Quest for the Historical Jesus (Part 4: Allison, Memory and Lincoln’s Watch)

Let’s conclude the series here on the Quest for the Historical Jesus. We’ve looked at Quest history, some common Quest portraits of the historical Jesus, and the criticism leveled at the Quest by its most determined recent critics. We have two posts left to go. In these last posts, I’ll look at a technique that has emerged in recent studies of the historical Jesus: the effort to understand Jesus history as a product of human memory.

Your response here might be a resounding “d’oh!” Of course history is a product of memory – it’s impossible to imagine a history of something that no one remembers. Moreover, even if things other than memory can be used to create a history — audio and video recordings, original documents in archives and libraries, stuff dug up by archeologists – we’d still need access to things remembered in order to complete the history, fill in the gaps and explain the other source material.

When we’re considering the history of Jesus, memory is pretty much all we have to go on. We have nothing tangible that Jesus wrote, built or left behind. All we have are reports (found primarily in the four New Testament Gospels) of what Jesus said and did, reports written 35 or more years after Jesus’ death, and if these reports convey the historical Jesus, they do so by reporting things that were remembered about the historical Jesus at the time the Gospels were written. From the perspective of the historian, we cannot assume that any of these memories are correct. We’ve seen how historians use methods (such as the criteria of authenticity) in an effort to test the accuracy of the Gospel reports. In each history of Jesus we’ve considered so far, the historian has concluded that some of the gospel memories are historically accurate, and others are not.

But what if we think about the problem of memory in a different way? What if, instead of using traditional criteria to determine the accuracy of the Gospel memories, we explore the process of memory itself? Does our understanding of human memory tell us how good we are at remembering things? Are our memories good enough so that we should trust the Gospel accounts to provide us with reasonably good history? If our memories aren’t so good, then where do they tend to go wrong … and what sorts of things are we good at remembering?

If these questions interest you, I have a book to recommend: Constructing Jesus, by Dale C. Allison Jr. Allison is a fascinating writer, and despite all of the criticism I’m about to heap upon him, I think that Constructing Jesus is the single best book I’ve ever read about the historical Jesus (John Meier’s A Marginal Jew is at the top of my list when it comes to the historical Jesus, but Meier’s work is up to four volumes already and he’s still not done).

Some background (taken from the chapter Allison contributed to Keith and Le Donne’s Jesus, Criteria and the Demise of Authenticity): Allison rejects both the traditional criteria of authenticity and the idea that we can find “authentic” Jesus materials – Allison views the vast bulk of gospel material as “possibly authentic”, which to Allison is the same as their being “possibly not authentic”. Instead of searching for authenticated sayings and doings, Allison prefers to look for the historical Jesus in “larger patterns repeated in the extant materials”. This brought Allison to the question of memory. In Allison’s words, “it occurred to me … that the quest for the historical Jesus is essentially an endeavor to recover accurate human memories.”

It’s surprising, then, that Allison begins Constructing Jesus with a thoroughly negative account of our ability to remember things. Allison concludes from modern scientific research that “memory often leads us astray.” Memories fade. We remember “what we assume was the case rather than what was in fact the case”. Our memories mingle related events into composites. We think we remember being present at events that we did not witness in person. We “project present circumstances and biases onto our past experiences”. We lose track of the order in which things happen. We remember what is in our self-interest to remember. These failings are not just those of individual memory – our collective memories suffer from the same failings.[1]

But there is one light amidst all this darkness … Allison thinks that our memories are strongest when it comes to “the big picture”:

As our recollections become increasingly tattered and faded, they are disposed to retain, if anything, only the substance or “gist” of an event.

What we’re good at, it seems, is recalling the central fact, or seeing the whole. We can recall the outlines of an event better than the details, generalizations better than specifics, where we’ve been better than what we saw while we were there. Allison uses two common-sense examples to prove his point: when two cars run into each other, the witnesses may disagree about the details, but they’ll all remember that the cars collided. And while the victims of robbery may have trouble identifying the robber, they’ll have no difficulty remembering that they were robbed.

