Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Jesus remembered

Sometimes the Gospels have explicit time-markers. Sometimes they have particles that simply indicate a transition from one scene to the next–without indicating the duration of the interval, or whether that even comes later. 

Sometimes there's an intrinsic temporal sequence. The arrest of Jesus precedes his trial, which precedes his crucifixion, which precedes his burial, which precedes his resurrection, which precedes his ascension. Even if there were no time-markers to indicate what's sooner in relation to what's later, it would be self-evident.

But in many cases, all we have is a narrative sequence, which may or may not track a chronological sequence. So what should the reader expect?

One issue is how we envision the process of composition. For instance, do we think the author sat down and manually wrote out the Gospel? If so, that would be a somewhat laborious process. How much would he write at a sitting? Would he write a scene, take a break, then pick up where he left off a day or so later?

Another question is whether he had a mental outline of what he intended to include, and in what order. How much did he have planned out in advance? 

But here's a different consideration: suppose, instead of writing it out by hand, he dictated his Gospel to a scribe. That involves a different psychological process. When you tell one or more anecdotes about your life, you generally relay them in the order that you remember them rather than the order in which they occurred. 

Think about how old folks reminisce. If you ask them what it was like growing up, they don't proceed in a linear fashion. Rather, they string together the most memorable events growing up–often in no particular order. I daresay we have many memories that we can't place in a relative chronology. 

Indeed, this tends to be free association, where one memory triggers a related memory. Commentators often talk about narrative strategy and topical arrangement. But how much of that is actually mnemonic rather than literary? 

Suppose John dictated his Gospel to a scribe. Suppose that took place over the course of several weeks. Presumably, John thinks about what he's going to tell the scribe today. He consciously summons his memories of Jesus. Mental images of things that happened at a particular time and place. 

No doubt John wants his memoir of Jesus to have some structure and directionality. Have a beginning, middle, and end. 

Still, if the Fourth Gospel is a transcript of his recollections of Jesus, there's no antecedent reason we'd expect it to be rigorously chronological. Memories of people you knew pop into your awareness without any temporal sequence. 

If the Fourth Gospel is oral history committed to writing, I doubt John was chronologically self-conscious as he tells an anecdote. Presumably, he's not thinking about where the next anecdote should go at the time he's recalling something Jesus said or did. Unlike writing, it's easier to lose your train of thought when dictating unless you concentrate on one thing at a time. If you interrupt an older person who's telling an anecdote, they may well forget where they were. They lose the thread. 

Incidentally, this may explain the "epilogue" to John's Gospel. His Gospel seems to have two endings. It apparently ends with chap. 20. Yet that's followed by chap. 21. If, however, John was dictating his Gospel, then that "afterthought" is very understandable. That's how people remember things. They don't have everything before their eyes. Rather, their mind jumps from one recollection to another. 

Likewise, that may explain the temple cleansing in Jn 2. Jesus either cleansed the temple once or twice. We can't say for sure. All we have to go by are the Gospels, and they don't number the temple cleansing(s). It's possible that he did so twice. Or it's possible that this was one event, which John's Gospel records in chap 2 because he remembered it on the day he dictated that section of the Gospel. 


  1. Hello Steve:

    An interesting post!

    The issue of "historicity" is essential to the foundation of Christianity. Mark Goodacre, John Dominic Crossan, and others have discussed this topic: "Prophecy Historicized/History Remembered" or "Prophecy Historicized or Tradition Scripturalized." Perhaps, the Passion episodes are most often analyzed in reference to this topic. I would encourage your readers to also investigate the "Prophecy Historicized or Tradition Scripturalized" issue as it relates to the Resurrection. I have written a lengthy and scholarly text that "challenges" or "raises questions" about many aspects of Jesus's physical, bodily resurrection. One reviewer, a conservative evangelical wrote:

    5.0 out of 5 starsThe gold standard for this perspective!
    By Jerry Caine on December 21, 2015
    Verified Purchase
    I write this review as a Evangelical Conservative Christian and a graduate of Talbot Theological Seminary. No, I do not just read material that supports my belief system. A good number of a massive research and reference library I have is devoted to those volumes seeking to rip to pieces what I have accepted as true from the Bible. My philosophy of education is to always know the various systems that would oppose what I have accepted as true better than they do. I want to know the best arguments and how to respond to them. A teacher like myself who seeks to prepare his students to give answers for their faith must utilize the very best sources. Otherwise, it becomes a case of pastoral malpractice by omitting what would amount to a better argument and creating a false sense of security. This brings me to this title by Michael Alter entitled "The Resurrection". This volume, in my opinion, is the new gold standard for the perspective that would seek to destroy Christianity by taking out the pivotal event of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Apologists for the Christian faith [which I count myself as a member] MUST deal with his arguments as they are, hands down, the best of the best I have ever encountered. This book will easily appeal to skeptics of the Christian faith and it should appeal to just about every Bible school and Seminary of the country as a standard textbook for students in apologetic classes. It is well organized and academic in it's approach. It deserves a wide readership especially by those who would seek to "always being ready to make a defense to every one who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence."

    This topic is current [Easter is fast approaching], relevant [I Cor 15], and compelling. Perhaps in future blogs you and others will discuss this topic. Yes, "historicity" is important.


    Michael J. Alter []

    1. Michael, search the archives of Triablogue. The Triabloggers (especially Steve and Jason) have addressed the various objections to Jesus' resurrection plenty of times. Steve wrote a book reviewing the atheist book The Empty Tomb. Steve's book length review is titled This Joyful Eastertide.

  2. So we're faced with a choice, believe God's testimony about the Resurrection of Christ, or believe Michael J. Alter's denial.

    Pardon me if I fail to feel the weight of such a "dilemma".

  3. Hello CR:

    Thank you for taking the time to write.

    I respect your right to your beliefs... We are not ISIS or the Taliban...

    Respectfully, your beliefs are not necessarily correct. Of course, you would say or imply the same words regarding my beliefs, and those of billions of other people who do not share your beliefs. If you wish to play the number game, there are approximately two billion people who fall under the broad category of Christian. Within that vast group, not everyone maintains the same views (e.g., including Jesus's resurrection: physical versus spiritual; is Jesus God?, the Trinity, etc). In contrast, there are almost five billion people who reject the major theological beliefs held by Christians. Of course these numbers are rough estimates. Hopefully my point is clear.

    I would request that you obtain an interlibrary loan and just see what arguments and rationales are found within my text. Approximately, twelve years ago, I was challenged by a sincere and devoted believer to examine the Resurrection. Literally, I spent eleven years researching that topic. During that time I visited approximately twenty theological seminaries and institutions of higher learning [Trinity International, Wheaton College, Catholic Theological, Moody Bible Institute, the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, McCormick Theological, Union Theological, Dallas Theological, Southwestern Baptist Theological, the Nazarene Theological Seminary, Criswell Theological, Seabury Theological, the Perkins School of Theology, the Florida Center for Theological Studies, Chicago Theological, Northern Baptist Theological, the Reformed Theological Seminary, and more ... I gave a good faith effort and investigated the issue... REALLY! Respectfully, I ask that you examine my text (1 Pt 3:15)...


    Michael Alter

    PS Pardon me, but if the Pope can travel to Cuba and meet with the head of the Russian Orthodox Church [on today's news], I feel confident that you could take the effort and time to examine my text.

    1. Thanks for checking back Michael. I think perhaps you've misunderstood my comment.

      It wasn't intended to be a disparagment of your scholarship, it was a simple observation about ultimate authority.

      I don't doubt that you hold your beliefs sincerely, like the billions of other people you referenced in your reply.

      But as you've correctly observed it isn't about counting noses. The truth is the truth, and even if every single person on earth took a vote and denied the truth, it would still be the truth. People are often sincerely wrong about the things they believe.

      Again, the problem is one of ultimate authority.

      Michael J. Alter is Michael J. Alter's ultimate authority.

      Think about that.

    2. BTW, Steve's book length book review of The Empty Tomb titled This Joyful Eastertide is freely available at the following SAFE link:

      For some reason the my Norton Internet Security claims the link I gave in the previous post is dangerous. That never happened before.

      Here's the link that's supposedly unsafe: