Review: The Historiographical Jesus

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The Historiographical Jesus introduces a new theory and approach for studying the life of Jesus. Anthony Le Donne uses the precepts of social memory theory to identify memory refraction in the Jesus tradition the refocusing distortion that occurs as the stories and sayings of Jesus were handed down and consciously and unconsciously framed in new settings with new applications. Recognition of this refraction allows historians to escape the problematic dichotomy between memory and typology. The author focuses on the title “Son of David” as it was used in Jewish and Christian traditions to demonstrate both how his new theory functions and to advance historical Jesus research.

  • Hardcover: 309 pages
  • Publisher: Baylor University Press (August 15, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1602580650
  • ISBN-13: 978-1602580657

Le Donne has furnished a first of it’s kind entry into the field of research on the Historical Jesus; however, if you remove the author’s thesis (which is tough to find at times) and the redaction criticism, you come away with a great commentary on Psalm 110, some 2nd Temple material, and a great proponent of typological Christology. In a few words, if you review much of the author’s work, you are left with much of the same discussion which would have been held by many of the early Christian writers.

The author spends more time than necessary reiterating his plans and goals, much more it seems then he does actually showcasing his achievements. Further, he rarely explains his conclusions and acceptance, or rejection, of modern research positions, such as accepting Bultmann, but distancing himself from Jung, makes use of ‘Q’ as a valid source, but focus on Mark, accepts Ralf’s change to the 18th Psalm of Solomon, applies modern linguists to ancient idioms, and spends no time in addressing any of Solomon’s negatives found in strains of the Hebrew Scriptures. Finally, his use of Morton Smith as a credible source astounds me.

On the other hand, the author realizes the pitfalls of a massive work like this, acknowledging from the first that his book might not be read as a whole, but in part. He constantly refreshes the reader’s mind with ques to his previous material and foreshadowing what is to come, plainly spells out his goals and his methodology, and makes many convincing arguments that may change some aspects of the research into the Historical Jesus.

His book rests on the idea that memory is rarely held without external or internal presuppositions and is often times narrativized so as to produce standard memories of the local community.

Jesus can be examined and discussed as a historical figure as long as history is thought of in terms of memory refraction.

Further, he writes,

I argue that all perception is bent in the mnemonic process and that historical memory is best understood in this way.

In doing so, he first makes three conclusions which he promises to revisit:

  1. If perceptions are to be remembered, then they will inevitably be interpreted – subconsciously, consciously, or both.
  2. Perceptions that contribute to historical memory are thus always interpreted along each state of the tradition that they inhabit.
  3. The historian is never able to interpret an uninterpreted past.

While many of this ventures are needless, and in the end, he arrives at the nearly the same idea as many of the early writers would have, he succeeds in at least proving that his theories have merit and should be considered in the wider field of Historical Jesus research.

He spends time at the outset taking the reader through the history of historical criticism, and includes others who have contributed to the study of social memory. He doesn’t shy away from addressing his issues with each of those who have gone on before, even with modern authors.

On page 182, after an in-depth analysis of Matthew when compared to this thesis, he writes,

I am convinced that Matthew did not see his alterations of Mark and Q in terms of ‘distortion’ or refraction’: his story was to him simply a better interpretation of the events and their significance.’

He does this, analyze and then refute the connection to his thesis, several times, so much so that I find the time spend on what doesn’t add to his thesis to be wasteful to the point that he doesn’t fully develop his goal. Further, he admittedly follows ‘thin threads’ (p240) from time to time in his attempt to show that ‘when memories are transformed into stories, they receive beginnings and endings. Moreover, the details included in these stories are so because they serve the telos of the story.’ (p215).

It is the beginnings of the story of Jesus which Le Donne brings to bear for his point. He writes in his Conclusion (p268), ‘The historical Jesus is the memorable Jesus; he is the one who set refraction trajectories in motion and who set the initial perimeters for hos his memories were to be interpreted by his contemporaries.’ He is ultimately correct, especially in light of his work in chapter seven which examines the Temple Procession, the purpose of it and it’s intended interpretation in light of Psalm 118, Zechariah 9 and 1st Kings 1.¬† Further, his extensive use of the Psalms of Solomon and other ‘Son of David’ texts highlight certain primitive hermeneutical¬† structures and methods.

Le Donne’s work finishes not with a complete set of answers for those who are investigating the Historical Jesus and the earliest Christian writings, but he does provide a solid base for even conservative New Testament scholars in that he sees the development of the ‘Jesus Tradition’ along mnemonic, typological, and even historical memory lines. He does not dismiss either the Historical Jesus or the Gospel writers as eyewitnesses, but instead seeks to place their eyewitness within the framework of social memory.

Finally, the book can be used for two types of purposes, at the very least. One, for those who are interested in historical critical research and social memory and the other, the latter half of the book, for excellent commentaries on Psalm 110 and the development of typology in the Gospels.

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