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The role of experience in memories of the historical Jesus

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  • Bob Schacht
    Everett Fox published a new translation and commentary on the Torah in 1995, and what he wrote about the Book of Exodus has, I think, some resonance with our
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 29, 2004
      Everett Fox published a new translation and commentary on the Torah in
      1995, and what he wrote about the Book of Exodus has, I think, some
      resonance with our situation. According to Fox (1995, 242-3),
      >Apparently the experience of the exodus period was crucial in forming the
      >group consciousness of the Israelites, and ever since it has provided a
      >model from which both later Judaism and Christianity were to draw
      >frequently and profoundly.…
      >I stress the word "experience" because that is what is at stake here.
      >Human memory is always selective. We remember what we wish to remember,
      >giving weight to particular emotions, sometimes over and above the facts…
      >The same thing appears to be true of group memory. What a people remembers
      >of substance is not nearly important as how they process their experience.

      Of course, what we have in the canonical Gospels is something similar.
      Jesus and his disciples had a formative set of experiences of a
      sufficiently memorable nature that, long after Jesus was no longer
      physically present with them, his followers were still processing that

      Current evidence suggests that the Exodus was not just one group of people
      with one leader undergoing a unitary experience. However, this does not
      preclude the possibility of a number of similar experiences over a limited
      range of time, dominated perhaps by the singular experience of one of the
      groups. In the case of the Exodus, these disparate experiences eventually
      coalesced into a few related stories (perhaps the Elohist and Yahwist
      sources) that became The Torah (Teaching) for countless subsequent
      generations. Perhaps an oral stage was involved with some of the stories.
      Ultimately, up to 4 different editorial revisions (E, J, D, & P) produced a
      relatively continuous single narrative, but with double and even triple
      copies of some stories remaining in the text. I don't think it is too much
      to suggest that the Exodus experience is what made Israel a people who
      distinguished themselves from all other people because of their ancestral
      Exodus experience.

      Viewed in this perspective, the formative experiences of the followers of
      Jesus were sufficiently powerful to form the basis of a number of
      traditions that eventually were expressed in written form. These traditions
      were not the isolated work of solitary authors, but, as has often been
      argued (and disputed), the product of communities that, though widely
      dispersed, were connected by travelers (such as Paul, and Peter, and others
      as described in the Didache).

      Both Exodus and the Gospels represent combinations of historical details,
      rationalizations, editorial re-arrangement, and embellishment. But these
      different factors were not arbitrary, and were in both cases shaped by
      group experience. In both cases, I think, that experience was more
      important than factual details-- but also in both cases, history was

      I'm working through these ideas off the top of my head, but I appeal not
      only to Fox, but also to James(?) Sanders and many others on the importance
      of communities and their experiences in the development of the canon, and
      suggest that the comparison with the role of the Exodus as a formative
      experience in the group consciousness of the Israelites might have some
      instructive parallels for us to consider.

      I hope this is not obvious on a sophomoric level, but sometimes we seem to
      write as if experience was not all that important.

      Robert M. Schacht, Ph.D.
      Northern Arizona University
      Flagstaff, AZ

      [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
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