Le Donne’s Historical Jesus: What Can We Know and How Can We Know It?

To many NT students and scholars, it may seem that the “Quest” for Jesus is over. Now, maybe it is a pilgrimage; maybe nothing at all (but scholars walking around in circles). In comes Anthony Le Donne, trying to refresh and re-direct “questers” in his book Historical Jesus: What can we know and how can we know it? (Eerdmans, 2011). This is a short book on Jesus that is aimed at the student and draws from social memory theories and historiographical discussions that take into account postmodern thinking.

Let me just say, first of all, Le Donne knows his stuff, both on the Jesus end and on the theoretical end. Better yet, he is humorous, humble, and uses some really illuminating examples for just about every lofty idea he raises. That makes the book a delight to read.

Here is his general pitch: “[There have been] two absurd extremes. On one side, there are many folks who expect from the gospels something similar to a courtroom transcript. For these people the historical Jesus is simply the biblical Jesus. The less interpretation, the better. On the other side, there are many folks who recognize fictive elements in the gospels and conclude that the gospels are wholesale invention. For these people, the gospels are not like courtroom transcripts and therefore must be fiction. Both views assume that remembering one’s perceptions is a simple, straightforward act. However, a modest grasp of the nature of perception makes either extreme absurd” (p. 23).

One key argument Le Donne makes is that we do not tend to remember the past (so remembering is the exception) and we don’t remember objectively, but perspectivally. You do not retain the past in your memory, but a mark of it. So: “Memory is the impression left by the past, not the preservation of it…[It] is an interpretive process” (p. 23-4)

Also, the past is remembered in a present time because there is a stimulus for remembering: “This means that your memories are always in active service to the needs of the present” (25).

Part of what is required, Le Donne argues, is a new idea of what “history means”  – he defines it as a discipline of knowledge that studies how the past was remembered and why. This is where I start to get confused in the book. Essentially, Le Donne turns “historical study” into a study of the development of memory-traditions. While Le Donne acknowledges that this is particularly the interest of the “postmodern historian,” he seems to be giving up altogether on traditional questions about “what really happened.” (The interest in the actual true reporting of a real event does surface briefly towards the end when he is talking about the temple incident, but that is quite brief.) While I can appreciate that Le Donne is showing the “state of the discussion” of how social memory works, that does not disqualify questions about how we can know certain events really happened.

For example, some have argued that the holocaust never happened. While some historians may be interested in the development of various traditions and “memories” about the holocaust, certainly it seems valid to most people for historians to ply their trade and garner support and evidence (from “eyewitnesses” especially) that lead to conclusions about what happened. In that sense, I did not find Le Donne’s book of practical use in more traditional discussions. I am not saying he is doing a bait-and-switch (bait you with the topic of the historical Jesus and switch you to a discussion of social memory), but I did find the book moving further and further away from the original questions.

That does not mean that I didn’t enjoy reading the book. His philosophical discussion  is absolutely fascinating – Schleiermacher, Heidegger, Descartes, Bertrand Russell, etc… He boils down their lofty theories into easily bite-size portions.He also uses some amazing examples. As in the story of two girls in a car crash who looked similar (but not identical) – the police accidentally misidentified the two and mistook their identities for the other one. One of the girls had died, the other was seriously injured and in a coma. It took over a month for the family looking after the living girl to realize it was not their daughter! Le Donne explains: “The family was told what to expect to perceive [when the doctors said "She has been in a crash. Expect to see her altered."].  When given these expectations, they perceived according to their expectations….I’ve argued that the act of perceiving requires interpretation…Your environment, family, culture, emotional state, and prejudices color everything. The human mind perceives according to its continually shifting thought-categories” (pp. 104-5).

I get Le Donne’s overall point – we don’t have “the past” – we have memories of the past, and the imprint of memory is shaped by a number of things including our experiences, perspective, and environment. However, I get the impression (ha!) that this leads Le Donne down the road of a kind of hopeless skepticism behind historical inquiry. Now, LeDonne rebuts – no, I still do history, but I am interested in how and why people remember. OK, but does that mean we cannot or should not ask about “what actually happened”? Is that question too far removed from what is possible through memory and record?

Here is where, I think, what scholars call “critical realism” comes into play. Yes memory is interpreted, but we still rely on that when we tell any kind of history at all (whether of Alexander the Great or the bus ride I had to work). Can critical realism help us when we think about what the Gospels tell us about “what actually happened”?

I appreciate that Le Donne wants to move past the objective history-vs.-myth (simplistic) dichotomy – I want to move past that as well. However, my personal view is that genre clarification gets us further than accepting the limitations of memory and a redefinition of “history” (or a prioritizing of a “scholar’s” definition of doing “history”). Nevertheless, I have only been able to give you a taste of Le Donne’s book. It is well-researched theoretically and I have learned much from the book. I wish it would brought the conversation back to the original issues and questions in a “summary” chapter, but it repays careful reading as it stands also.

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