Quest for the Historical Jesus (Part 5: Le Donne and the Remembered Jesus)

imagesThis is the final piece in my series about the historical Jesus. You can read the first four parts of this series here, here, here and here. In this last part, I’m going to sum it all up, not just how we understand the historical Jesus, but how we can talk about him in interfaith dialog. I will do this with a discussion of Anthony Le Donne’s book Historical Jesus: What Can We Know and How Can We Know It?

But this isn’t going to be easy.

For one thing, Le Donne is a thorough-going, card-carrying postmodernist, and postmodernists are a pain in the neck to write about. One reason postmodernists are a pain in the neck is that they’re having more fun being postmodernist than you’re having trying to understand them. Think of postmodernism as Groucho Marx playing the college president in “Horse Feathers”, mocking the faculty with what may be the best song in the Marx repertoire:

Your proposition may be good
But let’s have one thing understood
Whatever it is, I’m against it!
And even when you’ve changed it
Or condensed it
I’m against it!

I’m not saying that postmodernists are contrary. I’m saying that there is a sense of a game in what they do. They’re playing with us. The game may be serious – think of a Super Bowl, with billions of dollars on the line. Or it may be child’s play – think of hide-and-seek, with the postmodernists giggling while we chase the meaning of their work across the pages. We can be outraged by the postmodernist assault on reason, in which case we’re going to look as ridiculous as a straight man in a Marx Brothers movie. Or we can do the sensible thing and join in the fun, at which point the postmodernists have won. It’s damn insidious stuff, this postmodernism.

At the risk of looking ridiculous I’ll offer up a second way to understand postmodernism, one that Le Donne includes in his book without looking the slightest bit ridiculous. Post-modernism may be anti-modern, or ultra-modern, or beyond modern, but it’s always in some way speaking to something modern. For example, Le Donne’s postmodernism speaks to “historical positivism”, the modernist idea that history can be conducted like a science, with laws used to explain objectively discovered data to reach a scientifically secure understanding of the historical past. Le Donne doesn’t like historical positivism, and for that matter neither do I, but we’ll get to historical positivism in more detail later on.

Le Donne’s primary goal in Historical Jesus is to set forth a postmodern theory for writing history, focused on memory. In this, Le Donne is very much like Dale Allison, whose take on history and memory was the subject of my previous post. But Le Donne’s view of history and memory is different from Allison’s, and more complicated.

  1. History begins with remembered impact. For Le Donne, history begins with something happening in the real world that makes an impact. If we think of the historical Jesus, then history begins with things that the real Jesus said and did that made an impression on his contemporaries. No impression, no memory. Moreover, it is the impact we remember, and not the historical event itself. It is something like being punched in the nose – the root of what we remember is the sensation of fist distorting our flesh, bone and cartilage. We may interpret that impact to include the where, why and how of it, but the heart of the memory is the “ow!” of it. We will not remember the punch we never saw that never landed. More on impact in a moment.
  2. All memory is interpreted. There is no moment between when we perceive an event and when we interpret the event. All perceptions are interpreted as they are received so that they can be remembered – or to put it another way, any perception not interpreted is a perception forgotten. So, taking the view of a postmodern historian, we can toss aside the notion that the human mind remembers an objective record of what the eye sees, or the ear hears.
  3. All memory is reinterpreted. Interpretation does not end when a memory is first processed. When we recall a memory, we invariably re-interpret that memory – as Le Donne puts it, “[i]f something is to be remembered, it must be interpreted and reinterpreted by the ever-changing now.” This is because memory serves present-day needs. Again, a key concept is impact. We initially remember only those events that have an impact on us, and we recall only those past events that have an impact on the present (more precisely, we remember the impact in each case). You can think of examples of this from your own life. After my father died, I sat down with my brother and sisters, and within the unique “now” space of our mourning, we were able to recall stories about our father that I had not thought about in a long time and cannot remember today.
  4. All memory is anticipated. We interpret the remembered impact of events using what Le Donne describes as “familiar thought categories”. For example, the historical Jesus was remembered by his contemporaries in accordance with first century Jewish categories such as God, Torah, Temple and prophecy. Jesus did not fit neatly into these categories – no perception fits neatly into our thought categories, and this explains (at least in part) some of the how and why of memory distortion: we have to modify our perception of events so that the perceptions find thought categories that fit. This means that there’s an extent to which we remember events before they happen: if Le Donne and I together watch a present-day baseball player hit a home run, Le Donne’s thought category might be circa the 2001 Barry Bonds and mine might be circa the 1961 Mickey Mantle, in which case we’d each have partially processed the memory of the present-day home run many years before it was actually hit!
  5. All memory is social. Our “familiar thought categories” are not intrinsic to us. We pick up these categories from our experience of the world around us. This makes sense: we remember the interpreted impact of external events, so we interpret these external events using externally derived categories. This is efficient, as it would take enormous effort to come up with these categories on our own. But the social nature of memory places limits on what we remember (we cannot as individuals deviate too far from the memory of the group), and requires us to share memories with the communities in which we participate. Another way that memory is social is that we inherit interpreted memory traditions, and continue them, and reinterpret them. So memory provides us with a link to those that came before us, as well as to our contemporaries.
  6. Memory takes on the form of story. Memory moves forward in particular patterns, and one of the most important of these patters is narrative: our memories take the form of stories. We remember things that have beginnings, middles and ends, or we reorganize our memories so that they have beginnings, middles and ends.  We best remember things with narrative elements such as humor, pathos, a good twist, and an ending that feels like it ties the whole memory up. But there’s something more going on here, because we act in accordance with narrative patterns, to make certain that we are remembered. We seek to make a good beginning to things, and when a thing ends we seek “closure”, and in-between we sometimes “make scenes”, “act out” and get “overly dramatic”. In the case of Jesus, it’s likely that Jesus consciously imitated the narratives of past figures like Moses and Elijah, knowing that his Jewish audience knew how to remember such figures.
  7. Memory takes on multiple trajectories. Memory may be social, but it is not uniform, not even within a single social community. Whether we’re looking at the historical Jesus or any other topic of historical inquiry, the topic will be evidenced by several memory trajectories. For the historical Jesus, each Gospel can be seen as a separate (though related) memory trajectory, and there are other trajectories potentially represented by non-canonical gospels and various forms of Christianity (both current and extinct). It is not the historian’s task to harmonize these trajectories, or to choose between them. Instead the historian must account for all trajectories, in Le Donne’s words, “to tell the story of what set these memories in motion”,

Note how positive Le Donne is about memory! You may recall from my post on Dale Allison, how Allison despairs over our ability to remember things accurately. But Le Donne is ebullient when it comes to memory and how well it functions. (I told you: postmodernists know how to have fun.) Le Donne is so positive, he describes memory as “reliable”. Le Donne is so positive, he does not like to speak of memory “distortion”. He prefers instead to refer to memory “refraction”: like a telescope, memory “focuses our attention onto present cognitive states associated with the past” and “distorts the distance between the not-visible past and the present.” Wow! Who wouldn’t want to have distorted memories like that!

We need to examine Le Donne’s theory of history more closely, but before we do so, I need to clarify a couple of points. First, when I refer to Le Donne’s theory, I am not saying that the theory is wholly original to Le Donne. Le Donne builds his theory on the work of dozens of scholars, from Hans-Georg Gadamer (one of my personal favorites) to Bob Dylan. Le Donne’s book weaves the thoughts of these scholars with thoughts about the historical Jesus. For example: it turns out that the Jewish Jesus had a Jewish mother, who thought her son was the greatest thing since sliced pita and expected him to do marvelous things. Who knew?

