As every theologian and historian knows, the search for the historical Jesus is fraught with difficulties. On the face of it, Anthony Le Donne’s book is an attempt to show how, grounded in a thoroughly postmodern Gospel hermeneutic, we can know the historical Jesus and how we can escape from the skepticism to which modern Jesus historiography has too often led.
Over the course of three main sections, Le Donne examines three aspects of the life of Jesus by laying a philosophical foundation in the nature of perception, memory, narrative and history. Each part ends with a chapter that directly applies his epistemology and philosophy of history (which turn out to be essentially the same thing) to unearthing the historical Jesus. The first part asks about Jesus’ personal and family life; the second looks at Jesus’ message, especially in relation to John the Baptist; and the third discusses Jesus’ conflict with the powers of his day, particularly through his sayings about the destruction of the temple. However, while organized around historical Jesus questions, most of the book is a philosophy of history more than history itself.
Drawing upon a variety of philosophers and peppered with appropriate examples, autobiographical and otherwise, the book is highly readable for the complexity of the subject. Le Donne’s style is smooth and conversational, he treads lightly and quickly through some of the more complicated concepts, and he regularly provides helpful illustrations, background information, and explanations of basic concepts. Thus, he has succeeded in producing a text that is both accessible to the newcomer as well as a contribution to historical Jesus scholarship.
Two of Le Donne’s insights in particular are worth highlighting. He argues that typology is not a method that later narrators used to interpret Jesus, but that it was the way in which Jesus was understood and thus remembered by his immediate audience. Humans naturally understand and remember typologically, comparing and recollecting one thing in relation to others already known. Secondly, Le Donne argues that if we understand the nature of perception and memory correctly, then we do not need to posit that the Gospel writers invented certain stories; rather, the stories are the way that the original events were perceived and then further remembered in new contexts.
However, two serious critiques are also in order. First, while Le Donne claims orthodoxy regarding belief in the humanity of Jesus, he is not particularly attentive to many other elements of the Tradition, such as the divinity of Christ or reverence for the Holy Family. For example, though Le Donne, not being Catholic, would not be expected to ascribe to Mary’s perpetual virginity or sinlessness, it hardly fits with the Christian tradition to refer to Jesus’ family as dysfunctional and his mother as a power-hungry and ambitious woman who practically forced her son against his will into the public eye to suit her own ends.
Secondly, the book suffers from a cluster of serious philosophical mistakes. Le Donne would have us believe that the past is truly unknowable, that there is a wall called perception that stands not only between the present and the past, but even between one’s memories and one’s own past. Memory is perception, and we can only ever know our mind’s interpretations, never the real world itself. Interestingly, this view is supposed to combat historical skepticism. People truly can come to know the historical Jesus, Le Donne insists, because there is no historical Jesus other than the perception/memory itself.
Better philosophers than I have dealt at great length with such ideas. Suffice it to say here that every thinker faces a basic decision, upon which hangs the entire intellectual enterprise: is the world itself knowable or does one know only one’s experiences, perceptions, thoughts, etc.? If one affirms the latter, then all argument, indeed all true dialogue must cease. A philosophy informed by common sense is thus more practical. It is also more rational. The most reasonable position is that one’s perceptions are really of what the perceptions themselves purport: an objective reality. It does not follow from the fact that everyone has preconceptions that the real world itself is unknowable. Everyone wears lenses, it is true, but some lenses improve vision even if others distort. If one’s vision is currently blurry, the sensible response is not to give up on seeing altogether but rather to seek out better lenses.
Thankfully, common sense is in many ways stronger than bad philosophy, and Le Donne’s work is itself better than his postmodernism warrants. If he truly followed his own philosophy, he could not even have written this book, for he constantly presupposes a real past that is knowable, albeit indirectly. Le Donne spends a great deal of time doing just what he says we cannot do, namely trying to get at the real Jesus of history, and to do so he follows much the same path as the modern historian, discussing a variety of the criteria for authenticity throughout the book, such as Embarrassment (45), Coherence (49), and Divergent Traditions (91). Here he is at his best, and a reader well-grounded in sound philosophy and theology (not the typical undergrad) will profit from the book.
Thus, despite its shortcomings, Historical Jesus is a readable and thoughtful contribution to a very complex field.