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Help! My Views of Memory

I am thinking about ending my book with a kind of Paean to Memory.   I expect that some people will find it a bit  controversial or even off-putting.  Or maybe not!   Here is what a draft of the kind of thing I'm thinking about saying.  Let me know what you think.  (It's longer than my typical post.) ******************************************************************************* Like most authors, I get a lot of email from people who have read my books.   I find one of the comments I repeatedly receive somewhat puzzling and even disheartening.   To explain it, I need to provide a bit of background. When I discuss historical understandings of the New Testament and of the historical Jesus, I frequently refer to the problems of our sources.  The Gospels were written decades after Jesus’ death by people who were not eyewitnesses and had probably never laid eyes on an eyewitness.  They are filled with discrepancies and contradictions.  They represent different perspectives on what Jesus said and did.  For that reason, to know what actually happened in the life [...]

2020-04-29T16:42:09-04:00April 28th, 2015|Book Discussions, Memory Studies|

The Community Behind the Gospel of John: Part 2

In the last post I began to discuss what we can know about the history of the community that produced (or that produced someone who produced) the Gospel of John.   The reason for dealing with this question is this:  one of the overarching theses of my book on memory and the historical Jesus is that the things we experience in the present affect how we remember the past.  They affect which parts of the past we remember (if they something in the past isn’t relevant for something in the present, we don’t bother to recall it; that’s just how memory works) and they radically affect how we remember.  The past is always shaped, in our minds (unconsciously), by the present. My argument in the book is that this is true not only of us as individuals but also for us as social groups.  Collective memory reflects the present as well as the past, or rather it reflects the past as it is molded by the present.  To illustrate the point here on the blog, I’m [...]

2020-04-03T13:47:19-04:00April 27th, 2015|Book Discussions, Canonical Gospels|

The Community Behind the Gospel of John

In chapter 6 of my proposed book Jesus Before the Gospels, after I deal with collective memory in theory, I move on to talk about how Jesus was remembered in three different early Christian communities, those behind the Gospels of Mark (our earliest canonical Gospel), John (our latest canonical Gospel), and Thomas (our best known non-canonical Gospel).   One thing we have learned from memory studies is that the present affects not only what is remembered about the past, but also how it is remembered.  That is true for communities as well as individuals.   And so in my treatment of how Jesus was remembered in such different ways in these three communities, I discuss as well what can be established or at least surmised about the historical circumstances that would have made such memories plausible. I don’t want to spill the beans here about what I say for each of these communities, but I do want to show how scholars have tried to establish the historical context for one of them, the one behind the Gospel [...]

2017-12-09T08:26:39-05:00April 25th, 2015|Book Discussions, Canonical Gospels|

More on Collective Memory

As I discussed in my previous post, the sixth chapter of my proposed book Jesus Before the Gospels will cover the area of “collective memory.”  This is a kind of memory that a lot of people don’t seem to be aware of, but it has long been discussed by sociologists.   Here is how I summarize the views of the famous scholar who first articulated an understanding of collective memory, Maurice Halbwachs. *************************************************************** The term “collective memory” was coined by French philosopher and sociologist Maurice Halbwachs (1877-1945).   His most important and influential book appeared (in French) in 1925 and was called, simply, On Collective Memory.   Halbwachs acknowledges the rather obvious point that it is individuals, not social groups, who remember the past (society does not have some kind of enormous hippocampus!).   But in his view, individual memories have all be reconstructed based on our relation to society around us, especially our various social groups – for example, our families, friends, towns or cities, nations.   It is impossible, in fact, for us to remember without having a [...]

2020-04-03T13:47:33-04:00April 24th, 2015|Book Discussions, Memory Studies|

My Memory Book, Chapter 6 on “Collective Memory”

The sixth chapter of my book Jesus Before the Gospels is tentatively entitled “Collective Memory and Early Recollections of Jesus.”  In it I deal with the phenomenon that sociologists call collective memory.   This phenomenon is different from the one we normally think of when we think of memory; most of the time we think of the psychological phenomenon of individual memories – either of things we’ve experienced (“episodic” memories, as they are called, as I have pointed out), or or things we have learned about the world (“semantic” memories), or of things we know how to do, such as hit a backhand in tennis or ride a bike (“procedural “ memories).   Sociologists for the past 90 years, though, have talked about how social groups reconstruct and imagine and preserve the past.   Here is how I introduce the matter in my chapter, before beginning to talk about the sociologists who pioneered the field (Maurice Halbwachs) and developed it (Jan Assmann and Barry Schwartz, for example) ******************************************************************* I first began to see that memory is radically affected by [...]