But Le Donne’s primary focus is on how to write good, postmodernist, memory-based history. In Le Donne’s book, I find three sets of propositions about the writing of history that I think are fundamental to understanding his theory:

A.  The best starting point for Le Donne is the one I suggested at the beginning: he is a postmodernist in opposition to the modern notion of historical positivism. A historical positivist would say that history looks to understand the past. But when Le Donne thinks about history as a discipline, then the past is truly past. The past is not there anymore, and it’s an illusion to think we can access it. What we do have access to is memory. So for Le Donne, “[t]he historian’s task is to account plausibly for the multiple memories represented by those who interpreted past events.” Le Donne’s is not so much a Quest for the Historical Jesus – his is a Quest for the Remembered Jesus, or more accurately, Remembered Jesuses, as Le Donne acknowledges multiple memory traditions and tells us that the postmodern historian “is not concerned with solidifying a single account of the original story.”

[A post-script: based on my discussion below with Niccolo, I can now see that some of what I wrote above is wrong. It’s misleading to say that Le Donne is questing for the remembered Jesus — if I understand correctly, what Le Donne proposes to do is to account for the remembered Jesus, and it is in this accounting that we’ll find the historical Jesus. So, for example, we might “account” for anti-Jewish content in Jesus memory by saying that this content was added to Christian memory after Jesus’ lifetime, as the early church became predominantly Gentile. Much depends, then, on the nature of the accounting proposed by Le Donne, and this is a topic I have not addressed here in any detail. I confess that I’m more interested in the remembered Jesus than the historical Jesus, and I apologize if I implied that Le Donne has confused these two Jesuses. He has not — the confusion is mine.]

B.  Once the task of history is understood as plausibly accounting for memory, then “the fact of uncertainty does not concern the historian.” Again, it’s useful to contrast Le Donne and Allison. For Allison, memory is an uncertain tool for understanding the historical past, and Allison is clearly troubled by the fact of memory distortion. But for Le Donne, memory is not a tool – it is the thing he studies as a historian. For Le Donne to be troubled by memory would be like a geologist being troubled by rocks. Le Donne is willing to distinguish between remembered “stories originated from human perception” and remembered “stories originated from legend”, but in the final analysis it doesn’t matter how a story originates so long as the story is remembered. Count Le Donne as a believer, along with Allison and Morna Hooker, that a story can convey historical truth even if the story has no basis in fact.

C.  As Le Donne describes it, memory is the exception to the rule. Most events leave no impact and are forgotten. And for Le Donne, “the unremembered and uninterpreted past is not history.”

I could push back against these points, but the truth is, I’m so tired from chasing Le Donne across the pages of his book that I’m mostly inclined to agree with him. Oh, I could point out that Le Donne should be careful with this business about the unremembered falling outside of history, because you can never be sure about what has been forgotten. Repressed memories pop up all the time. Sometimes we dig them out of the ground. Sometimes we make them up.

If I’m pressed further to be critical, I’d point out how memory is affected by the exercise of social and political power. Postmodernist Michel Foucault spoke of “power/knowledge”, how those who control the instruments of power shape what we know (or think we know). In terms of memory, an institution like the Catholic Church influenced what people remembered and what they forgot. Le Donne correctly notes that this control is not complete – there is much “embarrassing” material in the New Testament that the church might have unsuccessfully tried to suppress. But the early church did suppress the memory of Arianism, Monarchianism, Monophysitism, Nestorianism, Patripassianism and Sabellianism – or at least, the church modified the memory of these beliefs so that they’re now thought of as heresies. When Le Donne talks about social constraints on memory, we should remember that the church tortured and executed heretics. The threat of torture and execution is a powerful memory constraint.

But as I’m inclined to mostly agree with Le Donne, I’ll challenge only his idea that memory is reliable. Imagine a stroll with Le Donne through the medieval art museum of our collective imagination. To our right is a portrait of Madonna and Child, and over Mary’s shoulder we see a medieval European castle on a hill dotted with pine trees. That’s not a particularly reliable memory! You might also note that in the portrait to our left, Mary and Jesus are strawberry blondes, and that’s not reliable either.

On a more serious vein, we have the Christian memory of Judaism. Preeminent historian E.P. Sanders wrote in 1977 that the then-prevailing Christian view of first century Judaism was a “massive perversion and misunderstanding”.  Given that Jesus was Jewish and that (according to Sanders) Christians have failed to understand Judaism for most of Christian history, how can we say that the Christian memory of Jesus is reliable?

Oh well. Perhaps I’m quibbling. If we must rely on memory in order to do history, maybe it doesn’t matter whether our reliance is optimistic (like Le Donne’s) or pessimistic (like Allison’s), because we’re stuck with memory in either event. So long as we’re stuck, I’d choose to be stuck with Le Donne. For one thing, he seems to be having more fun.

There’s another thing. My focus here is on interfaith dialog, and Jesus is a good topic for interfaith dialog. Jews and Christians can Quest together for the old modernist historically positive historical Jesus, the way a team of astronomers might quest together to locate a heretofore hidden galaxy. That’s a pretty good use of our interfaith time.

But an interfaith Quest for the Remembered Jesus is a more promising project, because here Jews have something unique to bring to the table: a memory tradition of Judaism that is more reliable than any trajectory available in Christian memory. By sharing our memory trajectories, Jews and Christians perform a reciprocal service, because as Christians come to understand the Jewishness of Jesus, Jews see their own tradition reflected in the person who is the most famous (and probably the most influential) in world history.

So I’ll sum up my five part series on the historical Jesus with four words: we need to talk.Thanks to Le Donne for providing yet another reason why.

  • Wonderful post. It’s thrilling and disturbing and wonderful to think of the past as an assemblage of remembrances, Slavoj Zizek would appreciate the problem of repressed memories, and I think that is a fascinating problem to consider. Thank you.

    • lbehrendt

      Thanks! By the way, I did some internet research (as opposed to legitimate research) on Žižek and repressed memory, but couldn’t find anything. There wouldn’t happen to be any Žižek experts lurking around this site who could weigh in on this? Would there? Seems too much to hope for …

      • Oh fine.

        First, a Zizekian comment: postmodernists aren’t playing with you, they’re playing with themselves. You’d think that would qualify Zizek as one (he believes all sex is mutual masturbation), but he’s avowedly neither postmodernist nor post-structuralist. He’s a Lacanian, and Lacan advocated a “return to Freud.” Repressed memories, anyone?

        For Zizek (going off memory, which is dangerous), repressed memory is indicative of the more fundamental truth of the “excremental remainder,” a constitutive lack something like a psychological black hole that organizes the galaxy of substantive meaning in our individual lives. This irrepressible “thing” at the center of one’s ontology, one’s being, what he calls (following Lacan) the “Real,” can take many forms, all of which are shot through with ideology yet appear as base and blase as one can get (hence “excremental”–Zizek famously spends much time on toilet design and sick jokes). The point is, this excremental thing is repressed precisely because it feels psychologically as extra, as not belonging, not needed, a blotch on the fulness of what should be true, real, beautiful. In other words, the thing comes across as metaphysical–Zizek loves quoting Hegel’s koan, “The Spirit is the bone”–which is why Zizek also spends much time, especially recently, with theology.

