being narrated in the letter. Instead of merely writing that Titus had met with the "pillars" in Jerusalem and yet remained uncircumcised, Paul could send the Titus himself to corroborate Paul's account. Beyond that, the Galatians could ask Titus questions -about Paul, about his visit to the holy city, about whom he met there - and if any man in Galatia remained skeptical about Paul's claims, then Titus had the option to reveal physical evidence. 

 Finally, supposing this strategic scenario provides a practical purpose for Paul's two ancillary descriptions, imbuing them with additional meaning. First, the phrase "who was with me" now conveys an implicit challenge. I'm telling you what happened, and he was there too. If you don't believe me, ask him. Second, the phrase "being Greek" denotes an ethnic origin that is not merely non-Jewish; for instance, a Samaritan who became Christian would not be "compelled to be circumcised" because Samaritans still considered themselves children of Abraham (cf. Acts 8:5-39). In this light, the most specific denotation in Galatians about Titus is the fact that Titus (like all Greeks) had not been circumcised in his life before turning to Christ. Taken thusly, "being Greek" is not merely Paul adding a detail but emphatically suggesting there is further proof here if you absolutely need it.

 In conclusion, accepting that Titus carried the letter explains why Paul could expect the Galatians to know very little about Titus while also requiring no description of his identity. By sending and naming his eyewitness, Paul's supporting point about his larger claim becomes far stronger through personal testimony and physical evidence. The phrase "who was with me" no longer underscores a geographical coincidence which should have already been obvious (the guy I'm talking about who was there when I was, Titus, he was also with me) but now serves to qualify the man's testimony and commend his presence in Galatia as a trusted colleague. The phrase "being Greek," which also seemed a bit redundant as mere exposition, now finds a situated rhetorical purpose that serves Paul's strategic goals - not just for the epistle but directly for the mission. Paul does not introduce Titus as a co-worker, a trusted friend, or a traveling companion, but as a supporting witness, uniquely qualified to rebut the accusations of Paul's opponents from Jerusalem.


 One final consideration, if Galatians 2:1-10 indeed refers to the conference of Acts 15 (and I agree that it does), is that Titus could have carried TWO LETTERS into Galatia. In other words, if Titus was first present at the council of Jerusalem and then carried Paul's letter to Derbe, Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch of Pisidia, then Titus could have brought along a copy of Jerusalem’s letter as well. This would then provide one reason why Paul did not mention that letter in the text of his own letter, not that he necessarily carried or cared for that letter at all. Paul and Titus might even have thought it wise strategy to hold something in reserve.


 It is further likely, in my opinion, that Titus and Luke carried Paul's letter through Galatia together, and then kept going west to their pre-arranged rendezvous point, at a city they could not fail to locate because it stood next to the ruins of the most famous city in Asia Minor ("Troy"), and this would then explain why Paul found Luke in Troas after leaving Galatia and not feeling able to linger near Ephesus.
 in Asia. Also, the fact that Acts never mentions Titus is irrelevant but if Titus and Paul were on Crete at some point, years later, then it was most likely Fair Havens, which would mean Luke deliberately left Titus out of Acts, perhaps for abandoning ship after Paul finagled his way into bringing three friends. In other words, if Titus was at Fair Havens with Paul then Titus could have been in other parts of Paul's journeys according to Acts. Also Paul did expect, after Corinth, to see Titus in Troas, and Paul's second journey he left one man in each city where they planted a new church (Luke in Philippi, Timothy in Thessalonica, Silas in Berea, and Paul himself stayed in Athens. Thus, it stands to reason that Titus was the man they left in Troas, which explains why Luke left out the origin of that church.

 But now I have reeeealllly digressed.

 Anon, then...

July 14, 2023

Another quick run through on Timelines in Memory

Remembering cause and effect implies temporal sequence by the logical pattern of "sufficient" causality. When a given bit of mnemonic content declares that event A *caused* situation B, such a memory implies logically that A occurred prior to B. Given that no "cause" is remembered as such without also recalling an associated effect, this type of constructive remembering requires no further effort by the remembering subject; no further recall and no search for additional information. Conveniently, the implicit sequence to be remembered, both content and structure, is completely entailed by the memory of causality as such.

