Without a doubt, two of the most important voices in the study of communal memory are French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs and German Egyptologist Jan Assmann. Indeed, it is largely due to Halbwachs that the field of memory studies has reached the prominence that it presently enjoys. Additionally, it is largely because of the work of such scholars as Jan Assmann that findings from memory studies have been incorporated into biblical studies. Therefore, it is only right that an investigation of the implications of cultural memory on the canonically framed and theologically oriented reading of a text meet first with these two important gatekeepers. In the study that follows I will offer brief summaries of these men’s theories regarding communal memory. I will also discuss the ways in which Assmann has borrowed from and moved beyond Halbwachs in important and interesting ways. I will conclude with a summary of Assmann’s five stages of canonization.
Maurice Halbwachs: Collective Memory
Halbwachs was the first to deeply explore the possibility that memories exist exclusively within the framework of social connection. Discussions of memory before Halbwachs focused almost exclusively on individual memory. However, in his three major discussion — Les cadres sociaux de la mémoire, La topographie légendaire des Évangiles en Terre sainte: Etude de mémoire collective, and La mémoire collective — Halbwachs argues that all memories, even those which seem most individualized, are not possible outside the social framework.
The truly distictive aspect of Halbwachs’s theory is the essential role that society plays in the formation, communication, and even forgetting of memories. As Halbwachs states,
“To be sure, everyone has a capacity for memory that is unlike that of anyone else, given the variety of temperaments and life circumstances. But individual memory is nevertheless a part or an aspect of group memory, since each impression and each fact, even if it apparently concerns a particular person exclusively, leaves a lasting memory only to the extent that one has thought it over — to the extent that it is connected with the thoughts that come to us from the social milieu.”
Thus for Halbwachs there is no memory, no matter how individualized, that can exist outside of the social frame (cadres sociaux); for the memory was formed using tools supplied through our interaction with society, and we are unable to speak of the past without the use of communication, which assumes a connection with at least one other individual in our social frame. In other words, even though memories belong to individuals, they are formed, interpreted, and recalled within the framework of society. This is why it is nearly impossible to distinguish between individual and social memory; individual memories are highly social in nature.
Another important aspect of Halbwachs’s theory of collective memory is his contrast between memory and history. For Halbwachs, history and memory function as opposites. The former views society from the outside and is concerned only with change. Furthermore, history eliminates social distinctives and views one event as comparable to any other event. Memory, on the other hand, views history from within a community and views the past through socially conditioned eyes. Individuals, according to Halbwachs, do not remember events directly, but rather through collective activities such as reading, listening, ritual, or commemoration.
At this point, it is important to keep in mind the theories of memory that Halbwachs was resisting. He notes that, “One is rather astonished when reading psychological treatises that deal with memory to find that people are considered there as isolated beings. These make it appear that to understand our mental operations, we need to stick to individuals and first of all, to divide all the bonds which attach individuals to the society of their fellows.” And to this extent, Halbwachs’s work was eminently successful. He helpfully identified the connection between memory and the social framework, and in so doing paved the way for all later studies of cultural memory.
When it comes to the continued development of memory studies and its application to the ancient Near Eastern studies, there is no stronger voice than that of Jan Assmann. For decades Assmann has been building upon the theoretical legacy of Halbwachs and others and applying these theories in his role as an Egyptologist. Moreover, significant for our purposes, Assmann has a great deal of interest in the memory of Israel and the connection between memory and canonization, which are central issues in the study of Deuteronomy.
Communicative and Cultural Memory
In all of his writings on memory, Assmann is clear regarding his indebtedness to Halbwachs’s theory of the social framework of memory, but is also clear that Halbwachs’s social framework for memory is only his “starting point.” Assmann’s goal is to add a cultural basis for memory, “since only then can we comprehend the vast depths of time, extending thousands of years, in which man has established himself as a being with memory.”
