Book Note: Anthony LeDonne, Historical Jesus

This is a must-read book, whether you are persuaded or not. I don't say that about many books, let alone books about the historical Jesus which has become a cottage-industry these days. But

LeDonne's book,

Historical Jesus

, is different because he pushes the historical approach by responsibly bringing in research on

human perception




He makes a case that by analyzing patterns in the way Jesus was remembered by his contemporaries, we can make some plausible claims about his life and teaching as a "historical" figure. Now "historical" is in scare quotes for a reason. It is because LeDonne doesn't understand his job to be to reconstruct what happened in the past, but to explain why the past was remembered as it was. So consider his definition of history: "History, as a discipline of knowledge, is not what happened in the past, it is an accounting of how the past was remembered and why. To confuse these is to confuse the very nature of the historian's task" (p. 34). And "History includes only the past that has been interpreted through memory. That which has not been remembered is not history" (p. 34). And this memory is ongoing, forged with each new generation in order to make sense of the current situation.

The real job of the historian is "to measure and compare interpretations in order to explain the most plausible interpretation of the story" (p. 78). He "doesn't attempt to peel away interpretation in order to find facts" (p. 78). Why? Because "the postmodern mind knows that no facts are available for analysis that have not been preceded, followed, and mediated by interpretation" (p. 78).

So LeDonne begins with the premises that the storytellers behind the gospels are interpreters by discipline, and that what they have written is exactly what history ought to look like, and our job is to explain why history was written to look like this. What the gospel writers produced were creatively constructed interpretations that began during Jesus' lifetime. Why during his lifetime? Because if he would not have been interpreted by his contemporaries, he would not have been remembered at all (p. 40).

LeDonne's approach is laid out and applied as the book progresses. LeDonne concludes that Jesus had a complex relationship with his mother and their dysfunctional family, that he saw himself as an exorcist and healer, that he took on John's massive following and began to preach nonviolence and the establishment of God's political reign on earth. This revolutionary message led to a final confrontation with the temple priesthood in Jerusalem and his death.

While I am impressed by LeDonne's approach and persuaded by his application of theories on human perception and memory, I remain a modernist too (postmodernism is the extreme of modernity).

I think that our job is to provide plausible explanation for what happened from records that are interpretations of what was perceived to have happened.

To me, this argument for plausibility is still tied to fact. I can't seem to detach it and am not sure I would want to anyway.

Mellon Seminar Reflection 6: Does memory make history unrecoverable?

Our theoretical topic this week has been Social Memory Theory, which developed out of the 1925 work of Maurice Halbwachs,

On Collective Memory

. Halbwachs was not interested in social memory (the memory shared by a group or society) but rather was arguing that the individual's memory was shaped by society, and he wanted to know how. Decades later, in the 1970s, his idea that memory and society are bound up was applied substantially to historiography and the study of modern social memory began to flourish in intellectual circles.

The foundational premises of social memory theory are:

1. Memories are products of the present and not the preservation of the past.

2. Memories are ignited and limited by social frameworks.

3. Memory distortion is the difference between the memory of the past and the past actuality.

4. All memory is distorted or refracted.

This knowledge makes the work of the historian interesting. There are a range of opinions among social memory theorists regarding whether or not it is possible to recover the past actuality from memories, and if so, how much. My own work as a historian has been deeply affected by social memory theory which I openly embrace. It has shifted my self-understanding as a historian. I no longer worry about recovering the undistorted past because I am not convinced I can do this with the sources I have to work with. The questions I try to answer have dramatically shifted. What I want to know now is how and why particular groups remember their past in certain ways, and how and why counter-memories of the same event develop. I am particularly interested in what I call "iconic" or "memorial" representations of individual and events, as providing insights into the group's self-understanding. Studying these allows me to reconstruct the earliest memories of the individual or event, and come to some understanding of how and why groups developed in the directions they did.

