Monday, May 16, 2011

Book Note: Anthony LeDonne, Historical Jesus

This is a must-read book, whether you are persuaded or not. I don't say that about many books, let alone books about the historical Jesus which has become a cottage-industry these days. But LeDonne's book, Historical Jesus, is different because he pushes the historical approach by responsibly bringing in research on human perception and memory.

He makes a case that by analyzing patterns in the way Jesus was remembered by his contemporaries, we can make some plausible claims about his life and teaching as a "historical" figure. Now "historical" is in scare quotes for a reason. It is because LeDonne doesn't understand his job to be to reconstruct what happened in the past, but to explain why the past was remembered as it was. So consider his definition of history: "History, as a discipline of knowledge, is not what happened in the past, it is an accounting of how the past was remembered and why. To confuse these is to confuse the very nature of the historian's task" (p. 34). And "History includes only the past that has been interpreted through memory. That which has not been remembered is not history" (p. 34). And this memory is ongoing, forged with each new generation in order to make sense of the current situation.

The real job of the historian is "to measure and compare interpretations in order to explain the most plausible interpretation of the story" (p. 78). He "doesn't attempt to peel away interpretation in order to find facts" (p. 78). Why? Because "the postmodern mind knows that no facts are available for analysis that have not been preceded, followed, and mediated by interpretation" (p. 78).

So LeDonne begins with the premises that the storytellers behind the gospels are interpreters by discipline, and that what they have written is exactly what history ought to look like, and our job is to explain why history was written to look like this. What the gospel writers produced were creatively constructed interpretations that began during Jesus' lifetime. Why during his lifetime? Because if he would not have been interpreted by his contemporaries, he would not have been remembered at all (p. 40).

LeDonne's approach is laid out and applied as the book progresses. LeDonne concludes that Jesus had a complex relationship with his mother and their dysfunctional family, that he saw himself as an exorcist and healer, that he took on John's massive following and began to preach nonviolence and the establishment of God's political reign on earth. This revolutionary message led to a final confrontation with the temple priesthood in Jerusalem and his death.

While I am impressed by LeDonne's approach and persuaded by his application of theories on human perception and memory, I remain a modernist too (postmodernism is the extreme of modernity). I think that our job is to provide plausible explanation for what happened from records that are interpretations of what was perceived to have happened. To me, this argument for plausibility is still tied to fact. I can't seem to detach it and am not sure I would want to anyway.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

It's just like ancient times

A vivid example of "holy misogyny" at work in the modern world. It's just like ancient times when women were erased from memory. Hilary Clinton literally erased from photo in a religious newspaper (story and photo reported here). Why?
Brooklyn-based Di-Tzeitung, which never runs pictures of women because they might be "sexually suggestive," also removed the only other woman in the room, Counterterrorism Director Audrey Tomason.
The paper's response to our outrage? A contradiction to common sense (of course this relegates women to a lower status - it eliminates them!), but I guess if it is said enough by religious authorities we buy it as true:
In accord with our religious beliefs, we do not publish photos of women, which in no way relegates them to a lower status. Publishing a newspaper is a big responsibility, and our policies are guided by a Rabbinical Board. Because of laws of modesty, we are not allowed to publish pictures of women, and we regret if this gives an impression of disparaging to women, which is certainly never our intention. We apologize if this was seen as offensive.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Digital images of Nag Hammadi collection

Here is the link to the digital images of the Nag Hammadi collection in case you need access. They are uploaded on the web at Claremont Colleges Digital Library.

Photo from CCDL Claremont Libraries.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

SBL has received NEH Award

Congratulations to all involved in this wonderful project that will now be funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities:
SBL has been awarded an NEH grant for a new website that will showcase the work of SBL members and communicate the value that biblical scholars bring to the study of the Bible and to the humanities. More information >>