Reviews of

Memory and the Jesus Tradition

In Alan KIRK, Bloomsbury, Fourfold Gospel, Gospels, Historical Jesus, Memory, Nathan Charles Ridlehoover, Synoptic Gospels on September 20, 2019 at 2:00 pm


2019.9.10 | Alan Kirk. Memory and the Jesus Tradition. The Reception of Jesus in the First Three Centuries 2. London: Bloomsbury, 2018. ISBN 978-0-56-768024-2.

Review by Charles Nathan Ridlehoover.

Alan Kirk is Professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at James Madison University. Kirk provides the second installment in the newly minted Reception of Jesus in the First Three Centuriesseries with Memory and the Jesus Tradition. The following volume is the culmination of 15 years of research concerning the Jesus tradition and memory. Kirk’s work analyzes how memory traces the Jesus tradition from its inception to its codification. Each essay contained in the book is from previously published work, but ingeniously arranged under four rubrics: Part I: “Formation of the Jesus Tradition,” Part II: “Memory and Manuscript,” Part III: “Memory and Historical Jesus Research,” and Part IV: “Memory in Second-Century Gospel Writing.”

The book begins with an introductory essay (chapter 1), which is original to the collection. In this essay, Kirk clarifies the aims of memory studies versus the methodology of form critics. Kirk argues that memory studies are able to take the insights of form criticism while leaving behind its greatest flaws. As Kirk notes, “Memory-based historiography is able to give a causal historical account of the connections among the elements of the tradition.” Chapter 2 explores some of the key terms that are used throughout the book. Kirk notes the complexity of such subjects as memory proper, commemoration, social memory, culture, and tradition. Chapter 3 works against the current consensus that memory and tradition are separate topics and, therefore, incommensurable. Kirk argues that the cognitive/cultural interface bridges this divide, thus forming freedom in the arrangement and development of traditional material. In chapter 4, Kirk takes the groundwork developed in the first three chapters and begins to evaluate some of the prominent figures in the current discussion of memory theory. Specifically, he evaluates Bauckham, McIver, Wedderburn, Allison, Byrskog, Dunn, and Bockmuehl. Chapter 5 advances the evaluative work of chapter 4. In this chapter, Kirk explores the consequences of memory theory for how we understand the Synoptic tradition as a cultural artefact, which emerges at the interface of cognitive and cultural operations of the memory.

Chapter 6 is the beginning of a new section in the volume (“Memory and Manuscript”). In conjunction with this section, this beginning essay reexamines the work of Birger Gerhardsson. Kirk concludes that Gerhardsson’s Memory and Manuscriptwas ahead of its time in terms of its connection of memory studies and the gospel tradition but overemphasized the written medium in determining this connection. Chapter 7 begins to focus the theoretical aspects of Kirk’s appropriation of memory studies to specific processes in the writing of the Gospels. This chapter examines orality and memory in scribal practices, while chapter 8 explores scribal habits and their effect on the Synoptic problem.

While beginning a new section (“Memory and Historical Jesus Research”), chapter 9 continues the focused attention evident in chapters 7 and 8. Chapter 9 details the role of violence in recording memories. Specifically, Kirk explores the recording dynamics of the Passion in the Q document. Chapter 10 specifies how memory studies redefine historiography in Jesus studies. This subject is continued into chapter 11. Whereas chapter 10 is more laden with biblical studies language, chapter 11 describes the historiography of Jesus research from a scientific perspective. Kirk’s scientific analysis provides overviews and summaries of subjects such as memory distortion, cognitive/cultural schemas, and cybernetic memory.

The volume concludes with essays exploring the connections between memory studies and second-century texts. Specifically, Kirk examines the ongoing presence of canonical Gospel material in the Gospel of Peter. Chapter 12 examines the Johannine Jesus in the Gospel of Peter, while chapter 13 seeks to flip the paradigm for examining the influence of the Gospel of Peter. Rather than a literary paradigm, Kirk implements his cultural memory analysis to the Gospel of Peter alongside thorough critiques of Crossan, Brown, and Koester.

This volume is an important contribution to the ongoing work in the Gospels, memory studies, and tradition history. Kirk is on the cutting edge of memory studies and is seeking to bring these important findings in the social sciences to bear on neglected areas of biblical scholarship. The book’s only weakness may also work towards being one of its pedagogical strengths. After the beginning chapters, one will observe repetition of various arguments and definitions throughout the rest of the volume. Because the essays were once separate, this repetition is expected. Yet, given the difficulty and novelty of the topic for biblical studies, the repetition itself helps the reader understand the intrinsic nuance to these difficult topics. Others may dismiss the arguments herein because of Kirk’s nod to the two-source hypothesis and revitalization of previously dismissed scholarship (i.e., form criticism and the work of Birger Gerhardsson), but this volume should be an important interlocutor for ongoing Gospel studies. Take the most recent book by Craig S. Keener, Christobiography: Memory, History, and the Reliability of the Gospels (2019). Keener has no less than seventy-four references to Kirk’s work, and rightfully so. The reader now can have a one-stop shop for references and insights into Kirk’s contributions to Gospel studies. Important questions that will need to be addressed as individuals interact with the work will be: Is Kirk’s model descriptive of the first century or an anachronistic approach to Gospel studies? Are we too removed from the oral culture present in the Gospel’s witness to describe the process of writing? With these reservations in mind, I think this volume is indispensable to scholars interested in the intersection of memory and tradition, the historical Jesus and the Synoptic problem, and scribal habits and culture.

Charles Nathan Ridlehoover
Columbia International Seminary
nathan.ridlehoover [at]


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