Historical Jesus: What can we know and how can we know it?, Anthony Le Donne, Eerdmans, 2011.
This short and very readable volume is valuable but flawed. The reason I say that: great information on historical “knowing” and application to historical Jesus studies, but poor application to the Jesus story once Le Donne turns his attention to it. First, the part I think is good.
When it comes to historical knowledge, how we know history, Le Donne explains in layman terms why modernism overreached. Modernism was too optimistic in some ways and too skeptical in others. It assumed we could find “the facts, just the facts” and view history objectively, in a one to one correspondence. All knowledge, even memory, is interpretation, says Le Donne, in what I deem to be a proper postmodern correction.
And Le Donne carefully and clearly explains how memory and historical knowledge actually work. If a reader wants a book showing how postmodernism is a great improvement on modernism, this one is perfect for the task. All new knowledge is filtered through our previous knowledge, and is a matter of interpretation. There is no un-interpreted fact. Memory itself, as Le Donne demonstrates, is “refracted” (to use his word) just as the view of deep space is subtly altered by the limits of our optical technology. And we put new data into categories we understand from previous things we have learned. Paradigm changes and new categories come slowly, building on previous knowledge. That is why, over time, our knowledge improves, as more and more data give us new categories of understanding. Knowledge is provisional, destined to be improved as our base of ideas grows.
When we experience something and access the memory of that experience, we categorize it according to pre-conceived ideas.
How does this apply to Jesus? He lived according to ideas and categories from the prophets. He spoke ideas that had precursors in Israelite thought. His followers and critics alike understood him in categories from the Hebrew Bible. He deliberately evoked themes shared by Jewish hearers and put his own twist on them. All of this, so far, is undeniable.
But when Le Donne creatively applies examples, that is where I think his work suffers. Here is a prime example of the dubious results of his application: the ascension never happened but was Luke superimposing Elijah typology on the memory of Jesus’ death. That is, Luke heard the accounts of eyewitnesses and read earlier gospels like Mark, but the pre-conceived categories of the Elijah story colored his perception of what happened to Jesus. His prior categories of knowledge boxed him into certain ways of thinking about Jesus. Elijah ascended and the disciples remembered Jesus according to many Elijah-like sayings and deeds. Thus, the ascension scene of Yeshua at the end of Luke, repeated at the beginning of Acts, is a the result of a chain of memory refraction passing from Mark to Luke, in which Elijah typology is taken too literally.
The mechanism Le Donne suggests for this is as follows: Luke had before him Mark 16:19 (that is already questionable as Mark 16:19 is thought to have a later origin than Luke and that Mark properly ends at 16:8). Mark 16:19 makes a simple literary statement about Yeshua being taken up into heaven. Luke interprets this literally through the Elijah story and assumes a bodily ascension into the sky. Luke then takes what is simple literary allusion to the death and then disappearance of Yeshua from the tomb to have been a resurrection and ascension into the sky.
But as creative as this reconstruction sounds, it is based on omitting certain things and allowing others which have no basis. Did Luke really have Mark 16:19 before him? Or is Mark 16:19 a scribal addition from later than the New Testament? Could it be that Mark 16:19 is actually based on Luke’s account of the ascension? And the greatest gap in Le Donne’s thinking, it seems to me, is that he finds a creative re-explanation of the ascension, but leaves untouched the empty tomb and resurrection appearance stories. Is he implying that the resurrection may have really happened but not the ascension?
I recommend Le Donne’s book for what it is great at: explaining historical knowledge, what it is, how memory is constrained to be an interpretation and not a mythically objective reporting of “what happened,” and a defense of traditional categories of historical Jesus studies as valid as long as the idea of authenticity is properly defined. I shudder when I read Le Donne’s applications, though, not only to the ascension, but also to the “triumphal entry” and “temple cleansing” incidents. Numerous pre-judgments about the state of Jesus’ disciple movement, the Temple authorities, and Jesus’ own psychology color Le Donne’s examples. There is much room to disagree with his application of his solidly helpful theory.