The Historical Jesus Tradition and Memory Studies: Debates and Perspectives

Credit for applying memory approaches to scholarship on the Gospels goes back to biblical scholar Werner Kelber who in the 1990s delivered lectures on the topic across venues in Germany and the United States. One of his lectures in October 1993 at the University of Missouri was on the topic of “Language, Memory, and Sense Perception in the Religious and Technological Culture of Antiquity and the Middle Ages”. 

Memory theory and orality as it applies to the historical Jesus and the Jesus tradition was inaugurated in biblical studies by Swedish New Testament scholar Birger Gerhardsson (1926-2013) (1) and in literary studies by Walter Ong (1912-2003), a Jesuit priest, professor of English literature, and historian of religion (2). This was followed later by the work of Alan Kirk and Tom Thatcher who also wanted to learn how memory theory and orality would apply to the search for the historical Jesus (3).

Since then, scholarship has seen a “spate of studies applying memory research to problems in the history of the Jesus tradition, and – hardly surprisingly – in historical Jesus research, where it has become a point of sharp controversy” (4). A few important and recent scholarly works, which will be noted below, include Bart Ehrman’s Jesus interrupted (2009) and Jesus Before The Gospels (2016), and Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (2017).

For the Reliability of the Jesus Memories: the Gist and General Message

Memory theory has been used for and against the reliability of the Gospels. On one hand, there has been a shift away from the ipsissima verba (the precise words) of Jesus towards the memory of Jesus. This is an important change because scholars in the quest for the historical Jesus have usually intended to recover Jesus’ ipsissima verba

Scholars, like Richard Bauckham, Craig Keener, and Michael Bird (among many others), have turned attention to memory and argued for a positive outcome. They argue that memory is inherently reliable in a general way and that the Gospels, therefore, are reliable, not necessarily at the level of detail, but at the level of broad memory, impact, or gist.

The views of these scholars, as well as by critics, is that Jesus lived in an oral culture and he would have delivered his message orally and repeatedly, which likely created many streams of memory, which has led many scholars to acknowledge that they will unlikely ever discover an original speech event. As such, likely is that Jesus’ teachings had many forms, especially as the oral tradition evolved. Many scholars then recognized that the search for the ipsissima verba of Jesus is the incorrect manner of approach. 

Biblical scholar Robert McIver takes this approach and argues that memory retains the “gist” of an event significantly better than it retains the details (5). He acknowledges studies that show that memory is imperfect and is weakest on details of timing, but for the most part it is reliable and that there are natural constraints on what can be invented. 

McIver argues that the differences between the Gospels of Mark and Luke in the Parable of the Sower (Mark 4:1-9 and Luke 8:4-8) reveal a “gist”’ resemblance more than a verbatim resemblance. McIver also compares an apophthegm between these two Gospels (Mark 12:13-17 and Luke 20:20-26) and argues that the narrative elements of these two versions contain have gist relationship, while the sayings of Jesus have a near-verbatim relationship between the two Gospels. While certainty concerning every detail of the Gospel narratives is not possible, the larger picture, McIver argues, is likely to be true.

New Testament professor Anthony Le Donne, who is the executive editor of the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, incorporates memory theory in his analysis and contends that people remembered Jesus because he was memorable (6). He also adds that their memories of Jesus were framed in the cultural and religious structures available to them. Le Donne remarks,

“With his words, Jesus made a memorable impact upon each of his hearers… In each case, the impact of his message varied from interpreter to interpreter. At the same time, the Jesus tradition maintained a stable core of memory. The message of God’s kingdom was at the heart of this core” (7).

Le Donne, as well as other scholars like Dale C. Allison (8) and James Dunn (9), are primarily interested in the impact Jesus made. Such impact is evident in the memories of Jesus’ tense relationship with his mother, his political and revolutionary mission, his clashes with power, and more. Le Donne concludes that Gospel memories of Jesus are reliable although incomplete.