For those (like me!) who might doubt our ability to remember the gist, Allison has a stern reply:

[If the Gospel sources] do not in large measure rightly typify Jesus’ actions, give us some sense of his situation, accurately exhibit some habitual themes of his speech, capture the sort of character he was, and so on, then what hope is there? If the chief witnesses fail us in the larger matters, we cannot trust them in the smaller matters either, and we are not clever enough to make up their lack.

Allison’s account raises questions. Is he correct that we remember the gist of an historical event better than the details making up the event? And is he right that this gist contains our best historical access to the event itself? Let’s test Allison’s thesis with an experiment, using a memory from the first days of the Civil War (H/T to Bart Ehrman’s blog for making me aware of this story). The memory is this:

After the Civil War, an Irish immigrant watchmaker named Jonathan Dillon told the following story: he was working in a jewelry shop in Washington, D.C. in April of 1861, and he happened to be repairing President Lincoln’s pocket watch when he learned that Fort Sumter in South Carolina had been attacked and the war had begun. According to Dillon, he inscribed a message inside the watch casing, consisting of his name, the date and the following text: “The first gun is fired. Slavery is dead. Thank God we have a President who at least will try.”

Dillon told this story to family and friends, and in 1906 to a reporter for the New York Times. So we have here a good example of history as remembered by an eyewitness, and an opportunity to test Allison’s memory theory. Let’s take advantage of this opportunity. If you’ve never heard this story before, then please get pen and paper, and write down what you think is the gist of the inscription made by Dillon in Lincoln’s watch.

Really. Pretend you’re a historian like Dale Allison. You have Dillon’s 1906 report, but what you want to know is what Dillon really wrote inside of Lincoln’s watch. You think like Allison does, that the key to learning what Dillon wrote in 1861 is to understand the gist of Dillon’s inscription as he described it in 1906. So … turn away from the computer, grab pen and paper, and write down your version of the gist of Dillon’s remembered inscription: “The first gun is fired. Slavery is dead. Thank God we have a President who at least will try.” We’ll shut down the blog for a moment while you write down the gist of this inscription as you see it.





Time’s up! Put down your pencils. What did you write down? If you’re like me, the gist you saw is that Dillon hoped Lincoln would bring an end to slavery. But maybe you saw a different gist. Your gist might be that Dillon recorded a personal message to Lincoln, a wish for a successful Presidency. Or perhaps your gist is that Dillon recorded something in Lincoln’s watch to mark the onset of the Civil War. Or perhaps you’re a pessimist when it comes to history and memory, and your gist is merely that Dillon inscribed something inside of Lincoln’s watch.

The story of Lincoln’s watch has a nice conclusion. The watch ended up in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C. A few years ago, museum officials learned of Dillon’s story, and they opened up Lincoln’s watch. Inside they found the following inscription:

Jonathan Dillon April 13-1861 Fort Sumpter [sic] was attacked by the rebels on the above date J Dillon April 13-1861 Washington thank God we have a government Jonth Dillon.[2]

Is this the inscription you were expecting? The answer depends on your version of the inscription’s “gist”. My version had to do with slavery and support for President Lincoln, but the actual inscription never mentions slavery or Lincoln (either by name or by office). But my version of the “gist” is not the only possible version. If your version was that Dillon recorded for posterity the firing on Fort Sumter, then Allison’s memory theory worked for you.

But let’s consider Lincoln’s watch from a different perspective. Once we know both Dillon’s inscription and the way he remembered it later, we can appreciate how much Allison’s memory theory has to offer. As Allison would have predicted, Dillon misremembered most of the detail of his inscription: he forgot that he mentioned Fort Sumter by name, and he incorrectly remembered inscribing a reference to slavery and Lincoln. Dillon did correctly remember that he signed his name (three times!), and included the date of the attack (he was off by a day, but perhaps he did not learn of the attack until the day after it occurred). Oddly enough, Dillon also correctly remembered inscribing the phrase “thank God we have a …”, though he forgot what he’d thanked God that we had. But this is the only part of the inscription where Dillon correctly remembered his original wording.