        In “The Monstrosity of Christ,” Zizek points to Jesus as just such an excremental remainder, a theological “monstrosity” that upends what history should in fact mean, certainly what God should mean in such a history. (The cover of the book has a reproduction of Da Vinci’s drawing of Christ on the cross, which Zizek is convinced shows Jesus giving God the two-finger gesture of “f*** off!”). This is interesting when one realizes that one third of humanity is now professed Christians. In Zizek’s view, Christianity’s success is precisely in its ability to represent the death of God in the body of Christ–in other words, to show how God’s lacking, non-presence, repression is elemental to one’s spiritual commitments.

        Where does that leave the historical Jesus? I would say it first explains our interest in Jesus’s existence as a real person, while at the same time complicating what we’re looking to find out about him, what we’re trying to remember. Jesus may have lived but he didn’t exist in history prior not so much to our memory of him but to its repression, its falsification, which is also its truth. Thus, athiests are the best Christians.

        • lbehrendt

          Two questions, if you don’t mind.

          The memories that end up in the “Real” or the “excremental remainder”, what happens to them? If Jesus is such an “excremental remainder”, then how does he get out of the “black hole” and become a meaningful part of people’s lives?

          Is there a collective “excremental remainder”?

          • Great questions.

            Memories (historical or otherwise) should probably not be thought of as “in” the Real as much as expressions of such. For Zizek and Lacan, memories ARE their repression, or rather, repression is the process–from the first–which creates memories, and meaning, and so on. In other words, one represses prior to having something “real” to repress–the Real can’t, therefore, be thought of as an origin or as a space but as an elemental condition of excess, of being more-than what should be in the fullness of time. Memories then do not so much represent what occurred in the past as they overdetermine one’s relationship to that past, over-create the past-as-history–which I think then leads to them “becom[ing] a meaningful part of people’s lives.” I don’t mean for this concept to come across as obtuse or too negative. There’s actually a tremendous amount of opportunity for reclaiming and even enacting the promises of history from Zizek’s perspective. For instance, by enacting IN history the most hoped-for aspects of the Christian heritage–the collective expression of agape love released through the figure of the Holy Spirit–we might subjunctively reach back INTO history and reorient the history of Christianity in this direction (one might say, the direction of the historical Jesus) and away from the Crusades, the pogroms, the monarchical alignments, pretensions to world domination, and so on. Zizek’s goal–see his book In Defense of Lost Causes for the best explication of this–is the reclamation of the best historical ideals (for him, the French Revolution, Communism, etc.) from their worst emanations.

            I think I may have touched on your second question already. My understanding is that the excremental remainder, in Zizek’s mind, is a universal condition. Excess is built into our psychology–hence ideology, which is always extreme, and is at its most extreme where it is thought not to exist. The remainder–the memory that defines who we are, but at the same time is always in addition to who we are, a ghost that both possesses and haunts our identity–is excremental because we cannot abide its being there. That’s why, for Zizek, the most impossible, excremental aspect of Christianity is the collectivist ideal of the Spirit.

            And thanks for this opportunity to talk Zizek, fills a need after my dissertation 🙂

  • Niccolo Donzella

    I have been anticipating part 5, and you did not disappoint! Thanks.

    I strongly agree with your point about the value of Jewish memory tradition. Going on memory (I think we are of the same vintage), what I received as a young person about Judaism, First Century and beyond, from local Catholic sources (basic blue-collar parish stuff) bore no resemblence to reality. It seems to me now that there was a great deal of conflation of gospels, letters, and the prejudices of that time and place. Liturgical OT readings were, and still are, chosen and interpreted in light of Christology, largely removed from their Jewish context. Fortunately a lot of good corrective work has been done since then.

    Not sure I understand what you are saying about Le Donne and impact and interpretation. On the one hand “it is the impact we remember, and not the historical event itself.” On the other, “There is no moment between when we perceive an event and when we interpret the event.” Guess I am missing something here, but it seems to me the impact comes first and creates maybe a lasting “sense” memory which is then followed by a series of interpretations over time that links the sense memory to the present as needed. Is that what he means?

    • lbehrendt

      Niccolo, thanks for the kind words!

      I find breathtaking the changes made in my lifetime in the Catholic Church’s doctrines regarding Jews and Judaism. I’ve written about this a bit here. It would be interesting to try and reconstruct these changes in terms of memory. I’m still processing much of what I’ve read in Le Donne’s book, but I wonder sometimes if there are other primary mental processes at work when we recall the past.

      You’ve asked a great question about impact, perception, interpretation and memory. I think Le Donne would argue against what you refer to as “sense” memory. In his book, Le Donne poses an example of someone who has undergone an amputation, but still feels pain in what he thinks is the part of his body that was amputated. I think the doctors refer to this as “phantom pain”. In any event, the amputee’s “sense memory” must in some sense be interpreted, as he’s feeling pain in a body part that’s no longer there, but when the amputee learns of the amputation, his “sense” of what he’s feeling is reinterpreted to conform to his new reality.

      If you’re like me, you find the amputation to be an extreme example. An alternative view would be to say as you said, that the process of memory begins with an uninterpreted impact, but to acknowledge that we have no meaningful ability to consider that impact (let alone recall it) in an uninterpreted state. At the moment, I have a beautiful view of Penn Cove on Whidbey Island. I am capable of staring at the view in a mindless state (I have not had my coffee yet!), without thinking about or even appreciating what I see. Perhaps when I zone out like this, I am experiencing an uninterpreted impact of the scene … or perhaps my subconscious is interpreting. Hard to know for sure. But for certain, if I pay attention to what I’m looking at, I’m interpreting: I understand the scene in terms of pre-existing thought categories, like water, shore, old schoolhouse on the shore. I’m evaluating the scene in terms of its qualities: less light that I’m used to in California, feels cold out there, quiet, beautiful.

      Another view would be that Le Donne’s theory is a post-modern reaction against the modernist notion that we (in particular, the western enlightenment educated “we”) are capable of taking in data as detached neutral observers, free from dogma, superstition, tradition, and other prejudices that cloud the minds of man. What do you think?

      • Niccolo Donzella


        Thanks for responding.

        I guess I used “sense” memory because I was persuaded and influenced by your image of a punch, as opposed to meaning anything strictly physical by it. Nonetheless, I do agree that the amputation example is extreme. But if I follow what you are saying, its the impact that sets the whole process in motion — no impact no memory. Whether the impact is experienced in a sensory manner or in some other manner I suppose need not be determinative. I guess it is just the sequence I am exploring here — impact then interpretation.

        I strongly agree with your point that interpretation is governed by pre-existing categories. I understand you to be saying that the categories derive from various personal and social sources, and they change with time to engage the needs of the present. That appears to be the post-modernist’s definition of scholarship — reinterpreting impact to meet the requirements of the “now.” It’s like what Helen Post says in an article up right now about the tendency to search for a “useable Jesus.” We start “remembering” whatever we want him to be at the moment.

        But your remarks about the fitting of impact into categories is the interesting piece for me at the moment. I see that you are a lawyer, as am I, so maybe using a legal context might help me understand it better. Clients come to us with problems. That’s all they know or care about — that they have a problem. Our training teaches us to sort them into established categories about which we have developed standard ways of thinking and communicating. Judges expect this. So we listen and then we say this client’s problem fits into contracts, this one’s fits into torts, the other one’s fits into property, etc. Many of these exercises are typical or familiar and leave little or no impact. But every once in a while you get one that won’t fit the categories properly or needs two of them. We remember that case over the ones that fit easily into categories.

