Tuesday, April 27, 2010

still reading

I'm still reading Anthony Le Donne's The Historiographical Jesus: Memory, Typology, and the Son of David (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2009), but both my reading and my commenting have slowed down considerably for a number of reasons. First, I'm currently in the eye of a hurricane (in reverse, perhaps). On the one hand, my oldest sister was married on 10 April in Phoenix, AZ; my wife was a bridesmaid, my daughter the flower girl, and I officiated. On the other hand, my youngest sister gets married this Saturday, 1 May. Only Janelle is involved (hence the in reverse comment), but this still requires serious adjustments to our schedules. Second, and much more significantly in terms of time, we have take custody of a baby girl we plan to adopt later this year. The move from one to two children has deprived me of sleep, productive work time, and (of course) time writing for the blog.

Even so, I did manage to read Le Donne's sixth chapter ("The Therapeutic Son of David" [137–83]) and his brief excursus, "The Presupposition of Davidic Descent" (185–9). Of course, the chapter depends rhetorically and historiographically on the identification of traditional trajectories, and I have registered elsewhere my objection to this approach to history (especially here). But that aside, there is much to praise in this chapter. First, I was pleased with how overlapping are his analysis of the Beelzebul controversy with my own analysis (see chapter 7 of my Structuring Early Christian Memory), even though we have very different emphases and agenda. Second, I think Le Donne is exactly right to point out that exorcisms and healings were not necessarily distinct therapeutic phenomena in the ancient world. Luke clearly blurs the distinctions between them, both in his account of the healing of Simon's mother-in-law (Luke 4.38–9) and in the healing of the bent woman (Luke 13.10–13); Le Donne focuses on Matthew's similar blurring. Third (and again, similar to my discussion of exorcisms in chapter 7 of Structuring Early Christian Memory), Le Donne draws attention to the ways the evangelists localized Jesus' exoricisms within Hebrew biblical traditions. This is no small feat, given the paucity of Hebrew biblical traditions that could be read demonologically (really, only 1 Sam 16.14-23). Even so, Matthew (as Le Donne argues) reads Jesus' exorcisms from the perspective of Isaianic therapeutic traditions (see Isa 35.5–6; 61.1–2 [LXX]), especially in Matthew 12.

Monday, April 05, 2010

historical and/or mnemonic trajectories

Okay. The fourth chapter ("Memory and Typology") of Anthony Le Donne's The Historiographical Jesus: Memory, Typology, and the Son of David (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2009) presents the heart of Le Donne's argument regarding trajectories (and the utility thereof) for historical Jesus research (see the section, "Mnemonic Continuity and Trajectory" [70–77]). This, as I've said elsewhere, is so far the heart of my disagreement with Le Donne's historiographical program, including his appropriation of social memory theory. On the one hand, this is a significant disagreement, since without the argument for trajectories Le Donne's book loses a lot of its substance. On the other hand, the amount of theoretical and methodological material in the book with which I agree probably surpasses 90%, and so I'm prone to minimize the significance of this disagreement. Either way, let's make sure I understand the argument rightly.

First, Le Donne is not suggesting that mnemonic trajectories enable us to move behind the extant historical data to the historical realia that generated our data. As he has argued throughout the previous two chapters, there simply is no uninterpreted historical reality behind the data, no "real Jesus" for us to get to apart from the "Jesus Remembered" (note the intentional echo of James Dunn). Le Donne isn't suggesting that there wasn't an actual historical (= real) Jesus that the early Christians remembered in their accounts of his life and teachings. But he does insist that we cannot get behind our historical data to reconstruct the real person of whom the gospels are (or claim to be) traces.
What the postmodern mind has taught us is that we must always qualify what we mean by "real." What is real is that which has been perceived and interpreted and thus refracted. But once qualified it is no longer helpful to draw a distinction between the real Jesus and the remembered Jesus. For those disciples of the first generation, the real Jesus was the Jesus of their memory. (76)

I have to admit that I agree here. We can know the Jesus whom the early Christians remembered. Inasmuch as Paul's letters, the gospels, and other early Christian texts "get Jesus wrong," we cannot know the "real" Jesus who walked and talked throughout Galilee. Inasmuch as they "get Jesus right," we can. But in both cases, we are constrained by (n.b. not "restricted to") the evidence we have, all of which has already been "refracted."