Richard Bauckham is most famous of late for arguing that the Gospels are the product of the “recollective memories” of eyewitnesses (10). He maintains that all history relies on testimony and that the Gospels are no exception. The Gospels are not the result of anonymous and amorphous traditioning and mythologization, but instead the result of known and recognizable eyewitnesses transmitting eyewitness memories about Jesus. Bauckham appeals to psychological studies on eyewitness memory and notices the main characteristics such as retention of idiosyncratic details, vividness, and ambiguous temporality. All these traits, Bauckham maintains, are contained in the Gospels. Bauckham believes that eyewitness memory is inherently reliable and that it can be trusted where it concerns stories about Jesus.

Writing of the “gist” entailed in collective memory, Bauckham positively references “Some writers, particularly those who emphasize the likelihood of inaccuracy in long-term recollective memory, argue that the “gist” of the memory is likely to be accurate, even when the details are not”. Bauckham quotes Craig R. Barclay who states that recollective memories are “true in the sense of maintaining the integrity and gist of past life events” (11). He further quotes Alan Baddeley, who observes that studies show “a very high level of recall of autobiographical events, and a low level of distortion, given adequate cueing” (12).

Several other important aspects Bauckham mentions regarding collective memory are presented (frequent rehearsal, vivid imagery, etc.) and it is impossible here to do justice to the extensive amount of research he has done to bolster his case. Bauckham concludes: “The eyewitnesses behind the Gospel accounts surely told what was prominent in their memories and did not need to attempt the laborious processes of retrieval and reconstruction that make for false memories” (13).

According to theologian and New Testament scholar Craig Keener (14), although memory can be imperfect, there are limits to this imperfection as they do not usually involve the free composition of events. And granted that some details are inaccurate, the “gist” is usually accurate. Because memory is normally reliable, the Gospels can therefore be considered reliable. Keener approvingly refers to scholar E. P. Sanders’ conclusion that the “gospel writers did not wildly invent material” (15). Drawing on the writings of historians and oral traditions in the ancient world, Keener asserts that “The standard accuracy for ancient memory was the “gist”; memory often preserves the gist of matters even when details remain more obscure or inaccurate” (16). 

Against the Reliability of Jesus Memories: Distortion and Collective Memory Fabrication 

Scholar Bart Ehrman has proposed a game-of-telephone scenario for how he thinks the memories of the historical Jesus were passed on between the time of Jesus’ death and the composition of the Gospels. In Jesus Interrupted, he asks: “But who was telling the stories about Jesus? In almost every instance, it was someone who had not known Jesus or known anyone else who had known Jesus” (18). Ehrman illustrates his point in the following way,

“I’m a coppersmith who lives in Ephesus… A stranger comes to town and begins to preach… I hear all the stories he has to tell and decide… to become a follower of the Jewish God and Jesus his son. I then convert my wife, based on the stories that I repeat. She tells the next-door neighbor, and she converts. This neighbor tells the stories to her husband, a merchant, and he converts. He goes on a business trip… and tells his business associate the stories. He converts, and then tells his wife, who also converts. This woman… has heard all sorts of stories about Jesus. And from whom? One of the apostles? No, from her husband. Well, whom did he hear them from? His next-door neighbor, the merchant of Ephesus. Where did he hear them? His wife. And she? My wife. And she? From me. And where did I hear them from? An eyewitness? No, I heard them from a stranger who came to town. This is how Christianity spread, year after year, decade after decade, until eventually someone wrote down the stories” (19).

According to this view, the memories of Jesus, although originating in the experiences and memories of the eyewitnesses, were handed down via chains of transmission over several decades before finding their final form in the Gospels. Ehrman continues: “What do you suppose happened to the stories over the years, as they were told and retold… by people who had themselves heard them fifth- or sixth- or nineteenth-hand? Did you or your kids ever play the telephone game at a birthday party?… Is it any wonder the Gospels are so full of discrepancies?” (20). 

In Jesus Before the Gospels, Ehrman outlines the serious implications of his game-of-telephone view, which is that each communicator or informant constituting the chain of transmission produces new variants that inevitably cause changes in the stories being retold and that “It is therefore not surprising to find that very often the original testimony has disappeared altogether” (21).

