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The Jesus Legend 7: Historical Remembrance or Prophetic Imagination?


This chapter is trying to defend the view that the oral tradition, rooted in historical facts about Jesus, were what influenced the writings of Paul and the gospels. They argue against the unreliability of memory, argue against the views that current views were veiled in pretended visions of Jesus speaking, and argue against the “laws” of biblical criticism, often used to dismiss certain traditions as not rooted in history.

I would say that the weakest part of this chapter was the argument against current scientific research about the fallibility of memory. The authors use fairly weak criticisms. They argue that scientific findings about the fallibility of memory is self defeating, since science itself relies on memory to come to conclusions. This is lame. Very lame. The authors would have a point if science said that memory is always fallible, but the science certainly does not say that. Just as a science of optical illusions does not thoroughly undermine our scientific reliance on sight, so too does the science of memory illusions fail to undermine a scientific undermining of memory. The scientific findings show that in order to be able accept memory, we need to take care to record things near to when they occurred, from multiple people, from many views, and that findings ought to be repeatable to avoid memory errors as well. Simply recording findings as they occur, or videotaping findings gets around the fallibility of memory.

The authors do make a fair critique of the generalization of findings, pointing out that most people who are studied are college students, and so the findings may only apply to educated, literate people of a certain class. What they do not successfully do is provide positive evidence for the reliability of the ancient Jewish peoples’ memory. They simply show that it is not necessarily the case that memory is always fallible.

As for the other points, I don’t have as much of a background. I’ll reread some Bob Price and see if it makes sense.

Kindle Notes:

In this chapter we will review and evaluate the remaining three: the assumption that eyewitnesses played no role in regulating the early oral Jesus tradition; the assumption that we can discern certain “laws” of oral transmission on the basis of literary evidence; and, finally, the assumption that a significant portion of the oral Jesus material may have come from “prophetic inspiration” rather than historical recollection (4669).

in working with the Jlao Kru people of southeast Liberia, Elizabeth Tonkin has found that oral performers often recount personal experiences in the same formally stylized fashion as they do traditional material (4749).

Note: Can we assume this style was used in Christian communities?

Another criticism of the claim of eyewitness data within the Gospels attaches not to the Gospels themselves but rather to the nature of eyewitness testimony per se. The question of memory is crucial to that of oral tradition, for “oral traditions depend upon human memory for their preservation. If a tradition is to survive, it must be stored in one person’s memory and be passed to another person who is also capable of storing and retelling it.”18 Within the last several decades, a number of psychologists have argued that, due to the malleable nature of all human memory, eyewitness testimony itself is always suspect (4763).

statement, which begins by contrasting “thinking” with “memorizing,” and ends by identifying “disciples” and “people” with the former-and “reciters” and “parrots” with the latter-beautifully expresses a common and largely unquestioned bias against memory and memorization in our culture today (4820).

Note: I would say the bias is the other way around.

ironically, though not surprisingly, the hyperskepticism that characterizes the memoric skepticism paradigm turns back on itself in an ultimately self-destructive fashion. The skeptical arguments upon which it depends are based upon “scientific” studies-psychological studies of individual memory, sociocultural studies of collective memory, and so on (4833).

Note: Science is the one discipline that has tools to counteract such problems, namely repeatability.

Researchers who study memory are tremendously reliant on their own memories and on the memories of their experimental subjects…. When memory is the faculty devalued … faith in science and scientists is, quite obviously, no remedy” (4839).

Note: Just as one can view optical illusions at different angles to discern reality, so too can scientists attempt to avoid the illusions of memory. No one is saying that memory is totally unreliable, but in the contexts of ancient peoples, there were not the unbiasing tools in place.

In light of these various considerations, we believe that human memory provides nothing like an insurmountable barrier to the reliable remembering and reporting of the recent past-particularly when we consider it within the context of an orally dominant, communally centered culture such as the world of the early oral Jesus tradition (4930).

Note: They don’t succeed in showing that a correct reporting of memories is probable, only that current research does not make it impossible.

A fair-minded approach would be to take the appeals at face value, unless we have convincing reason not to (5018).

Note: Shifting the burden of proof. The more extreme the claim, the more evidence is necessary to establish the claim’s truth.

Against the form-critical assumption that eyewitnesses played no regulative role in the oral period of the early church, both recent studies on oral tradition and the New Testament itself suggest that eyewitnesses played an important role in the transmission and regulation of the oral Jesus tradition. Against the supposed universal developmental “laws” of oral tradition assumed by early form critics, the evidence forces us to conclude that these “laws” were largely born of an anachronistic literary paradigm, supported with circular reasoning, and based on inadequate field research. Finally, against the supposition that the oral Jesus tradition was heavily indebted to the inspired sayings of creative prophets, we find no clear evidence prophets functioned in this way in the early church, and instead find good arguments against this proposal. The fact that orally dominant communities tend to have a vested interest in protecting their historically rooted traditions against substantial modification counts against this thesis, as does the fact that most issues we know the early church wrestled with are absent in the Jesus tradition that came to be recorded in the Gospels (5295).

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