Remembering a change in location implies temporal sequence by the logical pattern of "necessary" causality. When mnemonic content declares that a person or object has existed in more than one place, such memories imply logically that one memory must belong prior to another. Inconveniently, the remembering subject may need to recall more information, or seek context clues to determine whether time spent in one location was prior or subsequent to time spent in some other location. The sequence implied by the change in locations may not be completely entailed by the content remembered thus far.

Remembering distinct time periods in the past also implies temporal sequence by the same type of "necessary" causality. When one collection of memories includes a number of identical details and a shared contextual grounding, while a different collection of memories embeds a different confluence of details and a different contextual grounding, the two collections logically entail mutually exclusive situations. As with movement between two locations, the logical implication of distinct situations is that one must have occurred prior to another. Again, as above, the remembering subject may need further recall or additional clues in order to sequence these two perceived time periods specifically.

Remembering developmental stages can also imply temporal sequence when distinctly prior stages must have been logically necessary. When a given memory includes content which implies by its own nature some advanced stage of growth or development, such content logically implies that any prerequisite stage must have occurred, at some point, previously. In such cases, whether or not the remembering subject can reconstruct an entire sequence (without additional information) depends heavily on the exact nature of whatever sequence is being implied. Chicken implies previous egg, divorce implies previous marriage, college implies previous high school, and promotion implies previous hiring, but active grandparenting may not imply previous parenting, although simply being a grandparent does imply previous biological procreating.

The disruption of a perceived equilibrium implies temporal sequence by the correlation of two related situations, in which one situation is distinctly identifiable for having replaced another. Such a transition may involve a symbolic ceremony (wedding, graduation, retirement) or incremental advancement (freshman, sophomore, junior, senior) or traumatic loss (injury, break-up, bereavement) or an ironic surprise, the reversal of long-held expectations; however, in all cases the implication of temporal sequence is embedded in the fact that the beginning of one situation is specifically correlated with the seemingly final end of the other. Although such a correlation can later be viewed as tantamount to a causality (e.g., the pandemic "caused" life to change in so many ways) the dynamic which makes this implication "sufficient" is not a causal logic but simply that some non-trivial number of memories can be paired off and identified as corresponding portions of the "before" time and the "after" time, with the later replacing the former in all specific examples. For example, the more details about 12th grade are remembered as specific replacements for corresponding details about 11th grade (e.g., car instead of school bus, job instead of sports, girlfriend instead of nerd buddies, Algebra 2 instead of Geometry), the more likely the later year will be remembered distinctly from (and, ergo, as logically subsequent to) the former.

Finally, temporal sequence may also be inferred whenever a remembering subject believes that a given occurrence existed as one part of a recognized time pattern. Such patterns may be conventional (seasons, event calendars, routines, rituals) or statistically significant (aggregating frequently observed sequences of human behavior in general) or entirely arbitrary (for three decades, if the Celtics won an NBA championship, the Lakers happened to win it the following year), but in all such cases it is merely the subject's familiarity with an occasionally recurring sequence (and not the relative frequency or reliability of any perceived pattern) which provides the advantage in mnemonically reconstructing a particular temporal sequence.


This rough taxonomy, above, represents a new attempt to reframe my body of research in this area by distinguishing strictly according to the functional aspects of specific mnemonic dynamics. In 2014, I attempted to categorize according to five types of cause and effect, and in 2017 I attempted to correlate the various dynamics above along a spectrum of informational redundancy (that is, relative entropy, a la Claude Shannon). 

I do not know which of these efforts (when polished) might hold up best under scrutiny.

What I do know is that I continue feeling the need to ask why my efforts produce such a finite list. How should I decide whether my list is complete? Or whether I have missed something? Or whether I need a new angle on all of it? I have therefore looked for some type of structure or internal consistency which might lend coherence to my theorizing as a whole. 

But now, tonight, I have tried to center the functional dynamics as a way of determining categorical distinctions. I am aware of some significant overlap in the six groupings above. 

