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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 Traditions and Oral Inventions.”   In this chapter I introduce the problem of memory….


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My Memory Book, ch. 3
How I’m Writing This Book



  1. Avatar
    Jrgebert  April 7, 2015

    The hard thing for me is separating what might be passed down from oral tradition and what was made up by the gospel writers. Jesus became to be thought of as being better than Moses, Alijah, and John the Baptist. That may explain some miracle stories (raising others from the dead, feeding the five thousand, Mary’s visit to Elizabeth).

    • Bart
      Bart  April 8, 2015

      Yes indeed. Sometimes one can’t know. But in either case, what they wrote came to be part of how Christians remembered Jesus.

  2. Avatar
    kenpostudent  April 7, 2015

    I think this is a good question: how would the presence of eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life change the stories told about Jesus? I am sure you will deal with this in an upcoming post, but really, how could anyone living in antiquity fact-check the stories they heard about Jesus, assuming they had the inclination to do so? I am going to guess that fact-checking , in the vein of academia or journalism, didn’t really exist in the first century, as even the most educated persons lacked much of the basic skills that scholars today take for granted. Assuming that one had the means and the inclination to fact-check these stories, how could it be done? One would either have to travel to Palestine to find and interview eyewitnesses (who all might have been dead, say after 50 A.D.) or find one of the disciples/apostles and interview them. Option 1 was virtually impossible unless one lived in Palestine or were incredibly wealthy. Option 2 would be easier, but how could one find Peter or James or John or one of the other apostles? It’s not like one could look up their address on the internet or a phone book or email them. If there were no apostle in their community, a person seeking to fact-check stories about Jesus would either have to write to other Christian communities until they found one where an apostle settled down or travel to that community to speak with the apostle. If they were communicating via letter, how would the person know that the person who wrote back was actually an apostle (forgeries were common, as your work has indicated)? If the seeker gained an audience with an apostle, how would they know that the person they were speaking to was actually an apostle? I am sure there were fake apostles (Paul mentions those who claimed to be apostles but were not) roaming around spinning tales about Jesus. Since there are more apocryphal gospels than canonical gospels, it stands to reason that there were more stories about Jesus circulating around the empire that did not originate with actual followers of Jesus than stories that did. There were only 11 guys that were actual companions of Jesus (plus the 70 or 120 followers mentioned at various points in the gospels). What were the odds that any one Christian or group of Christians could find one of them to interview? Probably not very good, to say the least.

  3. Goat
    Goat  April 8, 2015

    This promises to be a great read. I looking forward to your book. I do have one large question based on what has been presented so far. It seems to me that, while the Lincoln example lends itself to some discussion of “collective memory,” it is apples and oranges when compared to reconstructing the historical Jesus based upon assumptions regarding oral traditions that predated the written Gospels. Schwartz’s book, as described in your post, seems to trace swings in public opinion, as opposed to the effect of collective memory with regard to preservation of historical facts. The facts of Lincoln’s life were and are well documented, not only by records contemporaneous with the facts recorded but also by documented interviews with witnesses to all stages of Lincoln’s life, beginning immediately upon Lincoln’s death, if not before. People who are interested in knowing about Lincoln’s life and, I will say, his amazing struggles, accomplishments and contributions to society, can and have long been able to do so. This stands in sharp contrast with efforts to reconstruct the historical Jesus, based upon interpolations of the surviving written accounts. The efforts of historians to interpolate from those written accounts are based upon the proposition that those early writers attempted, at least in part, to record a historical account. Public opinion has never been a substitute for the written chronical of Lincoln’s life. People on the street who have expressed opinions about Lincoln can hardly be said to have been passing along oral traditions based upon the best information available to them. To equate this type of uninformed opinion with the early oral accounts of Jesus’ life seems to represent a huge depletion of hope for the prospect of reconstructing the historical Jesus.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 8, 2015

      Yes, I agree — our ability to do research is indeed quite different from what it was like for most people in antiquity. But I would also say that even though we *can* do research on Lincoln, the vast majority of people don’t do so but simply remember him as they have been told and taught (as was the case for virtually everyone in antiquity as well.) And my interest in this book will be on how Jesus was remembered — not on whether ancient Christians could have done a historical investigation

  4. Avatar
    Rosekeister  April 8, 2015

    How do you see the whole concept of “eyewitnesses?” The conservative argument revolves around the idea of disciples who were with Jesus from his baptism to just before his death memorizing his words and deeds. James may be a more typical example. He did not become a pillar of the church until after Jesus’ death. James’ leadership of the believers in Jerusalem, rather than the eyewitnesses and disciples, tends to suggest that disciples arose after Jesus’ death. It seems more likely that no one followed Jesus around continuously as an eye and earwitness who could then definitively correct any incorrect traditions.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 8, 2015

      Yes indeed, you will be interested in my book where I devote a chpagter to eyewitnesses (see today’s post)

  5. Avatar
    qaelith2112  April 8, 2015

    Taking into consideration the present stage of writing and the remaining work to be done, do you have a rough idea of when the book might see general availability?