This doesn't mean that the memories don't point back to some past actuality. It just means that recovering the past actuality is nigh impossible. What I am better at doing is recovering a scenario of historical plausibility based on the memory sets available for study. I am convinced from my work in memory and how groups handle their past, that historians are actually assisted in this task by three dynamics of memory:

1. Although invention or fabrication is possible (as in the case of new governments trying to legitimize themselves), social memory is largely a subconscious or unconscious operation. It functions by selecting something important from the environment and putting it within the mental frameworks that exist in our minds and then relocalizes them within our present experience. Schwartz has noted in his work on Lincoln again and again that many of our heroes today are selected to be heroes because there was something that they did that made us see them as heroic in the first place.
2. Memory (whether individual or social) is limited by society. What is remembered has to be plausible and make sense to the group and what it already knows about its past. In other words, it is conservative even by society's standards, and builds incrementally and with continuity between the past and the present.
3. What we can see in our sources are the effects of the what actually happened, so by studying the effects, it is possible to create scenarios of historical plausibility that would best explain them. Here I am convinced that counter-memories are very significant (thus my intense work on the marginalized or forbidden memories): both the counter-memories created within the group and among different groups. We can not just study the similarities. It is the differences that reveal the full story!

There are many great books on social memory application. If you are interested in how social memory theory might be applied to the quest for the historical Jesus, I recommend Anthony Le Donne's recent book,

The Historiographical Jesus

and now his trade book on the subject,

The Historical Jesus: What can we know and how can we know it?

which will be released in January. Great reading!

Creating Jesus 8: Rereading and remembering

Let's recap before proceeding. I have argued that the impetus for christology is two-fold: it is a response to Jesus' death which did not meet the group's messianic expectations; it is fermented by visionary experiences of Peter (and others like Mary?) which were understood to be religiously significant experiences. They understood the visions of his spirit not as a ghost (as a non-Jew might have framed it) but as a resurrected body (as a Jew would have framed the afterlife).

We also noted that the type of resurrected body was disputed among the Jews at the time. This is important for us. That we not impose "orthodox" christian notions of a fleshly resurrection on literature that recognizes more than one position and those in conflict.

Some like Paul, understood the resurrection of the person (Paul calls the person the "seed") to be the rising of a spiritual body, not the body of flesh that was in the grave. Jesus was buried and raised on the third day, but not as a body of flesh, but as a spiritual body (his flesh was left in the grave!). His "seed" would have a new body, not the body of flesh. His "seed" would be transformed into a celestial body (1 Cor 15:37-38). Others like Luke were sure it was the flesh which was raised (I guess he understood the person to be the flesh-blood body) and it will be the same as before, even eating fish. John's gospel has something in between. The fleshly body is raised but is transfigured into a new kind of body that can walk through locked doors.

In 1 Cor 15, Paul is arguing a couple sides of the debate. The Corinthians don't like the body resurrection at all; they are probably wanting to keep their non-Jewish view that the soul is immortal and in fact sloughs off the "soul body" as well as the "flesh body" it received when it incarnated so that it can be liberated and reascend to God. The idea that the afterlife would be embodied, whether a spiritual body or a physical body reanimated was nonsense to them. Paul agrees that the resurrection is not the resurrection of the flesh, but a transformation of the "seed" in a blessed glorious spiritual body.

Now these two impulses resulted in two activities. First, they reread their bible, the Jewish scripture in order to figure out what the suffering and death of their Messiah meant, and they talked to each other, "remembering" what they could of Jesus' teachings whether public or private and began to write it down.

Both of these activities are activities common to Judaism. The Jews believed that their scripture held meaning that could be reaped through study and prayer, that the scripture was multivalent and could reveal a previously unknown meaning under new circumstances. This is how God communicated to his people. So after Jesus' death, the first Christians turned to scripture and began to read it with new questions and a new perspective - that is they were trying to understand why the Messiah suffered and why he died as a criminal. They took passages that traditionally had nothing to do with messianic prophecy and made them such, which the other Jews loudly protested.

There is also evidence (not only in the form of Kernel Thomas and Q, but also in terms of narrative claims), that they tried to record what they could remember of Jesus' teachings. If the narrative claim of the Clementine corpus has any value, it suggests that James, the leader of the group of Christians located in Jerusalem, hired someone to go around with Peter and record his preachings which were about the teachings of Jesus. He wanted to use these books in the mission, as handbooks for preachers sent out to various locations. Other texts imagine the disciples sitting around a table and trying to recall what Jesus said. Certainly such claims in the texts give authenticity to the texts themselves (since it would be understood that this text was based on those remembrances). But what I find compelling is that the claim being made matches the type of early sayings source books that we have been hypothesizing for over a hundred years existed in terms of Q. We know they existed because we have Thomas, and now my own work suggests an early Jerusalem-oriented Kernel that looks like it contained five early speeches attributed to Jesus.

So what were the first christologies that fermented in these sayings gospels and other texts that preserve some early tradition (even if only to counter and correct them)? What scriptures were being used to form these christologies? Next time I will begin to take up these questions.