What can we know about the historical Jesus, and how can we know it? Anthony Le Donne addresses in these questions in his excellent book on the subject entitled, Historical Jesus.
Le Donne’s Historical Jesus has two important qualities that make it well worth the read. The first is the way the book models how scholarship should be written for a popular audience. Le Donne essentially destroys the myth that writing for non-specialists inevitably requires a compromise of scholarship, and his masterful use of anecdotes, examples, and metaphors are proof of that throughout his book. Second, Historical Jesus sheds new light on the central role that interpretation played in shaping the earliest memories about Jesus.
After reading Historical Jesus myself, I noticed four specific themes emerging from its pages again and again. First, Le Donne rejects the ideal of certainty as the standard for historical knowledge. All historical facts are interpreted facts, he writes, and interpretations are inevitably partial, fallible, and subject to revision in light of new information. By rejecting certainty, however, Le Donne is careful not to slide into the opposite view of subjectivism which says that historical knowledge is nothing but a reflection of an historian’s presuppositions. In doing so, Le Donne defends the possibility of knowledge about Jesus without yielding to extremes.
Second, Le Donne uses the insights of social memory theory to explain the impact that collective (and re-collective) stories had on the development of oral tradition about Jesus. He argues that the shape of the Jesus tradition (on which the gospels depend) is partly explained by the role that mnemonic devices (like typology) played in its transmission. Commenting on Le Donne’s approach, Dale Alison writes that “within an ancient Jewish context, memories of Jesus had to be theologized, construed typologically, and interpreted in the light of religious tradition. Otherwise they would have been forgotten. Thus typology is not just a literary device but a strategy of memory.”
Third, Le Donne denies that the task of the Jesus historian is to look behind or beneath the Jesus tradition to uncover uninterpreted facts. Rather, the historian’s task is to explain why we have the memories of Jesus that we do, why his contemporaries perceived him in the way they did, and what this says about the impact of Jesus as an historical figure. The goal is not to peel back the layers of interpretation from the memory material to get at the unvarnished facts. The goal is to provide explanations of extant memories about Jesus – in terms of the interests and needs of the communities that remembered them and by positing historical events and trends as reasons for why they were remembered.
Fourth, this book effectively challenges a common error that Jesus historians can make when they reject the accuracy of Jesus traditions that reflect the circumstances of the early Christian church. Le Donne challenges this error by maintaining that all memories (not just memories about Jesus) get interpreted and creatively reshaped in light of the needs and aims of the individuals and communities who remembered them. But if that’s the case, then those same historians would have to reject all memories as inaccurate, and that’s much too hard a pill to swallow.
Le Donne takes a more balance approach by showing us how the relevance of a memory to someone’s circumstances can give us insight into why it was remembered in the first place and why it took the shape it did. For example, scholars have often wondered why seemingly embarrassing details about Jesus’ life show up in the Gospel accounts. Jesus’ strained relationship with his family is a case in point. One key to explaining this case is to realize that early converts to the Christian Way were often shunned by their families, and would have found great comfort and courage in knowing that their own leader had been misunderstood and rejected by his family. The relevance of those memories to new converts tells us why the memories made their way into the Gospel accounts; their relevance is not a basis for rejecting their accuracy.