The role of experience in memories of the historical Jesus
- 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 theOf course, what we have in the canonical Gospels is something similar.
>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.
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
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
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