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Historical Jesus: What Can We Know and How Can We Know It? Paperback – February 1, 2011
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― James D. G. Dunn
University of Durham
“In their obsession with authenticating individual sayings of Jesus as precious artifacts of a unique individual teacher, modernist mainline questers for the historical Jesus have ignored that Jesus must have communicated with followers. They have thus ignored the necessity of understanding oral communication and social memory in a distinctive historical context. Anthony Le Donne is one of the first to take both oral communication and social memory seriously. He takes some key steps toward rethinking how we might have knowledge of Jesus-in-context through an appreciation of the social memory of Jesus’ followers.”
― Richard Horsley
University of Massachusetts
“A provocative look at the next wave of study of the Jesus of history. Accessible to general readers yet up to date with the latest developments in the field, Le Donne grounds his understanding of Jesus both in ancient sources and in a careful consideration of contemporary philosophy. Appealing to postmodernism as a way to better understand human perception, memory, and narrative, Le Donne gives us a high-tech look at the ancient and early stories of Jesus’ life. He anchors Jesus carefully in the past but allows him to speak meaningfully to the present.”
― Tom Thatcher
Cincinnati Christian University
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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).
In this small 146 page book, introduced by Prof. Dale Allison, Prof. Le Donne proposes an incorporation into the quest for the historical Jesus of new insights gleaned from postmodernism and from the psychology of memory, without at the same time casting aside all previous Jesus scholarship as wrong or misguided. While focusing on Dale Allison's earlier emphasis on "gist" Le Donne at the same time uses, though cautiously, the traditional criteria of authenticity.
Prof. Le Donne points out that all history is interpreted history, thus earlier scholars' quests for a purely objective, uninterpreted "historical" Jesus were doomed to failure (as Albert Schweitzer rightly noted, when they were done, the "historical" Jesuses of these scholars tended to look a lot like the scholars themselves!). Le Donne reminds us that history is memory, furthermore that all memory is interpreted memory Since we tend to remember only significant people, places and events, the early Christians, believing Jesus was significant, remembered him, which necessarily involved interpreting the significant things they remembered him saying and doing. Yet coupled with this, Le Donne also examines the ways in which memory can be distorted, or as he says, "refracted."
None of this is to say, as do some scholars such as Bart Ehrman, that the early church wasn't interested in accuracy in their remembered stories about Jesus, that they simply made up stories about him to fit their own changing circumstances. Le Donne explains why the modern "Telephone Game" analogy is a terrible example of how oral tradition worked in antiquity. Not only because those who first transmitted the stories about Jesus in the early Church were not naughty schoolchildren on the playground, but because these stories were not transmitted in linear fashion in soft whispers. On the contrary, that there were communities involved in remembering, hearing, telling and retelling the stories about Jesus makes the dynamic of the process totally different from the modern telephone game. Ancient and largely illiterate societies such as the ones that produced the New Testament were dependent upon the accurate transmission of oral information thus had developed safeguards to insure its accurate transmission, part of which was the fact that handing on and preserving oral tradition was a community endeavor. Thus if a tradent got it wrong, he had the whole community to correct him. Le Donne points out that tradents were free to re-arrange their material to fit different occasions, and occasionally the peripheral details might vary, however one thing tradents were *not* free to do was to make up stories whole cloth and pass them off as historical or drop important stories from the tradition altogether. In the end Le Donne's analysis actually supports the idea that the gospels as we have them faithfully represent who/what Jesus claimed to be.
Significantly, Le Donne postulates the possibility that there may never have been "original" copies of the gospels because of the oral nature of the stories and their being preserved by multiple communities. Thus, modern textual scholars' quest to reconstruct the "original" text of the gospels may be misguided.
Finally, Le Donne offers a reconstruction of several topics concerning the historical Jesus, such as Jesus' kingdom agenda and his family life, using the criteria he argues for in the book. One might not completely buy his reconstruction of, for example, Jesus' possible reputation as illegitimate, however Le Donne does say that these are reconstructions which merely demonstrate how the criteria the book sets out can be used.
This book should be read by all students and scholars alike.
Well, this is one small book that belongs at the top of your reading list.
Why? Because it asks questions that underlie the methodology of all other inquiries into the subject: what can we know about the historical Jesus and how can we know it?
It's very possible that Jesus was illiterate because so were 97% of all people in first century Palestine. And even if he did know how to read and write, it's highly unlikely that he wrote down his parables, teachings, healings, exorcisms, etc. All these, along with reports about his miracles and conversations, were transmitted orally for decades. And that means the role of memory, social memory, and storytelling were crucial in preserving whatever we can know about the historical Jesus and how we know it. And that means the search for the historical Jesus presupposes what we mean by, and how we understand, `history.' Le Donne takes up these issues throughout the book; here's one example:
History must be told in a way that interprets
how the elements of the plot fit together. This
process requires the historian to determine which
details are most important to this plot. [p. 114]
And that is what this succinct and highly readable and engaging book sets out to explore.
My prediction is that once you begin, you will not be able to put it down.
And when you're finished, you will feel closer to the historical Jesus than you ever imagined.