The Gospels Were Hardly Memes?

Joel and I have a love of mimetics, so we obviously will write on memes whenever we can.  But we sometimes have different views on how they play a role in ancient literature (specifically early Christian literature).  In response to my recent blog post on memes and the death of ‘history’ and ‘fiction’, Joel has some good points, and I would like address both the good and the bad below.

Tom makes some good points, but as usual, I think he goes too far. First, the Gospels were written long after Paul who were fighting other leading voices at the time, proclaiming Jesus.

This is, of course, true.   My point is that Paul converted into something.  Some sectarian Jewish tradition existed of which Paul became a part; what that tradition looked like before Paul we cannot say with any certainty.  We hope it looked similar to what Paul wrote about, but we have no other witness to this sectarian tradition outside of Paul and some of what exists in Paul’s letters, we know were later interpolations (like the verse where Paul tells women to be silent in churches, for example–something Paul probably didn’t write).  But one thing is certain, some of what Paul wrote about were memes.  He might not have called them memes but he pulls on common archetypical figures and motifs (the two metaphorical women, Abraham, Moses, the several divisions of heaven, the breaking of the bread and sharing of the wine as body and blood, the use of mystic/secret language like τελειος, and so on) in his letters in which he wraps around a singular idea: salvation (in itself a common sectarian meme of the time).  The Gospels were written after Paul, yes, but they were written quite possibly with Paul in mind (possibly Mark himself had copies of some of Paul’s letters; Luke certainly did).

Okay, so I’m not going to spend a lot of time on this, but let me point out that Judith is based on Yael. Tobit, well… There is a difference between Aesop’s Fables and Josephus’ Wars of the Jews.

Apples and oranges.  Both use memes in different ways and Josephus goes ahead and fabricates narratives from scratch to suit his agendas as well.  Like Alexander’s march on Jerusalem, for example.  There are people, whole people, Josephus just fabricates for the sake of it.  Some even argue the Essenes were ideological fabrications by Josephus on what the ‘perfect Jewish sect’ should look like.  Judith is still fiction, whether based on Yael or not.  Wonder Woman  might be based on a woman the creator of the comic knew in real life; that doesn’t make the story any more fact-based than what it is.

Tobit would fall into the former, but the Gospels into neither, although baring marks of both.

I wonder how one could claim the Gospels were in any way similar to Josephus.  With the one exception being the fabrication of events, there is simply no comparison.  I would love to see Joel argue compellingly for a genre comparison between the two forms.

But I still believe Joel is missing the point.  It is about memes here, and every narrative I list, whether history or fiction, is full of memes that destroy history by selling fiction.

Enoch was written in an apocalyptic style and used a figure from Scripture to give it authority.

And is full of memes like apocalyptic revelations, ascension narratives, angels, and so on.   Even the style (apocalyptic) is a meme!  Fascinating stuff, mimetics.

It doesn’t posit a new faith but reports an old prophecy which was to the community it was addressing. I’m not sure that one could stretch those three books and collections of writings to the study of the Historical Jesus and come to the conclusion that Tom seems to be suggesting.

I’m not sure what is that conclusion you think I’m suggesting!

Another point is that the Gospels, as I noted, were written long after Paul was preaching Jesus and using the Historical Jesus (his, not Tom Wright’s) to base his own ministry off of.

Interesting.  What ministry is it that Paul cites in his letters?  I know of not a single instance where Jesus’ ministry is ever mentioned.

One would have to insist that Paul alone was making up the story of Jesus, and thereby creating a new tradition which was met with others doing the same but not the same.

Absolutely not.  I don’t know how you drew that conclusion from what I wrote.

If Acts is historical in any way, then Paul was very close to the Historical Jesus.

Alas, Acts is far from historical.  This is quite easily demonstrated.

In other words, one must insist that the Jesus mythos developed differently, over different geographical locations, at nearly the same time which would then lead to other questions which are completely implausible.

The mythos of Jesus, assuming you mean the death, resurrection, and ascension, had developed over different geographical locations over time.  But Joel, we are talking about memes here.  Memes.  Nothing then generates ex nihilo.  The Gospel authorsmight never have heard of Innana, who was crucified naked (humiliated), died, and resurrected to new glory.  But they probably knew of other resurrection stories like Romulus.  Or other figures who died and resurrected like Orpheus.  Or even if they were simply fans of Jewish literature, completely isolated from pagan influences, they would know of ascension narratives like those of Moses, Enoch, and Elijah.

When you say ‘mythos of Jesus’ remember what it is you’re talking about.  You’re talking about a literary collection of motifs, archetypes, and tropes: memes.  That is what I’m talking about, at least.  We can quibble over the human Jesus, but first you have to find him in between those memes, somewhere, if he can ever be found–if such a figure ever existed.

Further, I would encourage Tom to look at just how long it would have taken a story to take root. McCasland (1935, I think?) suggests no more than 5 years in the ancient world, citing the legends which grew up around Vespasian. Taking Vespasian as an example, Josephus was writing within just a few years of the actual event and was able to greatly expand the legends of the Emperor who defeated the Jews. Yet, it only worked because it was based on a real person.