Allison helps us understand why Dillon misremembered, and how Dillon misremembered. Allison says that our memory of an event often includes post-event information and biases – memory experts call this “retroactive interference”. This is one reason why memory is so complicated (and so interesting!): our memories are multi-layered. When Dillon spoke to the New York Times in 1906, he was able to recall portions of the inscription he wrote back in 1861 … but in the process he also recalled other Civil War memories, such as his admiration for Lincoln and his opposition to slavery. These are true memories: at some point (perhaps in 1861, perhaps later) Dillon truly admired Lincoln and opposed slavery. But these memories also prevented Dillon from correctly remembering his 1861 inscription.

This, in a nutshell, is my problem with Allison’s theory of memory gist. When we look for the gist of a piece of remembered history, we’re in effect searching through layers of memory, some describing the event we’re trying to remember, and some interfering with our ability to remember the event. If we’re lucky, we’ll find only those memory layers that describe the historic event. But as we saw in the case of Lincoln’s watch, we may instead find interfering memory layers (for example, Dillon’s false memory that he had inscribed an anti-slavery message in Lincoln’s watch). When we seek the gist of memory, what we’re likely to find is as mixed up and multi-layered as the memory itself.

The Gospels are like Dillon’s 1906 report to the New York Times, only much more complicated. Each Gospel contains a rich collection of memories about Jesus, written after the events they purport to remember. Between Jesus’ death and the writing of the first Gospel, there was time for “retroactive interference” to change the memories of Jesus’ followers.  The gist we find in the Gospels (assuming that we all agree on this gist) might be that of things Jesus said and did during his lifetime … or they might be the gist of events remembered incorrectly, or events occurring after Jesus’ death. In all likelihood, the gist will be that of all of these types of memory mixed together.[3]

Allison’s method for sorting through the memory mix is what he calls “recurrent attestation”: Allison looks for the gist of Gospel memory in those topics, motifs and types of story that reappear again and again throughout the Gospel tradition. Allison shows “recurrent attestation” by means of long lists: 32 collections of Gospel sayings showing that Jesus held an “apocalyptic eschatology”, 26 collections showing that Jesus proclaimed himself as “the axis of all things eschatological”, and another 31 collections affirming that the Gospel passion narratives contain accurate historical information. Dispersed among these lists are numerous sub-lists, bullet lists, charts and arguments so detailed that Allison frequently numbers the points contained therein so that amateurs like me don’t get lost.

Allison’s efforts to establish “recurrent attestation” have an impressive effect – they result in a portrait of the historical Jesus that is thorough, carefully reasoned and broad in its coverage of the Gospel material. Following the “paradigm” of Albert Schweitzer, Allison argues that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet who preached that the Kingdom of God was fast approaching, and that Jesus himself would both “direct” apocalyptic events and reign as the king of God’s Kingdom. The Kingdom would include a resurrection of the dead, a universal divine judgment (with Jesus as judge) and an idyllic world with God in charge, all coming soon. In response, the Romans crucified Jesus as “king of the Jews”, perceiving (not without cause) that Jesus’ “regal pretensions” represented a threat to civil and political order.

As Allison makes his case, he analyzes just about everything of interest to a student of the historical Jesus: the so-called Q Gospel, Meier and Sanders, Borg and Crossan, and much much more. The book is a tour de force. For those up to the challenge, I cannot recommend it highly enough.

But while I admire the history that Allison creates, I don’t think he’s found a way to isolate reliable memories of Jesus. Even if I buy into Allison’s premise that we’re most likely to remember the gist of an event, I remain skeptical that we can find the gist of anything.[4] In particular, I disagree with the idea that the gist is found in long lists. Why should the gist of a tradition be located in what is repeated most often? Maybe it’s just my being a member of a religious minority, but when it comes to religion, I distrust what is said most often. My version of common sense tells me to seek truth in what is said most perceptively, often by a quiet and solitary voice.

At the end, I’m left wondering if memory is even more complicated than Allison makes it out to be. If we think of memory as something flat, like a photograph of a single event (for example, the scene of a car accident), then I agree with Allison: we are more likely to remember the “big picture” than the little details. But once Allison introduces the concept of retroactive interference, then memory becomes three dimensional – in effect, each memory is made up of a stack of photographs, and a single “big picture” becomes much harder to identify. Can we really find something like the historic Jesus in a memory stack? I don’t know … but kudos to Allison for making the attempt, and providing us with a terrific book.