Perhaps the most evident distinctions are really between the logic of sufficient causality, the logic of necessary causality, and the illogic of mere repeated correlation. Perhaps there could be some type of logical 'punnet square' which might prove that I have exhausted the possible categories on this topic. I do not know. Alternatively, there may be a way to break down my theory about "narrative redundancy" and re-center cognitive function rather than narrative style; perhaps I was wrong to seek a mathematical spectrum that might bridge the divide between perfectly emplotted narrative order and chronicled randomness. Perhaps I was not entirely off base but I cannot see how to improve it or what to change now. Perhaps time will tell.


What I do know, increasingly, is that I need to do a better job of distinguishing between demonstrable patterns of temporal implication and constructive remembering, on the one hand, and my tentative reflections about what this all means and how we might make it useful, on the other.

Just this week, I gave up on the idea that what I can demonstrate (on the one hand) can be written up in a way that justifies my tentative reflections about meaning and applications (on the other hand).

I will, henceforth, attempt to catalog my observations as such, for what they are worth.

I will try to do a better job of designating my own tentative reflections as such, as well.

In other words, I will hopefully do a better job of recognizing my own limits, while still leaving something to build on for future posterity.


April 11, 2023

Remembering Timelines (ISSN 2023)

 Last month I was able to present some of my research to the annual meeting of the International Society for the Study of Narrative, in a hybrid conference format (online and in-person). The title of my presentation was "Causality, Location, and Disruption as Accommodations for Remembering Sequences."

In the embedded video below (17:51), you may enjoy my enthusiastic discussion and substantive slideshow. The rest of this blogpost, if you keep scrolling, includes my abstract (285 words) and the "party favor" referred to in my talk, a supplemental handout entitled "Review of Cognitive Psychology on 'Construcive Remembering'" (1268 words, plus notes and references).




     In a previous ISSN presentation, “Causality as Mnemonic Accommodation,” I reviewed cognitive science on memory and event sequence to support three nested claims. First, remembering is constructive (Schacter 1996, 2013). Second, remembering temporal sequences is most successful when recalled information happens to convey temporal implications through natural logic or contextual detail (Friedman 1993). Third, memories encoded as cause and effect imply their own sequence and unity, facilitating efficient mnemonic reconstruction. Thus, causality helps us remember event sequences coherently, whether recalling personal experiences, fictional storylines, or historical emplotments.

     After reviewing the above, I suggest that physical setting can similarly accommodate the mnemonic reconstruction of temporal sequence because movement between two locations necessarily implies prior and subsequent order. Arbitrary developments distinguishable by location can be mentally truncated as episodic material, and thereby sequenced efficiently. Also, itinerary based storylines (e.g., Homer’s Odyssey or The Wizard of Oz) provide an underlying structure within their larger emplotments.

     Finally, I suggest that disruption of any perceived equilibrium creates a mnemonic boundary between time periods “before and after” the disruption. Thus, any contradiction or reversal (e.g., dashed hopes, foiled plans, drastic failure, or tragic irony) creates a powerful mnemonic association between the bygone hopes or expectations and whatever impactful event has destroyed them. Thus, like any trauma, disruption can redefine past and present, encoding the aftermath to evoke what has been lost.

     In summary, it seems that memories which incorporate causality, location, and disruption each imply their own temporal sequence in different ways, and these implications accommodate the remembering of timelines and storylines. By enabling our minds to remember whole sequences with less effort and greater efficiency, these cognitive accommodations may help explain why plot, setting, and conflict (respectively) increase narrative coherence. 

Supplemental Handout

Review of Cognitive Psychology on “Constructive Remembering” [1] 

In researching “Memory for the Time of Past Events,” William Friedman (1993) determined that successful attempts to remember “when” a personal memory belonged—either with respect to some known event, or else with respect to a recognized pattern of time—require only that recalled information must include some contextual detail that conveys temporal implications. That is, recalling memories which contain temporal information enables us to reconstruct a larger event sequence through the active process of working memory, so long as mnemonic content “connects” in some way with a specific point in time, or a known sequence in one’s personal history. For example, recalling where you were on 9/11, or which presidential candidate you first supported, or the first holiday after a loved one’s death; these kinds of details can help you piece together the historical timing of remembered events. In such cases, the mnemonic content itself indicates whether that content belongs before, during, or after some other remembered event or known time pattern. In other words, “temporal content” implies its own sequence.

