Memory and the Gospels

By Craig S. Keener

Critical scholars usually date Mark roughly forty years after Jesus’s public ministry. But some of the more skeptical scholars write as if very little would be remembered about Jesus after forty years.

Such skepticism might have made more sense to me when I was just twenty years old, but it seems impossibly simplistic at this point in my life. On my fortieth-year high school reunion a couple years ago, a friend casually narrated to me a specific incident about me that she remembered clearly from when we were in third grade (I was age eight, about fifty years ago), and that, her husband added, she had also recounted to him. I recalled the same incident.

Our memories are fallible and certainly incomplete, but usually they suffice for ordinary purposes. We forget far more than we remember, but of what is most significant to us, we may remember half after five years and much of this remains in our memories in subsequent decades. Thus we remember many key incidents in episodic memory, and, in a different memory system, verbal memory, we remember much information that we have learned. A high point for later recollection in our lives are the events of our late teens and early twenties, the probable age range of many of Jesus’s first disciples.

Oral tradition sometimes preserves some core information accurately for centuries; preservation is most consistent, however, within the period of living memory. “Living memory” is the period that oral historians also call “oral history” as opposed to oral tradition; this is the period of roughly 60-80 years after events, while eyewitnesses or those who knew them remain alive. The Gospels that appear in our New Testament are commonly dated from 40 to 65 years (from Mark to John) after the events. The earliest noncanonical gospel, by contrast, is usually dated roughly 110 years after Jesus’ public ministry, followed by other noncanonical gospels from 160 years to many centuries later.

Many of Jesus’s teachings in the canonical Gospels appear in the sort of readily memorizable forms in which sages often offered them to facilitate retention. Moreover, many of Jesus’s sayings reflect their original context in his Galilean ministry far better than they reflect the situations of the churches for whom they were being presented afresh in the Gospels. The Gospels commemorate the collective memory of Jesus and his impact on the movement that he founded.

I document these points more fully in the final section of my recent book, Christobiography, mentioning merely a sample of points here. If we take such factors into account, it seems evident that the testimonies offered in the first Gospels do in fact offer a portrait of Jesus’s character, message, and deeds that brings us into contact with many key features of what his first disciples experienced. As Christians, we believe more than this. But even from conventional historiographic considerations, we should surely not believe less.

Craig S. Keener is F. M. and Ada Thompson Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary.  Several of his many books have won national or international awards.  His works include commentaries on several New Testament books, and his recent defense of the Gospels as reliable ancient biographies, Christobiography: Memory, History, and the Reliability of the Gospels.

Image: Benvenuto Tisi: Christ Washing the Disciples' Feet

Einstein on Jesus

By John Dickson

[Albert Einstein] was interviewed in 1929 by the journalist George Viereck and, among many other things, he was asked about some religious matters. It is well known that Einstein despised “revealed religion” as infantile; he did not even like the idea of a personal God. His religious outlook was little more than a vague hunch that behind the laws of nature there must be some “infinitely superior spirit and reasoning power”. Fair enough.

But the thing that annoyed my atheist friends was Einstein's admiration for the historical figure (yes, historical figure) found in the New Testament Gospels. Here's a portion of the interview:

Viereck: “To what extent are you influenced by Christianity?”

Einstein: “As a child, I received instruction both in the Bible and in the Talmud. I am a Jew, but I am enthralled by the luminous figure of the Nazarene.”

Viereck: “You accept the historical existence of Jesus?”

Einstein: “Unquestionably! No one can read the Gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus. His personality pulsates in every word. No myth is filled with such life. How different, for instance, is the impression which we receive from an account of legendary heroes of antiquity like Theseus. Theseus and other heroes of his type lack the authentic vitality of Jesus.”

Einstein's admiration for Jesus and his confidence that Jesus was a historical figure offer a nice contrast to the more recent dogmatism of the best-selling atheists, which is perhaps why my sceptical social-media friends were so resistant to accepting that the great physicist could ever have stated such glowing words about the founder of Christianity.

I literally had folks suggesting Viereck's interview itself was a fraud, even though—as I pointed out—it was published in one of 20th-century America's most widely read magazines [Saturday Evening Post, October 26, 1929].

I had to dig it out of the archives and post screenshots of the relevant pages of the interview before some would believe that Einstein said such a thing. Even then, I'm not sure other folk would accept it. Such is the power of preference to shape what we believe!

Excerpted from John Dickson, Is Jesus History? (The Good Book Company, 2019), 10-11.

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