Cultural Memory and the Hebrew Bible: A General Discussion

Concerning the recent post by Ron Hendel over at Bible and Interpretation, which has obtained a good amount of  attention (and rightfully so) from the Biblioblogosphere, I have decided to ask some additional questions and raise some concerns about the post itself.  But before getting into that, some positive notes about the article.  Aside from the Star Wars reference (which earns it positive points all on its own), the paper is erudite, clean, and positivist.  It does attempt to outline some very interesting, if not compelling, solutions towards problems in the academic community that have solidified over the past few decades.  And Philip Davies’ reply to this article is apt and is quite generous (it also represents my own opinion as well):

I am a fan of Ron, who is a scholar and a gentleman, and I enjoy both agreeing and disagreeing with him. All I think I want to say in response is that all stories about the past are fiction in the sense of being constructed as narratives (even our modern critical reconstructions). But I agree (and have made the point in print) that in evaluating memories we need to know as much as we can about the facts of the past, otherwise our analysis and understanding of these memories cannot be complete. If, as it may well be, I have misrepresented myself on these issues, I hope this reply makes clear.

via The Bible and Interpretation – Cultural Memory and the Hebrew Bible.

But the concerns I have are in the misunderstandings this sort of paper might generate.  Consider the implications of this snippet:

The stories of the patriarchs or the Exodus or the battle of Jericho include history and fiction, truth (of various kinds) and falsehoods (of various kinds), held together by their present relevance, the authority of tradition, and the narrative artistry of the writers. I have made some forays into the “mnemohistory” of these biblical texts, and I submit that this approach yields more fruit than conventional historical scholarship that limits its scope to adjudicating between these “old dichotomies.”


But the point of cultural memory is to chase the memory itself, how it is constructed out of history and fiction, and how it produces, on various levels, the identity that it describes.

I would hope, of course, that the author doesn’t mean to suggest that the narratives of the patriarchs or of Jericho relate historical data about the events they portray!  Surely Hendel doesn’t accept the historicity of the patriarchs themselves, for example.  He writes this in his comment to Davies:

It is our responsibility as scholars to investigate, to the degree we can, the interrelationship of history and fiction in the texts, which means, in part, exploring the “actual” historical details and events in them, and how they have been reconstituted as memorable discourse.

But I wonder how useful it is to start from a point where we assume, first, the historical value of a text before properly determining if that is indeed the case?  This seems like a slap in the fact to all Cartesianism.  I am under the impression that as historians it is our duty to first determine the value of the text before moving on with developing historical conclusions.  Do we, after all, consider the ‘”actual” historical details and events’ in Virgil’s Aeneid? Do we consider the historical details of the figure of Lycurgus, traditional founder of Sparta?  I would think not.  Certainly we should not read Plutarch’s works on the lives of Isis and Osiris or that of Romulus with the false hope of gleaming historical realities in the text!  After all, if we are analyzing cultural memory, must we also not consider the process of Euhemerization?  I feel as if this is the most overlooked part of the discussion.  What this sort of statement ignores, in my opinion, is the speed at which a meme changed in antiquity–particularly religious memes.

And this sort of thinking is not new.  It has roots in antiquity.  Palaephatus, for example, wrote in his introduction to his work Περὶ ἀπίστων:

Now some people, who have no acquaintance with philosophy or science, are too credulous and believe everything that is said to them.  Others, of a more subtle and inquisitive nature, totally disbelieve that any of these tales ever happened.  My own belief is that there is a reality behind all stories.  For names alone without stories would hardly have arisen: first there must have been deeds and there-after stories about them.

Palaephatus lists some of his versions of the “true stories” behind myths.   In the same work above, he writes that Centaur’s were real people, but rather than being half-horse and half-man, the stories arose from them being the first group of people to ride horseback (before then, he says, people only used horses to pull chariots)!  And of course the truth behind the Trojan horse is not that a group of Greeks jumped free from it and attacked the city, but that the Trojans tore down parts of their wall to accommodate the horse, thereby allowing the Greeks to enter through the opening!  Now in a sense of cultural memory, we might say that these events are ‘historical’ as they represent a tradition, relayed in ‘memory’ from one generation to the next.  But are we really talking about ‘history’ as defined as ‘events of the past’?  Or are we redefining ‘history’ so as to make our mythic past feel more relevant and real?  If that is the case, are we really doing ‘history’ a service?

It might be worth noting, along this line of thinking, that James McGrath draws attention to the minimalism/maximalism dichotomy and its relevance to the mythicism discussion.  I replied, of course, with my normal agnostism.  However I would also like to draw attention to Emanuel Pfoh’s argument on the subject which, I believe, is very important.  Below is an excerpt from his forthcoming paper ‘Jesus and the Mythic Mind: An Epistemological Problem’ in the forthcoming volume by Th. L. Thompson and Th. S. Verenna, eds., ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ The Question of the Historicity of the Figure of Jesus (London: Equinox, Forthcoming 2011), 79-94:

The problem of the figure of Jesus, as portrayed in the Gospels, is, for the historian of ancient personalities,[1] analogous to those made by ancient Egyptian or Assyrian depictions of the kings. If such personalities are constructed within the realm of mythic motifs, distant from an historicist recalling of reality, how can the modern historian deconstruct what is portrayed in ancient stories and attempt a separation of the ideological features of the given figure and its individual features, without ‘breaking’ it?[2] Regarding Jesus, then, how can we know the ipsissima verba et facta Jesu when all we have is a mythic set of stories (the Gospels) whose narrative patterns and thematic motifs depend on ancient literature which addresses comparable themes? This is an important epistemological problem for the historian of ancient ideas, of ancient individual figures, of ancient representations and worldviews—and I am aware of the reminiscence of Heisenberg’s incertitude principle implicit in this argument.

