I like Anthony Le Donne’s little book - Historical Jesus: What Can We Know and How Can We Know It?[i] - though I think the title and the subtitle are reversed. This 150 page book is a primer in the postmodern philosophy of history and in memory theories in the context of the historical Jesus. This is not a “life of Christ.” It is, instead, an introductory guide into how to think about the life of Christ from a postmodernist historian point of view.
And I know that I’ve already set some folk’s teeth on edge. It’s that much used but rarely defined word “postmodern.” And Le Donne doesn’t define it much more than as a reaction to the “modern” approach.[ii] Postmodernism is difficult (if not impossible to define) because there is no unified and codified standard of postmodern thought, there is no rule book, no agreed upon goal. But whatever it may be there a couple of related ideas that can be considered foundational – multiple voices and multiple points of view. And with those multiple voices and views comes doubt about or rejection of objective reality and absolute truth.
And this makes many Christians nervous. [iii] But Le Donne, as much as he emphasizes the need to recognize these multiple and overlapping and even contradictory perceptions, does not reject the idea that absolute truth (in a historical context) exists. It is, however, inaccessible to us – except through the distorted and refracted lenses of the memories of those who wrote about the life and teachings of Jesus.
Previous attempts to find the “historical Jesus” have, like Judas in the rock-opera Jesus Christ Superstar, attempted to “strip away the myth from the man…” [iv] But Le Donne argues that it is not the historian’s goal to strip away the myth and the interpretation in order to get back to the bare bones of history. “The historian cannot separate the facts from the interpretations, nor should he/she try.”[v] Instead the goal is to “account plausibly for the multiple memories represented by those who interpreted past events.”[vi]
The past is gone and will never be repeated. All that remains are our memories – but our memories are shaped by our perceptions and our perceptions are shaped by our culture, our ideas, our thoughts etc… The French philosopher Voltaire is quoted in Le Donne’s book as saying, “There is no history, only fictions of varying degrees of plausibility.”[vii] Perhaps Voltaire was overly cynical, but history – the sequential events that happened in the past – is inaccessible to us (without the use of a time machine…) All that we have and all that we can have are the stories we remember and that we tell about the past.
And all stories are interpretations – shaped by narrative constraints, ideologies and beliefs.
As a primer for students of the postmodern philosophy of history, this book is great. But as a book about the historical Jesus, it’s rather lean. I think I would have appreciated a more in depth application of this methodology to the study of the historical Jesus. The few examples Le Donne has included are striking. Even if I’m not sure that I like or agree with his all of his conclusions, I wanted more.
It’s a surprisingly light book (both in weight and in tone) for such a complex and nuanced topic, but Le Donne uses examples from pop culture and scholarly tomes with equal dexterity to make his points. It’s neither dull nor condescending. I recommend it to you if you’re not afraid to have your perceptions challenged.
[i] Le Donne, Anthony Historical Jesus: What Can We Know and How Can We Know It? William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, Grand Rapids MI, 2011
[ii] Page 6
[iii] In point of fact: the publication of Historical Jesus led to the firing of Le Donne from Lincoln Christian University in April 2012, because donors were upset by the content of the book…
[iv] Jesus Christ Superstar, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Tim Rice
[v] Page 80
[vi] Page 77
[vii] Page 72