Thursday, October 06, 2005

A New Perspective on Jesus

James D G Dunn

The [theories] of ‘social memory’ and ‘cultural memory’ indicate here memory as seen to be conditioned or shaped by social or cultural factors. The main thrust of the theory is that memory selects and modifies the subject matter from the past in order to make it serviceable to the image that the community wishes to promote of itself. It is the creative rather than the retentive character of memory that social memory theory has brought to the fore. In this case my misgiving is at the failure to appreciate sufficiently the degree to which tradition can be both foundational and formative of group identity. And if, as I have argued, it was the impact of what Jesus said and did that first brought the disciple group together as disciples, it would follow that the tradition that gave them their identity as a group of disciples would be treasured by them, particularly during the period of Jesus’ continuing mission, during which much of the tradition began to take its enduring shape.

In both cases, however, my main criticism is that these theories of memory have been framed, once again, in a literary culture. They do not take sufficient account of the differences that might have been and almost certainly were involved in an oral culture. In a culture that could not rely on widespread literacy to disseminate wisdom or to propagate particular ideas, where memory was much more trained to the retention of important information, where skills had been developed in society and among groups to ensure the preservation of memories important to these groups, the dynamic of memory was bound to be different. That is why I did not attempt to develop such a theory of memory in my "Jesus Remembered," though I confess that the title I chose has left me vulnerable to criticism on that score. The more relevant line of inquiry, it seemed to me, was to explore how oral traditions have been passed down in oral societies that we can still access. In other words, the research into oral societies and patterns of folklore appeared to be more relevant for our understanding of the way the Jesus tradition was transmitted in the oral period than present-day theories of memory.

In this enterprise I was much heartened by the little-known work of Kenneth Bailey, who draws on some thirty years of experience in Middle Eastern villages. These villages had retained their identity over many generations, so that, arguably, their oral culture is as close as we will ever be able to get to the village culture of first-century Galilee. Characteristic of such a culture, Bailey points out, has been the gathering of the community at the end of the day, when the sun has set and there are no other distractions, to share the news of the day, to tell stories, to recall matters of importance for the community. This gathering for what is called ‘haflat samar’ (social gathering for samar, which is cognate with the Hebrew samar, ‘to preserve’) was how the community maintained its intellectual life and preserved its valued traditions. The peasants did this particularly by the rehearsal of traditional wisdom, the recitation of poems, and the retelling of stories, including not least stories from the village’s own history.

From Chapter 2 of A New Perspective on Jesus – what the quest for the historical Jesus missed, published by Baker Academic 2005
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