Discussion continues about a new approach to the academic study of Jesus’ life during lecture series

Posted on 23 February 2017 by eestes@tusculum.edu

The discussion of a new approach to the academic study of the gospels continued during the third session of the Theologian-in-Residence lecture series at Tusculum College, which is being led by Dr. Travis Williams.

Exploration of a different approach to the academic study of the life of Jesus continued on Tuesday during the third session of the Theologian-in-Residence lecture series at Tusculum College.

The topic of this year’s series is “Jesus in Early Christian Memory: Remember, Reconstructing and Rehearsing the Past.” Dr. Travis Williams, associate professor of religion at Tusculum, is the featured speaker of the series, which is sponsored by the college with support from Ron Smith.

In the second session of the series, Dr. Williams had introduced an approach to the scholarly study of Jesus’ life that incorporates recent research on memory and a variety of academic disciplines. As a historian, he said, studying the Bible through the lens of such disciplines as sociology and literature is not an attempt to downplay the text, but rather an effort to ascribe value to the Scriptures.

“As a valuable book, we want to bring all the approaches we can to study it,” he said. “We want to bring these disciplines to bear on the text to better understand it because it is important.” Theologians can then take this academic research and determine what it means on a spiritual level, he added.

This approach using a variety of academic disciplines and memory research is in contrast to the approach that has been used by a majority of scholars in their study of the gospels, which has sought to discover the “historic Jesus” by trying to peel away layers of interpretation and tradition to find the factual Jesus.

Building on his previous presentation that noted recent research into the memory process, Dr. Williams explored other aspects of memory that have been the subject of recent academic study – the impact of social environment on memory and eyewitness testimony.

As recent research has found, when an individual remembers an experience or event, it is not the process of retrieving the memory as from a filing cabinet as was previously thought, he noted, but the brain reconstructs the memory from various areas of the brain and this reconstruction is distorted by nature as it is influenced by a person’s current circumstances

In addition to being influenced by the present, an individual’s memories are influenced by his or her social group and environment. The trailblazer in research into the social dimension of memory was French scholar Maurice Halbwachs, who theorized that people’s recollections of the past are based on social environment. These include a person’s current circumstances, group affiliations, cultural environment and prior traditions.

Dr. Williams also discussed eyewitness testimony and recent research that has found people’s recollections can be malleable, influenced by such things as an individual’s bias or the passage of time.

Most scholars do not believe that the gospels were written by eyewitnesses or those who may have heard stories first-hand from eyewitnesses. “Historians look at plausibility in history,” he said, “and most scholars agree that the gospel authors most likely were not eyewitnesses, but this does not mean that the gospels are not based on eyewitness testimony.”

Looking through the perspective of social memory can bring a better understanding of Jesus by looking at how the circumstances of the later Christians who preserved the Jesus tradition may have impacted which memories were preserved and how he was remembered, Dr. Williams continued.

Reconstruction of memories does have constraints, he said, as the present does have an influence by memory is rooted in the past.

While historians cannot recreate the past or test it like a scientist, they can look at the imprint of the past, what is plausible, as they study the gospels, he noted, adding that is why historians are cautious in saying what they think Jesus is like.

The first step in this process would be to look at the circumstances of those who were transmitting the memories, look at how the memory process itself could have affected the recollections and then study the social context of those individual and how that could affect their perception of what they saw.

For example, he said, the question of the literacy of Jesus is a topic of debate. While some have debated this on theological grounds, others have debated the answer looking at historic evidence.

In looking at the context of the time, recent research has found that literacy was rare in the Palestine region during the time of Jesus (around three percent of the population), he said, and early Christianity was criticized for its uneducated leaders.

The memory process allows both representations of Jesus as either literate or illiterate to occur, Dr. Williams continued.  “In both cases, we have to explain the evidence as best we can,” he said. “The memory approach is an attempt to value the gospels. Instead of treating the stories found in the gospels as reciprocal parts of the real Jesus, the memory approach says all text is valuable. It is grounded in explaining sources instead of choosing between them for authenticity. What did the historical Jesus have to do to get them to remember him this way?”

In the concluding session of the series on Tuesday, Feb. 28, Dr. Williams’ focus will be the transmission of oral tradition within early Christian communities with particular attention given to the malleability and persistence of the Jesus tradition as it passed between people. The lecture will begin at 10 a.m. in the Chalmers Conference Center in the Niswonger Commons on the Tusculum College campus. Reservations are requested. Please call 423-636-7304 to make a reservation or email eestes@tusculum.edu.

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