        I suppose that what this is leading to in terms of historical Jesus study is to say that his followers experienced an impact that wouldn’t fit the familiar categories and left them startled and confused. Some take that impact and resulting confusion about categories as proof that something really stunning occurred — stunning running the gamut from “wisdom teacher” to “son of God.” The church and scholars who follow keep working out the categories in tune with their particular now. For the early church the categories involved scripture. For modernists it would be historical positivism. For post-moderns, I’d go with your really wonderful reference to the Marx Brothers — like that tone that Jesus is given by the Scholar’s Edition of Mark produced by the Jesus Seminar.

        In the end, we seem to be talking about inherited or sequential memory defined as generations of people interpreting an impact only the earliest of them actually experienced, employing ever-changing, culturally derived values and perspectives while employing several source languages and numerous commenting languages. Maybe all they really know is there was once an impact or why would we all be doing this? In any case, I am with you in asking where is the reliability?

        • lbehrendt

          Niccolo, my image of a punch was also meant to convey that we remember the impact as opposed to the event.

          Your analogy to the law is terrific! For those who are not lawyers, what we teach law students is how to place real-life situations into pre-existing thought categories that other lawyers can recognize. This is the classic stuff of a law school exam: the professor offers up a hypothetical fact situation, and the student is required to “spot issues” in that hypothetical: is there a constitutional claim, and is there a possible problem with conflict of laws of competing jurisdictions, and do we need to consider any deadlines from statutes of limitation, and so forth. Once the issues are spotted, the law student can apply the law to those issues and reach conclusions … but often it’s more difficult to spot the issue than to apply the law. Niccolo, you’re also right to point out that legal categories are not static – they change and grow in reaction to the situations we apply them to. But our use of these categories has us thinking about real-world events in a different way from the rest of the population – a difference that we’d surely categorize as “refraction” and not “distortion”. ;^)

          Your read on the historical Jesus is as good as anyone’s. My own take is that we struggle to fit what ANYONE says into familiar thought categories, so I don’t know that Jesus was remarkable in this respect. If we consider other historical figures who made enormous impacts, I think we’ll see that they’re often NOT remarkably unusual or confusing, but instead that they do a remarkably effective job of communicating to people within their then-current historical context. In a week or two, I’ll start here a series on the Parable of the Prodigal Son, and we’ll get to examine some Jesus teachings as well as the means by which Jesus communicated those teachings (or, at least, the way Luke remembered these things). It will be interesting then to look back on this discussion and ask, why was Jesus remembered so well?

          One last thought: when I question memory reliability, I’m not exactly arguing for memory unreliability. We know very little about how memory works for events that are now nearly 2,000 years old – naturally, there’s no way to study this – but in the shorter term memory must be at least good enough to allow us to function (for example, I can usually remember where I parked the car). It’s possible to argue that our memory for history is at least as important to our survival as my ability to remember where I’m parked … and if this is the case, we can credit our survival to the accuracy of our historical memory. Of course, we can also blame the tenuous nature of our survival in some part on memory distortion! I guess what I’m saying is that I’m less interested in characterizing our memory as good, or bad, and I’m more interested in seeing what we can do to improve our memory.

          Sharing memory traditions is one thing we might try.

          • Niccolo Donzella

            Good points all.
            I am intrigued by your comments about how this works with other historical figures.
            Take Lincoln. Often ridiculed and despised for then-radical views, turns to the mission of conducting a war to vindicate and effectuate those view, then killed in a political act. This life as an event makes an impact. Biographers go to work. Birth story: log cabin; youth story: learning by firelight, splitting rails; preparation for mission: political career; temptation: legal career; mission — war, etc. You can see how it all builds along the familiar categories you describe. Dying on the very cusp of victory in such a bizarre way is event/impact all by itself.
            Looking forward to your new series.

            • lbehrendt

              Niccolo, Lincoln is a nearly perfect example of what Le Donne is talking about. In fact, Le Donne DOES talk about Lincoln in his book, and he notes how some felt that the 2008 Barack Obama was intentionally modeling himself after Lincoln.

              I’m probably more focused on how our memories change to fit changes in our thought categories. For example, during my lifetime we’ve become more sensitive to the social and political importance of women. So when Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote “No Ordinary Time”, she placed great emphasis on the role played by Eleanor Roosevelt in FDR’s administration. And while I haven’t seen the movie, the ads for Spielberg’s “Lincoln” seemed to give Mary Todd Lincoln a more prominent place in the story than what I’m used to. It’s likely that in both cases, the availability of this new “feminist” thought category actually IMPROVES our memory!

              If we’re going to understand the relation between memory and history, we’re going to need to work harder at understanding our thought categories and how they change over the years. For example, as with FDR and Lincoln, the current Jesus memory also includes the feminist thought category. If we’re going to be good postmodernist students of memory-history, we need to account for this new category, without necessarily judging it one way or the other.

              Jumping back to the second century, we can imagine a new (for then) thought category: gentile-ness. By this I mean that the non-Jews joining the Christian church were being confronted for the first time with a new identity category, their non-Jewishness. Of course, these people had known all along that they weren’t Jewish, just as I know that I’m not Japanese. But the fact of my non-Japanese-ness would become a primary identity category for me if I were to move to Japan. Similarly, when a non-Jew converted to Christianity, the question of non-Jewishness would become an important thought category. So we might imagine that these people would remember any encounter Jesus had with gentiles, and even might put some Jesus encounters into this category even if these encounters weren’t previously remembered as being with gentiles.

              Mostly, though, I think it’s wide-open where Le Donne’s theory of memory might take us.

              • Niccolo Donzella

                Yes. I am with you on memory matching the now. We are talking about the “useable” whomever that Helen Post described. Once we take ANYONE, as you aptly put it, through the standard categories — birth story, youth story, preparation for mission, mission, death — the ground is fertile for the interpretations of the now. Marxism, Feminism, whatever ism the now requires, applies. Its the narrative form posing as memory that counts. FDR, even JFK, can be feminists. The point is to free the subject from historical context or maybe just eliminate historical context in favor of now. Whatever these floating images are, they are not who they were in original history, though they later assumed these roles in History.

                On your gentile-ness point, I agree. Paul and the gospel authors aimed directly at that issue, and the gospels do have Jesus ministering to Gentiles on occasion. Quare the gentile outreach in Gallilee at the appropriate time, although there is the concept of Israel bringing the nations to the one true God, which assumes some type of evangelism, no? Mormons maintain that he appeared to ancient Americans.

                In sum, I still don’t see this as personal memory of Jesus. “Collective” memory is fiction in the sense that it is something fashioned or made, not false for the now that fashioned it, but still fashioned or made out of the materials at hand on the loom of categories. The significant fictions are marked by longer shelf lives.

                • lbehrendt

                  Niccolo, you’re taking a more negative view of this than I am. If today we now have a “feminist” thought category, that’s not going to cause us to see every historical figure as a feminist. Some will appear as misogynists. Some will appear as a mixed bag. What will change is the prominence we give the question, but if we’re careful we should at least note that the question may be more important to us than it was to historical Jesus. As for the historical figure’s original context, this can be taken into account. Thus if we decide that the apostle Paul’s attitudes towards women do not meet our present-day standards, we can make the effort to judge his attitudes in terms of the standards of his own day, or we can try to compare his attitudes to those of his contemporaries.

                  As for Helen Bond (you DO mean Helen Bond, right?), note that Le Donne is a HUGE fan of Bond. There’s an interview with Bond on Le Donne’s blog.