This might be a good place to conclude our exploration of the Quest for the Historical Jesus. But before we leave the Quest behind, we have one more post to go. In our last Quest post, we’ll look at how Anthony Le Donne looks at memory and history. This will be a wild ride, but a rewarding one … because I think Le Donne offers up the best way to view Jesus history from an interfaith perspective.

See you next time … and please, add a comment below describing your version of the gist of Dillon’s remembered inscription in Lincoln’s watch.

[1]  Allison may not be completely pessimistic when it comes to memory. Allison’s book includes a discussion of his differences with the Jesus Seminar (see pp. 156-64), and Allison peppers this discussion with relatively positive assessments of the accuracy of Gospel memory. Here, in a lovely turn of phrase, Allison writes that “[t]here is always an abundance of the past in the present, and the past has its own inertia, its own tendency to self-preservation.” I was surprised to read Allison say these things, given that he began his book by saying that “[t]he frailty of human memory should distress all who quest for the so-called historical Jesus.” Perhaps Allison’s overall assessment of human memory becomes more optimistic once he incorporates the idea that we’re reasonably good at remembering the gist of past events.

[2]  Oddly enough, the museum found other inscriptions inside Lincoln’s watch, including “Jeff. Davis” (the name of the President of the Confederacy), “LE Grofs” and “1864.” Evidently, Dillon was not the only person with something to say who had access to the innards of Lincoln’s watch.

[3]  Here we get into a difficult area. Allison believes that “fictions may convey facts” and that “the letter can be false, the spirit true.” Honestly, it’s hard for me to know what Allison means here. Is he simply restating his thesis, that we’re more likely to remember the gist of an event than the event details? Or is he proposing something more problematic, along the lines of Morna Hooker’s statement in Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity that a story “may be a complete invention while nevertheless conveying the truth”? Again, let’s use real world examples to illustrate the problem. Popular opinion to the contrary, Marie Antoinette never uttered the phrase “let them eat cake”. Nevertheless, the attribution of this phrase to Marie Antoinette might accurately reflect her attitudes towards the French peasantry. Or not. Returning to Allison, he wrote in Jesus, Criteria and the Demise of Authenticity that the temptation narrative in Matthew 4 and Luke 4 “is haggadic fiction” but also “preserves a series of likely truths about Jesus – that he was a miracle worker, that he refused to give self-authenticating signs, that he thought himself victorious over demonic forces, that he could quote the Bible, and that he had great faith in God.” Fair enough. But we cannot use fictions to establish the truth of anything, because fictions are not true. For example, I doubt that Allison finds historic truths about Jesus in the fictions preserved in non-canonical Gospels and the Talmud, however “haggadic” these fictions might otherwise be.

[4]  In fairness, Allison’s book includes a second gist, an “illustration” of recurrent attestation where Allison assembles 17 collections of Gospel sayings to show that Jesus was an exorcist and that he saw his ministry “as a successful combat with the forces of Satan.” Agreed! But then Allison walks away from the “Jesus as exorcist” gist, noting that “demonology” is not the subject of his book. Personally, I found this decision inexplicable. Yes, Allison does include Jesus’ combat with Satan as part of his discussion of Jesus’ eschatology. But why subsume the exorcist gist within the eschatology gist? What prevents the two gists from existing independently, or co-dependently?

  • Sara A.

    Maybe as we get further away from a particular life or memory, we slowly begin to experience the multiple perspectives that the advent of time and distance necessarily bring. Interesting post, Larry. A friend of mine and I were just discussing the historical Jesus so I am going to forward this blog to her. Thanks for a thoughtful post that included history, theory, and your personal experience of religion.

    • lbehrendt

      You’re welcome, and thanks for the thoughtful comment!

      Your comment anticipates my upcoming post on Anthony Le Donne. Le Donne is surprisingly positive when it comes to memory interference: he says that the more we remember an event and the more important the memory is to us, the more we interpret and reinterpret that event. In essence, this is how we keep from forgetting: we interpret to keep the memory alive and meaningful. There’s a lot to say about this process: what it says about our ability to write history, and what it says about our role as individuals and communities in the preservation and transmission of memory.

  • Bill Heroman

    Fascinating posts, this one and the next one on Le Donne, which I found first. I really cannot overstate my gratitude on finding these posts. You have summarized well and done a good service to both men and their readers. Thanks very much.

    One point on your illustration regarding the watch. I paused from reading, as you asked, and in trying to think I suddenly remarked to myself, “But that’s not how it works.” Although you’ve made your point well with an interesting exercise, the Allison theory would only apply if we began with something like several accounts of the timepiece inscription story. In such a case, presumably, each accountant might recall details differently, but agree on the basic elements, thus providing (collectively) one “gist”.

    I also appreciate your valuing of the “quiet and solitary voice”, another counterpoint worth commending, and your 3-D stack of photos (bringing the view of history into proper 4-D, actually) also reflects well an area lacking in these recent memory studies, that they do not as yet have much to say on the basic elements of chronology such as causal dynamics, sequence, and interconnectedness. Thus far it has been isolated themes about Jesus’ identity, as with most HJ stuff over the decades.

    All in all, thanks again for these two wonderful posts. Great blog here…

    • Larry Behrendt

      Bill, this is a great comment, and I’m sorry I have not responded. Please look for a reply on Sunday

    • lbehrendt

      Bill, sorry for the delayed response. I’ve been on a religious retreat — the first time I’ve ever tried that.

      You are right about my illustration. It is a very simple illustration, so simple that you’re right not to trust it. It is a single account, it describes a single historical artifact, and the accuracy of the historical memory in question is (as it turns out) easily checked against the artifact. This is not the stuff of any kind of history we care about.

      You’ve raised a more specific objection about deriving a gist from a single versus multiple accounts of a story. True enough, if the inscription in Lincoln’s watch was witnessed by four watchmakers, and each watchmaker told a separate story of the inscription, we might have been been able to easily see a “gist” of these stories, and that “gist” might have proven to be accurate once the watch was opened. Maybe. But what if instead, we had four different stories of the inscription in Lincoln’s watch, and each of the four storytellers heard the story originally from the single watchmaker? What if each storyteller heard the story from the watchmaker at different times in the watchmaker’s life … and we weren’t sure of which story was earliest? What if some of the storytellers heard the story not from the watchmaker, but from other storytellers? What if all we’re sure about is that we have four stories, but we’re not sure about the rest. What kind of “gist” would we expect?

      Remember that Allison is focusing first on individual memory. He says that each of us remembers the gist of an event better than the details. I’m not sure that Allison is making the same point about collective memory. To be honest, I’m weak on the topic of collective memory, and I’d like to hear whether you think we can search for the “gist” of a collective memory.

      But my main point has to do with interpreting gist. Allison would agree (I think) that gist REQUIRES interpretation, and we’re each going to see different gists in the same story. But I wanted to add that the difficulty is in two dimensions, because in addition to interpretation, we have to decide how specific or general an interpretation need be to qualify as gist. To say that we remember the gist is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, because we can almost always find an accurate gist so long as our gist is sufficiently general. We can say that the gist of the watchmaker’s story accurately reflects history, because there WAS an inscription. Or because the inscription was in English. Or because the inscription referenced the Civil War. But we’re also going to be tempted to locate the most specific gist we can, because we need specifics in order to create our histories. This being the case, we have to worry that the gist on which we want to build our history is TOO specific (the inscription in Lincoln’s watch did not mention slavery) and hence not accurate..

      Part of the point of the exercise was to test Allison’s theory. But another point was to explore the nature of gist.

      I wonder … can you think of another way we might test Allison’s theory. I admit that mine wasn’t very good (though I hope you found it entertaining!).

      Thanks for the nice comments. I hope you stick around and join in the discussion.

      • Bill Heroman

        Larry, thanks for such a great reply. I’m not sure we can “test” Allison’s theory at all, so to speak. I’m also not sure that using the theory is intended to provide certainty, either. In my humble opinion, the shift from particular to general is helpful enough as compared with previous HJ studies in that it offers perspective for anyone attempting to use Jesus material at all.

        I don’t know how better to qualify this next statement, but at the very least it ought not have been so easy for Jesus scholars utilizing the Gospels to construct a “true” Jesus that the Gospel writers themselves would never have recognized as Jesus. Thus, one benefit of these memory theories is that one can still be critical of the sources but not revisionistic to the point of redefining everything in those sources.

