Reflections on Anthony Le Donne’s Book ‘Historical Jesus’

Historical Jesus2
A great book on this topic, by Anthony Le Donne

Blogging about the historical Jesus is something I hesitate to do, and for several reasons:

First, I am not a Jesus historian. While I do have a layperson’s interest in the methodology and practice of Jesus research, my academic training is in philosophy of religion, epistemology, phenomenology, and religious studies (broadly construed). I do not specialize in New Testament studies or in Second Temple Judaism.

Second, I am a Christian. This title doesn’t disqualify me from writing about Jesus, of course, but it does give me pause. I frequently wonder if my own thinking on this subject is anything more than a reflection of the religious presuppositions I already started with. Ideally, I’d like to believe that I am sufficiently open to having my presuppositions critiqued when I encounter other perspectives about Jesus, but that is easier said than done. Being open-minded takes repeated effort and ruthless self-honesty, both of which are difficult at the best of times. But I suppose that’s a limitation that everyone must face up to, not just Christians like myself.

With that said, I still think that historical Jesus research (HJR) is a worthwhile topic to blog about. Few scholars can deny that Jesus of Nazareth is one of the most important figures in Western history. He launched a spiritual movement in the 1st Century that transformed the Roman world within just a few centuries of its inception. His radical teachings on the inbreaking kingdom of God, embracing suffering, and loving one’s enemies have influenced great historical figures such as St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, Jonathan Edwards, and even Mahatma Ghandi. His influence on pop culture is also evident in music videos, awards speeches, billboard ads, and even curse words! And Jesus is regularly worshipped by hundreds of millions of devout followers as their resurrected Saviour and divine Lord. Few people have shaped Western history like Jesus has, so the application of historical methods to the study of his life is bound to have great academic and practical value.

My interest in HJR began when I attended Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia, in 1996. At the time, Trinity was known for its prestigious Dead Sea Scrolls Institute and for one of its biblical historians, Dr. Craig A. Evans – a virtual giant in HJR circles.

In 1995, the directors of the Dead Sea Scrolls Institute were Martin Abegg (right), Craig Evans, Peter Flint
In 1995, the directors of the Dead Sea Scrolls Institute were Martin Abegg (right), Craig Evans, Peter Flint

Craig’s  Life and Teachings of Jesus course was the most popular on campus at the time, and he regularly packed out lecture halls and waiting lists with undergraduate students. I enrolled in his course during my sophomore year (unfortunately, I had to drop it later on in order to fulfill a rather lame elective requirement for my major!) but my interest in HJR continued to deepen through the influence of my campus Resident Assistant at the time – Anthony Le Donne.

Le Donne
Anthony Le Donne (PhD, Durham) is Assistant Professor of New Testament at United Theological Seminary.

Knowing Anthony was a memorable experience. He brought a spirit of comradery to our interactions and rarely hesitated to share his latest thoughts about biblical studies and philosophy. What impressed me most about Anthony was his willingness to integrate thinking from multiple disciplines. We both attended courses in existentialism, philosophy of mind, and sociology of religion, where he conveyed a deep appreciation for the relevance of worldview to the practice of quality scholarship. That was almost 20 years ago, but I still remember his influence today.

Many years later, after Anthony had completed his PhD at the University of Durham and I had returned to Canada after a 4 year stint as a Philosophy Instructor in Switzerland, I requested an autographed copy of his book, Historical Jesus: What Can We Know and How Can We Know It? (Eerdmans, 2011). He kindly mailed me a copy, and while reading through it, I kept asking myself, “How did this guy go from being my sophomore Resident Assistant to writing scholarly books on Jesus with a level of clarity matched only by giants like Larry Hurtado and N.T. Wright?” Needless to say, I was very impressed.

Since my initial reading of Historical Jesus, I have come away with two insights about the book which deserve mention. First, Le Donne effectively destroys the myth that writing for a popular audience inevitably requires a compromise of scholarship. Not only does he conduct solid research, but he also employs clever anecdotes, analogies, diagrams and pop-culture references to explain key concepts throughout the book: e.g. tricky terms like “historiography”, “memory refraction,” “pre-understanding” and “typology”. By doing the hard work of explaining his terms first, Le Donne is then at liberty to engage his readers in scholarly dialogue with important figures like Plato, Martin Heidegger, Henri Bergson, Tyler Burge, Leonhard Goppelt and James Dunn (to name a few) – applying their insights to the task of Jesus research. If anything, Historical Jesus should be read as a model for how scholarship can bring academics and laypeople together without watering down the conversation.

Second, this book could just as easily have been marketed as a primer on philosophical hermeneutics. As an expert on the nature of interpretation, Le Donne is very aware of how strongly our presuppositions shape the way we understand and explain the historical sources we have about Jesus. Nevertheless, he rightly insists that some interpretations of Jesus can be more accurate or informed than others. While making few (if any) assumptions about the reality of the supernatural in his book, Le Donne does show us that a scholar with spiritual convictions can honestly weigh the evidence in a manner persuasive to those who may not share his faith commitment.

So this is my recommendation of Le Donne’s book. My goal now is to continue posting reflections on the content of Historical Jesus on a periodic basis, summarizing its main themes and offering my own analysis along the way. So stay tuned.

2 thoughts on “Reflections on Anthony Le Donne’s Book ‘Historical Jesus’”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *