Memories of Jesus–the McIver Book Part One

As odd as it may sound, despite all the discussion of Jesus and his teachings during the third quest for the historical Jesus, very little if any of it, has taken into account the way human memory works, or the scientific studies on human memory— until now. Robert McIver, an Australian NT scholar who teaches at Avondale College has written an interesting study attempting to assess the results of the scientific study of memory in so far as they may shed light on the Jesus tradition. The book is just out this year, and is entitled Memory, Jesus, and the Synoptic Gospels. We will be discussing his study in several posts, this being the first.

One of the over-arching themes of the study is the importance and nature of group memory. As late Western individualists, we have tended to study the Synoptic traditions on the basis of assumptions about this person’s individual memory or that person’s individual memory, and so on. McIver is right to insist that what we have in the Synoptics is not just resting on the slender thread of individual memory, but on group memory, self-sustaining and self-correcting group memory over a considerable period of time– say between A.D. 29 or so when Jesus said or did something and A.D. 68 or so when the first Synoptic Gospel, Mark, was written down. Even when this or that tradition is based on eye-witness testimony to something Jesus said and did, that testimony reaches us not directly but through the filter of the early Christians whose memories absorbed the story, and then passed it along in a largely oral way, in an overwhelming oral culture. McIver is rather agnostic about the notion that there were written sources used by, say Mark, or written sources in general before the Synoptic Gospels (with the possible exception of Q— which of course we have no material evidence for outside Matthew and Luke). He operates with a largely oral paradigm. At the outset, McIver warns “it is the quality of the individual memories making up the combined group ‘memory’ that determines the overall accuracy of the collective memory that is eventually formed.” (p. 5).

One of the signs of a good book is that the author is familiar with the scholarly discussion up to this point, and McIver’s book is up to date. For example, in the first chapter the author discusses Richard Bauckham’s theories about the eyewitnesses and the passing on of the Gospel tradition in his Jesus and the Eyewitnesses which has received much praised (including from me) and he contrasts what Bauckham says about the reliability of eyewitnesses with the work of Werner Kelber who comes to quite different conclusions based on the same data, and he also compares the even more skeptical work of John Dominic Crossan in his The Birth of Christianitybook.

Kelber’s critique of Bauckham is that Bauckham is operating with a ‘cold memory’ assumption, as opposed to a ‘hot memory’ assumption. What is meant by this distinction is as follows— by ‘cold memory Kelber means that the recipient of a saying of Jesus simply memorized that saying verbatim, and then passed it along without alteration to whoever came next. No, says Kelber, memory doesn’t work like that most of the time. Memory incorporates new evidence into a pre-existing mind and framework, and recasts what it has learned for its own new situation. Kelber emphasizes the re-socializing or re-contextualizing process that goes on in the active brain. Further, he stresses that at the end of the process when something is written down, you have creative Evangelists shaping the material according to their own purposes. Accordingly, Kelber is skeptical about the whole pursuit of ‘the original words of Jesus’. “For Kelber then,memory is not a mechanism for the preservation of the verbatim teachings of Jesus but rather a mechanism that is almost certain to introduce significant change into what is recorded.” (p. 8). Crossan is even less sanguine that things can be remembered verbatim over long periods of time before they are written down. So in his view, the majority of the Jesus tradition does not go back to Jesus himself. He bases this conclusion on assumptions not only about active memory, Kelber’s so-called hot memory, but also due to memory frailty. People forget things they have witnessed, or forget important parts of what they hear or see. McIver in due course will counter such assumptions by pointing out that we are not dealing with separate individual memories standing on their own, but from the very first a group of disciples and others who became disciples who heard and saw Jesus. In short we are dealing with collective memory and memories, which indeed is self-corrective. If, for example James Zebedee were to say, ‘you remember the day Jesus fed 20,000 people on the hills of Galilee’ five other disciples would shoot back ‘there weren’t nearly that many people. It only took twelve baskets to collect the leftovers.’ The point is that the Gospel tradition doesn’t hang on this individual memory or that individual memory in almost all cases. And herein lies the problem with comparing the Gospel tradition to say, the vageries of individual eyewitness testimonies in court today. In most cases, individuals who, say witness a terrible car accident, do not compare notes with all the other eyewitnesses before giving testimony. Indeed, they are encouraged not to do so, less their singular memories be tainted by someone else’s bias. What the first chapter of this book in fact shows is that regularly, even modern eyewitness testimony provides good ‘gist of the event’ testimony about what was actually said or happened or both. In short, Crossan’s extreme skepticism is unwarranted when it comes to eyewitness testimony. But Kelber’s discussion of hot memory must not be ignored.

