Insights from recent research into the memory process and how they can be used in the scholastic approach to discover the “historic Jesus” were explored Tuesday during the second session of the Theologian-in-Residence series at Tusculum College.
“Jesus in Early Christian Memory: Remember, Reconstructing and Rehearsing the Past,” is the focus of this year’s series, being presented by Dr. Travis Williams, assistant professor of religion at Tusculum College. In its 26th year, the series is sponsored by Tusculum College with support from Ron Smith.
Critics of the authenticity of the gospels and the apologists who defend the factuality of the gospels agree that there has been some distortion of the gospels in their transmission, but how much distortion is the issue that divides the two groups, Williams said, according to a news release from the college.
“The foundation of the majority of the scholarly research on the historic Jesus has been based on the assumption that something has been changed,” he said. “The goal is to separate the factual material from the layers of interpretation to find the raw fact.”
Williams noted the work of the Jesus Seminar, a group of scholars that began meeting in the 1980s and became well known in the 1990s with the goal of trying to determine which sayings and deeds of Jesus recorded in the gospels are authentic and making this general public aware of these scholarly studies.
The problem with the Jesus Seminar and the majority of other recent academic research into the historic Jesus is the method used in the effort to find the factual Jesus, Williams said.
“I would suggest that their scholarly search for the factual Jesus is misguided,” he said. “If they are searching for authentic memories of Jesus, undiluted memories without any layers of interpretation, I would argue that they are going to be searching in vain. Those memories don’t exist.”
In the older view of memory, the brain is seen as storing memories in a singular place, analogous to a filing cabinet, he explained, with memory as a passive intellectual recall of factual details from the past. If this idea is applied to the Jesus stories, it would be that the disciples would have filed their memories of Jesus away and then recalled them as they told others.
But recent research into the memory process has shown that memory is by its nature distorted, according to Williams. This research has shown that the storage and retrieval of memories is a complex process in which an individual must reconstruct a memory from various sensory areas of the brain and is altered each time a person remembers as the memory is perceived in relation to a person’s current circumstances.
These insights into memory help provide two benefits in the scholarly analysis of the Jesus stories, he continued.
One is that it helps people avoid simplistic debates about the authenticity of memory in the gospels. “If distortion of memories of Jesus is the criteria that is used, then nothing qualifies as authentic, because no memory provides an uninterpreted view of the past,” Williams said. “If there are no undistorted memories, the foundation for both sides falls apart.”
While distortion has a negative connotation, there are positive benefits to distortion, he said.
Telescopes use a distortion of light to allow people to see planets, stars and other heavenly bodies that cannot be seen with a naked eye. Likewise, memories help people reconstruct a past that cannot be physically revisited, Williams explained, because memory distorts the distance between the present and the past and allows people to see what would otherwise be unrecoverable.
Secondly, distortion provides new ways to understand the variability of memories, Williams said, in relation to memory’s adaptive function to provide guidance in how to react in new situations.
“The early Christians were comfortable with the variations in the Jesus stories,” Williams said, giving as an example the debate among early Christians of whether the Jewish law should be observed or not, which is recounted in the book of Acts and Paul’s letters to the early church. This debate took place prior to the writing of the gospels, and a passage from Mark is written in such a way to support the view that the Jewish law should not have to be observed by Christians while that wording is not found in Matthew’s gospel, which most scholars agree is targeted toward a Jewish audience.
However, once the written form of the gospels replaced the oral form, much of this adaptive function was lost as the memory of Jesus became cemented in permanent forms, he said.
In the next session of the series on Tuesday, Feb. 21, Williams will continue the exploration of this new approach to the Jesus stories with a discussion of another facet of memory, the impact of social environment on the construction of memories. The session will include an examination of the role of eyewitnesses in the formation and dissemination of the early Jesus tradition, according to the news release.
The lecture will begin at 10 a.m. in the Chalmers Conference Center in the Niswonger Commons on the Tusculum College campus.