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Images of Jesus, Personal and Historical – “Social Memory” at AAR/SBL

December 6, 2013
Folio 27r from the Lindisfarne Gospels contain...

Folio 27r from the Lindisfarne Gospels contains the incipit Liber generationis of the Gospel of Matthew. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


How have our personal images of Jesus come to be? (They do matter, whether we are religious or not.) How did the images (or verbal descriptions) of Jesus we find in the New Testament (NT), which we draw upon for our personal images, come to be?

This week, as a distant follower of what’s happening in the biblical studies field, I’ve read a little about the interactions of current (and mostly younger) scholars on just such questions.  The main focus area has been one of high interest to me: what is often being called studies of “social memory”, and the function of social memory in the construction of the narratives of the Gospels and other literature of the NT.

One thing I particularly like about the consideration of social memory and the increased attention to research on individual memory (also, as behind it), applied to NT studies is that it is interdisciplinary.  Kudos for interdisciplinary! Biblical scholarship has always had to be somewhat this way.  Still, it has been largely insular, as a specialized discipline unto itself.

However, it is impossible to deeply understand any portion of the Bible (or use proper “hermeneutics”, the in-house term) without the input of numerous disciplines, the top few including history (esp. history of religion), archaeology, cultural anthropology and literary criticism.  History has long been included, at least as a peripheral discipline incorporated in the study process, and non-religious historical scholars sometimes consulted.  Similarly with archaeology.

Now it may be that “social memory” will draw in much more from neuro-psychology and other branches of psychology, sociology and anthropology (I say “may” because I’ve not yet followed much of these studies).  If so, such input will be exciting and highly impacting, especially in its implications for the traditional, seriously unhistorical and simplistic version of Christian origins orienting around the largely fictive period of “apostolic authority”.

Some of the work of the last couple years or so, in terms of scholarly publications in the area of social memory (both lay-oriented and scholar-oriented), came to a point of serious discussion and debate in the recently-concluded joint annual meetings of the American Academy of Religion (AAR) and the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL).  According to the AAR website, this combined set of meetings is “… the world’s largest gathering of scholars interested in the study of religion.”

As I’ve implied, I have not yet gone very far in reading either the presented papers or even the ensuing published portions of discussions and post-meeting blog interactions.  I’m sure there is a whole lot!  But you can find a couple things I have read and found quite interesting, which will lead you to much more, if you have interest, here (scroll down or open to the the Dec. 2 and earlier posts) and here, which also has some related posts on the blog.

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