  • Katoikei

    This should be a very interesting set of posts and certainly as an eye into the general mindset of people living at this time. My own reading of the NT accounts (as we have them now) reveals a culture obsessed with writing stuff down and relaying it in with extreme caution and godly fear. The words of the Samaritan woman come to mind and if there is anything to be learned from her words, the Samaritans were certainly ready for a considerably astounding body of teaching which I have no doubt they were ready to collate, pass on and teach faithfully to each new generation. Does this writer discuss the role of the Holy Spirit?

  • Anonymous

    No, there is no real discussion of the Holy Spirit in the McIver book.

  • Chrismiller

    A cogent and helpful analysis. Thanks.

  • Nate

    Would this discussion be helpful for say texts like the Lord’s Prayer in which there is much discussion regarding its transmission and origins? The Prayer itself obviously has variances between its appearances in the Matthean versions and Lukan versions, but also the Didache. Thank you for the reference to this new set of ideas.

  • http://RichGriese.NET Rich Griese

    I am not interested in the supernaturalism of Christianity, but am very interested in the study of the early history of the group. I am always happy to talk to others that are also interested in this topic. My interest specifically is up till perhaps a generation or two after Irenaeus. But I would say I am interested in anything from the Maccabean revolt up till about 384CE when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire.


  • sabbott406

    Rich, Christianity is supernatural from Alpha to Omega!

  • Anonymous

    Nate yes this discussion is pertinent to the discussion about the various forms of the Lord’s Supper Prayer. My own view would be that if you do a consistent study of the editorial tendencies of Luke vs. Matthew, you will discover that Luke does more editing of his sources than the First Evangelist does. One of the things this affects is the Lord’s Prayer. While it is certainly true that early Christianity involves the supernatural that’s not all it involves. It also involves human efforts, human memory etc.

  • Stephen M. Kenney

    So Q may not be a source document but a source community? Makes sense.

  • Grahami

    Thanks Ben Looking forward to the rest of the book review. I’m just wondering if the arguments presented here with reference to the NT writings are also valid for the Old Testament? I have not come across much that deals with the way in which OT documents may or may not have come about.

  • Anonymous

    Hi Graham: Read the book by Van Tooren on Scribes and Scribal Culture.

  • Katoikei

    Hi Rich, I find the word ‘supernaturalism’ is too small a blanket to fit the bed.

  • Jon Ericson

    I’m very interested in the dating of Mark. You mention A.D. 68, which seems to assume that either Mark 13 isn’t in reference to the destruction of the Temple or that it is a prescient prediction of the events of A.D. 70. Is there any way to determine when Mark was written without first interpreting the Olivet discourse one way or another?

  • Anonymous

    Hi Jon: There are a variety of clues. Firstly, there is Papias who suggests that Mark provides us with the memoirs of Peter, assembled not long after his death. Secondly, there is the fact that Mark is used by both Matthew and Luke, indeed 95% of Mark recurs in Matthew, so it has to have been in circulation before those other two Gospels. Thirdly, Mark knows nothing of Q, which makes it likely the earliest, and fourthly it seems to have a good deal of Aramaic interference, some of it perhaps being translation Greek. Then there is the ‘let the reader understand’ in Mk 13 which is mentioned in regard to the desolating sacrilege in the temple. This suggests a rather specific date. BW3

  • Jon Ericson

    Interesting. I’m not sure why I never read the “‘let the reader understand” phrase that way. I suppose the date must be in the years leading up to the siege of Jerusalem since it wouldn’t do the readers much good to be warned _after_ the Roman Legions had surrounded the city and occupied the Judean towns. That means a 15 year-old at the time of Jesus would be 55 or so when Mark was written. That’s right around life expectancy at the time. I’m very curious to read the rest of this series and perhaps the book itself. Thanks!