Social Memory and Literary Creation about Jesus – Fascinating Mix
As I do on occasion, today I’m posting what began as a comment on another blog, that of PhD student, Judy Redman (here). I there gave some background newer readers here may find helpful also…. There is more detail on my history in the “About Me” section. With some modifications, here is much of what I said on Judy’s blog as a contribution to a discussion about memory studies and the nature of the stories and other content found in the Gospels of the New Testament:
I am a former and long-time Evangelical and one who has worked through at least most, if not all of the frustration/aggravation of feeling “led astray” on a number of levels. These “leadings” mostly oriented around the view and treatment of “the Bible and history” (for lack of a better summary term). Then that as tied to supposed divine authority via unique revelation, etc. Out of this, of course, grows a complex set of doctrines, most of which I now see as only one way of construing biblical “testimony”, much of that construct distorted.
I remain a lover of history and of spirituality, and now identify as a “progressive” Christian. Scholars of Evangelical or “orthodox” affiliation/belief I understand fairly well (as to their “paradigms” or frames of reference) due to my long sharing of the same. I still “check in with” them fairly regularly though I’m more a serious reader of those with either a bit different kind of faith or “none” (i.e., agnostic and mainly historical, such as Bart Ehrman and several others)…. They use paradigms often called “higher critical”, which is probably as flexible or variable as is “evangelical” – used here as an adjective.
It’s important to know that I thoughtfully and deliberately try to study as a “faith-filled” scientist/historian (as a “paraprofessional”). In the vein of many “Process” people, I will neither uncritically accept all claims of supposed “supernatural” events (e.g., miracles), in or out of the Bible, nor will I discount or disallow them as impossible. I like to take seriously the “speaker’s” interpretation (or that of the literary “reporter” of claimed events). I have repeatedly had my belief reconfirmed that I should presume at least some such reports do represent something “beyond” the material and totally “natural”. (“Natural” meaning unconnected to higher design or guidance that we may never be able to figure out fully.) That’s partly from personal experiences and more from examining many present-day reports and careful study and analysis of such reports. Whether our angle is more scientific or more “spiritual”, we must take seriously and seek to interpret others’ experiences in constructing a paradigm for understanding reality. These experiences include conversions, NDE’s (“near death” experiences, often not associated with actual nearness to dying but sometimes with clinical heart and brain “death”), “paranormal” abilities, scientific level evidences for reincarnation, etc.
This “stance” or point of perspective aligns with an already-existing paradigm, fleshed out pretty heavily in the “process philosophy/theology” model. In the case of Christian Process theology, Jesus is right in the middle of such issues of reports about experiences, their interpretation, etc. It should be considered, by all of us, our business to wrestle with what to make of Jesus and, just as significantly in my view, what to make of the experiences and thoughts of Paul. Paul is significant in ultimate influence on what Christianity became, but also chronologically, as the earliest identifiable, traceable writer. With him already “in view”, we then encounter the Gospel writers, one of whom, Luke, also wrote the massively influential first “history” of budding Christianity, The Acts of the Apostles. I think it’s abundantly evident that these literary “creatives” quickly added onto and modified what were probably the core emphases of Jesus. Some of these emphases we know from a pre-gospel source contained within Matthew and Luke but no longer separately existing, commonly called “Q”.
What was purposely fictional and why and how they composed it is both fascinating and important to have at least some idea of in order for it to guide a “reasonable” and functional kind of Christian faith. So, to me, we have to wed together what was remembered (accurately or not) very soon after Jesus’ death with whatever we can ascertain of how new sects (yes, more than one or two) were developing interpretations of Jesus’ life and death and, in the process, re-interpreting Hebrew Scripture and applying both to a very fluid and trauma-filled social-political-religious situation in which they lived. Perhaps of most importance is that we allow the complexity of this situation and the meager information we have about it to revise the long-held traditional view that a “Christian Church” emerged quickly and in a unified way because of the transformative power of Jesus’ bodily resurrection and leading of the Holy Spirit through divinely authorized Apostles. The reality, even as seen in a close and comparative reading of the New Testament texts, is not nearly so “neat” and compelling, though still fascinating and important.