    I’ve been eagerly awaiting each of your past several books, as it has long been an interest of mine to understand how Christianity might have come to be what it eventually became, starting with an understanding of what we can reconstruct of the historical Jesus and on down to the subsequent developments. You are doing a remarkable job of filling in these pieces with each new book. Bits and pieces have been taken up by others, but as far as I have personally read, none of those have quite addressed it as directly as you have, or if they did, I didn’t always find their work to be as persuasive.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 8, 2015

      I”m on a two-year cycle with the trade books — so the plan is for it to come out spring 2016. Gods willing!

  6. Avatar
    Wilusa  April 8, 2015

    I was just thinking about “collective memory.” I live in Albany, NY – which has long been a “midsized” city. The kind of place a person of national importance might or might not visit in the course of his or her life – either possibility being plausible.

    As a longtime Albany resident, I know – with 99% certainty – a historical tidbit that most others wouldn’t know: Abraham Lincoln and professional actor John Wilkes Booth were once, coincidentally, in Albany at the same time. And I know with 90% certainty that while Booth was here, a jilted girlfriend tried to kill him.

    I’m sure Lincoln didn’t go to the theater and see Booth perform. But I’m not sure about many other details: whether Lincoln was already President or still running for the Presidency; whether Booth even cared about him at that time; whether the girlfriend stabbed Booth (and if so, how much damage she did); who the heck she was.

    Here’s what I’m getting at. I can imagine people telling a story like this with lots of “maybe’s” – and over time, the “maybe’s” being dropped and false details “remembered” as truth.

  7. Avatar
    Wilusa  April 8, 2015

    After I submitted that Comment, it occurred to me that many members of the Blog aren’t American – and they certainly have no obligation to be familiar with our history! So I should explain, for anyone who doesn’t know, that it was Booth who later assassinated Lincoln.

  8. Avatar
    spiker  April 8, 2015

    OUTSTANDING as always!. This is fascinating and I suspect it will provide a very solid basis to your other works.
    Hopefully I wont mangle this too much, but I recall you asking people to think of the oral tradition as a game of telephone played over decades in other cultures, languages etc. This volume seems like it will work that out in more detail. It’s a pretty formidable argument. There’s sort of a Hegelian circularity at work here: This latest work enriches and deepens and completes Misquoting Jesus

  9. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  April 8, 2015

    Wow! Great start!

    I think you have discussed elsewhere that eyewitnesses, without modern communication, could not possibly have known and then corrected what others were saying all over the place.

    I still struggle with whether authors of these stories knew that they were making up stuff or whether they thought that they were writing historical material. For example, did the author of Matthew make up events to fulfill Old Testament prophecies or did he think these events really occurred? I guess he probably pulled material from oral stories which he thought were historical.

    The growth and spread of such stories reminds me of what has happened with Mormonism.

    I look forward to your other posts on the book.

    Thanks for sharing this material.

  10. Avatar
    Steefen  April 11, 2015

    What would be interesting to me is this breakdown:
    Memories of Jesus 33-66 CE
    Memories of Jesus 67-73 CE
    Memories of Jesus 74-100

    I think somewhere you have written that memories of Jesus before 50(?) C.E. did not include the crucifixion or some major part of Christianity. You weren’t using memory, you were in textual criticism mode.

    What did you say? Was it there was no reference to Communion, Crucifixion, or Resurrection? I don’t remember at the moment.

    Finally, I write from the biblical Jesus being a composite of people perspective, so, remembering the biblical Jesus would be a challenge. One could remember the biblical Jesus after he was formed by pen more so than by Oral Tradition. (And it is so sad that no one from 33-66 will be able to remember Jesus and the Woman Taken in Adultery.)

    Bart, do you have anyone 67-73 remembering Jesus’ prophecy of the destruction of the Temple? With the answer being no, we lose support that the parts of the gospels that include it have a historical account. Take away the Johannine Jesus and the Woman Taken in Adultery and the Synoptic “Jesus speaks of the Tribulation on the weekend of Holy Week,” what can be attributed to memory is much smaller than the gospels

    • Bart
      Bart  April 13, 2015

      Mark remembers it, ca. 70 CE

      • Avatar
        Steefen  April 18, 2015

        You said Mark didn’t write the Gospel According to Mark. Stop pulling our legs.

        • Bart
          Bart  April 18, 2015

          My brother, a classicist, sometimes says, Homer didn’t write the Iliad and the Odyssey. Someone else named Homer did.

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