As I’m a big fan of Oxford scholar Markus Bockmuehl, I’m excited to begin a three-part summary/review of his new book Simon Peter in Scripture and Memory: The New Testament in the Early Church (Baker Academic, 2012). Bockmuehl’s Seeing the Word was one of the most formative books I read during my seminary years, and so I was all the more excited that he billed this work on Peter as a “test case” for the approach to living memory that he set out in Seeing the Word.
It is precisely this theory of living memory that Bockmuehl expounds in the first part of his book on Peter. First, though, he sets out the problem that makes Peter an ideal test case: although Peter was the leading disciple of Jesus and the point of continuity between the ministry of Jesus and the apostolic church, we in actuality know very little about him by way of details of his biography or apostolic career. Peter virtually disappears from Acts after 12:18, and nowhere else in the NT do we get clues as to his fate. Very few, if any, of the many gospels, acts, and epistles attributed to Peter are considered authentic to the apostle (1 Peter, and to a less likely extent, 2 Peter, are the best candidates for exceptions, but even if one or both are accepted as Petrine, they still shed very little light on Peter the man).
If, therefore, we have “no significant written sources extant from [Peter’s] lifetime” (5), what are we to do? Here’s where Bockmuehl’s “living memory” comes in. By this approach, which he contrasts with an “archaeological” model of finding real history buried beneath centuries of church tradition, Bockmuehl means “understanding what happened from what happened next” (8). That is, following Gadamer’s theory of Wirkungsgeschichte, “studying the impact and aftermath of historical persons, texts, and events, either for their own sake or, somewhat less commonly, as a potential clue to the original meanings” (8), provides a better way at getting at historical reality through the use of historical foregrounds rather than endless attempts at getting “behind” the text as in the archaeological model.
Bockmuehl’s unique twist on Wirkungsgeschichte is his emphasis on what he calls “living memory.” Scholars tend to assume that the earliest sources are best, but Bockmuehl turns this assumption on its head. Here he is worth quoting at length (10-11):
“Contemporary observers often turn out to be pretty poor witnesses to the history of their own times. What they perceive as successes may well turn out in retrospect to be little short of disastrous; people they damned as failures can in the end be celebrated for far-sighted courage and wisdom–and vice versa. [Example of changing fortunes of Chamberlain and Churchill before, during, and after WWII]
In seeking to understand key players in the drama of Christian origins, therefore, we may not always be best served if we imagine contemporary written sources to be the best points of access. The quality of historical insight is not always proportionate to proximity of our sources to the events and persons they describe. Although a privilege when we can get them, the voices of ancient contemporaries are no less myopic about their own times than we are about ours: proximity typically precludes perspective.
Conversely, the experienced and remembered effects of a person’s words and actions are valuable as a clue to their meaning as a knowledge of the original causes and circumstances. At the same time, it must be right to limit the extent to which we travel down the road of consequences, or we will lose sight completely of the original story.”
Bockmuehl “limits the extent” of his journey to about AD 200, when those who heard first-hand from those who heard the apostles first-hand were dying off, breaking the chain of “living personal memory of the apostolic tradition” (16). While conceding that all memory is “at least to some extent, a reflection on itself and on its own ideological commitments” and that it “is remarkably malleable and subject to distortion when it comes to the witness’s own experiences and encounters” (11), Bockmuehl argues that “we should not be misled into the opposite error of underrating memory’s importance just because it is contested and tenuous” (12). All the more so, he argues, for early Christians who explicitly safeguarded and treasured apostolic memory (e.g., Papias in Eusebius E. H. 3.39.3-4; Irenaeus in Eusebius E. H. 5.20.7; Clement of Alexandria in Eusebius E. H. 3.23.5).
I have a minor interest in memory studies, and of all I’ve read I think Bockmuehl is one of the best at seeing the strengths, weaknesses, and above all the usefulness of this kind of approach. Particularly given that the NT gives us very little of Peter’s life beyond his identity as Jesus’ leading disciple and a key leader in the early church, a study of “living memory” might indeed show “how this [basic] profile was remembered and augmented, contested and fictionalized, in the 150 years after the events surrounding Peter’s disappearance from the narrative of Acts” (33). To this we turn next time.