In order to make this further step from the immediate time frame of Halbwachs’s social memory to the more distant past, which is Assmann’s interest as an Egyptologist, Assmann has developed the terms “communicative” and “cultural” memory. Communicative memory corresponds to Halbwachs’s “social” memory. Indeed in summarizing Halbwachs, Assmann offers the following statement with which he would entirely agree:
“A person’s memory forms itself through his or her participation in communicative processes. It is a function of their involvement in a variety of social groups — ranging from family through religion to nation. Memory lives and survives through communication, and if this is broken off, or if the referential frames of the communicated reality disappear or change, then the consequence is forgetting. We only remember what we communicate and what we can locate in the frame of the collective memory.”
In other words, Assmann agrees with Halbwachs that there is a social aspect to remembering. However, he chooses to use the term “collective” memory as an overall heading and to distinguish between “communicative” memory and “cultural” memory, where what Halbwachs called “collective” or “social” memory, Assmann calls “cultural” memory. He makes this distinction in order to emphasize that in order for remembrance to take place, the past must be reconstructed (rather than preserved) through communicative processes.
“Cultural” memory becomes Assmann’s key for moving beyond Halbwachs toward a theory of memory that can account for cultural elements, which Halbwachs excluded, such as tradition, formation myths, canon, and religion. This move enables Assmann to address issues beyond the present and recent past; communicative memory, according to his formulation, is unable to span beyond the overlapping of three generations (about 80-100 years) while cultural memory can span several millennia. Furthermore, whereas communicative memory is carried by everyone within a “memory community,” cultural memory is carried by expert interpreters. The following chart illustrates Assmann’s distinction between communicative and cultural memory:
|Communicative Memory||Cultural Memory|
|Content:||Historical experiences in the framework of individual biographies||Mythical history of origins, events in an absolute past|
|Forms:||Informal, without much form, natural growth, arising from interaction, everyday||Organized, extremely formal, ceremonial communication, festival|
|Media:||Living, organic memories, experiences, hearsay||Fixed objectifications, traditional symbolic classification and staging through words, pictures, dance, and so forth|
|Time Structure:||80–100 years, with a progressive present spanning three-four generations||Absolute past of mythical primeval age|
|Carriers:||Nonspecific, contemporary witnesses within a memory community||Specialized tradition bearers|
This table clearly illustrates the difference between the categories of memory in Assmann’s formulation. It also clearly illustrates why he, as a historian, is interested in the role of memory beyond the immediate context, stretching far into the past. Having developed Assmann’s theory of communicative and cultural memory, we now turn to his five stages of canonization.
Cultural Memory and Canonization
Within the context of our study it will be very important to consider Assmann’s discussion of canon formation, a discussion which he undertakes from a purely historical vantage point. He states that,
“Theologically, we can think of canonization as an inspired process, a revelation that unfolds and perfects itself over time, and that according to the rabbis, continues in the shape of the oral Torah to modify the interpretation of the text. In what follows, however, I wish to speak not as a theologian, but as a historian, and to throw light on the process of canonization from that angle.”
Later (only hinted at in this write up, but addressed more directly later) I will address Assmann’s framework for the theological question of canon, but for now it is enough to note Assmann’s continuity with the canonical criticism of James Sanders, whom Assmann cites regularly in his discussion of canon formulation. For both Sanders and Assmann, canonical criticism works in reverse to textual criticism. “Textual criticism works from the latest form to the primeval form. The critique of the canon uncovers the forces that motivate the development, growth, coming together, and sanctification of the text.” In other words, Assmann’s theory of canon formation seeks to uncover the historical forces behind the canonization of the biblical text, the Hebrew Bible in this case.
For Assmann, the first stage of canonization is the codification of laws. This, Assmann believes, began in the period of Josiah and continued into the exilic period. At least two factors are required for such a process to happen. First, this stage requires internal cultural polarization wherein individuals are forced to decide whose leadership to follow. In the case of Josiah’s rule, Assmann adopts Morton Smith’s theory of a “Yahweh-alone movement.” As the theory goes, this was a movement that emerged as early as the mid-9th century and continued to engage in a fierce struggle with the cult of Baal. The second factor in this stage of canonization is the absence of kings. Assmann believes that the impulse for developing a canon is pragmatically driven by the ability of a text to replace the kings as the authority figure. Not only did kings have the role of making laws, but time itself was measured in relation to the rule of the kings. In the absence of kings, the canon takes over the role as law and history maker.
The second stage of canonization is the establishment of a written tradition, a process that Assmann believes took place in the Babylonian captivity. This stage of the canonization process is necessary because of the inability for an exiled people to continue their traditions, and to pass these traditions on, while separated from their home and religious sites. Furthermore, life in a foreign land resulted in an impulse to be distinctive.
“The Babylonian exile lifted this holy people out of the cultural context with which they had been in vehement conflict for centuries, forming a community in exile in what had now really become an alien culture, away from their native kingdom from the cult of sacrifice, and thus from all forms of competition from any alternative beliefs. In this group it was therefore all the easier to carry on the Yahweh-alone movement.”
Thus, in the context of exile, Israel’s impulse is to be distinctive, to retain their cultural identity. This requires the transition from performed tradition to written tradition.
However, “the written tradition cannot simply be experienced, it has to be studied.” This is why sanctioned teachers of the canon become so important. These are the necessary conditions for the third stage of canonization, which took place under Persian rule within the context of the depoliticizing of public life. This depoliticizing was only possible with the decline of prophets, who had the role of interpreting the words of God to the king. Without the kings, the prophets disappeared. Assmann points up Ezra as the paradigmatic authoritative voice in the Persian period who replaced the prophets. With the decline of the prophet expert interpreters arose to comment upon the developing text.
For Assmann, the fourth stage in canonization is the development of text communities such as those at Qumran and Nag Hammadi. Assmann believes that the introduction of authoritative interpreters other than the prophets inevitably led to these textual communities. “The characteristics of a textual community are, on the one hand, the use of a basic text to define identity, and, on the other hand, the structure of authority and leadership that arises from the ability to handle texts.” These interpretive communities develop an identity that is not only ethnic, but also religious. This develops into the concept of national Israel and true Israel, where true Israel consists of those individuals who not only can claim an ethnic identity, but who also study and embody the texts.
The final stage of canonization is that of anathematizing all who disagree with the new orthodoxy. This step, most importantly includes the canonization of the ban on idolatry. In that regard, this final stage represents the final success of the Yahweh-alone movement. In other words, the polytheism that was once ordinary, and which became undesirable in exile, ultimately becomes condemned. This stage of canonization took place in conjunction with the birth of Judaism. Just as Israel had sought to be distinctive in the context of foreign exile, these textual communities attempt to stand out from a nation that they perceived to be idolatrously relating to the world.
Several aspects of Assmann’s formulation stand out. First, this account of canonization understands the process to be conflict dependent. In other words, canonization is a reactive process whereby Israel gradually, in response to various stimuli, transitioned from a tradition driven community to a text driven community. This may prove to clash in interesting ways with a textually focused hermeneutic in the case of Deuteronomy 1-4, which depicts the writing of the law in proactive terms: to prevent idolatry before it happens.
Secondly, Assmann hints at theological issues in ways that perhaps he does not realize. Indeed, he is certainly too narrow in his formulation of the theological questions of canonization when he says that, “Theologically, we can think of canonization as an inspired process, a revelation that unfolds and perfects itself over time, and that according to the rabbis, continues in the shape of the oral Torah to modify the interpretation of the text.” Certainly, the theological questions surrounding the canonization of the Hebrew Bible extend beyond that of revelation. This fact will hopefully become clearer as we proceed, but at this point it is important to note that in no way does Assmann or his historical analysis of the canonization process rule out theological questions. Instead, his discussion points up the fact that the canonization process can be studied for purely historical reasons, but the choice to do so brackets out theological questions that are important to communities of faith. For this reason, it will be also important to look at the canonization process from a theological perspective while not ignoring the insights from historical investigations such as Assmann’s. Brevard Childs most notably championed this particular approach to canon to whose scholarship we will soon turn.
Assmann, Jan. Cultural Memory and Early Civilization: Writing, Remembrance, and Political Imagination. Trans. by David Henry Wilson. Cambridge: Cambridge, 2011.