Essentially, the historian only has “memories of memories of memories…” to work with (22) and each person in the chain from Jesus to the authors of the Gospels was trying to remember what he had heard. Ehrman further argues that distortion emerged because reciters of the tradition communicated Jesus stories for specific reasons and to particular audiences. This entailed motivation as the amount of interest a reciter could attract depended on the way he told the stories and on the spin he gave them. As a result, “the tradition inevitably becomes distorted”, according to Ehrman.

Ehrman cites an experiment on “serial reproduction” as important to his case. The researcher Frederic Bartlett demonstrated that a short story related along a chain of experimental subjects rapidly came to display major distortions (23). This is why Ehrman urges scholars to sift through the Jesus tradition using the standard criteria of authenticity.

Zeba A. Crook, an associate professor in Religious Studies at Carleton University, goes significantly further than Ehrman by pushing possible skepticism over collective memory almost to its limit. He takes this approach to respond to “the emerging sense of optimism concerning the inherent reliability of the Gospels as collective memory” (24). His definition of collective memory is based on Le Donne’s view of collective memory being the way memories are shared and passed down by groups.

Crook cites several scholars who have written on memory distortion, such as Roy Baumeister and S. Hastings who have studied American political history (25). A point that Baumeister and Hastings demonstrated, which Crook uses, is “the outright invention of false memories”. Along with some other scholars Crook references, these theorists allegedly support his view that deliberate decisions on behalf of an individual sharing a memory can be disrupted and distorted, as well as outright invented. Crook then argues that even collective memory can be based on fabrications and inventions. 

Several examples are used by Crook to demonstrate his case, such as the Highland kilt tradition, the Satanic Panic, and the story of general Ned Ludd. For purposes of space, general Ned Ludd, the founder of the nineteenth-century British rebels known as the Luddites, is relevant. 

In 1811, the first historian of the Luddite movement alleged that the protests started in 1779 when a young apprentice, Ned Ludd, smashed the machine on which he was working with a hammer. This apprentice was angry for being rebuked over the quality of his work.

In the years 1811-1817, a violent, reactionary movement emerged and spread across Yorkshire, Midlands, and the Northwest of the United Kingdom in outrage over the introduction of wide-framed automated looms that were operated with little or no skill. Many Britons rebelled because they feared their traditional skills would become irrelevant and their livelihoods threatened. There were assassinations, businesses were broken into, wide frame looms smashed, and mills burned down.

Ned Ludd wrote many letters and his followers produced proclamations, songs, and poetry about him. Ned Ludd became a general and songs in his honor exalted him as the “Hero of Nottinghamshire”. He also became Captain Ludd, King Ludd, and Great Enoch. An entire mythology had developed around him, notably as he became increasingly depicted in mythical ways. Nature (fire, water, the elements) was strongly on his side and a hymn ascribed omniscience to him. Clearly, Ned Ludd was deeply rooted in the collective memory of the Luddites.  

Digging beneath the mythological developments, one can learn the facts of Ned Ludd’s life. He moved from the Midlands to the North, recruited a relative named Eliza, and established an administrative staff and officer corps around him, etc. But the problem, according to historians of eighteenth and nineteenth-century British history, is that Ned Ludd never existed as a historical person. Crook writes that,

“Memories about Ludd, in the form of songs about him, honouring titles (King, General, Captain) and artwork that made him into a brave leader, were wholly manufactured. It means that those who were writing songs and poems about Ned Ludd, and crediting him with great deeds of fearsome power, were not ‘remembering’ him; they were manufacturing the memories of Ned Ludd. So too must it be with all the letters written in his name, which were clearly written by many different hands, as indicated by Binfield’s literary and rhetorical analysis of them” (26).