                  I can see one other thing I should have said in my post here: to say that Le Donne studies memory is NOT the same as saying that he reports memory as history. The historian must ACCOUNT for memory.So, while Le Donne will account for the increasingly anti-Jewish way in which Jesus was remembered by Christians, he need not (and surely would not) report that the historical Jesus was anti-Jewish. He can “account” for this anti-Jewishness as a subsequent memory development. By the way, one reason why I want to be in dialog is that I learn stuff. It is in dialog with you that I saw something important about Le Donne’s work that I had not seen clearly before.

                  As for your question about Israel bringing in the nations to the one true God … I’m relying on E. P. Sanders here, who argues in “Jesus and Judaism” that (1) 1st century Judaism did not hold Gentiles in high regard, (2) there were multiple views of what would happen to Gentiles upon the coming of the Kingdom of God, including (a) conquest and destruction, (b) subjugation and (c) salvation, (3) Jesus had ;little to do with Gentiles in his lifetime, (4) there’s no authentic evidence that Jesus’ views regarding Gentiles were any different than those of his fellow Jews, and (5) after Jesus’ death, Jesus’ followers thought that a mission to the Gentiles was a logical extension of their movement. To be honest, I think Sanders is overly negative in points (1) – (4) — I think Jews had a bigger and more positive interest in Gentiles than this. I also think that Sanders is off in his point (5). I think that the initial rejection of the early Christian message by most Jews came as a shock to the leaders of this movement, and compelled them to think harder about the Gentiles. Also, I think that Paul’s mission to the Gentiles succeeded beyond everyone’s wildest dreams.It’s hard to know for sure what caused the Jesus movement to become predominantly Gentile within a short time, but it’s reasonably clear that’s what happened, and that development must have created a “now” that shaped how Jesus was remembered in the Gospels.

                  • Niccolo Donzella


                    I, too, am enjoying the dialogue and happy it is worthwhile for you.

                    Yes, I do take a more negative view. We are talking, I think, about applying thought categories or viewpoints developed in largely post-modern social science and literary disciplines to help us gain a better understanding of an historical figure. These disciplines are not neutral and tend to obey Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle — the observer brings a lens and observes whatever the lens and observer allow. But this isn’t really observation at all, as it alters the subject. And that is really the point of these thought categories, to alter the way we see and experience the subject. I am not saying that this process results in every historical figure testing positive for the particular thought category carrying out the observation. As you correctly note, some will test negative. The observer is in a position to determine whether it is positive or negative. The problem I have is whether they should be tested in this fashion at all. What is it really telling us about the object? Look at all the fun they have been having for decades now observing Shakespeare and Mark Twain and anyone else with fame, celebrity, and/or a body of work. Which brings me back to Helen Bon’s comment (yes, that Helen Bond — I am reading her new book in the perplexed series on HJ at the moment) in an article .– “Ten Things I Learnt From Writing A Book About Jesus.” She finds .the contemporary efforts to portray Jesus as anti-empire and pro-feminist unconvincing in light of the evidence. Here is what she says:

                    “What we have here in scholarship that puts an anti-imperial agenda to the fore in Jesus’ teaching, it seems to me, is the desire for a useable Jesus – someone who will speak to modern day liberal Christians who want to critique their own government’s imperialist practices. I’ve nothing against that, but we shouldn’t call it ‘historical Jesus studies.’ It’s exactly the same with the ‘Jesus as promoter of women’ view – we’d all like a Jesus who champions modern day values, but its not always going to be the case.”

                    That’s my problem with the approach in a nutshell – it isn’t Historical Jesus Studies. History shows us that the finding and deploying of a “useable” Jesus can have tragic consequences.

                    I like your point about Le Donne and memory — I guess he’s calling it memory, but it seems to me from what you are saying that he is tracing the sequential development of interpretation of that impact we were talking about — I guess the way physicists trace a physical event by measuring certain effects around it. He is not representing that the interpretation actually describes the impact or subject. That is, the process he describes of stripping Jesus of his essential Jewishness does not mean that he was anti-Jewish. That is because the object of inquiry here, it seems to me, is not Jesus at all, but his followers who, as you correctly note, become predominately Gentile in short order. It seems to me that Le Donne is on solid ground in describing real followers as they express contemporaneous views and biases that are their own. I don’t think you get the same result .when you apply something like feminism or Marxism to these followers, because they weren’t thinking about those things or at least not in the way that these disciplines present themselves.

                    Thanks for the helpful review of First Century Jewish views on Gentiles. I appreciate knowing more about the range of views on what would happen to Gentiles in the Kingdom and that helps me quite a bit. I recently read Benedict’s Jesus from the Baptism to the Transfiguration. He poses a question from a Jewish viewpoint — what did Jesus actually do or accomplish? — with — he brought the God of Israel to the nations. I think that’s right and not insignificant. Obviously, it was critical to that effort to bring salvation and inclusion along as well. Paul did, as you note, exceed expectations. As Crossan points out in “Who Killed Jesus?”, that success has been accompanied by tragic consequences.

                    • lbehrendt

                      Niccolo, it’s funny how we think alike! I’d thought hard about discussing Heisenberg in this post. Yes, I think it’s fundamental to postmodernism that there’s no such thing as a neutral observer, and it would follow that there’s no such thing as a neutral academic discipline. Even more traditional historians like John Meier distinguish between the historical Jesus and the “real” Jesus, indicating that there’s something unreal or less than real in what historians can uncover. This leads us to what we mean by “historical Jesus”, and while we might hope this means the “Jesus of history” or even “Jesus studied as any other historical figure”, under the postmodernist gaze we end up closer to “Jesus as understood by the historical method” or even “Jesus as historians see him”. At some point, I feel like raising objections. We don’t say that a pot is something created by a potter, so can’t we do better than saying that the historical Jesus is something created by historians?

                      I’ve also read Helen Bond’s article (but not her book, not yet). I think that the “useable Jesus” she mentions (and criticizes) is one variety of “remembered Jesus”, but I also think that Le Donne’s methodology allows us to understand where the “usable Jesus” comes from, and (like Bond herself does) to show how the “usable Jesus” is not the historical Jesus.

                      You’re pointing to the big question: if we accept that the historical Jesus has to be based on the remembered Jesus, and once we understand how it is that we remember things … what do we do then? We might say simply that the currently remembered Jesus IS the historical Jesus, and move on. Thinking about it, I read Le Donne’s book with the fear that this was what he was doing, and thinking about it further, that’s not what he’s doing. (Note the correction in bold that I’ve added to my post above.) Postmodernist memory-oriented historians may present us with the remembered Jesus, but they must also “account” for that memory, and that accounting can (should?) give us a historical Jesus that’s not the same as the remembered Jesus. Part of my struggle here is to understand how Le Donne proposes to do his accounting, and what sort of historical Jesus he proposes (hopes?) will emerge after his accounting is complete. I may need to re-examine his book with this question in mind.

                      While I’m in the mood for confession, I’ll confess that I’m more interested in the remembered Jesus than the historical Jesus. I think that when we talk about Jesus in an interfaith setting, the Jesus we’re likely to discuss IS the remembered Jesus. Again, this is something worth thinking about. Also worth thinking about is whether we should give up on the quest for the historical Jesus, and revert to a period of No Quest. My preference is to struggle along with the quest, as I fear that the No Quest Jesus IS the “usable Jesus”.

                      You raise many other interesting points, particularly about the Jewish mission to the Gentiles. But I don’t dare let this comment grow much longer!

                    • Niccolo Donzella

                      I am not convinced that the “remembered” Jesus beyond those who actually knew him has much or anything to do with the historical Jesus. I am afraid that the remembered Jesus after that is the useable Jesus. What do you and I make of the Gospel of John’s Jesus? Torquemada’s Jesus? Saint Francis’s Jesus? Las Casas’s Jesus?

                      Your Jesus, if I understand you, is a righteous Jew fully engaged in the great Jewish tradition of prophesy — interpretation of the Law to meet the now while irritating the complacent. Like standard American constitutional exegesis. I have no quarrel with that. I see Jews as elder brothers, not apostates. We recognize and revere the one true God. Jesus did something to bring the one true God to me, to make what was initially the God of Israel my God (and I can eat shellfish, which is existential for a Sicilian). What made that happen? That is the historical Jesus I am interested in, the one that has you and I talking. Nobody is worshipping Honi the Circle Drawer.

                    • lbehrendt

                      MY historical Jesus? I go with the idea that the historical Jesus was an eschatological – apocalyptic prophet, pretty much as Dale Allison describes in “Constructing Jesus”. But I’d probably place greater emphasis than did Allison on the historical Jesus being an exorcist/miracle worker/healer. These two things are related, but I think Allison and others stress the prophecy stuff, perhaps because it’s easier to deal with. We’re really not sure how to handle the miracle worker stuff from a historical perspective. We can conclude easily enough that Jesus was reputed to perform miracles, or that his followers genuinely believed that he could perform miracles, but then we’re tempted to quickly change the subject before someone asks what it is that Jesus was doing while the people around him concluded he was performing miracles. Probably the best work I’ve read on this subject is Morton Smith’s “Jesus the Magician”, but to say it is “best” does not mean it is “ideal”, let alone what one might hope for, let alone easy to understand, let alone the sort of work that’s appropriate for dialog with sincere believing Christians. But one important thing Smith does is to discuss in detail the “social type” of the magician, or if you prefer, the miracle worker. As Helen Bond points out in the article we’ve been discussing, there WERE people in the ancient world regarded as miracle workers, and I doubt that any of us believe that all of these miracle workers were actually and objectively able to perform miracles. For me, what is communicated most clearly in the Gospels is that the historical Jesus belongs to the category of these miracle workers.

                      I leave tomorrow for a three-day Jewish spirituality retreat. Regarding some of the spiritual practices I’ll engage in, it can be said that the Buddha did something to bring those practices to me, just as Jesus did something to bring the one true God to you. But I can’t say that Buddha had anyone like me in mind, and I’m not sure how I’d quest for the historical Buddha that has impacted my Judaism. So, I’d like to hear more about your view of the historical Jesus that made my God your God and that has the two of us talking.

                      And please, anyone else listening, please chime in! This is not a private conversation.

                    • Niccolo Donzella

                      Gut Shabbos. We’ll talk more when you get back.

                    • Niccolo Donzella

                      I am trying to work out my historical Jesus.

                      My problem with the eschatological-apocalyptic prophet model is that it results in a Jesus who is wrong about some pretty significant things, including the imminent end time and his own place in it. That leaves me wondering why his followers would work so hard to keep the movement going, recasting it in terms of a foreordained death and second coming. And why this particular eschatological-apocalyptic prophet as opposed to his contemporaries?

                      That question has pushed me in the direction of Crossan and the wisdom-teacher model, which opens the way to a radical message his followers view as life-changing and then demanding of them the effort to address the critics: who is this peasant? (House of David, birth story), he’s all talk (healings, miracles), he got himself killed (foreordained, resurrection). Eventually, this brings both the message and the God of Israel to the nations.
                      Is the covenant communal or individual (or maybe both) for the First Century Jew?

                    • lbehrendt

                      Niccolo, I think the question you’re raising is the one that pushed Crossan in the direction he’s followed, and was the mainstream reaction to Schweitzer, pushing the Quest into No Quest. At the moment, the best answer to your question might be the “early high Christology” advocated by Larry Hurtado and others: at a very early point in the Jesus movement, the movement came to believe that Jesus had a divine status. So as the movement went through periods of disappointment because Jesus’ apocalyptic prophecy was not panning out as they expected, the movement was sustained by the high Christology … and eventually the prophecy came to be understood as being fulfilled BY the Christology.

                      Oh, I admit that there are big holes in this explanation, and that it begs the question of “why Jesus, as opposed to his contemporaries”. But I don’t have a deterministic view of history. Sometimes things work out the way they do because of unique and unpredictable factors. Jesus was special, and his followers were special, and there’s no reason to expect that the Jesus movement had to follow the same path as other comparable movements.

                      I understand the appeal of the wisdom teacher model, though I have problems with that model, and we can discuss those problems if you like. As your Jewish partner in dialog, I’d ask that you be careful with this model, because it can lead in anti-Jewish directions. For example, I often run into the idea that Jesus preached “X” because his Jewish audience believed “Y” – so Jesus preached “love your neighbor” because the Jews in his audience didn’t love their neighbors. Sometimes, even Jesus must have “preached to the choir”! Crossan likes to think that Jesus preached an egalitarian message to 1st century Palestine, which is fine, but Crossan likes to paint 1st century Palestine as a particularly oppressive place, which is not fine. Ditto those who think that Jesus was a proto-feminist, and who incorrectly describe the 1st century Jewish view of women as Taliban-esque. Jesus wasn’t born Jewish so that his Jewish context could serve as an ideal contrast to the message he would preach.

                      All this comes to a head with Jesus’ crucifixion. It’s hard to explain how a wisdom teacher ended up on the cross. I’ve read Crossan’s explanation, and I can accept it, but by the time Crossan follows Jesus to the cross, Jesus is a political revolutionary and not just a wisdom teacher, and the Roman rulers of Palestine recognized Jesus as a legitimate threat.

                    • Niccolo Donzella

                      Larry, thanks. Very helpful. (And if you could also address my question about the covenant, that would be great.)

                      I agree that the Christian tendency has been to use First Century Judiasm, and more generally Jews, as a foil for Jesus’s teachings. The results have been horrific. This view posits a monolithic, and often conspiratorial, vision of Judaism that is the essence of Christian anti-Semitism, in my humble opinion. It also contradicts what we now know about the diversity of First Century Judaism, and Judaism period.

                      I appreciate the warning and the guidance. What I am trying to work out is a Jesus who brings me to the God of Israel and the values that flow therefrom. For example, I see his message that care of the vulnerable is a community responsibility owed to God and not delegable to Caesar. To me that is a thoroughly Jewish concept and deeply grounded in the prophets. It is also fundamental to contemporary Jewish and Christian charity. To the extent you see Jesus as a prophet in that respect, that makes sense to me. It’s the eschatological piece I am not seeing in terms of his followers continuing.

                      As to a proto-Feminist Jesus, I think you know how I feel about the useable Jesus. Proto-Marxist, proto-Socialist, proto-OccupyWallStreet, whatever you have, is oppressive and potentially lethal. Which brings me to my next point.

                      I agree that Crossan paints Palestine as a particularly oppressive place. But my read is that he attributes these conditions not to Jewish sources, but rather to the conditions extant at that time and place. He cites Roman commercialism, the undifferentiated Mediterranean family (I bet you and I could tell similar stories), and prevalent views on the value of women and children. In sum, I understand him to be talking about Mediterranean culture and economics, not Jewish culture. I don’t think he sees conditions in Gentile areas any less oppressive. I also think that people deploying a useable Jesus to show proto whatever are motivated by the desire to beat up on contemporaries who disagree with them. I gather they see themselves as “turning the tables” on those they regard as less enlightened believers.