. Das kulturelle Dedächtnis: Schrift, Erinnerung und plitische Identität in frühen Hochkulturen. München: C.H. Beck, 1992.
. “Memory and Culture.” Pages 325–349 in Memory: A History. Edited by Dmitri Nikulin. Oxford: Oxford, 2015.
. Religion and Cultural Memory: Ten Studies. Trans. by Rodney Livingstone. Stanford: Stanford, 2006.
Cosner, Lewis A. Trans. On Collective Memory. Chicago: Chicago, 1992.
Davies, Philip R. Memories of Ancient Israel: An Introduction to Biblical History — Ancient and Modern. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008.
Ellman, Barat Memory and Covenant: The Role of Israel’s and God’s Memory in Sustaining the Deuteronomic and Priestly Covenants. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013.
Halbwachs, Maurice Les cadres sociaux de la mémoire. Presses Universitaires de France: Paris, 1952.
. La mémoire collective. Presses Universitaires de France: Paris, 1968.
. La topographie légendaire des Évangiles en Terre sainte: Etude de mémoire collective. Presses Universitaires de France: Paris, 1941.
Hendel, Ronald. Remembering Abraham: Culture, Memory, and History in the Hebrew Bible. Oxford: Oxford, 2005.
Hwang, Jerry The Rhetoric of Remembrance: An Investigation of the “Fathers” in Deuteronomy. SIPHRUT Literature and Theology of the Hebrew Scriptures 8; Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2012.
Sanders, James A. Canon and Community: A Guide to Canonical Criticism. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984.
. Torah and Canon. Philadelphia: Augsburg Fortress, 1959.
. From Sacred Story to Sacred Text: Canon as Paradigm. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987.
Smith, Morton. Palestinian Parties and Politics That Shaped the Old Testament. New York: Columbia, 1971.
Stuckenbruck, Loren T., Stephen C. Barton, and Benjamin G. Wold, eds. Memory in the Bible and Antiquity: The Fifth Durham-Tübingen Research Symposium (Durham, September 2004). Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament 212. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2007.
 Such recent studies include Loren T. Stuckenbruck, Stephen C. Barton, and Benjamin G. Wold, eds. Memory in the Bible and Antiquity: The Fifth Durham-Tübingen Research Symposium (Durham, September 2004) (WUNT; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2007); Barat Ellman, Memory and Covenant: The Role of Israel’s and God’s Memory in Sustaining the Deuteronomic and Priestly Covenants (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013); Philip R. Davies, Memories of Ancient Israel: An Introduction to Biblical History — Ancient and Modern (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008); Ronald. Hendel, Remembering Abraham: Culture, Memory, and History in the Hebrew Bible (Oxford: Oxford, 2005); and Jerry Hwang, The Rhetoric of Remembrance: An Investigation of the “Fathers” in Deuteronomy (SIPHRUT 8; Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2012).
 Maurice Halbwachs, Les cadres sociaux de la mémoire (Presses Universitaires de France: Paris, 1952), ibid., La topographie légendaire des Évangiles en Terre sainte: Etude de mémoire collective (Presses Universitaires de France: Paris, 1941), and ibid. La mémoire collective (Presses Universitaires de France: Paris, 1968). These first two volumes were collective published in English under the title Lewis A. Cosner, ed. and trans., On Collective Memory (Chicago: Chicago, 1992).
 Ibid., 24.
 Jan Assmann, Religion and Cultural Memory: Ten Studies (trans. by Rodney Livingstone; Stanford: Stanford, 2006), 1.
 Ibid., 41.
 Idem., Religion and Cultural Memory, 65.
 See esp. James A. Sanders, Torah and Canon (Philadelphia: Augsburg Fortress, 1959); Idem., Canon and Community: A Guide to Canonical Criticism (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984); Idem., From Sacred Story to Sacred Text: Canon as Paradigm (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987).
 Morton Smith, Palestinian Parties and Politics That Shaped the Old Testament (New York: Columbia, 1971).
 Idem., Religion and Cultural Memory, 69.
 Ibid., 77.