        At any rate, the ‘gist’ theory remains only one possible tool for interpreting the Gospels. As you said very well, there is always the possibility of the lone dissenter.

        For instance, let’s suppose 28 mafia guys gave their account of what happened to Jimmy Hoffa. ; – ) And let’s say their stories differed wildly in details, but the ‘gist’ strongly supported mafia innocence. (gasp!) But suppose in fact that one lone witness had told the police some true details about what had actually happened, but had no evidence. If that had happened, the mafia gist could very well consign the true facts into history’s wastebasket.

        All silliness aside, I mean this point very strongly. There is no way to determine whether the New Testament accurately presents anything that it presents, let alone all that it presents. As a christian believer, I find my own way, perhaps within my community and my tradition, towards believing as much of the Jesus story(ies) as I may come to believe. When I encounter anyone who believes differently, I offer the same respect to their position as I hope to receive for my own.

        What I like about the new memory theory(ies) is that they offer more respect to the source material as we have it. Right or wrong, the Gospel writers presented their view of Jesus. Some who do not accept all the details are being wise to consider the ‘gist’. And so forth. For all history can “prove”, it may or may not be true that Jesus was viewed as a healer and exorcist, but according to Allison this is fairly more likely to be true (than certain other claims) because it is borne by the gist.

        Again, it’s reasonable, and respectful to the material. It doesn’t prove anything.

        My own views on historiography are at available at my blog.

        Thanks again for encouraging the conversation. I’ll check back again as the week goes on. You’re a very crisp thinker, and it’s always fun to engage… especially about the Gospels’ hypothetical value.

        • lbehrendt

          Bill, nice blog you have there!

          I didn’t find the story about the 28 mafia guys to be in the slightest bit silly. I’ll give you another example. I’m doing research on the Parable of the Prodigal Son, and I ran into a text discussing “kezazah”, a supposed ancient Jewish practice something like shunning. According to the text, the returning prodigal son expected to receive the kezazah treatment, where before he got home the villagers would grab him and subject him to a kezazah ceremony where a pot filled with nuts or fruit (I’m still fuzzy on the details) would be broken in front of the son, thereby cutting him off from the village and his family forever. According to the text, when the father in the parable ran to greet his son, there were hundreds of villagers on the father’s heel. Or something.

          I’ve heard a lot of Jewish stories in my day, but I’ve never heard of kezazah. When I couldn’t find “kezazah” in the Jewish Encyclopedia, I googled the term. And, surprise! The term is extensively discussed … nearly exclusively in online discussions of the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Try it yourself! See how hard you have to look for anything like a Jewish discussion of this term (and the discussions you’ll find have nothing to do with the return of spendthrift sons). As best as I can tell (and admittedly, I’ve only spent about an hour trying to figure it out), Christian commentators have glommed onto the concept of kezazah based on a reference to the term in Kenneth Bailey’s “Jacob and the Prodigal”, and Bailey applied this concept to the prodigal based on one reference in Midrash Rabbah Ruth and two references in the Jerusalem Talmud. I don’t have online access to these sources, so I’m taking Bailey’s word for it. But if these are the most important references to kezazah shunning of prodigals, if there’s no like reference in Tanakh or the Babylonian Talmud or the important medieval commentators, then we’re talking about a literary obscurity. (This is even putting aside the dubious practice of creating 1st century social norms out of fragments of texts written hundreds of years later.) Yet we have the google equivalent of 28 mafia guys proclaiming that the prodigal son expected to face a shattered pot. If history is memory, and Jesus history includes the Parable of the Son that Didn’t Receive the Expected Kezazah, heaven help us all.

          Excuse my rant. Actually, I agree with you. I like memory theory because it respects the gospel material, and I also respect the gospel material. I hope you keep posting here, and you can expect my posts on your site any time now.

          (For those interested, you can find Bill’s blog, “NT/History Blog, on my blogroll.)

          • Bill Heroman

            That does indeed sounds like a perfect example. As if research wasn’t already frustrating enough!

            I actually think there are lots of times when a majority view is likely the result of entrenched bias or sponsored propaganda. So, um. Yeah. And thanks for the plug. XD