A new study is presented, arguing for a faster exchange of data than that, by K.L. Noll in my forthcoming collection of essays with Thompson.   But it is an irrelevant position anyway; in whisper-down-the-alley, memes can change in seconds when people are right next to each other.  That is the struggle with memes.  And the struggle with oral history, and the struggle with literature.

Let me put it to you like this.  You stage a picture in your backyard, using models, wearing the clothes you like, playing a sport of some sort that you really enjoy (let’s say soccer, since I love soccer).  Is that a picture of the socio-cultural landscape of today?  Of course it isn’t.  It’s an image of what some might believe to be an ideal socio-cultural landscape.  It might contain some historically significant information.  Maybe it contains a street sign in the background, maybe there is a tag showing on a piece of clothing, maybe the soccer ball has a team logo on it.  But is that picture going to be worth something?  Maybe, but not really.

Now let’s put this another way (more relevant to the Gospel authors).  Let’s say I watch an episode of That 70’s Show.  I go out, grab some clothing I think best resembles clothing from the 70’s, and I get some people together who I think look like they could be from that era, and then I dress them up and have a photo shoot.  Could I then take that to a historian of that period and claim that the image is a historical witness to the historical 70’s?  Absolutely not.  The best I could argue is that it is a representation of what I think the 70’s were like, based on solely my understanding of a single episode of That 70’s Show.  That is mimetics at work.

That is the Gospel narratives in a nutshell.  It is a Gospel author, drawing from various memes, creating a scene or image (through literary means) which expresses his particular understanding of the time, through his theological lens (whichever one that might have been), and claiming it to be a historical witness to a figure.  In truth, and at best, all the Gospels amount to are representations of the figure of Jesus.  And whatever historical information they contain can be collected into a single paragraph (mainly Herod, Pilate, Jerusalem, Bethany, Caesar, the Pax Romana, the Temple; in other words–the historical value is the background–the setting–of the narrative).  Memes drove the creation of the Gospel.

That doesn’t mean there wasn’t a historical figure at the onset, but it does make finding or locating that figure even more difficult.  And it is possible that such a figure never existed at all, given the state of how mimetics works.  That doesn’t mean I am saying he didn’t exist.  Only that the possibility is there.

Also, this notion that we can use the Gospels to discover the Historical Jesus, I am becoming convinced, is a misplaced avenue of academic pursuit.

Then we have no disagreements.  I wonder Joel if you’re not talking past me here?  ;-)


Joel has more useful things to say that I did not engage.  Go there and read it!


Memes: Killers of ‘Fiction’ and ‘History’

The title of this post may be a little tongue-in-cheek.  But the truth is, memes can carry a fictional story to the point where people believe they are true.  The best example ever came over my Facebook wall not too long ago and I had to share it, if only to make a point I’ve been trying to make for ages.  This video was posted by a friend of mine:

The video is replicated by several users on Youtube, none make clear where these events are taking place.  Many believe this video is a clip of a real event.  And that, if anything, is a testament to the acting and believability of the comedy show Reno 911.  This DUI win is from an episode on that program.  It was written, produced, and directed for entertainment, it was manufactured to gain ratings, and never was it meant to be taken seriously (that is to say, it was not meant to be taken as a true, historical event).  But with the power of memes, this all changed.

In our age of digital technology, we  tend to believe we can spot a fake and are more critical of the things we watch, read, or hear.  It could, after all, be a fabrication by an amateur graphics artist, or a graphics animator, or something else.  But even with all of our cynicism and skepticism, many people fall for even the most obvious fictions.  A simple Google search would reveal that this video was taken from Reno 911.  But so many people believed the event had happened, they wrote about it, who then published this page showing its origins in 2005.  Yet the video is still reposted as a true event today.

This should cause every historian to pause; when examining the function of memes in our culture, in our modern day, we have to be cautious.  But in a world, such as the ancient world, where beliefs in fanciful things are normal, where skepticism wasn’t as common, and where fact-checking was all but irrelevant (or nonexistent), what might that say about the information we have?  What are the implications towards ancient literature, then?  This, of course, has implications on the historical Jesus.

If a figure hadn’t existed in antiquity, and the Gospels were written as fictitious edification or as theological narratives (like Tobit, 1 Enoch, or Judith for example), is it possible or even probable that a small sectarian group might have taken them to be fact?  And given the speed at which word spreads in antiquity, the amount of time it took to travel, the cross-cultural boundaries that these stories passed over or through to reach their destinations, what might that tell us about the function of ‘history’ in the past?  What might that tell us about the value of the New Testament as a historical collection of books about the early church?

Memes can effectively destroy both ‘fiction’ and ‘history’ at the same time by passing off fictional stories as history.  They do so in our own age as often as they did in antiquity; and examples can, of course, be given to no end.  We have plenty of examples, perhaps in the hundreds if not more, of this sort of thing happening all the time.  A story is completely fabricated, for whatever reason (motivation is secondary to this discussion), and in a few years time, it is believed or accepted–if not wholly as true, then partially.  And this is in antiquity, where information traveled at a much slower pace than at which it travels today.

Just some food for thought.

%d bloggers like this: