Wednesday, March 31, 2010

social memory and the historical Jesus

My PhD, from The University of Sheffield. (the capitalized article and the full-stop [period] are part of the uni's name, as you can see on their website; I know, I know . . . it's stupid), brought together social memory theory, oral traditional research, and gospels/historical Jesus research. My thesis was published earlier this year as Structuring Early Christian Memory: Jesus in Tradition, Performance and Text (European Studies on Christian Origins, LNTS 407; London and New York: T&T Clark, 2010). The only other PhD project I know of that focuses so intensively on the sociological inquiry into memory is Anthony Le Donne's, which he completed at Durham University. Le Donne's thesis was published as The Historiographical Jesus: Memory, Typology, and the Son of David (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2009), which I began reading earlier this week. My review is scheduled to be published by the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus later this year.

I've only read the first chapter ("Introduction") and the first section of the second ("Hermeneutics and History"). Already, however, I'm discovering quite a bit I like and a bit with which I can argue. Anyone faintly familiar with academia knows that these books—the ones you agree with and argue against—are the best books. Le Donne begins by chronicling the bifurcation among Jesus historians between interpretation ("typology") and history. Even in scholars sensitive to the problem (e.g., E. P. Sanders), Le Donne suggests the model of "two contexts" oversimplifies the processes by which people perceive historical events and narrate them. Historians, then, cannot simply divide historical data into two categories (typology/history, or, I wonder, inauthentic/authentic?).
No, there are not only two contexts; there is a long continuum of many historical contexts that stand between Jesus and the Gospels, each connected and continuous with the others [emphasis added]. By placing the typological discussion in a different category than the context of "Jesus' own career," Sanders has created two contexts and thereby bifurcates his historical portrait of Jesus. (5)

All this is very good. In Structuring Early Christian Memory as well as my article, "Authenticating Criteria," I question the bifurcation of historical data into authentic and inauthentic categories. Le Donne pursues the same topic (independently; I've met Le Donne a few times, but our work has not interacted with each other in any significant way [at least, not yet]). His second chapter, as far as I can tell up to now, traces the hermeneutical essence of any discourse on the past ("memory," or "history") and how modern historiographical praxis has come to understand the two issues, interpretation and history.

As I mentioned above, there are some things I don't buy, at least not yet. Le Donne's research pursues a new approach to historical Jesus scholarship, one that identifies and traces backwards mnemonic trajectories. For well over a hundred years historical Jesus research has relied on models and the rhetoric of trajectories, and this, I think, is part of the problem. So I see red flags when I read:
I contend that typological appeals to salvation history are to be expected along each stage of the Jesus tradition. All history, whether salvation history or otherwise, borrows language, categories, and types from previous eras. For this reason the model of a continuum is to be preferred, one that places early typological interpretations of Jesus and the interpretations of the early church along the same trajectory. (5; emphasis added)

I agree wholeheartedly with Le Donne here; I've even written in the margin, "the past as constitutive of the present," which is a major emphasis of my own work. But when it comes to the italicized phrase, I'm not sure I would follow Le Donne. Memorial events (or acts) are both constitutively linked with memorial events from the past (as Le Donne states here), and they are inextricably embedded in their present contexts (another point Le Donne acknowledges). But the unpredictable and non-sequential nature of "present moments" problematizes any appeal to trajectories as part of our historiographical models.

Of course, I'm only twenty-two pages into Le Donne's book, so I haven't yet read his arguments supporting his use of trajectories. And I'm genuinely open to being convinced. I'll write more as time permits.

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