Second, Le Donne builds his case for mnemonic trajectories on the strength of his argument for memory's continuity through time. Let me say, I agree completely with his case that memories are causally related to previous perceptions and conceptions of the past (= continuity), even if each generation has to expend its own energy to come to terms with the past it inherits from its forebears. "What is vital to this model is the concept of mnemonic continuity. . . . Once a perception has been localized within a particular mnemonic category, the refractions thereafter will constitute only incremental modifications to that category" (72; my emphasis). Le Donne's point isn't necessarily that dramatic changes in conceptions of the past don't happen, but only that they happen in relation to the conceptions of the past that were received as traditional. As an example (my own, not Le Donne's), if someone were to offer the (radically revisionist) view of Jimmy Carter's presidency as "successful," they would have to do so in direct conversation with thirty-years' of conceptions of Carter's administration as inept. Such an argument couldn't simply ignore received appraisals of the late-1970s American political milieu; it would have to tackle them head-on if it hoped to find any widespread reception. Again, "Our memories demand a high degree of continuity in order to tie all of our shifting frames of meaning together. The integrity of this chain determines its reliability. I can account for where and who I am now (and why) by analyzing the continuity of this chain" (73). This is exactly right.

Third, Le Donne moves directly from memory as continuous to memory as chartable: "Memory is in a constant process of refraction. Most of the time, this refracting process remains reliably stable and therefore historically chartable. . . . Because memory refraction is constant, it is chartable and therefore historically measurable" (75, 77). Perhaps. For those moments (or instances) of refraction for which we have data available for analysis, I think Le Donne's right. We can trace the diachronic development and movement of memory—how conceptions of the past morph and mutate and migrate across time. But if I've understood Le Donne's purposes rightly, his point is that we can extrapolate beyond our data (or more accurately, before our data) and posit originating (or simply earlier) memories that explain the instances of memory we have. For example,
In order adequately to account for the origin of a mnemonic trajectory, the historian must compare and contrast interpretive spheres (i.e., mnemonic cycles) that seem to be distorting a memory in opposite directions. Once these spheres are compared and contrasted, it is then necessary to postulate how these divergent traditions relate to one another. . . . it is now appropriate to speak in terms of memory trajectories that might be triangulated to postulate a common origin. (74)

In other words (again, if I understand rightly), given . . . D E F, we can postulate A B C. The problem, I think, is that Le Donne assumes not simply continuity between memories but also predictability. And as far as I can tell, there simply isn't any predictability between our gospels, even if we accept one of the traditionally accepted models of interdependence between them (e.g., the Two-Source Hypothesis, or the Farrer Theory).

Another problem, though perhaps not as significant as the leap Le Donne makes from continuity to predictability, concerns how to identify "interpretive spheres that seem to be distorting a memory in opposite directions" (74). Here the problems are legion. Is John the Baptist's question at Matt 11.3 pulling against his deferential response to Jesus at Matt 3.13–15? If so/not, what about the parallel in Luke 7.19–20, which doesn't pull against a previously narrated Johannine confession (unless you include John's pre-natal jubilation at Luke 1.41!)? Is Jesus' question about the messiah as Son of David in Mark 12.35–37 (parr.) in tension with the Davidic overtones of Mark's account of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem (Mark 11.9–10)? Is Mark a proponent of one of these christological perspectives over the other? Was Jesus? Do the gospel's portrayal of Jesus in Elijah-like terms stand in tension with the casting of John in Elijah's light? Or should we synthesize these portrayals instead?