The implication for historical Jesus research is obvious and clear. Although Crook does not argue that the historical Jesus is an ancient example of Ned Ludd in the sense that the collective memories of the earliest Christians were based on fabrications, he does want to weaken claims that (a) collective memory is rarely, or cannot be, manufactured, and that (b) we can therefore take comfort in the understanding that collective memory is on the whole reliable. He concludes,

“On the contrary, memory theory ought to leave us feeling deeply troubled about what we can actually know about the past… Collective memory theory might enrich our understanding of how Gospel materials were transmitted, and how they may have taken shape, both in the period of oral transmission and in the period of literary redaction, but, properly understood, it does not provide shelter in the reliability wars” (27).


Three views on collective memory and its reliability or lack thereof about the historical Jesus can be deduced from these perspectives. 

The first is that one can trust the gist or general presentation of Jesus in the Gospels. Here the core of the memories of Jesus was not disfigured in any significant way as to cause doubt that the general Gospel presentation is correct.

The second view is that there was significant distortion in the chain of transmission. This naturally explains the often conflicting and inconsistent presentations of Jesus within the Gospels, which underscores the need for stringent critical-historical methods and criteria to be applied to these texts.

Lastly, the third view goes further and posits that collective memory can be entirely fabricated, rendering doubt on the historical project of reconstructing any historical figure, including the historical Jesus based on the collective memory of the earliest Christians.


1. Birger Gerhardsson. 1998. Memory and Manuscript: Oral Tradition and Written Transmission. Wm. B. Eerdmans-Lightning Source; Revised edition.

2. Ong, Walter J. 1982. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London: Routledge.

3. Kirk, Alan., and Thatcher, Tom. 2005. Memory, Tradition, and Text: Uses of the Past in Early Christianity. Leiden: Brill.

4. Kirk, Alan. 2017. “Ehrman, Bauckham and Bird on Memory and the Jesus Tradition”. Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 15:88-114. p. 89.

5. McIver, Robert K. 2011. Memory, Jesus, and the Synoptic Gospels. Adanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature.

6. Le Donne, Anthony. 2011. Historical Jesus: What Can We Know and How Can We Know It? Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

7. Le Donne, Anthony. 2011. Ibid. p. 90.

8. Allison, Dale C. 2010. Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

9. Dunn, James D. G. 2013. Eyewitnesses and the Oral Jesus Tradition. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co

10. Bauckham, Richard. 2017. Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

11. Barclay, Craig R. 1986. “Schematization of autobiographical memory”. In Autobiographical Memory, edited by D. C. Rubin, 82-99. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

12. Baddeley, Alan D. 1997. Human Memory: Theory and Practice. Psychology Press.

13. Bauckham, Richard. 2017. Ibid. p. 598 (Scribd ebook format)

14. Keener, Craig. 2012. The Historical Jesus of the Gospels. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. p. 150.

15. Sanders, E. P. 1993. The Historical Figure of Jesus. New York: Penguin. p. 193.

16. Keener, Craig. 2012. Ibid. p. 150.

17. Bauckham, Richard. 2017. Ibid. p. 598 (Scribd ebook format)

18. Ehrman, Bart. 2010. Jesus Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them). San Francisco: HarperOne. p. 146-147.

19. Ehrman, Bart. 2010. Ibid. p. 146-147.

20. Ehrman, Bart. 2010. Ibid. p. 146-147.

21. Ehrman, Bart. 2016. Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior. New York: HarperCollins p. 191-192.

22. Ehrman, Bart. 2016. Ibid. p. 3-4.

23. Bartlett, Frederic C. 1995. Remembering: A Study in Experimental and Social Psychology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 63-83.

24. Crook, Zeba A. 2013. “Collective Memory Distortion and the Quest for the Historical Jesus”. Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 11:53-76. p. 61.

25. Baumeister, Roy F., and Hastings, Stephen. 1997. “Distortions of Collective Memory: How Groups Flatter and Deceive Themselves”. In Collective Memory of Political Events: Social Psychological Perspectives, edited by James W. Pennebaker, Darío Páez, and Bernard Rimé, 277-293. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

26. Crook, Zeba A. 2013. Ibid. p. 70.

27. Crook, Zeba A. 2013. Ibid. p. 76

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