[1] On ancient personalities, see, for instance, the studies by J. D. Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (New York: Harper San Francisco, 1991); B. J. Malina and J. H. Neyrey, Portraits of Paul: An Archaeology of Ancient Personality (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), on Paul, of whom, apparently, we know more than of Jesus. Crossan contextualizes Jesus according to economic and social data from first-century Palestine, while Malina and Neyrey place Paul according to the Mediterranean models of behavior and perceptions of the self. Yet, in both cases, we have an example of an ‘ethnography of a dead culture (or person)’. We know of Jesus’ or Paul’s personality due to ethnographic stereotypes, but not—of course—because of individual interview. This procedure creates a spectrum of possibilities, but it does not present historical evidence of Jesus or Paul.

[2] The consequences of this for the historical-critical methods of biblical research are evident: cf. T. L. Thompson, ‘Das Alte Testament als theologische Disziplin,’ in B. Janowski and N. Lohfink, eds., Religionsgeschichte Israels oder Theologie des Alten Testaments? (JBTh, 10; Neukirchen: Neukirchener Verlag, 1995), 157-73: ‘Die historisch-kritische Schule hat ihr Fundament verloren. Sie ist tot, und wir sollten sie in Anstand und mit Respekt begraben, anstatt uns über etwas zu streiten, was ohnehin ein äußerst klägliches Erbe darstellt’ (157); also, G. Lüdemann, Altes Testament und christiliche Kirche: Versuch der Aufklärung (Lüneburg: Zu Klampen, 2006), 183-85.

And Particularly on the subject of cultural Memory, Pfoh writes (ibid.):

Cultural memory does not replicate the past as it really happened, but rather as it is needed to be remembered by the active community that evokes it. In sum, ancient cultural memories—if we are willing to understand the Gospels in that way—cannot lead to a modern historical interpretation of the past because they constitute a part of the modern construction of that ancient past.

I believe that Pfoh hits the nail on the head here.  But I would stress that everyone read his full article once it becomes available at some point in the next few months (ceteris peribus!).

To conclude, I want to stress that I enjoyed this article, but I also worry about the implications of where such discussions, unchecked by a critical mind and a healthy dose of sociological and anthropological understanding, will lead Biblical Studies.  I do not think that Hendel suffers from this crippling habit, however.  Still, there are yet many who do.When it comes to the discussion of minimalism/maximalism, I am concerned that the debate has stopped being about critical analysis of the past and has instead become a war over terminology, specifically how we define ‘history’.  When dealing with cultural memory and the mythic mind, we can accept–if we must–the idea that a figure is ‘historical’ in the sense that that figure is a part of cultural ‘history’ (i.e. tradition within the mythic mindset), but then we risk redefining ‘history’ and I wonder about the value of doing that?


3 Responses

  1. Or are we redefining ‘history’ so as to make our mythic past feel more relevant and real? If that is the case, are we really doing ‘history’ a service?

    One could also ask “Are we doing religion a service?”

  2. Tom, regarding you worry concerning

    “It is our responsibility as scholars to investigate, to the degree we can, the interrelationship of history and fiction in the texts, which means, in part, exploring the “actual” historical details and events in them, and how they have been reconstituted as memorable discourse.”

    Is this really assuming the historical value? He seemed to agree with Davies that “in evaluating memories we need to know as much as we can about the facts of the past” A book like Joshua was determined to be unhistorical by comparing the actual historical events, i.e. the archeological evidence and contemporary records. Those have been “reconstituted as memorable discourse.” The reality is Jericho was destroyed in 15th century (? I don’t have an encyclopedia on me) that was reconstituted as an event accomplished by the legendary hero Joshua. One wonders if Joshua would have been credited with destroying Jericho had their never been a tradition of it being a ruin (for example had it been continuously occupied thought history)
    I do like the sentiment of chasing the historical memory. The history of this history is interesting in of itself. That’s why I insist on the same rigor when study literary history as the history of “real” events. Once we have determined something to be unhistorical as a chronicle of real world events, it does not lose value to the historian. It tells us a lot about the author’s world and what they thought of the past.

    On your last point, people who lack a critical mind and lack a broad grasp of social science will of course misunderstand anything. It need not be spelled out, for instance, that the historical truths in Joshua do not involve tribes of Hebrews sacking a specific town, but instead cultural expectations of what was to be done with a conquered city and so on.

  3. In some ways yes, you’re right, concerning the author’s world. But not necessarily. Homer’s epics tell us a little about a lot but narrowing it down is difficult. Consider the references to both the iron age and the bronze age; can that tell us anything about the author? It might mean that there were several authors. It might mean the epics were compiled, redacted, edited into a corpus, and believed to be foundational to the Greek world. And that might be historical data. But it cannot tell us anything about the truth or fact behind the narrative stories themselves. This is where Philip’s comment helps clarify and make the distinction. Lucian’s True Stories is a completely fictional work, but it does offer some possible historical data, even when he says “But my lying is far more honest than theirs, for though I tell the truth in nothing else, I shall at least be truthful in saying that I am a liar” (Vera Hist., 1.4). The concern is that people might take for granted edification, Euhemerization, or theological constructs for information about the author’s world. In fact, the author might be from a time much later, utilizing narratives from cultural memory, which tell us nothing about anything at all–including the author’s own period in time. This is the difficulty with narrative.

    Edit: It’s also why some scholars suggest that nothing can be gained historically from the texts at all.

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