2020-04-03T13:47:46-04:00April 22nd, 2015|Book Discussions, Memory Studies|

My Memory Book: False Memories and the Life of Jesus

As I indicated in my previous two posts, the fifth chapter of the book I’m now writing, Jesus Before The Gospels, deals with “False Memories and the Life of Jesus.”  The first part of the chapter shows what we know about how traditions are kept alive in oral cultures, as they are told and retold, either by professionals who are experts or by regular ole folk who are not.   And so this part of the chapter summarizes the research into oral cultures undertaken by anthropologists. Of course there are no anthropologists who can study ancient cultures, at least in the way they can study modern cultures, when they can go in to observe how the culture “works,” interview people, and get to know the cultural world first-hand.   But it is possible to apply the findings of modern anthropology to long-deceased cultures, such as the Christian communities of the first century.   And that’s what I try to do in this chapter. My specific interest is in how Jesus was remembered in these cultures that passed along [...]

BBC Clip on “The Lost Gospels”

On Tuesday the 21st, September 2010, BBC FOUR aired "The Lost Gospels."   I was one of the talking heads.  The presenter was an interesting fellow, an Anglican priest Pete Owen Jones. The show included several on-location discourses.  They flew me to Egypt for the taping.   Some of it was done near the village of Nag Hammadi, at the spot where the so-called "Nag Hammadi Library" was discovered in 1945.  The fourteen books found in a jar in this wilderness area contain 52 tractates, the famous "Gnostic Gospels."  The most famous of these was and is the Gospel of Thomas.   The clip here includes a shot in a busy market in Cairo, where we are sipping coffee and thinking deep thoughts together. In the clip I talk about the Gospel of Thomas, and I would like to make one point before you watch it.  For over a decade now a lot of scholars of Gnosticism have argued that this Gospel is not actually a Gnostic Gospel.  None of the complicated Gnostic mythology that [...]

On Being Controversial

In this post I am going to take a bit of time out to do some self-reflection.   An issue I’ve been puzzling over for some time is the fact that people keep referring to my work as “controversial.”    I hear this all the time.  And truth be told, I’ve always found it bit odd and a disconcerting.   This past week I’ve had two people tell me that they know that I “like to be controversial.”   That’s actually not the case at all.   One person told me that she had seen a TV show where someone had said that they didn’t believe that Jesus existed, and she thought that was right up my alley.   I didn’t bother to tell her that I had written an entire book arguing that Jesus certainly did exist.  She simply assumed that this was the sort of view that I myself would have and delight in making public. The reason I find that the idea I’m controversial is that my views about the historical Jesus, the authorship of the books of [...]

2017-12-09T08:37:29-05:00April 18th, 2015|Book Discussions, Reflections and Ruminations|

“The Same” Traditions in Oral Cultures

As I have been discussing my next book Jesus Before the Gospels, I have been trying to summarize the issues I’ll be addressing and the points I’ll be making, without spilling all the beans and stealing my own thunder.  My idea is to get people interested in the book without making them think they don’t now need to read it!  I’m not sure how successful I’m being at that, but it’s at least the goal. As I started indicating in the previous post, chapter 5 deals with issues involving oral tradition as preserved in oral culture.   It turns out that most of what many (most?) of us have heard about oral cultures, or what has to many (most?) of us seemed commonsensical about them, is wrong.  At least in so far as research has been able to show, by actually studying oral cultures. What many of us have heard or thought is that oral cultures were particularly keen to keep their oral traditions intact and preserved without significant (or any) variation.   We’ve heard stories about [...]

2020-04-03T13:48:57-04:00April 17th, 2015|Book Discussions, Memory Studies|

Differences Between Oral and Written Cultures

Chapter  5 of my book Jesus Before the Gospels (tentatively titled) is called “False Memories and the Life of Jesus” (tentatively titled).   The first part of the chapter deals with a very common misconception about oral traditions in oral cultures – a misconception I hear all the time from lots of people, including my students who get upset when I discuss how traditions about Jesus appear to have been altered in the process of retelling in the years before the Gospels were written.  The misconception is that in oral cultures, people had better memories than those of us who live in written cultures, and that they went out of the way to make sure that they preserved their cherished traditions – including their sacred traditions – with great accuracy, since there was no other way to preserve them in a world without writing. You may well have heard that yourself.  You may well have believed it.  It’s widely believed.  But it appears to be wrong. My hunch is that this is one of those modern [...]

