By Garrett Best
Bird, Michael. The Gospel of the Lord: How the Early Church Wrote the Story of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014).
In this series of blog posts, I’d like to use Bird’s book as a starting point for talking about the origins of the Jesus tradition and the Fourfold Gospel. In this post, I’d like to ask the question: Did the followers of Jesus accurately remember his teaching or was it all post-resurrection invention?
James Dunn wrote a landmark book in Gospels scholarship in 2003 entitled Jesus Remembered where he set forth a proposition that Jesus made a significant impact on his followers and his disciples passed on “Jesus remembered”. Often, scholars speak as if the time between Jesus’ death and the writing of the four Gospels was a significant gap of time; however, Dunn urges us to fill in that gap with memories of Jesus being passed on by his disciples. Their memories were being repeated, shared, and passed on throughout various communities. It was the memory of the community that fills that time. Because of this important observation, scholars began exploring the implications of sociology and memory as it relates to the Gospels. Over the last decade, there has been an explosion of social memory theory in scholarship of the Gospels. Just do a search of books written on Jesus or the Gospels within the last ten years with the word “memory” in the title.
Many scholars have accepted Dunn’s thesis that the Christian community preserved the teaching and deeds of Jesus accurately in the corporate memory of the church. In chapter 3 of Bird’s book, he builds on Dunn’s work and offers a new paradigm: Jesus in social memory. The memory of Jesus was not just passed on by individuals, or even several key individuals. The memories were passed on by the entire community and this is what Bird wants to emphasize by naming this paradigm “Jesus in social memory”.
Bird contends that during Jesus time with his followers, he was already encouraging them to remember his deeds and teachings accurately. Consider these references:
- Jesus eternally memorialized the actions of the woman who anointed him at Bethany by proclaiming that “wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” (Matt. 26:13; Mk. 14:9)
- At the institution of the Lord’s Supper at Passover, Jesus instructed the disci to “do this in remembrance of me” (Lk. 22:19) and Paul is clearly aware of this tradition (1 Cor. 11:23-25).
- At the denials of Peter, when the rooster crowed, the text says that “Peter remembered the words that Jesus had spoken to him.” (Matt. 26:75; Mk. 14:72; Lk. 22:61) The words of Jesus were worth remembering.
- Other times, Jesus specifically instructs the disciples to remember his words: “Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours.” (Jn. 15:20); “But I have said these things to you, that when their hour comes you may remember that I told them to you.” (John 16:4)
- The narrator of John’s Gospel also informs readers that the disciples of Jesus remembered his pre-resurrection teaching after his death and resurrection. “When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.” (John 2:22); “His disciples did not understand these things at first, but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written about him and had been done to him.” (John 12:16)
- In the resurrection account of Luke’s Gospels, the women are instructed by the angel in the empty tomb to remember the words of Jesus and they did remember his words: “He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise.” And they remembered his words,” (Luke 24:6-8)
Jesus said that it was good for him to depart from the disciples so that they might receive the Holy Spirit who would “remind them” of everything he said to them (John 14:26). The period after the resurrection of Jesus was not a period of imaginative invention of stories about Jesus. It was a time when the disciples of Jesus recalled the teachings and doings of Jesus and reinterpreted them in light of his death and resurrection. Bird says, “Thus, the Easter experience did not wipe memories or facilely fabricate memories; instead, it provided an impetus for real memories to be recalled and reinterpreted along the lines of a new messianic hermeneutic created by faith in Jesus as the risen Lord.” (Bird, 101)
Indeed, this is what we find throughout the rest of the New Testament, an emphasis on the memory of Jesus (Acts 11:16-17; 20:35; 2 Tim. 2:8; 2 Pet. 3:2). The key to Bird’s material in this chapter is that the evidence points to a shared communal remembrance. It wasn’t just that Peter or any other single disciple remembered Jesus words, but the Christian community remembered them. Since it was shared and passed on by and throughout Christian communities, this would have helped to guard the Jesus tradition from creative inventions or falsified information.
At this point, those of you who have made it this far reading this post (not many for sure!) might wonder the import of this material. Why so much emphasis on memory in the Gospels? As Bird says, “The sociology of memory is one of the best factors to account for its [the Jesus tradition] preservation and integrity.” (Bird, 106) Much scholarship has worked from the assumption that the church didn’t really care about pre-resurrection reality. These scholars believed most of the material about Jesus was post-resurrection invention designed to turn Jesus into the Son of God. That narrative is simply false and it just does not do justice to the evidence found in the Jesus tradition. The evidence suggests that Jesus encouraged the disciples to remember his teaching and the followers of Jesus actually did remember his teachings and doings. The post-resurrection period was a time of reflective interpretation, not wild invention.