                      As to crucifixion, Crossan sees it as basic Roman criminal procedure for non-citizens, especially when they are drawing crowds while talking about kingdom. Sure, a wisdom teacher with no political context could fly under that radar. But the kingdom message, the positing of an independent State, as it were, answerable only to God and to God’s law, combined with crowds and Passover, could, I think, be perceived as sufficiently political to get him killed. Especially in light of his relationship with the Baptist.

                    • lbehrendt

                      Niccolo, let me say that I admire Crossan greatly. I think he is a brilliant and passionate writer, and whatever dangers I may see in the wisdom teacher model, Crossan avoids them all. Crossan sees Jesus in a thoroughly Jewish context. Sometimes I think Crossan goes overboard painting the Temple and the Jewish elites in a more negative light than is warranted, but overall I’m a Crossan fan. Coincidentally, his “In Parables” arrived on my doorstep today.

                      The covenant? I think that from a Jewish standpoint, the covenant is both individual and communal. It is communal in that it was accepted communally in Torah, and because one becomes bound to the covenant by reason of being born into the community. It is individual because the rules governing good standing in the covenant community apply to individuals. Why do you ask?

                      More later, gotta sleep.

                    • Niccolo Donzella

                      Sorry for the long delay — press of business as we like to tell the court.

                      Thanks for the clarification. I see what you are saying about the dangers of the wisdom model. Having come into this inquiry largely through Crossan, I connect wisdom with the Jewish tradition from which Jesus is operating and not the later Christological concerns about making him appear un-Jewish, if that term makes sense. If I had a decent command of Torah I might be able to say something more intelligent about this.

                      Regarding the covenant, Christians have long claimed that Jesus established a new covenant. I am trying here to better understand the Mosaic covenant and how it binds the community and individual to better understand this claim. There is this old argument in Christianity about establishing a personal relationship with God through Jesus unmediated by church or clergy. I expect that there is a Jewish root or antecedent to this, as my minimal grasp of the prophets suggests to me that God is very interested in individuals respecting his laws, especially when – in the prophets’ views – the authorities are getting it all wrong.

                    • lbehrendt

                      Niccolo, sorry for my own delay. You refer to the Mosaic covenant, but I consider this covenant together with the one with Abraham, and perhaps even with the one with Noah.

                      Oddly enough, I never thought much about the covenant until I considered the letters of Paul. From what I’ve read, I think I like best E.P. Sanders’ view of “covenantal nomism” — being Jewish means being born into the covenant, and converting to Judaism means accepting the covenant individually. Once in, you’re in, unless you opt out. The law (halacha) represents rules for membership, and repentance is a means to redress violations of the rules, but you don’t lose covenant membership unless you reject the rules.

                      This being said, I’ve never been 100% comfortable with any description of the Jewish covenant. There’s a sense that the covenant is synonymous with Jewish identity, and this raises the question of “fuzzy boundaries” that I discussed here last year. Count me as one who likes to define Jewishness in the most inclusive way I can. If this means that the concept of covenant need give way a little, that’s fine by me.

    • John Hundley

      “Liturgical OT readings were, and still are, chosen and interpreted in light of Christology, largely removed from their Jewish context.”

      Can it be called Christology if removed from its Jewish context? From my own perspective, at least, the study of the Messiah (we should probably stop using the silly transliteration “Christ,” since this just creates problems of understanding at the outset–Messiahlogy?) necessarily involves an accurate understanding of Ancient Judaism. And, I would argue further (and to much less agree-ability, I’m sure), that an accurate understanding of Ancient Judaism necessarily involves an accurate understanding of the Messiah. If I didn’t argue the latter point I suppose I couldn’t really call myself a Christian.

      • lbehrendt

        John, we should talk before you move from Christology to Messiahology. “Christology” is a word that, for whatever reasons, is used to refer to the nature of Jesus. We would not use the word “Christology” to consider the nature of any person other than Jesus, even if we’re talking about someone with messianic claims. We would not talk about the Christology of Bar Kochba, or Shabbetai Tzvi, or Menachem Mendel Schneerson. It would confuse people.

        We can discuss the extent to which “Christology” (in its sense that this term refers only to Jesus) derives from 1st century Judaism. We’ve discussed it here already, as this is a question raised by Daniel Boyarin, and I’ve written quite a bit here on Boyarin. I’d also point you to Anthony Le Donne’s excellent blog post on what kind of Messiah Jews were expecting in Jesus’ day.

        I agree with both directions of your agree-ability, and with the caveat that the concept of the Messiah was not universally accepted within all movements of 1st century Judaism, I don’t know who would disagree with you in either direction

        • Niccolo Donzella

          I agree. I think that interpreting the OT readings as applying strictly to Jesus is (a) Christological, and (b) largely removed from a Jewish context that does not equate Jesus with Messiah. Of course, John is correct that a Christian necessarily views this differently.

      • Niccolo Donzella

        John: Please see my response below.

  • AJ

    “the unremembered and uninterpreted past is not history.”

    I think what drives people nuts about statements like these is that they come off like the tiresome question, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one’s there to hear it, did it make a sound?” The question is absurd if you take “sound” to mean vibrations traveling through the air (which of course were generated by the tree falling, and they would’ve been picked up as a sound on any audio equipment). But if you define “sound” as something experienced and interpreted directly by the human ear, then if no one was there, there was no sound.

    Same thing here. How can someone say there’s no history unless it’s remembered? The reason it sounds absurd is that people generally equate history with any and all past events. However here we’re talking about a very different definition of “history”, which is concerned not so much with past events per se as with the “story” and its impact on human consciousness. Once you’re in a story/narrative/memory framework, there’s no need to make any assertions about past events whatsoever. “Memory” after all can be memory of a dream, memory of an idea – with no relation to any “event”. (Funny enough, on my own blog I recently put up a post which is very much along these lines, describing what I now realize is a kind of “post-modern-Orthodox” Judaism, i.e. driven by the “story” and not dependent on past “events”.)
    But I don’t see the two approaches as “either-or”. It seems to me they can exist in parallel, as entirely complementary. What would help though is if instead of referring to each as “history”, we’d use some sort of modifiers to identify the framework being employed, e.g. event-history vs. memory-history.
    One last note. The idea of “Madonna and Child” with the castle in the background reminds me of my kids coming home from Jewish day school with a coloring sheet depicting Joseph and his sons in Egypt, all sporting black yarmulkas and long “peyos” (sidelocks), and a large, modern-looking building in the background with “Yeshiva of Goshen” written on it. I thought it was totally nuts – but now I realize the school was just being hip and post-modern!
    Thanks for the post. Best, AJ

    • lbehrendt

      AJ –

      I don’t think Le Donne would buy your distinction between event-history and memory-history. At the risk of being tiresome, if a tree falls in a forest and the fallen tree is discovered by a person, the impact of seeing the tree may be interpreted in such a way so that there’s a memory of the sound it made (or if you prefer, the sound it must have made). But if a tree falls in a forest, and decomposes, and there’s nothing in the forest to suggest that the tree ever fell, then the fall of the tree is not history. How could it be?

      Yes, this can cause some to roll their eyes. THE TREE FELL. Naturally, no one expects that any real-world history of the forest could possibly include the fall of the tree that no one knows about, but there’s a certain view of creating history that sees the ultimate ideal History of the Forest as including the falling of the tree, and that therefore sees the real-world History of the Forest as imperfect.

      There’s another view that says, from a historical perspective, the tree never fell. We have no memory of the tree falling. There’s no remaining evidence in the forest to create the perception that the tree fell. Therefore, the falling of the tree is not history.

