Anthony Le Donne. Historical Jesus: What Can We Know and How Can We Know It? Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2011. Kindle Edition.
Anthony Le Donne’s Historical Jesus is one of the finest short works I’ve read on historical Jesus studies, human memory, and historiography. Le Donne positions himself as a “postmodern historian” whose task is not to find Jesus behind his literary sources but in their midst (pp. 9-10). This is an important part of his project. He sees modernist historiography as a sort of archaeological endeavor where the historian must dig underneath the narrative to find the “real” Jesus. At that point this Jesus emerges as someone very different than how he was remembered. For Le Donne the place to begin is at the narratives themselves since this is where the memories of Jesus were preserved.
In the early part of the book the author invites us to think about perception, interpretation and their relationship with how we form memories. Our memories cannot retain everything that occurs, so we distill particular aspects of an event, zoom in on them (something called memory “distortion”) in order to preserve those parts, and interpret them in the framework of our worldview so that they have areas with which to connect. If we humans did not go through this process it is hard to see how we would remember anything.
This impacts Jesus studies because it means the memories of Jesus are not simply “what happened” but “what happened as ‘remembered’ by those who saw Jesus.” Included in this cycle are the oral stories that were told that reformed the memories for new audiences.
Le Donne provides some wonderful examples of this process. The most recent and relevant was his comparison of how Barack Obama framed his campaign in the legacy of Abraham Lincoln (pp. 37-39). Obama’s roots in Illinois, his place as a senator, and even where he chose to announce his candidacy where symbols of Lincoln. It allowed people to see him as a “new Lincoln” and his actions were intentional.
Jesus’ actions intentionally mimicked the narratives of the Hebrew Scriptures so that Jesus could frame himself in relation to people like Moses and Elijah. In addition, Jesus’ disciples in the early generations found ways of remembering his deeds and retelling his stories by merging them with the stories and symbols of Scripture.
In the second part of the book Le Donne moves the reader into the hermeneutical circle, but his main goal is to get the reader even further into a broader circle of preconception, memories, altered meanings, and altered memories (e.g. p. 66). This is how he explains the evolution of Jesus traditions. They perceived something (a “miracle”), they remembered how it stood out from the surrounding events (a memory), they framed it using categories from their worldview (Jesus is a prophet like…), and then as they told the new stories in new contexts or hear the story retold by others it reshaped the narratives again and again.
Le Donne challenges those who need certainty to say something is “historical”. While he does not allow every proposal to have equal standing on the line of probability neither does he think we can find a “real”, “objective” Jesus “behind” the stories. We must ask instead is there are theories that best explain the stories and their trajectories.
Two great paragraph from Le Donne clarify his thoughts:
“Scholars determined to attain historical certainty will always be frustrated by the limits of modern presuppositions. Modern presuppositions have made skeptics out of a small (but boisterous) contingent of Jesus historians in every generation since Lessing. But the larger portion of historians have been no less guilty of a hunger for certainty. Historians who are more optimistic about historical certainty have tried to attain it through something akin to textual archaeology.” (p. 74)
“The historian who continues to look for a “preserved” Jesus has no other recourse but skepticism. The historian who is intent to find “an objectively true picture” of Jesus has simply misunderstood the historian’s task to account for varying and evolving social memories and explain their most plausible relationship.” (p. 76).
So again, our task is not to find the Jesus behind the narratives as much as it is to explain the “remembered” and “interpreted” Jesus.
One thing the reader will want to explore more is whether or not there are safeguards for good history. As Le Donne moves us more toward interpreting the narratives as the vehicle that contains the historical Jesus as remembered we are forced to ask whether or not we can find the Jesus of history at all. Le Donne is comfortable with multiple pictures of Jesus and allow the historian to be a storyteller whose story is one explaining the other stories.
A final word of Le Donne that will let you decide whether you should read this book (my answer is “yes!”):
“This is the task of the historian within a postmodern paradigm. The historian’s job is to tell the stories of memory in a way that most plausibly accounts for the available 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).