Friday, July 13, 2007

In Defence of Gerhardsson

In Memory and Manuscript, Birger Gerhardsson argued for the use of memorization akin to rabbinic methods of learning in the transmission of the Jesus tradition. Gerhardsson argued that memorization was an important feature of education in the ancient world and was exceptionally important in Jewish education according rabbinic sources.

Gerhardsson's thesis came under severe criticism including the constant criticism that he was guilty of projecting post-135 AD views on tradition back in to the pre-70 AD period, esp. in the criticisms of Morton Smith and Jacob Neusner. And yet Gerhardsson never claimed that the rabbinic methods in toto could be traced back to before 70 AD, he always distguished materials about education from the Tannaitic and Amoraic periods, and regarded Rabbi Akiba as a definite marker in a period of transition concerning rabbinic education. His point was that Akiba did not invent memorization and some rabbinic education techniques go back to an earlier period. This is confirmed by the language of "delivering" and "receiving" traditions as stated in the New Testament itself (e.g. Mk. 7.13, 1 Cor. 11.2, 23; 15.2-3). What is interesting is that Jacob Neusner wrote the foreword to the 1998 edition of Gerhardsson's book and basically apologized for his initial review of Gerhardsson which was too reliant on Smith's dismissive essay and did not take into account Gerhardsson's nuancing of his position. On top of that Martin Hengel, Gerd Theissen, and Richard Bauckham have all found in Gerhardsson's theory a genuine analogy with the transmission of the Jesus tradition. Rainer Riesner and Samuel Byrskog have also developed and furthered Gerhardsson's thesis in subsequent publications demonstrating the robustness of his approach. That is not to say that no legitimate criticisms remain valid (e.g. how does memorization account for the diverse details in the tradition and Jesus was more of an eschatological prophet than a rabbi), but critics have been unkindly dismissive of Gerhardsson's view of the traditon.

For those who want to read more see my WTJ article.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I read and greatly appreciated your article in the Westminster Journal on the Jesus tradition. I thought it was brilliant, and made me see clearly the importance of having a good, historically plausible model for explaining the canonical Jesus tradition as it has come down to us.

I have two questions: I wonder if you have read Richard Bauckham's recent book on the role of eye-witnesses in transmitting the Jesus tradition, and if so what you thought about it. An Internet skeptic named Neil Godfrey has posted a very lengthy, negative review of the book (at and once you dig through the superfluous ad hominems and skeptical rants there seems to be one consistent complaint: the tightly controlled eye-witness model does not seem to account for the 'riot of diversity' in the Jesus tradition as it passed into the 2nd Century and even before, to say nothing of non-canonical/heretical traditions. He also charges that the Gospels do not really resemble ancient history writing, because ancient historians would speak in the 1st person, present various conflicting accounts and pronounce their own verdict on whether they agree or disagree, etc. What would you say to these criticisms?

Taking off from my last question, it seems that a serious weakness of the models of Gerhardsson, Reisner, Bauckham, et al. is that they do not demonstrate how their model actually explains the details of the actual Jesus tradition. We hear a lot about what the Gospel writers WOULD have done and what the eyewitnesses WOULD have remembered or memorized, but have there actually been detailed examinations of the Gospels themselves to see if the commonalities and differences point to one or the other models as the most likely explanation? I think James Dunn did something like that in his massive "Jesus Remembered" but I'm not sure. In any case, it seems that there needs to be more detailed engagement with the texts before one or the other models is vindicated.

Alright, I'll stop rambling now. You've got a fantastic blog, and I can't wait to read the co-authored book you're writing with James Crossley.