This 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.