Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Remembering and misremembering

I’ve been reading Dale Allison’s Constructing Jesus (Baker 2010). He makes some statements about memory that strike me as plainly false. Gross overstatements. For instance:

“Remembering is not like reading a book but rather like writing a book. If there are blanks, we fill them in. If the plot is thin, we fill it out. As we constantly revise our memoirs…” (2).

That’s catchy, but is it true? For instance, there are people I remember, whose names escape me. I remember the person, but not the name. I don’t subconsciously assign a name to them.

Likewise, I frequently remember the day something happened even though I don’t remember the year. My memory doesn’t subconsciously assign a calendar date to the event.

Put another way, I can remember where something happened even if I don’t remember when it happened. I remember where I was. Sometimes I could give you the time of day (morning, afternoon, evening). But I couldn’t give you the month or the year.

I have lots of partial memories. Memories with gaps. And I’m aware of the gaps. My memory doesn’t fill in the blanks. That’s despite the fact that I’d like to fill in the blanks.

“Although time’s passage may add perspective, memories are not evergreen; they become less and less distinct as the past recedes” (5).

“As our recollections become increasingly tattered and faded…” (11).

i) But is that true? One of the things that young people find tiresome about old folks is that old folks like to repeat the same childhood vignettes. We say to ourselves, “Oh dear! Not that again! How many times have I heard that story before!”

These memories have a stereotypical quality to them. That’s what makes it monotonous to hear them–time and again. Always the same story. The same dialogue. The same details.

ii) In addition, it’s sometimes possible to check our memories. For instance, I recently ran across some “historic” photos of my hometown, taken around the time I was a kid.

Much of it was the way I remembered it. I’d forgotten a few things. But I misremembered very little.

Likewise, I recently got a copy of my junior high yearbook (1974-75) from a time I attended. It was all very familiar.

There were some students I remembered from high school, but I forgot that we also attended the same junior high. However, even that’s a case of forgetting rather than misremembering. I didn’t misremember a student from junior high.

“Groups do not rehearse competing memories that fail to shore up what they hold dear. Approved remembrance lives on; unapproved remembrance expires” (7).

i) That’s largely true. However, that stands in contrast to the Bible. The Bible is notorious for recording embarrassing details that reflect badly on the community of faith.

i) Finally, the Bible is quite aware of the fact that memory is a fragile thing. That’s one reason we have a Bible. One reason prophets are commanded to record their revelations for posterity.

That’s one reason the Holy Spirit inspired the disciples–to refresh their faded memory of what was said and done (Jn 14:26).


  1. geeesh, David!

    Well, Steve, thanks for assisting me in remembering things I had forgotten, again!

    Here's one. I am sitting in a room typing this now in a community I have lived in all my life.

    Even though I have traveled the world over and to all continents and to many nations I still come back to this land of my nativity to live.

    I left for schooling in Southern California in 1969 for several years. I came back home once in five years; in 1972 to attend my sister's wedding. I was home for about a week.

    When I moved back a few years later I moved back to the area I was raised up in. My parents had our family house rented out and occupied by others as they had bought a house to retire to in another community a couple hundred miles away. I couldn't move back into that family house like I wanted to. I had to find another place to live.

    Several years later though the family house I grew up in became vacant. My Dad agreed to rent it out to me and some of my Christian buddies.

    It was then, at that time, that a strange and wonderful thing happened to me.

    I realized then as I was moving back into that house I grew up in that that house seemed smaller to me and the surrounding trees were indeed much taller.

    It was quite a remembrance to realize the house stayed the same size but I and the growing things around it had changed over time!

    Oh yeah, here's another memory I don't forget. Shortly after my wife gave birth to our firstborn, I had to travel away for three months.

    I left my wife and son, who was about two months old at the time and then came back three months later to discover my son had gotten quite a bit larger in size and was afraid of me. He was unwilling to be picked up and hugged by me until my wife convinced him I was his daddy and it was ok to let me hold him and hug him!

    Boy, those emotions hurt! That memory brings me to tears a lot of times when I think about that reacquaintance I had to have that day with my son at the airport! It didn't come as quickly as I would have liked! grrrrr

    I wonder if the Apostle might have had similar thoughts about some of his spiritual children from the Church at Galatia as I did being in anguish of soul over my son so as to reacquaint myself to him?:::>

    Gal 4:16 Have I then become your enemy by telling you the truth?
    Gal 4:17 They make much of you, but for no good purpose. They want to shut you out, that you may make much of them.
    Gal 4:18 It is always good to be made much of for a good purpose, and not only when I am present with you,
    Gal 4:19 my little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!
    Gal 4:20 I wish I could be present with you now and change my tone, for I am perplexed about you.

  2. It's not as though the memories of Christians are all we have to go by. The early enemies of Christianity had an interest in preserving relevant memories as well, and some of the criticisms of memory raised by men like Allison wouldn't be applicable to them. Some of the points the early Christians and their enemies agreed on, like the empty tomb and New Testament authorship attributions, are disputed by many critics today. Casting doubt on the memories of the early Christians isn't enough. Those critics also have to cast doubt on the memories of others (heretics and people who didn't profess to be Christians).

  3. (reposted with minor correction)

    Interesting thoughts Steve...

    Given the broad geographical area that oral traditions traversed, I wonder how persuasive these arguments about collective memory bias could possibly be. As Dan Wallace pointed out to Ehrman in their debate: theories about proto-orthodox conspiracies to purify the text are less likely given his position on the wild and rampant copying of scribes.

    Likewise, if one has doubts about oral tradition because of collective memory bias, then would wild and rampant oral tradition weigh for or against it? I can grant the person explaining the facts about Jesus might anticipate or respond to his audience ("wait run that by me again"), and as such oral tradition might be more molded to the recipient culture than written text. Call this weak collective memory bias: perhaps some details were stressed in lieu others...we see that in the synoptics, so perhaps as well in the oral tradition.

    But granting all that, surely weak collective memory bias doesn't entail that a bunch of pertinent facts managed to slip through all the cracks.

    Posted here by the way: