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New Directions in Memory Studies

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The Old Testament speaks of the importance of memory. For instance, Deuteronomy repeatedly calls for remembrance (5:15; 7:18; 8:18 et passim), Israel recounts its history in Psalms (105, 106), and failure to remember precipitates apostasy (Isa 17:10; Jer 17:2; cf. 2:2–8; Ezek 16:22, 43). 

The exploration of memory in biblical studies is not new. Well-known is Brevard Childs’s Memory and Tradition in Israel, in which he studies the Hebrew root zkr and explores the function of memory through a biblical-theological paradigm.1 He argues that memory functions to actualize Israel’s redemptive history for each generation. Another well-known study is Mark Smith’s Memoirs of God: History, Memory and the Experience of the Divine in Ancient Israel.2 Using a historical-critical framework, Smith reconstructs a diachronic development of Israel’s remembrance of its history. Thus, the study’s focal point lies behind the text, on its composition and redaction. 

A significant difference between the two works is Smith’s use of newer memory studies. These arose in the field of social science and its discussion of memory, particularly collective memory. The term “collective memory” is challenging to define and describe.3 The term can be traced to the 1920s and Maurice Halbwachs, whose works spurred social and collective memory studies. Halbwachs defined collective memory as a “reconstruction of the past [that] adapts the image of historical facts to the beliefs and spiritual needs of the present.”4 The challenges surrounding the idea of collective memory are varied and include the possibility and nature of collective memory, its relationship to individual memory and the surrounding culture, the presence of variant memories within a given culture of a particular event, and the power that memories exercise within a society. At issue is how the is past remembered, who compiles and curates the memories, and what collective memory accomplishes. 

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Within Smith’s study, the employment of collective memory studies results in conclusions that are not far differentiated from redactional history. But the ideas of collective memory have since been more broadly engaged in biblical studies and, attending again to Halbwachs’s definition (above), they give consideration to the reconstruction of the past, as well as the beliefs and spiritual needs of the present. Two recent works represent these considerations.

In Kingship and Memory in Ancient Judah (2017), Ian Wilson sets the shaping of existing monarchic traditions in the Second Temple period, by the hand of Judean literati. Working synchronically, and with insights from narrative and memory studies, he argues the text reveals polyvalent attitudes to kingship.5 These variant attitudes are particularly discerned through narrative emplotments and form a “sociocultural system that helps construe communally shared narratives about the past.”6 Using memory studies, Wilson concludes that such communal memories reveal the self-understanding and identity of the Judean literati. Wilson’s work moves beyond compositional history, focusing instead on “how late Persian–period Judean society remembered and imagined its past, present, and future with that literature.”7 Thus, Wilson’s work reveals the power of memory to shape a particular community in time.

In Memoir of Moses: The Literary Creation of Covenant Memory in Deuteronomy (2020), A. J. Culp eschews “studying texts as memory products.8 He instead examines how Deuteronomy functions to produce memory, drawing on memory-study insights that word-based and image-based memories are “how the human mind absorbs, structures, and recalls events.”9 Culp traces such memory-producing presentation in Deuteronomy, notably pairing word and image in complementary relationship. Echoing some of Childs’s focus, Culp argues communal memory is transformative, summoning readers into that communal memory and its experience of the divine. Through this, communal memory transforms the listener, effecting covenant faithfulness.

The study of memory has developed in significant ways since Childs’s earlier work and has moved beyond primary attention to compositional history. Wilson and Culp present different foci, with Wilson continuing the guild’s attention on historical context, while Culp gives attention to the text’s affective power on reading communities in both the past and the present. Each approach opens possibilities for engagement with the broader biblical corpus. Thus, applying Wilson’s insights to a book such as Jeremiah might indicate its exilic tradents curated the memories of covenant failure and exile so as to reveal exilic issues and identity; applying Culp’s poetics of memory might reveal the book’s own methods toward inculcating communal, transformative recollection. Within the context of theological education directed to the church’s benefit, it is perhaps Culp’s work that may have the most lasting influence. As it reckons with the transformative power of memory, it takes up Scripture’s own transformative ontology. For a book such as Jeremiah, exploring Culp’s poetics of memory could speak a powerful word into the church’s own times of failure, experience of God’s discipline, and the ongoing possibilities of repentance and renewal. 

LISSA M. WRAY BEAL is writing a commentary on Jeremiah for the Baker Commentary on the Old Testament: Prophets. Earlier published commentaries include Joshua (Story of God; Zondervan) and 1-2 Kings (Apollos; InterVarsity).

This article was first published in Didaktikos: Journal of Theological Education. Free subscriptions are available to theological faculty here:

  1. Brevard S. Childs, Memory and Tradition in Israel, SBT 37 (London: SCM, 1962).
  2. Mark S. Smith, Memoirs of God: History, Memory and the Experience of the Divine in Ancient Israel (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2004).
  3. See the complexity of the issues in P. Boyer and J. V. Wertsch, eds., Memory in Mind and Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), and B. A. Misztal, Theories of Social Remembering (Maidenhead, UK: Open University Press, 2003).
  4. Cited in Ian D. Wilson, Kingship and Memory in Ancient Judah (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 23.
  5. Wilson, Kingship and Memory, 4, 18–19.
  6. Wilson, Kingship and Memory, 30.
  7. Wilson, Kingship and Memory, 33.
  8. A. J. Culp, Memoir of Moses: The Literary Creation of Covenant Memory in Deuteronomy (Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2020), 2; italics added.
  9. Culp, Memoir of Moses, 194.
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Didaktikos is a vocational journal for professors who teach in biblical studies, theology, and related disciplines—particularly at the graduate level and in service to the church. Didaktikos is published four times a year.

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