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 their traditions by word of mouth, and what I argue is that there are clear indications that some of the “memories” of Jesus that we know about are not “true,” in the sense that they do not conform to historical realities of Jesus in his own day.
Some of my readers have not understood the point that I have been trying to make about this, mainly because I have not explained it very well. When I say that a Gospel passage represents a “false memory,” I am not necessarily saying that the author of the account is misremembering something. That may indeed to be the case, but it is impossible to know. It may also be the case that he’s just makin’ something up. My point, though, is that the way Jesus came to be remembered by those who *read* these Gospel accounts, and formed their impressions of Jesus from them, was based on these narratives that are not true to history. They may be religiously true or theologically true, but they aren’t historically true. It is in that sense, and only in that sense, that I am referring to them as false memories.
People still today have false memories of Jesus based on what they have read in the Bible. In this chapter 5, I deal with false memories involving the life (as opposed to the death) of Jesus – including his teachings. Here is one example that I give. (It is simply a rough draft of what I cover in the chapter.)
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