Tour of Christian History
Kelber, Werner H. "The Case of the Gospels: Memory's Desire and the Limits of Historical Criticism." Oral Tradition 17:1 (2002), 55-86.
Kelber observes that study of memory and mnemonic devices have sparked a renewal of scholarly interest in recent years, particularly spurred on by the work of Frances Yates (1966), who "surveyed the ancient and medieval art of mnemotechnique - ranging from memory as a set of waxed tablets to an architectural design functioning as storehouse or inventory - and produced in effect a handbook on ancient Western memorial commonplaces" (Kelber 2002, 55). Yates' work has led Mary Carruthers (Book of Memory 1990) to see late antiquity as "predominantly a memorial culture rather than a purely documentary, textual one" (Kelber 2002, 56). Of interest to Kelber is the concept of recollection which is geared toward gathering and preserving information which confirms a particular community identity. In Kelber's view, this is a selective and sometimes inventive, process. "The memory work of the group consists in constructing a new image from elements it retrieves from the past" (Kelber 2002, 57). Kelber suggests that a written record can distance itself further from a community and the expectations of hearers. This could potentially allow writers to reshape the audience's understanding of the past to a greater extent than would speakers. The written gospels, therefore, could possibly be more creative of past events than would be predicted of oral works (Kelber 2002, 58).
Kelber observes that biblical scholarship has not been heavily influenced by these recently postulated views of the scribal development of traditions. Rather, it has been influenced greatly by Birger Gerhardsson, particularly in his work Memory and Manuscript (1961). Here, Christian tradition operates through memorization of events in a relatively mechanical manner, through repetition of authoritative accounts (Kelber 2002, 59). This would preserve the narrative in a relatively static form. Kelber does, however, note that there is scholarly hesitancy about backdating later known rabbinic practices into the first century (Kelber 2002, 60).
Kelber does illustrate some of the challenges of tradition by citing the concept of the apostles as eyewitnesses of Jesus' work, a concept he sees as being developed after the fact (Kelber 2002, 61). The tradition, which he sees emerging between 80 and 200, would be used to legitimize the New Testament accounts. The fact that the Gospels contain relatively esoteric teachings which are said to be presented to the Twelve apart from the crowds suggests to Kelber a similarity to the Nag Hammadi gospels and a particular genre shift within the canonical Gospels (Kelber 2002, 62). Kelber considers that the New Testament scholarship has been slow to consider the possible distinct functions of memory versus manuscript.
In this relation, Kelber adduces Rudolf Bultmann's The History of the Synoptic Tradition (1921), in which Bultmann took the textual tradition to have been preceeded by extensive oral tradition, which led to a transcription which reflected developments in the tradition when compared to the actual events (Kelber 2002, 63). Bultmann's method, though intellectually and logically consistent, strikes Kelber as not reflecting the actual way content develops in orality or in writing (Kelber 2002, 64). Kelber provides several ways in which Bultmann departs from current understandings of orality.
Another important "analysis of dominical sayings" is John D. Crossan's In Fragments (1983) (Kelber 2002, 65). His analysis covers statements from Mark and Q, along with Matthean and Lukan parallels, for a total of 113 statements (Kelber 2002, 66). In 1986 he released a volume (Sayings Parallels) dealing with 503 statements. The extent of the variations among different sources is striking. Kelber concludes that the written sources act freely with materials, where oral tradition would be less likely to do so (Kelber 2002, 66).
Kelber considers yet another area of weakness in Gospel scholarship, namely, what he refers to as "the eclipse of Gospel narrativity" (Kelber 2002, 67). He describes this as a loss of understanding of the overall narrative structure and logic of the canonical Gospels, in favor of the referents contained in the pieces of narrative. The Gospel as a coherent narrative was considered as unimportant. The thing signified became more important than the overarching narrative concept. Kelber describes this development in terms of Derrida and postmodern deconstruction (Kelber 2002, 68). The movement ultimately looked for a meaning behind the narrative, which, when found, could be in contradiction to the narrative.
Kelber next considers the contribution of a focus on text, essentially on typography, to scholarly challenges (Kelber 2002, 70). Kelber suggests that a focus on the printed word as a rigidly fixed entity may lead to types of scholarship and interpretation which would be foreign to the ancient world. He illustrates this by describing the "Two-Source Hypothesis" in which Mark and the hypothetical Q document served as the sources for Matthew and Luke (Kelber 2002, 71). The outcome of such scholarship is that particularly Matthew and Luke are taken to be entirely dependent on specific wording found elsewhere. Another illustration of the problem is found in the construction of Gospel parallels, in which the four gospels are harmonized with one another. This practice suggests that the actual Gospel narratives are defective and need to be collated so as to achieve their intended purpose (Kelber 2002, 72).
As a possible corrective to the weaknesses Kelber has identified in Gospel scholarship, he notes a movement in the late 20th century to recover a distinct literary identity for each of the evangelists (Kelber 2002, 74). Each one has a distinct narrative voice. This realization breaks down Bultmann's view that the Gospels emerged from some meta-tradition. Source theories in general become less useful (Kelber 2002, 75). Theological ideas become the servant, rather than the master, of the narrative, by arising naturally from the narrative context rather than forcing the narrative to conform. Kelber illustrates the concept by describing how eschatology in Mark's Gospel is addressed based on an overall narrative of expansion of time and details of events as the text approaches the critical eschatological event of Jesus' death and resurrection.
The individual voices of the Gospels speak to issues which are relevant to the context of their original, local audiences (Kelber 2002, 77). These subtexts are significant to our attempts at interpretation. Kelber details several of the subtexts which are in operation, showing how each evangelist has a unique voice.
Kelber's conclusion is that the Gospels reflect a great deal of the way their authors selected and remembered events (Kelber 2002, 79). The written documents emerged from memory of events, but that memory would also have operated to place the events into some context, one which made overall sense. This effect can explain a great deal about the nature of the four distinct narratives and their voices (Kelber 2002, 80).