Brian Bethune, in a recent article, “Did Jesus Really Exist,” published in Maclean’s Magazine (28 March/4 April 2016), writes, “The reason Biblical historians cannot find even the outline of a historical Jesus, argues an increasingly persuasive chorus of challengers, is that there is nothing to find: Jesus Christ never lived at all” (39). Here we go again, chasing after another ill-conceived theory about the Bible, this being one that periodically rises from the mordant ooze. This hypothesis, however, is linked by Bethune with one of the latest and trendiest current fads in study of the Gospels and the historical Jesus: social memory theory. If lay-Christians, non-Christians, atheists, agnostics, and secularists all want to take advantage of the Jesus story by having something to say about it, so do a good number of scholars who want to have a piece of the social memory pie in Jesus studies.
It is unfortunate, however, that Bethune in his article has totally misconstrued the issue by juxtaposing Richard Carrier’s doubting Jesus’ existence and Bart Ehrman’s advocacy of social memory theory, as well as misrepresenting the utilization of social memory theories in Gospel studies by citing (only) Ehrman (Bethune could have cited some Canadian scholars, but didn’t—shame on Maclean’s). Bethune writes, “But every act of oral transmission, Ehrman cites one memory expert as declaring, ‘is also an act of creation.’ That means one of the few pieces of common ground between believers and skeptics—that the oral transmission of stories about Jesus in the time between his death and the composition of the Gospels could be (more or less) trusted—is turning into quicksand” (39). Far from this being an accurate construal of what social memory is about, this statement overlooks that there is much more common ground between the believers’ belief that Jesus existed and the skeptics’ argument that Jesus did not exist, even though we know (if we are correct) of only a few skeptics who actually question the historical existence of Jesus, Carrier being one of them. For instance, when Milman Parry and Albert Lord speak of the Serbo-Croatian bards composing new songs in every act of performance, they also say that the new composition is still based and draws upon known “oral formulas” that will fit the metrical lines or patterns of the new song. In short, “an act of creation” does not imply “an act of fabrication.” With respect to social memory theory, it is doubtful whether Ehrman is the appropriate and accurate authority to cite in terms of the scholarly research done on the subject. He may just be, as he has been before, trailing along in public support of the latest fad.
It is not our intention here to directly critique Ehrman’s or Carrier’s work, for we have not read them in full yet. Nor is it our objective to join in this ongoing social memory fad, for we have critiqued and will be critiquing elsewhere social memory theory as an interpretive tool used in Gospel and oral tradition studies (stay reading for notification of these publications). In short, it is not a theory of history and cannot be used to determine historicality (such as whether or not Jesus existed). More than that, it is not even a theory of how memories are transmitted, even if it is (and this may be questioned in its details) a theory of how memories are formed. There is also serious question as to whether or how social memory theories that are developed in a literate culture apply to ancient mnemonic contexts.
We here simply want to point out and highlight the following realities (among still many others) regarding this recent discussion. The first is that scholars and non-scholars should be aware of the tendency of many to follow the current intellectual fad, and therefore be wary of embracing it too readily without first assessing it carefully. The use of social memory theories in Gospel studies is at most for purposes of elucidating and understanding the social constructs and the oral traditioning process of the Jesus stories in the Gospels, and definitely not for arguing for or against Jesus’ existence. Secondly, we should also understand that historians, while they evaluate the reliability of their sources, also depend on those same sources to do their work. To claim that the Gospel materials contain ahistorical information about Jesus does not automatically negate his existence; this is a huge leap from scholarly studies of historical sources to a denial of an actual historical fact. To be clear, to believe that “eyewitnesses tend to offer the least trustworthy accounts, particularly when recalling something spectacular or fast-moving, like Jesus walking on water” (39) is certainly different from arguing that the multitude of eyewitnesses who saw Jesus walk and live on earth (1 Cor 15:5-8; 1 John 1:1-3) lied about his existence. This kind of skepticism makes it hard to think that we know anything from the past, whether ancient or modern. Thirdly, the fact that archaeological artifacts also attest to and corroborate much historical information in support of the Gospel accounts should also prompt us to study and assess our presuppositions and arguments further, before making any hasty and preposterous conclusions. Finally, if Jesus really did not exist, how about his contemporaries, did they exist? The Gospels indicate that Jesus lived amidst a very dense and multiplex social network. How are we to make sense of this social network, if we say that Jesus did not exist, but that the people in his social network did exist? While some may agree with the idea that “tales grow in the telling, and Ehrman sees the Gospels rife with ‘distorted’ (that is, false) memories” (39), there are still many who (rightly) find such a claim absurd and merely following the latest fad that will ultimately lose its unstable and weak footings—just as has the previous fad and the one before that.
— Stanley E. Porter and Hughson T. Ong