The Study of the Historical Jesus and Human Memory

Dale C. Allison Jr.

When Albert Schweitzer’s famous retrospect of critical scholarship on Jesus was translated into English as The Quest of the Historical Jesus (Macmillan, 1910), two issues dominated his work as well as then-contemporary scholarship: Jesus’ self-conception and his eschatological expectations. Theological concerns drove both interests. Yet there was also the fundamental historical question: How accurately do the canonical Gospels remember their central figure? As Schweitzer documented, the less memory one found, the less traditional one’s take on Jesus turned out to be; and the more memory one found, the more conventional one’s take turned out to be.

The same theological interests that animated earlier participants in the quest and the same basic historical question — How much good memory do the Gospels retain? — remain with us today. Not only that, but given the stubborn plurality of contemporary opinion, someone looking in on the discipline from outside might well wonder what advances the last century has really wrought. What did Jesus think of himself? What did he believe about the end? How historical are the extant sources? Within the academy, broad agreement regarding these issues seems no nearer to unanimity than ever.

It is not, however, as though nothing has been achieved. One major difference between the present and Schweitzer’s day is that we are heirs to lengthy debates regarding source criticism of the Synoptics, form criticism of the Bible, and the so-called criteria of authenticity. The upshot is that contemporary scholars are much more methodologically conscious than their predecessors. They are further much more prone to appeal to shared notions of justification for whatever it is they are arguing.

Many recent critics, for example, proceed by appealing to the criterion of dissimilarity, which reckons traditions to be authentic when they differ from characteristic emphases of early Judaism and early Christianity. They likewise invoke the criterion of multiple attestation, which holds that the more sources in which an item appears, the greater the odds it is from Jesus. Another favorite is the criterion of embarrassment, which has it that a particular saying or event that early Christians found less than congenial likely goes back to Jesus. Furthermore, they invoke the criterion of coherence, which rates as authentic items that cohere with other items authenticated by the other criteria. The Jesus Seminar, for example, has regularly invoked these criteria, and the important, multi-volume work of John Meier — A Marginal Jew (4 vols.; Doubleday, 1991-2009) — consistently puts them to use.

Yet one of the more interesting divides in recent scholarship falls between those who find the criteria reliable and those who eschew them. E.P. Sanders (Jesus and Judaism [Fortress, 1985]) and N.T. Wright (Jesus and the Victory of God [Fortress, 1996]) do not find them to be of much value, and they are not alone. Many, this writer included, have become persuaded that the conventional criteria are only occasionally up to the job they were designed to do. Not only have they seemingly brought no more consensus to our discipline than would otherwise have existed without them, but different scholars have used the very same criteria to obtain very different ends. The explanation, in my judgment, is this: tools do not dictate how they are used. The hands that hold them do that. You can use screwdrivers to remove screws, and you can use screwdrivers to install screws. And so it is with multiple attestation, dissimilarity, embarrassment, and coherence. The nature of these criteria is such that critical scholars can do and have done just about anything with them — including arriving at contrary judgments about the very same materials.

My own view, after years of work in this field, is that too many people have expected too much from the criteria of authenticity, and that many historians of Jesus have suffered from a Sherlock Holmes complex, imagining that we can ascertain — with a degree of assurance that would convince an open-minded jury — the origin of every item in the tradition. Sadly, it is not so. Only sometimes can we give compelling reasons for thinking that Jesus said or did exactly this or did not say or do precisely that. Historians are not omnipotent. We cannot do everything.

But what is the alternative? My own suggestion is that one way forward is to bring into our historical endeavors modern cognitive science, which has demonstrated that human memories are constantly evolving generalizations. We now know that, in general, we tend to recall the outlines of whole conversations and whole events if we remember anything — not the words or details that make them up. And as our memories move from short-term to long-term storage, they are disposed to retain, if anything, only the substance or gist of a conversation or event. Thus we may forget the words and syntax of a sentence yet still remember its general substance or meaning. We construct memories of people and events in the same way we reproduce maps from our heads: we omit most of the details, straighten the lines, and round off the angles, thereby creating a sort of minimalist cartoon.

Given that memory is fuzzy, that we remember the outlines of an event or the general import of a conversation better than the details, and that we extract patterns and meaning from informational input, it would be odd to imagine that, although their general impressions of him were hopelessly skewed, early Christian tradents nonetheless managed to recall, with some accuracy, a couple of dozen parables of Jesus and a handful of his one-liners. For the same reason, it would be peculiar to imagine that we can reconstruct Jesus by hunting for a handful of incidents and sayings that pass through the gauntlet of our authenticating criteria while setting aside the general impressions our primary sources instill in us.