     The reconstructive aspects of Friedman’s model are functionally aligned with current studies of Reconstructive Memory (or, “constructive remembering”), which began F. C. Bartlett’s Remembering (1932). Narratologists will know Bartlett for his foundational contributions to schema theory but they may not know that Bartlett deliberately gave his subjects confusing and unfamiliar material in order to maximize opportunities for observing schematization (64-5), and that decision produced a few surprising results. Unexpectedly, Bartlett found that his subjects remembered details of the target story “constructively” and that subsequent recollections (for months and years afterward) became increasingly “more connected and coherent” when compared with a subject’s earliest retelling; Bartlett’s subjects also demonstrated substantial instances of (in his terms) invention, condensation, abbreviation, simplification, confusion, rationalization, and other types of “unrealized distortion” (63-94). Because schema theory could explain only some contents of these observed memory distortions, and not the overall process, Bartlett’s experiment raised new questions about the nature of remembering itself.

     Early reception of Bartlett’s study was heavily critical, with psychologists failing to replicate his results and challenging his methodology.[2] Fortunately, Ulrich Neisser’s Cognitive Psychology (1967) revitalized the concept of constructive memory, comparing reassembled memories to reconstructed fossils and arguing that “stored fragments are used as information to support a new construction” (272).[3] Daniel Schacter (1996) sums up Neisser’s view by saying, “only bits and pieces of incoming data are stored in memory. These retained fragments of experience in turn provide a basis for reconstructing a past event” (40). Neisser’s functional claims about the fragmentary nature of recall are confirmed easily enough by common experience of general mnemonic limitations: that recognition is easier than recall, that memories are strengthened by repetition and recency, that memorization typically requires study and rehearsal, and that such learning tends to fade unless periodically reinforced. These basic strengths and weaknesses of memory have been repeatedly affirmed by psychological research (e.g., Kahana, 2012). Further, the claim that memory is reconstructive is now widely affirmed as well (see, e.g., Wagoner 2017b), with even prominent critics of Bartlett like Alan Baddeley affirming that “the reconstructive view” is “associated with normal remembering.”[4]

     Neisser’s functional distinction between simple recall (the retrieval of semantic information and episodic fragments) on the one hand, and constructive remembering (reassembling a whole from whatever bits and pieces are recalled) on the other, can also facilitate discussion of Friedman’s research about temporal content, considering that details of memory which imply temporality are details which arise during “recall,” and the use of that information in reconstruction thereby rounds out the process of “remembering.” In reality, it may be that these distinct tasks often occur simultaneously or interactively, but for mastering the basic concept it can help to think (as I do in my presentation) of “recall” and “reconstruction” as separate stages of a two step process.

     What remains in contention in current psychological research is the extent to which “normal” constructive remembering necessarily results in distortions; on the one hand, extensive research by Daniel Schacter and his associates has demonstrated undeniably that mnemonic distortion is typical, significant, and not infrequently severe.[5] On the other hand, researchers like James Ost & Alan Costall (2002) and Brady Wagoner (2017a, 2017b) have emphasized cases in which mnemonic accuracy does occur, such as the “prodigiously retentive capacity” of Swazi cattle herders for the details of their business, and that particular facets of collaboration can often improve accuracy in remembering.[6] In addition, Wagoner (2017a: 10) points out that construction “does not occur out of nothing” and that “innovation in the present” requires “flexibly engaging with the past.” Even Bartlett himself, in responding to critics, said, “I did not imply that literal retrieval is impossible, but I did imply that it requires special constricting conditions.”[7] Bartlett (93) also confessed, “Detail is outstanding when it fits in with a subject’s pre-formed interests and tendencies” although “it tends to take a progressively earlier place in successive reproductions.”

