Review of Anthony Le Donne, Historical Jesus: What Can We Know and How Can We Know It?

By James F. McGrath, Exploring Our Matrix

I am grateful to Eerdmans for having sent me a free review copy of Anthony Le Donne’s book Historical Jesus: What Can We Know and How Can We Know It? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011).  The book begins with a foreword by Dale Allison, and that may create an initial expectation, which may be favorable or unfavorable.  But Le Donne’s book seems to me to offer something that Allison’s own recent work, as exciting and groundbreaking as some of it has been, fails to offer – namely an incorporation of new insights from postmodernism and from the psychology of memory, without seeming to cast aside all previous scholarship as having been on the wrong track of misguided. In Le Donne’s book, Allison’s emphasis on gist is wedded with a cautious use of traditional criteria of authenticity. And the result is offered in a book that does not shy away from detailed discussion of hermeneutics and methods, yet also offers personal anecdotes and illustrations. Anyone who can spare $10 and is interested in the historical Jesus ought to buy and read this book. It isn’t an attempt to write yet another account of the life of the historical Jesus, but a close look at what it is historians and scholars investigating the life of Jesus do, can do, and should do.

Perhaps the most important contribution of this “new perspective on history” is its emphasis that the earlier quests for uninterpreted facts was misguided. When we consider something or someone significant, we interpret it. And unless we find something significant, we do not remember it. Therefore, all memory is interpreted. This should not surprise anyone, and yet the modern quest for certainty has trained many of us to desire more, even if such desires can never be satisfied.

The various ways in which memory can be distorted (Le Donne prefers “refracted”) are discussed in the book. The role of shared experience is also highlighted – as in the case of one’s own wedding, when the adrenaline may undermine the clarity of our own recall of details, and yet the experience of attending the weddings of others may reinforce our “memory” (p.31) Memory is not a video recording, and the terminology of “memory banks” gives a misleading impression of how memory works.

Le Donne also points out that the “telephone game” is an awful analogy either for oral or textual transmission – not only because those who transmitted stories in early Christianity were not malicious schoolchildren, but because these things were not transmitted in linear fashion via a whisper. That there were communities involved in remembering, hearing, telling and retelling makes the dynamic of the process different from the telephone game (also known as “Chinese Whispers”) in many important respects (p.70).

Another important point Le Donne makes relates to one that we already mentioned, namely that what is remembered is always also interpreted. One common tool for both aiding recollection and for interpreting significance was the connecting of an individual or event with an earlier type. Typology, of course, is something that mythicists and minimalists often point to as a possible explanation for how stories might simply have been invented based on earlier prototypes. But everything we know about ancient societies and ancient memory techniques indicates that at least as often, presenting a contemporary individual in terms of something already known – whether a cultural stereotype or a Scriptural story – was the default mode of interpreting them. And the already-known also served as a memory-peg for new information and individuals. Anyone who has successfully learned a new language will most likely be aware of how must more quickly and effectively new vocabulary is assimilated if it can be tied via some mnemonic device to words, sounds or ideas that are already in our memories.

Le Donne’s book packs a lot of valuable material into a tiny package, but it is not entirely without shortcomings. Le Donne seems to accept without question the claim that Jesus was a mamzer, an individual suspected to be illegitimate, when the stories we have of Jesus’ social interactions suggest that his status was not that of a marginal nobody, and for this reason his contact with the marginalized in fact provoked controversy. (See further my article“Was Jesus Illegitimate?”). This seems like precisely the sort of thing that an approach which focuses on gist rather than individual pericopes ought to highlight. But more importantly, this example shows a danger in the approach that says a historian ought to explain the various sorts of memories and impacts a person had, rather than sifting through evidence to adjudicate between authentic and inauthentic material. In many instances, the explanation for why someone was called a bastard or accused of witchcraft may simply have been a desire to undermine that person’s status – not because the name-caller knew something about the individual’s parentage or secret practices. The historian should not feel the need to explain everything that is said about an individual in the sense that “there must have been something to the accusation.” Sometimes that conclusion may be appropriate, but in others, it may not, and it is precisely the methods of historical criticism which hold out the hope of sifting through the evidence and determining whether some information may not be more reliable than others, and whether some stories and claims may not have a motivation other than recollection. If all memory is interpreted, some may be “more interpreted” and some may be deliberately distorted or even inverted, to the point when we might decide it ought not to be called “memory” at all.

But let me conclude with q quote from Le Donne’s own conclusion about the task of the postmodern historian: “The historian’s job is to tell the stories of memory in a way that most plausibly accounts for the mnemonic evidence. With this in mind, the historical Jesus is not veiled by the interpretations of him. He is most available for analysis when these interpretations are most pronounced. Therefore, the historical Jesus is clearly seen through the lenses of editorial agenda, theological reflection, and intentional counter-memory” (p.134).

That way of putting it seems to take seriously the concern I voiced a moment ago, since it recognizes that in some instances we may have “intentional counter-memory” – what we might call fabrication or slander.  Some of that may be positive, some negative.  And as long as the aim is not to say that there must be something to all views that contemporaries and near-contemporaries of Jesus held, then I agree.  Historians can learn something about an individual even by looking at deliberate slander or posthumous aggrandizement of their status, provided they are able to recognize that that is what is taking place. Perhaps Le Donne’s most important contribution, in one sense, is his combined recognition that the quest for certainty is futile, and that the traditional tools of historical inquiry, reworked and refined and improved, are still necessary if we are to not merely discuss literature but history, even in the postmodern sense of plausibility rather than certainty (p.74).

Le Donne’s book Historical Jesus: What Can We Know and How Can We Know It? is thought-provoking and full of useful insights and suggestions, and is incredibly readable. At 146 pages, including endnotes, the book can be read in a weekend.  And it should be.  I definitely recommend it.

For more insightful articles by James McGrath, visit Exploring Our Matrix

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