      OK, sure. If we push, we can get the historian to admit that there may be any number of trees that have fallen in the forest that we don’t know about. To say that the falling of the tree is not history is NOT to say that we can write as history THAT the tree did not fall. However, we can write history AS IF the tree did not fall. We can only account for what we remember.

      Does this mean that our histories are inaccurate? One answer is “yes”. THE TREE FELL. The second answer is not so much “no” as “whaddaya talking about?” With history, we rarely deal with questions such as “did the tree fall” or (if you look at my prior post) “what was inscribed inside of Lincoln’s watch”. Think of a battle: we “remember” the battle as a series of charges, stances, retreats, counterattacks, flanking attacks, and so forth. If we like, we can reconstruct the battle in terms of strategies employed by both sides. We count the number of killed, wounded and missing, to the extent we can. But we do not try to describe the battle in terms like THE TREE FELL. Even if we could, we do not say that at 10:14 a.m., Joe Smith fired his musket at John Jones, and missed. But unless the historian describes what every soldier did on a moment-by-moment basis, the historian’s description is interpretation. She’s figuring out what to tell us, and what not to tell us. She’s assembling the things she’s going to tell us in a particular order, using a particular structure. That’s not “event-history”.

      By the way, you should push back. There is most certainly a problem with the idea that the unremembered is not history.

      Also by the way, very funny about “Yeshiva of Goshen”. Must have been easy to get an “A” at Yeshiva when you only had to learn Genesis!

      • AJ

        I get the notion that history isn’t just about identifying the events but also (and maybe more importantly) about analyzing those events, choosing which to present, etc. But there’s a big difference between that, and an approach to history that doesn’t necessitate there even having been real-world events corresponding to the memory/story. So for instance Jesus or Moses are historical figures even if they never lived. To me, this is a legitimate and important approach, but it’s so profoundly different from the classical definition of history that it warrants its own name.

        • lbehrendt

          AJ, when I deal with the postmoderns, I sometimes think I should do it in columns, label one column conservative and one radical, and write parallel pieces. It’s like Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle: is it merely impossible to measure both the position and momentum of a particle (conservative column), or does the particle not exist in a single state of position and momentum (radical column)?

          If Le Donne himself were here, I think he’d take the conservative position. I think he’d agree with you that there is an objective reality that exists out there, that this reality includes the occurrence of events in the real world, and that these events have reality independent of our perception and memory. He’d probably also say that memory does a reasonably good job of preserving the content of those events. If we remember historical figures that never existed in that reality, I think Le Donne would acknowledge that as a potential problem. I think that Le Donne (like many others) would argue that myths can convey historically accurate information, but I also think he would hope that myth does not become history simply because the myth is remembered.

          But I think Le Donne would also say that we have no direct access to the reality I’ve described above, independent of our perception of the impact of that reality. I’m sure he’d say that this impact is interpreted — we don’t receive information about that reality in an objectively neutral way. And I’m sure he’d say that all subsequent access to that remembered impact undergoes subsequent interpretation. To pretend that history can be anything more than this is dangerous — it is a fantasy where history masquerades as a hard science, where the reality of what historians do (and what they can do) is misunderstood, and (here it is me talking, and not Le Donne) the historian assumes an authority that he doesn’t deserve.

          I think Le Donne is 100% right here. I pushed back at you, because there is no distinction between event-history and memory-history. There is only the distinction between two fundamentally different ways of viewing the single thing that historians do.

          A few smaller points. Le Donne is not saying that the historian is supposed to report whatever we happen to remember. Le Donne says that the historian is supposed to “account” for memory. So as best as I can tell, Le Donne would be willing to look at a piece of memory, find it implausible, and then “account” for it in some way other than accepting it at face value. What Le Donne probably would not do is to toss the implausible memory in the circular file. He would try to account for how that memory came to be. That “accounting” could include his concluding that the memory was based on a fabricated story and not on a perceived impact of a real-world event.

          Second: I don’t think your distinction between “identifying the events” and “analyzing those events” can hold up. There’s “analysis” (I prefer “interpretation”) everywhere you look. I’ll go back to the idea of a battle, like the Battle of Gettysburg. Sure, there are certain “events” that even I’d have a hard time seeing as interpreted, such as the date of the battle and where it took place. But the “events” normally associated with the battle — the strategies employed by each side, even the principal troop movements, all are heavily interpreted memories. We leave out a million small details, interpreting them as small and unimportant to the story. We consolidate the actions of individual soldiers into broader interpreted descriptions of the battle’s ebb and flow (so and so “gained a temporary success”, the other guy was “repulsed with heavy losses”). Sure, once the historian gets to her discussion of who won or lost the battle, we sense we’re in the realm of “analysis”, but the truth is, there’s analysis all around — you can’t describe what happened in any other way. If you’ve ever read a soldier’s diary, you’ll get the sense of the chaos of a battle like Gettysburg, and if you want to “identify the events” of a battle, it’s probably a lot closer to chaos than it is to the ordered description you’d find somewhere like Wikipedia. But even the soldier’s diary is interpreted — for example, he can’t possibly record everything he sees, so he’s also editing out the details he thinks are unimportant.

          • AJ

            Fair points – I don’t disagree. Thanks for the response.

        • lbehrendt

          AJ, a thought: how do you approach the Quest for the Historical Abraham? We can say with reasonable historical certainty that there was a real person Jesus who lived in first century Palestine. But at best, there’s less certainty for the Historical Abraham. What if we concluded that Abraham may never have existed, or that there’s no historical evidence that Abraham existed? Are we willing to say that Abraham falls outside of any sort of historical study, or that any such study warrants its own name? Or is it legitimate, historically speaking, to start with the remembered Abraham and “account” for those memories?

          If it isn’t clear, these are not intended as rhetorical questions.

          • AJ

            I’m not expert enough to know how to go about the search for the Historical Abraham. It seems certain though that it would have to start with Abraham the way he is “remembered” in the Biblical text, and possibly (though less likely) even in the Midrash – since that is just about all the evidence we currently have. And I’d assume part of the goal would be to find ancient extra-Biblical mentions of his name. Otherwise, we have no way of knowing whether the stories about him as a person are legendary/eponymous, or whether they’re based on a real person. One definitely gets the impression about the pre-Flood generations that they’re more the former category. But even if we were to conclude that Abraham himself never existed, one could study the “history” of Abraham in the sense of the history of how/when his name/character entered into the consciousness of the ancient Hebrews, or the historical context relating to the stories in which Abraham is mentioned. And as far as I can see, that would all be normative history and anthropology. That’s my initial reaction.

            • lbehrendt

              You’re describing the Quest for the Historical Abraham pretty much as I imagine it. We can conduct the Quest for the Historical Jesus in much the same way, even though we’re confident that Jesus was a real person.

              • AJ

                Makes sense to me!

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  • Hey Larry:

    Do you know the origin of that image at the top of the post? It’s from the Chinese artist, He Qi. Yale exhibited his work some years back and both Kristi and I enjoyed it. In my office I have poster prints of his “Expulsion from Eden” and “The Visit to Abraham.” Our 2 year-old’s room has “Moses in the Basket.” Good choice on the visual!

    • lbehrendt

      Thanks! I’m glad I picked a good one. Mostly, I gaffe, like when I found pictures of what I thought were Jesus bobbleheads, only they turned out to be St. Jude bobbleheads. The flame above the head didn’t tip me off. I’m mostly a written word guy.