     In a balanced critique of Schacter, Wagoner (2017a: 203-4) suggests that emphasis on distortions and errata is “not in itself wrong but simply one-sided” and “limits the possibilities for exploring the reasons and nature of change in remembering,” adding, “remembering serves many other functions than creating accurate representations of the past.”[8] Bartlett (16) suggested that literal recall might have been evolutionarily “detrimental” when survival depended on “a continuous play of adaptation between changing response and varying environment.” In other words, we need our memories to be useful.[9] We might underscore this point with an even more basic point, that in order to prove useful, information must be remembered. Thus, in the practical sense, distorted memory is far better than no memory at all. As Bartlett (93-94) concluded, “the reduction of material to a form that can be readily and ‘satisfyingly’ dealt with” is essential because it provides some kind of “specific ground, frame, or setting, without which it will not be persistently remembered” (emphasis mine). Constructive distortions enable us to remember something rather than nothing, and researchers should study these actual phenomena.[10]

     Without question, we must embrace the fact that literal accuracy appears by far the exception rather than the rule, but in my view we must also realize that “distortion” describes a wide variety of aberrations and alterations, ranging from simple abbreviation and summary to confabulation and outright falsification.[11] Strictly speaking, the concept of an “accurate synopsis” is oxymoronic and yet the practice of providing one another with “accurate” synopses remains an essential requirement of personal and professional communication, allowing for legal testimony, medical status updates, personal accident reports, news articles, plot summaries, and even basic directions. Human memory distorts the true past in all of these cases, but many of these distortions do not significantly inhibit critical thinkers from discerning details and aspects of truth in a given recollection (or extemporaneous narration).[12] In fact, some recalled details can be extremely informative, even without a fully reconstructed context, as the following case illustrates profoundly. When professor of psychology Christine Blasey Ford was called before the U.S. Senate in 2018, she testified that certain details of her assault (some thirty years prior) remained “indelible in the hippocampus” while “other details kind of drift.”[13] As reported, Ford’s memory appears to evidence both fragmentation (bits and pieces) and distortion (the special prominence of “laughter” is effectively caricature), and yet rational observers widely declared that her testimony rang strongly of truth rather than falsehood.[14]

     It is within this understanding of memory, with a balanced appreciation of both its limitations and strengths, that I have conducted the research which I present March 3 (5:30-6:45p), on “Causality, Location, and Disruption as Accommodations for Remembering Sequence.”



[1] Although psychological discourse uses these two words together on occasion, the more common categorical labels are “reconstructive memory” (e.g., Baddeley, Eysenck, & Anderson 2009), or “constructive memory” (e.g., McClelland 1995). For my purposes, I hope that “constructive” will evoke similar concepts already familiar to scholars in the humanities, especially scholars for whom “reconstruction” tends to imply critical judgment without autonomous creativity (whereas mnemonic reconstruction may employ both). I also prefer “remembering” as a verb because it centers the key notion that memory is a dynamic process.

[2] Helpful surveys of the psychological literature and research history appear in Waggoner (2017a, 66-73), Ost & Costall (2002), and Schacter (1995, 8-9). In defense of Bartlett’s method with regard to “the non-ergodic character of psychological phenomena,” see Jaan Valsiner’s Foreword in Wagoner (2017a).

[3] Neisser (1967) also applies the paleontologist analogy to visual perception (90, 92) and recognition (107, 109).

[4] Baddeley, Eysenck, & Anderson (2009, 153; cf. 95, 180-1).

[5] The classic study is Schacter (1995); see also Schacter, Addis, and Buckley (2007) and Schacter (2011).

[6] See Ost & Costall (2002): 248ff and Wagoner (2017a, 72-5).

[7] Unpublished paper, cited by Ost & Costall (2002, 243) and Wagoner (2017a, 72). See also Bartlett (1932, 93-4).

[8] For a promising (albeit indirect and partial) response, see Thakral, Barberio, Devitt, & Schacter (2022).

[9] Bartlett (294-296) discusses Maurice Halbwachs (1925), who pointed out that acts of remembering are influenced by present situations; cf. Wagoner (2017a, 118-9). For more on Halbwachs’s project, see LeDonne (2008, 41-50).

[10] That is, as opposed to lamenting unrealized ideals; see Wagoner (2017a, 75-77); see also LeDonne (2008, 50-64).

[11] See, e.g., Schudson (1995), Moscovitch (1995), and Bartlett (1932, 63-94).

[12] I would here cite historical theorists on methodology, but those references would require an additional paper.

[13] “’Indelible in the Hippocampus is the Laughter.’ The Science Behind Christine Blasey Ford’s Testimony,” Time, September 27, 2018.

[14] I myself remember a moment when Ford’s assigned questioner honed in on a precise date for the alleged incident, which prompted a certain South Carolinian to throw a tantrum, after which the questioner had gone.


Baddeley, Alan, Michael W. Eysenck, & Michael C. Anderson. 2009. Memory. East Sussex: Psychology Press.

Bartlett, F. C. 1932. Remembering. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Friedman, William J. 1993. Memory for the Time of Past Events. Psychological Bulletin 113(1), 44–66.

Halbwachs, Maurice. 1925. On Collective Memory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kahana, Michael. 2012. Foundations of Human Memory. Oxford: Oxford, University Press.

LeDonne, Anthony. 2008. The Historiographical Jesus. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press.

McClelland, James L. 1995. Constructive Memory and Memory Distortion: A Parallel-Distributed Processing Approach. In Memory Distortion: How Minds, Brains, and Societies Reconstruct the Past, ed. Daniel L. Schacter, 69-90. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Moscovitch, Morris. 1995. Confabulation. In Memory Distortion: How Minds, Brains, and Societies Reconstruct the Past, ed. Daniel L. Schacter, 226-51. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Neisser, Ulrich. 1967. Cognitive Psychology. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Ost, James & Costall, Alan. 2002. Misremembering Bartlett: A Study in Serial Reproduction. British Journal of Psychology, 93, 243-55.

Schacter, Daniel L. 1995. “Memory Distortion: History and Current Status. In Memory Distortion: How Minds, Brains, and Societies Reconstruct the Past, ed. Daniel L. Schacter, 1-46. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Schacter, Daniel L. 1996. Searching for Memory. New York: Basic Books.

Schacter, Daniel L. & Donna Rose Addis. 2007. The Cognitive Neuroscience of Constructive Memory: Remembering the Past and Imagining the Future. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 362, 773-86.

Schacter, Daniel L., Scott A. Guerin, and Peggy L. St. Jacques. “Memory Distortion: an adaptive perspective.” Trends in Cognitive Science. Cambridge, Massachusetts. October 2011. Vol. 15, No. 10.

Schudson, Michael. 1995. Dynamics of Distortion in Collective Memory. In Memory Distortion: How Minds, Brains, and Societies Reconstruct the Past, ed. Daniel L. Schacter, 346-64. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Thakral, Preston P., Natasha M. Barberio, Aleea L. Devitt, & Daniel L. Schacter. 2022. Constructive Episodic Retrieval Processes Underlying Memory Distortion Contribute to Creative Thinking and Everyday Problem Solving. Memory & Cognition.

Valsiner, Jaan. 2017. Foreword: Active and Developing Patterns: Remembering into the Future. In Brady Wagoner. The Constructive Mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wagoner, Brady. 2017a The Constructive Mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wagoner, Brady. 2017b What Makes Memory Constructive? Culture & Psychology. 23(2),



February 23, 2023

Questions about Learning Timelines

three aspects of my New Testament research that precipitated my research on Time in Memory 

 One: In 2012 and 2013, when I went over the road as a rookie trucker, my wife started reading my Year Books to my daughter. (You can still find them in my archives of 2006 & 2007, from 9 BCE to 14 CE). From hearing about their shared experience, it seemed I had succeeded in making each yearbook readable, but it also seemed I had failed to make the content absorb-able. It drove home to me that producing a comprehensive timeline of the New Testament Era might arguably succeed on paper but distributing such a publication might not be the best way to have people retain the material. 

 This distinction was one major reason why I did not continue writing Year Books into the reign of Tiberius. (My discovery of the biblioblogosphere in early 2008 and my first forays into Biblical Studies proper was the other main reason, but that's beside the point for today.)

