“Review of Anthony Le Donne’s Historical Jesus: What Can We Know and How Can We Know It?” by Charles B. Puskas

Charles Puskas
Charles Puskas

Charles B. Puskas is field sales manager at Eerdmans. He also holds a Ph.D. in biblical languages and literature and is coauthor of  An Introduction to the Gospels and Acts (with David Crump) and An Introduction to the New Testament (with C. Michael Robbins).

* * *

On the historical Jesus there have been a plethora of titles in the past few centuries, written by scores of esteemed authors who, for example:

  • sought to free Jesus from church dogma and modernize him in their own image (e.g., Reimarus, D. F. Strauss),
  • unveiled Jesus as an end-time prophet announcing God’s impending reign (Albert Schweitzer),
  • doubted if we can know anything but his basic (existentially relevant) message (Rudolf Bultmann),
  • launched a new quest for his authentic pre-Christian sayings (e.g., Ernst Käsemann, Norman Perrin),
  • exposed him as a pre-apocalyptic Jewish cynic peasant (John Dominic Crossan),  or
  • envisioned him to be the non-violent advocate of a new world order (Richard Horsley).

This wildly diverse history of research has left many who seek to discover the “real” Jesus dazed and confused.

In his Historical Jesus: What Can We Know and How Can We Know It? Anthony Le Donne invites us to stand back and re-examine how we perceive past and present realities, what we can and what we cannot know about them, how we remember what we know by experience,  and how Jesus’ followers would have experienced and remembered him. In short — how we should view and “do” history honestly and responsibly.

With Bultmann, Le Donne agrees that recovering “the facts” is problematic, but like the “New Quest” inaugurated by Käsemann, he makes a plausible case that something can be learned about Jesus. For Le Donne, this something can be found in the interpreted memories of those who first perceived Jesus through the lens of their own shared experiences in life. As a result, all Jesus’ recorded deeds, words, and encounters are important here. “Jesus made a historical impact that was perceived by his contemporaries . . . people saw his actions, heard his words, felt his touch,” Le Donne points out (p. 15). In agreement with Horsley, Le Donne mentions that Jesus preached nonviolence and announced a new world order (p.85).

Le Donne’s student-friendly guide, based on his dissertation, The Historiographical Jesus: Memory, Typology, and the Son of David (Baylor, 2009), uses insights from social memory theory to identify “memory refraction” (i.e., just as light is distorted through the convex shape of a lens, so memories are distorted by the perceptions and experiences of those who remember).  Le Donne also discerns patterns of oral communication and memory in the history of the Jesus tradition.  Helpful here is his discussion of the Jesus saying “destroy this temple.” It occurs in different contexts on the lips of both Jesus (John 2:19) and his opponents (Mark 14:58).  These two versions, according to Le Donne, represent counter-memories prompted by some earlier historical memory (129).

In contrast to Crossan and the Jesus Seminar, who claim a critical-historical approach without any theological agenda, Le Donne prefers not to separate the religious elements from the Gospels or to divide the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith (8).  Dale C. Allison, Jr. (see below) would applaud this inclusivity.

Historical Jesus
Historical Jesus

As a thoughtful pedagogue Le Donne keeps us involved in the debate with concise explanations (e.g., Dilthey’s hermeneutical circle, 60), detailed visual elements (e.g., patterns of perception and memory, 66), and contemporary illustrations — from his attending a Bob Dylan concert,  p. 65,  to his reflecting upon Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song,” 84. Judiciously using certain “criteria of authenticity” from Norm Perrin and the “New Quest,” (e.g., embarrassment, coherence, multiple attestation), Le Donne claims that some of Jesus’ strange actions and unusual relationships (e.g., his rebuke of his mother in John 2:4, his encounter with demons, 46-48) may have been the most memorable to his followers who were, first and foremost, perceivers and interpreters of these experiences they shared.

I wonder, though, how relevant for the recovery of early or widespread memories of a historical personage are statements of intentional slander or deliberate malignment? How reliable is ridicule and mockery in any historical inquiry?  How would memory theory work with the pagan satirist Lucian’s derisive exposés in Alexander the False Prophet or The Passing of Peregrinus (2nd century C.E.)?  It is reported that the Cynic Peregrinus became a Christian. Perhaps more judicious use of the historical criteria is needed here to distinguish reliable from unreliable data. In two of the illustrations Le Donne uses to reveal our unconscious interpretative frameworks, I was also (somewhat) surprised to learn that one very quotable remark was not from Martin Luther King Jr. but Adolf Hitler (97) and that the beloved “Prayer of St. Francis” is an early 20th century literary creation (99). Yes, it can be a challenge to reframe our perceptions!

The book has received endorsements from notables like James D. G.  Dunn (LeDonne’s Doktor Vater and author of Jesus Remembered, 2003), Gerd Theissen (with Dagmar Winter, The Quest for the Plausible Jesus, WJK, 2002), and Richard Horsley (Jesus and Empire, Harper, 2003). Dale Allison, who wrote The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus, 2009, provides a supportive foreword.  Allison, who reaffirms Albert Schweitzer’s eschatological focus, must be pleased with statements like, “Jesus’ apocalyptic teaching likely evoked thought-categories . . . by which his identity was perceived” (p. 126).  Allison also surmises, in his foreword, that if Joseph had died and if Jesus was a firstborn son, Jesus may have thus rejected his prescribed role as a new, surrogate paterfamilias when he became an itinerant preacher of God’s reign, clarifying for Allison the tension that Le Donne alleges to exist between Jesus and his mother (xii).

Ultimately, Le Donne’s book is both descriptive (exploring how humans perceive, interpret, and remember) and prescriptive (avoiding naïve objectivism and historicism), synchronic (paying attention to narrative plot) and diachronic (making historical comparisons), both instructive and reflective, with helpful questions, memorable quotes, culture focus notes, and suggestions for further reading to aid readers in their quest for understanding. The book is coherently organized in three parts, with each part unfolding inductively into five subsections: Questions, Perception, Memory, History, Jesus.

Historical Jesus invites us to join the foray of two centuries of debate about Jesus and earliest Christianity. We all have something to bring to this discussion, and we might be surprised to discover that we can come away with more than we had anticipated.

Click here to order Anthony LeDonne’s Historical Jesus: What Can We Know and How Can We Know It? 

Click here to read an EerdWord blog post by Anthony LeDonne.