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Review/Critique of Ehrman, Bauckham and Bird on Memory and Jesus

September 11, 2017

A newly-published article gives an incisive discussion of recent publications by Bart Ehrman, Richard Bauckham, and Michael Bird on memory, tradition and the historical Jesus:  Alan Kirk, “Ehrman, Bauckham and Bird on Memory and the Jesus Tradition,” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 15.1 (2017): 88-114.

Given the wide readership acquired by all three authors and their works reviewed by Kirk, this is an article that also deserves a wide reading.  Kirk is both appreciative and critical of each of the scholars, his criticisms supported by what appears to me a fair citation of their works.  The thrust of Kirk’s critique is that, in varying ways and degrees, all three scholars could benefit from more attention to “social memory” theory and its effects in the framing and transmitting of traditions in groups.

Kirk’s critique of Ehrman (Jesus Before the Gospels:  How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented their Stories of the Savior, HarperOne, 2016) is that his representation of the transmission of Jesus tradition by analogy to the familiar “telephone game” is seriously misjudged.  Kirk observes effectively that the process that Ehrman describes, one person passing a narrative to another who in turn passes it on in a continuing chain of transmission, is quite different from the historical process in which significant collective memories are shaped and transmitted in groups whose members are intentionally connected.

As well, Kirk faults Ehrman for what appears to be an insufficiently careful citation of some key scholarly works on which he builds his case.  Kirk’s allegations seem well supported,  the effect being to question cogently the bases for Ehrman’s argument.

As for Bauckham’s controversial book (Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, Eerdmans 2nd ed. 2017), Kirk’s complaint is that it also radically individualizes the transmission of the Jesus tradition, failing to take adequate account of the dynamics and effects of collective transmission of tradition.  The effect, Kirk alleges, is that Bauckham develops an implausible picture of how the Jesus-tradition circulated in the first century or so.

Kirk notes that Michael Bird’s book (The Gospel of the Lord:  How the Early Church Wrote the Story of Jesus, Eerdmans, 2014) is more a review of recent scholarly work with a view to assessing how it has an impact on questions in Gospels scholarship.  Along with commendations, including Bird’s reference to social-memory work, Kirk complains that Bird’s book reflects the widespread assumption that the primary importance of memory theory is its relevance for questions about the historical reliability of the Jesus tradition.

Kirk’s repeated refrain is that, properly understood, social/collective memory studies offer a more sophisticated (and so more complex) picture of how a group shaped by certain events and memories also shape and transmit those memories as their traditions.  Among the studies that Kirk commends as instructive are Anthony Le Donne, The Historiographical Jesus:  Memory, Typology, and the Son of David (Baylor University Press, 2009).

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  1. Jack Dalby permalink

    Hello, Larry. Can you tell me where I can find the complete Alan Kirk article? Tried online, but appears as if only scholars/researchers can obtain a copy. Thanks.

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