What we have learned of late about human memory has encouraged me to dissent from those who — like myself a couple of decades ago — proceed by subtraction and presume that we can confidently learn about the historical Jesus chiefly on the basis of whatever items are deemed, after critical sorting and repeated subtraction, to be authentic. If, in general, one’s confidence enlarges as one’s database increases, and if one’s confidence decreases as one’s database diminishes, then, in the matter of Jesus, we should presumably start not with the parts but with the whole. By this I mean that we should heed first the general impressions that the tradition about him, in toto, tends to convey. That is where the best memories are likely to reside.

To illustrate: the traditions about Jesus have him referring often to the kingdom of God, from which one may reasonably infer, even if one cannot authenticate any particular saying, that he had much to say about that kingdom. One may draw similar inferences from the many sayings that have him speaking about future reward, about future judgment, about suffering for the saints, about victory over evil powers, about the importance of intention, about the loving fatherhood of God, about the dangers of wealth, about the demand to love the marginal and those unlike oneself, and any number of other recurrent themes. The repeated thematic patterns must give us, if anything does, the historical Jesus.

I have tried, in my recent book, Constructing Jesus (Baker Academic, 2010), to apply this line of logic in addressing several of the main questions in the field, including Jesus’ self-conception and his eschatological convictions. My take on Christology, for example, begins with the observation that the Jesus of the Gospels — not just of John, but of the Synoptics, too — has a great deal to say about himself. He calls himself “Lord” and warns that not to do what he commands will bring personal destruction (Matt 7:21-27//Luke 6:46-49). He declares that the fate of at least some individuals at the final assize will depend on whether they have confessed him or denied him (Mark 8:38; Matt 10:32-33//Luke 12:8-9). He interprets his success in casting out demons “by the finger of God” to mean that God’s kingdom has arrived, thereby making himself out to be the chief means or manifestation of its arrival (Matt 12:28//Luke 11:20). He says that no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son reveals him (Matt 11:27//Luke 10:22). He prophecies that cities not welcoming him will suffer for it at the eschatological judgment (Matt 10:15; 11:21-24//Luke 10:12-15). He reads from the beginning of Isa 61 and proclaims that its prophecies are fulfilled in his ministry (Luke 4:16-19). He teaches that people who “receive” the disciples really “receive” him, and adds that to “receive” him is to receive the one who sent him, God (Matt 10:40//Luke 10:16). He foretells that he will someday return and send angels to gather the elect from throughout the world (Mark 13:26-27; cf. 14:62; Matt 10:23). And on and on it goes.

The wealth of relevant material leads me to believe that, if our sources are not frightfully misleading, Jesus had an exalted self-conception. Perhaps the collective force of the traditions just listed is sometimes not fully appreciated because of a tendency to isolate items or groups of items. There are, for example, books and articles on the Son of Man that can become a topic unto itself; and there are books and articles on the Messiah that also can become a topic unto itself; and on it goes. From my point of view, however, the texts I have cited — and I could cite many more — are all related. They constitute a family of traditions that requires an explanation. They are all, whether they use a formal title or not, united in one particular: they put Jesus front and center in their visions of the future.

Of course it is not enough just to establish a pattern. That would be too easy and too simple. We need to fit any pattern we espy into what we otherwise know of ancient Judaism and early Christianity; that is, we need to seek the best explanation for it. But when I attempt this in the present case, in the matter of Christology, I end up inferring that Jesus was the star of his own eschatological scenario.

One possible complaint about my approach is that it can do little more than perform variations on themes in the primary documents — radical conclusions seem to be excluded from the start. This I do not dispute. But my justification is this: we cannot credibly come up with a Jesus too far from the synoptic portrait because we have no competing sources.

We can imagine it being otherwise. Although I have read documents published by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, their picture of Joseph Smith is not my picture. The reason is that I have also studied documents containing accounts from non-Mormons and ex-Mormons who knew Joseph Smith, and I have come to conclusions that ill suit the official Mormon narratives. But if all I had were the official texts, if I had no competing materials, I could not have constructed my alternative story. I would, for various reasons, have a certain prejudice against many of the relevant claims, but I would not have any real data with which to essay a rival account. I would be stuck with choosing between something closely related to the official story and no story at all, that is, skepticism.

It is similar with our sources for Jesus. If we had the diaries of Jesus, or the diaries of his brother James, or the diaries of Peter, then we might feel confident going against the canonical consensus in major ways. We might even be forced to excise large swaths of material as legendary or to discount the larger impressions the Gospels leave us with. We do not, however, have such competing materials. So we are pretty much stuck with playing variations on the Jesus we have in our canonical texts — or, if we refuse to do that, with doing nothing. Or so I contend. The restricted nature of what has survived does not allow us to stray too far from the synoptic Jesus, even though so many others have made the attempt.

Posted Mar 01, 2012