In my last post,  I mentioned a phenomenon known as “collective” memory.  It’s how groups of people “remember” something in the  past.  This isn’t quite the same as how you remember what you did on your last vacation.  It’s more like how past events or figures are constructed in the broader “memory” of a society.  Sociologists have long studied this problem, and their findings can help us think differently about how later Christian societies (groups of people) “remembered” Jesus.

Here’s an example I cite in my book Jesus Before the Gospels (HarperOne, 2016).


Remembering Lincoln

In 2014 a poll was taken of 162 members of the American Political Science Association, asking them to rank all the past presidents of the United States, from best to worst.[1]   Probably to no one’s great surprise, the top-ranked president was Abraham Lincoln.  Most of us – though certainly not all of us – remember Lincoln as a truly great and noble man who did remarkable things for his country.  But he was not always thought of in that way.  In his own day, Lincoln in fact was not seen as a great president.  And not only in the southern states, whose inhabitants, as a rule, truly despised him and what he stood for.  Even among his supporters he was not wildly popular.   As social historian Barry Schwartz indicates, in his pivotal study, Abraham Lincoln and the Forge of National Memory, “When Abraham Lincoln awoke on the last day of his life, almost everyone could find something about him to dislike.” [2]

Schwartz’s book tries to show that Lincoln did not come to be considered “great” until after his death, and even then his fortunes in memory rose and fell depending on what was happening more broadly in the country as a whole.   Every turning point in American history led to a revised image of Lincoln, both who he was as a human being and what he tried to accomplish (and did accomplish).

I think it is fair to say that most of us today remember Lincoln as one of the first great heroes of civil rights, as one who aggressively promoted the idea that “all people are created equal,” that whites and blacks deserve to be treated the same before the law, that black slaves should be set free and allowed to have the same rights and freedoms as their white owners.

We generally do not remember another side of Lincoln.   Prior to the Civil War, Lincoln is clearly on record for

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