Memory and Memories in Early Christianity

Proceedings of the International Conference held at the Universities of Geneva and Lausanne, June 2-3, 2016

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Simon Butticaz, Enrico Norelli
  • Tübingen, Germany: 
    Mohr Siebeck
    , February
     356 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Memory and Memories in Early Christianity, Simon Butticaz and Enrico Norelli have collected papers presented at the Universities of Geneva and Lausanne in June of 2016. As the title suggests, the papers all deal in some way with the concepts of memory and memories in the early Christian movement. This volume boasts some internationally well-known New Testament scholars, perhaps most notably—in order of appearance—Jens Schröter, Judith Lieu, Daniel Marguerat, Jörg Frey, and Jean Zumstein.

This collection of fourteen essays (including the introduction) contains eight chapters in English, four in French, and two in German. The subjects encompass such topics as the historical Jesus and the Gospels (more on this below); memory and the letters of Paul; the construction of Christian identity in Irenaeus, the Acts of the Apostles, and other second century Christian writings; as well as the role of memory in relation to early Christian theology. Given the breadth of the content, Butticaz and Norelli write that the aim of the book “was not merely to apply an analytic and interpretive tool (i.e., theories of social memory) to the literature and history of nascent Christianity, but also to identify socio-religious echoes of the notion of memory in the ideology and language of the first followers of Jesus” (12–13). The contributors, then, not only cover a wide array of subjects but take a broad approach to the study of memory in early Christianity.

The editors have attempted to produce a sense of cohesion in this collection by dividing the book into four sections with the essays grouped together in logical succession—not always a common feature of edited volumes. In addition to the section divisions, each essay is preceded by an abstract. All abstracts are in English, including those for essays written in French and German. Not all of the abstracts are equally descriptive of the contents of the essays, but they at least provide slightly more detail than the titles.

Those unfamiliar with memory studies and social memory theory may not wish to pick up this volume first. An assumption made by all the contributors is that readers will already have a sense of the contemporary discussion. The introduction by Butticaz and Norelli is helpful in this regard, but a base knowledge of the “main players,” as it were, will certainly be important to dialogue with this book at a scholarly level. For instance, the work of Jan Assmann and Maurice Halbwachs are cited in nearly every essay. Familiarity at least with the general arguments of these figures would go a long way for someone new to memory studies who wishes to engage this volume.

Some of the essays that stand out from the others include the essays by Jens Schröter, Judith Lieu, and Daniel Marguerat. Schröter’s essay applies Assmann’s social memory theory to the Jesus tradition, and he demonstrates various ways that the contents of the Jesus tradition were shaped by the current situation of the community. Schröter sums it up nicely: “The memory of Jesus was therefore preserved and transmitted as a ‘living tradition’ that could become meaningful by its application to new situations” (95). In his essay, Schröter takes both the form critics as well as Gerhardsson and his more recent followers, Bauckham and Byrskog, to task for their approach to Gospel composition and study of the historical Jesus. Lieu’s essay stands out from the rest because her subject matter deals with early Christian epistles. Until recently, New Testament scholars utilizing memory studies have neglected the epistles in favor of the Gospels. Lieu demonstrates the fruitful ground of the epistles in which there is still much to be reaped. Finally, Marguerat’s essay, which is restricted to those who can read French, is a fascinating study of the construction of Christian self-identity in Acts of the Apostles, in which he argues that the final speeches of Paul are “where a normative memory is configured” (où se configure un mémoire normative) (158).

Given the emphasis on memory in historical Jesus work over the past decade or so, as well as the variety of approaches to memory within historical Jesus studies (especially in the work of Dale Allison, James Dunn, Chris Keith, and Anthony Le Donne, to name a few), it is surprising that only Frey’s excellent essay deals with this topic in any depth. Even his contribution, however, basically suggests that the historical Jesus is scarcely to be found in John since John is not writing a “life” (bios) of Jesus in the same ways as the Synoptic evangelists. John’s language for “memory” or “commemoration” (cf. John 2:21–22; 12:16; 14:26) is understood to be a work of the Holy Spirit, a theological reflection after the fact: “The issue [for the Fourth Evangelist] is not whether the disciples retain a clear memory of what happened or whether that memory could fade in time. The human capacity of memorizing is not in view, but rather the revelation by the Spirit” (283).

In spite of this one omission, I expect that this book will serve to introduce many to the variety and kinds of insights that memory studies can bring students of the New Testament and early Christianity. It may not become a standard reference volume, but such is not its purpose. The book’s intent, so far as I can tell, is rather to introduce New Testament scholars to the benefits of contemporary memory studies. Insofar as this is how the book is approached, I expect it will be of enduring value for those who wish to begin to study the convergence of memory and early Christianity.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Daniel B. Glover is a doctoral student in New Testament and Early Christanity at Baylor University.

Date of Review: 
November 13, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Simon Butticaz is Assistant Professor of New Testament and Early Christian Traditions at the University of Lausanne (Switzerland).

Enrico Norelli is Professor Emeritus of History and Literature of Early Christianity at the University of Geneva and invited professor at the Facultad de Literatura Cristiana y Clásica San Justino (Madrid).


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