Jesus, Eyewitnesses, and Memory

I am currently working on a book called The Gospels of the Lord: How the Early Church Wrote the Story of Jesus (forthcoming with Eerdmans in 2013). So I’m reading a stack of books on the formation of the Jesus tradition, social memory, eyewitnesses, orality, and so forth. I’ve already written a bit on these topics in previous articles in BBR and WTJ back in the mid naughties. But now I’m exploring them anew and revising stuff in light of the avalanche of studies on the Jesus tradition.

Along the way, I’ve reading, of course, Dale C. Allison’s Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History. There is a very good review that has just come out in Themelios by Michael J. Thate.

As I argued in my BBR piece, Allison confirms the observation that a major impetus towards the preservation and integrity of the Jesus tradition was that: (1) Many Jesus’ sayings were short, sharp, and memorable; (2) Jesus was itinerant and broadcast his message by travelling around which meant a repetition of his sermons and speeches; and (3) Jesus probably enlisted people to spread is message and teachings during his own life time (pp. 24-25).

Also the best quote of the book has to be: “our choice is not between an apocalyptic Jesus and some other Jesus; it is between an apocalyptic Jesus and no Jesus at all” (pp. 46-47). So the last surviving profs of the Jesus Seminar need to be told to turn the light off before they exist the building!

  • phillip mutchell

    judging by your spelling errors in this short piece I just pray you have a very good editor, but why are all bloggers so poor at proofreading?

  • steven

    How do we know that many of Jesus’ sayings were short, sharp, and memorable?

    How do we know that the author of one Gospel (the Gospel of Mark) was hemmed in by all these factors which maintained the integrity and preservation of the sayings of Jesus while the same factors were helpless to prevent the author of the Gospel of Thomas writing what he liked and passing it off as the words of Jesus?

    • Jeremy

      Hi Steven,

      I can’t speak for Allison or Bird here, but I’d imagine one answer would be their differing compositional contexts. If Mark was written before 70AD, as most deduce from a combination of internal and external factors, then it was written while there were still lots of eyewitnesses around. If Thomas was written mid-2nd C, as most deduce from a combination of internal and external factors, then it was written when there were none.

      • steven

        Even if that were true, how does that answer the question, as Paul complains bitterly about people preaching a different Jesus and their stories being accepted readily by Christians?

        • Jeremy

          It’s true that in 2Cor 11:4 Paul says, “If someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you submit to it readily enough.”

          However, it’s not clear what’s meant by “another Jesus” here. In the context it seems to mean a different interpretation of Jesus, parallel to a different spirit and gospel. But do you think Paul charges his opponents more specifically with inventing new sayings and narratives about Jesus? If so, why? Or was there another bit of Paul you were thinking of?

          • steven

            Paul complains about people accepting things ‘readily enough’.

            So how do you know the anonymous author of Mark was controlled by these alleged controlling forces and was unable to make up claims that , say, Jesus had been born in Bethlehem?

          • Jeremy

            Yes, but precisely what ‘things’ do you think he’s saying they accepted ‘readily enough’? Absolutely anything? I don’t think that fits the context. All this verse seems to allege of the Corinthians is that they were willing to accept a different interpretation of Jesus, not that they accepted new sayings attributed to Jesus or new narratives about him.

            Even when that’s acknowledged, the ‘readily enough’ needs to be seen as the rhetorical exaggeration that it obviously is. In the same context (11:20) Paul says, “You put up with it when someone makes slaves of you, or preys upon you, or takes advantage of you, or puts on airs, or gives you a slap in the face.” We would be wise to read this statement not as a transparent window on what the Corinthians were actually like, but as a rhetorical exaggeration expressing Paul’s frustration with them. Same with 11:4.

            I’m think you’re taking what is actually a rhetorical exaggeration about the readiness of the Corinthians to accept a different interpretation of Jesus and making it a transparent window on how most early Christians handled the sayings of Jesus and narratives about him, which it isn’t.

          • steven

            That’s simply your confabulation designed to try somehow to remove the possibility that false stories and rumours were circulating.

            That still doesn’t begin to answer the question of how every single Christian, in Corinth, Galatia, Thessalonika was immune to making up stories about Jesus when we know that even Paul knew of false letters circulating supposedly by him.

          • Stephen

            There’s nothing like an unfalsifiable conspiracy theory as the foundation of a totalising belief system. Trust nothing, not even this statement.

  • Matt

    The best quotation of your post is the last one!

  • steven

    ‘Jesus was itinerant and broadcast his message by travelling around which meant a repetition of his sermons and speeches’

    So if Jesus travelled around, somebody in Jerusalem would be unable to challenge a claim that Jesus had said something in Galilee, or Sidon, or Tyre which overrode what he had said in Jerusalem?

  • steven

    ‘(1) Many Jesus’ sayings were short, sharp, and memorable’

    So Jesus did not teach in chapter long sermons as in John’s Gospel, or the Sermon on the Mount?

  • Jason Smith

    Dr. Bird, I’m a fairly new Christian who, nonetheless, has a reasonably strong background in Jesus research. I’ve enjoyed and learned much from your work on Jesus and Paul. I have also learned much from Allison. My question has to do with Allison’s strong arguments for Jesus’ (aparent) mistaken apocalyptic expectations that the kingdom would be fully established in his generation. One of the reasons I remained a non-Christian as long as I did was that I found Allison’s (and others’) arguments for this position convincing. Even now, I don’t feel like I’ve found a way to be faithful both to Jesus’ lordship and the texts in their historical context. I’m thinking of places like Mk. 8:39-9:1; 13:30 and context; 14:62; and Matt. 10:24. But I’m also thinking of other “clues” like Jesus being situated between John and the church with their messages, his apparent emphasis on imminence in other places, the NT’s arguable reinterpretation of Jesus in light of failed expectations, and Allison’s arguments that “kingdom” is more concrete than Evangelicals would want to allow.

    Obviously you can’t deal with all of these complex questions in this context, but I’m wondering 1.) What your general approach to Jesus’ apocalyptic/eschatological message might be and 2.) what resources might you suggest to explore this issue more. (I’ve looked at some academic Evangelical material here but I have not been terribly impressed with the explanations I’ve encountered to this point.)


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