2020-05-10T06:34:33-04:00April 16th, 2015|Book Discussions, Memory Studies|

My Memory Book, Chapter 4 Again: The Death of Jesus

I am in the midst of a thread summarizing my current book project, Jesus Before the Gospels, which I am writing now, even as we speak.   The book will have six major chapters and a short conclusion.   Yesterday I finished drafting chapter 5, and hope to polish off the final two chapters next week, before revising it and sending it out to readers for comments. In my previous posts I said some things about chapter 4, “False Memories and the Death of Jesus.”   This chapter begins with a short summary of what psychologists have discovered about personal memories, and how we remember, since the first experiments were published in 1885 down to the present day.    My interest is both in how we as humans tend to remember the “gist” of what happened in the past and how also we “misremember” things.   Our memories are faulty, frail, and sometimes even false. The eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life had faulty memories as well – they must have had, if they were human beings.   I will be arguing in [...]

2020-04-03T13:49:30-04:00April 15th, 2015|Book Discussions, Historical Jesus, Memory Studies|

What Is A Memory?

A number of readers on the blog have objected to my understanding of memory, specifically to what a memory is, that is, to what constitutes a memory.  As a rule, these readers have argued – some with considerable force and conviction! – that a “memory” is a mental recollection of something that one has personally experienced. Let me cite one of the more closely reasoned expressions of this alternative view by one of my respondents, before explaining my view and why I have it.   COMMENT: Bart, I think people might be confused by your definition of false memories. In the medical, psychological and legal literature, false memories are defined as BELIEVED-IN MEMORIES OF PERSONAL EXPERIENCES that are false or are falsely remembered by specific persons. Beliefs ,stories, narratives, myths, folklore and conspiracies that are false but are circulating in a community or culture are not considered false memories by memory experts since these are not claimed to be first-hand memories of personal experiences. For example, a false memory can be created in the mind [...]

Ramblings on Charity and Religion

QUESTION: Don't you think that being raised in Christianity makes it more likely that you will make decent contributions to others like you do with your charity contributions?  I know that one does not have to be Christian to be decent, but it seems, for many of us, to help increase the odds of being decent at least some of the time.   RESPONSE: This is a really interesting question.  And maybe unanswerable!   Why are those of us who are concerned deeply about others and their welfare so … concerned?  Is it because we are religious?  Or, as in my case, because we used to be religious? In one of my public debates with Dinesh D’Souza a few years ago, this came out as a point of disagreement.   Dinesh believes that only Christianity drives people to be concerned about others who are in need.   For him, it is not religion in general, but Christianity in particular, that makes people want to be charitable. In the debate, I found that view to be a bit outrageous.   Really?  [...]

2017-12-09T08:38:42-05:00April 11th, 2015|Reader’s Questions, Reflections and Ruminations|

Can A Made-Up Story Be A False Memory?

It has become clear to me, in seeing a number of responses to my posts on memory, that I’m not quite  explaining myself clearly enough to get my point across to everyone.  So, well, what else is new? When I have mentioned “false memories” in the Gospels – that is, recollections of Jesus that are not true to what really happened – some readers have pointed out that these may not be memories at all, but they may simply be what the Gospel writers made up for their own reasons.  In that case Jesus isn’t being “remembered” in these ways.  Someone’s just making up stuff. In response to that view, let me make two points, the second one of which is the the most relevant and important.   The first, though, is that in most cases I don’t think there is any way to know whether a non-historical tradition in the Gospels is something that the Gospel writer inherited from others before him or invented himself.   Take Luke’s story of how Jesus came to be born [...]

My Memory Book, Ch. 4a

Chapter four of my book, tentatively entitled “False Memories and the Death of Jesus,” is where I address head-on the psychology of memory.   My principal interest, at the end of the day, involves the problems of memory, of how memories for things we experience or hear about can be frail, faulty, and even false.   That’s not to deny that most of the time our memories are pretty decent.   If they weren’t we wouldn’t be able to function, either as individuals or a society.   And so of course most of what we remember is what really happened.   At the same time, we often (more than we usually admit -- even to ourselves) forget things and, more interesting and important, misremember things. That obviously creates a big problem for historians.  If our access to the past is mainly through sources that have themselves remembered what happened – either because they were there or because they heard it from others (who possibly heard it from others who heard it from others, and so on) – and memories can [...]