 Two: At the same time, during my rookie year of trucking, I decided to focus on writing up an academically viable treatment of my opinions about Matthew 2:22, primarily as a foothold for more arguments about the timeline but also as a proving ground for my academic advancement. During that year I began thinking more significantly about literary aspects of the text, such as whether Matthew's audience would have known enough of the Judean political chronology to achieve the same reading as I do, or at least something quite similar. After recognizing that audience knowledge of Archelaus's political future constitutes dramatic irony (because Joseph does not share that knowledge), I began reading Wayne Booth and there begins another new chapter in the story of my research. 

 What matters for today's post is that this gave me a second reason to think about how people remember chronology. In the first case (above) I wanted *my* readers to learn a collection of timelines. In this second case, I wanted to claim that Matthew's readers could have known one particular timeline.

 Three: I was sitting in Odessa, TX, on 3-18-14 (and waiting to deliver pickles to a BBQ joint) when I was startled by Richard Bauckham's suggestion that readers of John 3:24 would have remembered THE COMPLETE TEXT VERBATIM of Mark 1:14. Without a doubt, my reaction was largely due to the previous two years of digging through the memory-based Jesus research of Keith & LeDonne; at any rate, I immediately thought THIS IS NOT HOW WE REMEMBER CHRONOLOGY... but then I was suddenly forced to ask myself WAIT, HOW DO WE REMEMBER CHRONOLOGY?

 And that was the big one. The first two developments had primed my thinking to grab hold of this one. By June I had begun writing my blog series on Memory & Narrative and I continued to tug on that thread until early 2017, when I was invited to pursue my project on Joseph and Archelaus during formal graduate studies... at which point, for better and for worse, my forward progress on Time in Memory necessarily halted. 

 Because I wanted to use the core elements of that research in my thesis on Matt 2:22, I worked up an abstract and a presentation for ISSN 2021 (online only due to covid); a presentation which I posted here, later. And now the ISSN is meeting in Dallas next week. And I will be presenting an upgraded version of my research about how human beings remember timelines and storylines. Watch this space for more on that, soon.

 Today's blogpost has itemized some key moments in my own history of questions about how we learn timelines. Although I can easily become engrossed in the cognitive theory I hope it seems clear that my interest continues to be driven by practical goals. First, I would like to improve the way we teach and learn historical eras, so "New Testament Context" might someday convey a fourth-dimensional aspect of development and change, rather than merely a static collection of facts and prevailing concepts. Second, I would like to predict ("retro-dict") what the popular narrative might have been about Archelaus's political career. Third, I would like to enhance our understanding of narrative storytelling as a vehicle for conveying (however distortedly) a series of changes from an author's limited perspective.

 I could go on about those goals at length, unpacking and hopefully clarifying a great deal, but that is not the goal of today's blogpost.

 In a nutshell, the fragmented chunks of narrative, offered above, comprise the basic gist of my own "whence and whither" regarding next week's presentation.

 Just in case anyone finds themselves wondering.

 For my regular readers, I will post the abstract soon, and maybe more.


January 19, 2023

Why not Literary AND THEN Historical?

 Literary constructedness is not necessarily synonymous with fabricated or fictional, but literary constructedness in purportedly Non-Fiction writing absolutely does convey aspects of the authorial vision for whatever events they are trying to depict. In other words, when authors attempt to tell truths in ways that are biased, creative, or otherwise slanted, the style of the telling becomes part of the tale being told. 

 Therefore, one cannot understand the factual claims of an author without interpreting those claims in the light of that author’s overall literary construction. One cannot simply affirm the historicity of basic claims in the text while ignoring that text’s literarily constructed aspects. One cannot affirm differences between Mark’s Jesus and John’s Jesus (say, from the standpoint of theological emphasis) without supposing at least some ways in which Jesus was actually different from the authorial visions which Mark and John respectively (at least ostensibly) purported to be factual. 

 In sum, literary and theological approaches to the Gospels have absolutely no businesses ignoring historical Jesus scholarship.

 Excuse me. I mean, individual scholars have every right (and the understandable need) to focus on some questions at the expense of other questions, but the programmatic and comprehensive division of the entire field according to these questions or those questions, is utterly unjustifiable.

 New Testament scholars need to think more about how all these things affect one another. I have offered my opinions here on several occasions. God willing, I will do so again and again.

 And again...
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