2020-04-03T13:51:22-04:00April 10th, 2015|Book Discussions, Memory Studies|

My Memory Book, ch. 3

In my previous post I started to summarize what I will be covering in my new book, which hopefully will be published next spring, possibly under the title Jesus Before the Gospels.   After devoting the first chapter to a demonstration that everyone agrees that some early Christians were inventing stories about Jesus (as seen in the apocryphal Gospels; it should be stressed – those who read and thought about these Gospels “remembered” Jesus in light of the stories they told),and a second chapter to showing how critical scholars, for as long as there have been critical scholars (late 18th century) have argued that also in the NT there are “invented” traditions that also affected how Jesus was remembered, I move on in the next chapter as follows.  (My original plan for this thread was to summarize all six major chapters of my book in one post; then it was to summarize two chapters per post; but I want to devote an entire post to this chapter!  And so it goes….) Chapter three is tentatively entitled, [...]

My Memory Book, chs. 1-2

So, as I mentioned in the previous post, I did not start writing my current book until I had a very full outline already in place.  With a massive outline that covers everything you want to say, the book pretty much writes itself.   Well, that’s what I tell people.  It’s not true, of course; but I have found that once all the hard work of research and outlining is finished, the writing – just for me, of course – is the very, very different chore of putting into clear and compelling words the ideas that I already know that I want to express.  It’s a completely different kind of task. I won’t reproduce here the outline of my book (for which you should be glad since, as I mentioned, it’s 42 pages long….).  But I will say something about the six main chapters to give you an idea of how it will flow.  Here I’ll summarize the first two chapters.  In the following posts I’ll cover the other four. Chapter One is tentatively entitled “Oral [...]

How I’m Writing This Book

I have been asked about how I am actually writing my book just now.   Here are some reflections. One of the things you figure out pretty quickly when writing a book is that it never goes as planned.   Things (usually) take longer than you thought they would; or they (rarely) go faster.  For most authors, the structure of the book changes as they start writing it, and they realize that they really have to say more about this and they really probably should say less about that.   They realize that, contrary to what they thought, they need to devote an entire chapter to something that they had planned to cover in a few paragraphs.   Key (verbal) illustrations that they planned to use don’t actually work that well.  And they come up with new ideas in the process of writing. Different authors have remarkably different approaches to writing.   My wife Sarah and I are about as different as they come.  In large measure, I think, that’s because our brains work so differently. Sarah is drop-dead brilliant.   [...]

Sketch of My Memory Book

Please read to the end of this post if you want to learn about a highly unusual opportunity. I started writing my book on memory and the oral traditions about Jesus this week.   My plan was to have an intense week at it.    I’m teaching my regular two classes this term: a three-hour PhD seminar on the use of literary forgery in the early Christian tradition, and an undergraduate lecture course, Introduction to the New Testament.  So I had to do those this week as well, in addition to departmental meetings and meetings with grad students, and so on.   But even so, I planned to write the book every free minute I had, and I did.   I started Tuesday morning and by yesterday afternoon I had three of the six major chapters written.   I celebrated with a very big cigar, and am taking today more or less off! Here I would like to say a few words about what the book is and what it will cover.   The tentative title I have for it is [...]

2017-12-09T08:40:20-05:00April 4th, 2015|Book Discussions, Memory Studies|

Different Kinds of Memory

I indicated in the last post that I got interested in the study of memory for both personal and professional reasons.   Professionally, I had long been interested in the question of how eyewitnesses would have remembered the life of Jesus, and how the stories about Jesus may have been shifted and altered and invented in later times based on faulty or even false memories.  That led me to be interested in memory more broadly. Memory is an enormous field of research, just within cognitive psychology.  I spent months doing nothing but reading important studies, dozens and dozens of books and articles.  It is really interesting stuff.   Memory is not at all what I started out thinking it was.  Like most people I had this vague notion in my head that memory worked kind of like a camera.  You see or experience something and take a photo of it and store it in your head.   Sometimes the photo might fade, or you might mistake one photo for another, but basically it is all in there in [...]

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