The problem here is rooted in the relative paucity of our data; others have pursued the kind of analysis for more thoroughly documented figures (e.g., Abraham Lincoln; see Schwartz 2000; 2008) that Le Donne proposes for Jesus. It has proven an intractable problem to identify with any level of precision how various units of the Jesus tradition relate to one another, especially those traditions that may be "distorting a memory in opposite directions." It seems to me that our reconstructed trajectories will fail us anytime the early Christians' memories of Jesus behaved in ways we might not have expected. That's not to say their unexpected memorial practices weren't continuous with practices attested elsewhere. Le Donne's case for memory's continuity (which does not equal veracity, necessarily) is well made; I have my doubts, however, about its predictability.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Le Donne on "History and Memory"

I don't plan on blogging on every chapter of Anthony Le Donne's book, The Historiographical Jesus: Memory, Typology, and the Son of David (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2009), but as I read I'm struck by how similar are Le Donne's conclusions to my own. This might not be too surprising, since we both approach the Jesus tradition from a perspective heavily informed by social memory theory. But even so we still take different (sometimes surprisingly different) routes toward our conclusions, and I haven't read a number of the sources Le Donne cites. Social memory theory is a broad perspective rather than a narrowly defined research program, so I'm pleased to find another memory theorist using the theory much the same way I do (much the same, but not exactly).

Le Donne's discussion of "History and Memory" has one simple, over-arching, and long-overdue point: "Memory is distortion, regardless of any claims to veracity" (51; original italics). Unfortunately, "distortion" is one of those words that connotes negatively even when used in neutral or benign contexts, like "discrimination," "bias," or "vegan" (well, maybe not vegan). Le Donne bends this way and that trying to emphasize his non-value-laden use of the term "distortion": "memory distortion is not necessarily malevolent, nor does it always need to be consciously strategic in nature. Revisionist history is only an extreme form of memory distortion, and is by no means distortion's most prevalent manifestation" (50).

Even so, Le Donne rightly recognizes the futility of his efforts to rehabilitate distortion as an analytical concept (especially with regard to gospels and historical Jesus scholarship, in which the stakes for historical authenticity are, for many, very high). So Le Donne concedes:
Still, I have found that no matter how much I emphasize [that memory distortion is an essential feature of memory and does not necessarily denote "unreliable" memory or "invented" memory] (in academic dialogue and elsewhere), the term distortion carries too many negative associations. In order to avoid unnecessary baggage, I thus employ here the concept of refraction in place of the word distortion. (51–2; original italics)

I think Le Donne is right; in fact, I spend some time discussion the issue of distortion in memory in Structuring Early Christian Memory (see §3.3 [pp. 50–64], especially pp. 55–7). The issue facing memory theorists and historians alike isn't the falsification of the past so much as the transformation (or refraction, to use Le Donne's term) of the past into another form. The point, of course, is that "the past" is useless apart from this refraction; you can't do anything with the past until it has been expressed in language, emplotted into socially meaningful narrative structures, given clear beginning, ending, and turning points, etc. But more than this, "the past" is distorted/transformed/refracted simply by being perceived in the first place. Here Le Donne is exactly right; this is precisely what justifies his stark declaration (quoted above): "Memory is distortion."

Clearly, I am very appreciative of Le Donne's argument. But, in keeping with the tradition of quibbling and minor points, let me raise one criticism. Le Donne, it seems to me, draws too sharp a distinction between individual and collective processes of memory at a number of places. For instance, Le Donne raises the example of a person's memory of a childhood event being "reinforced" by family discussions of that event: "Here the memory has not only been reinforced, but it has been socially reinforced. Moreover, it has been socially reinforced to such an extent that the memory has become entirely social in nature" (49). I think this distinction leads us astray, however; notice how a person's memory of an event is similarly reinforced by her own narrations of that event. The social and the individual were always already inextricably implicated in one another.

This is a fatal distinction in a number of contemporary monographs; perhaps the most recent and well-known example is Richard Bauckham's 2006 book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans; see my review of Bauckham in BTB 2008). Le Donne, however, does not put any real significance on this distinction, though he does come close to it in his differentiation of memory and commemoration (60–64). But even here Le Donne recognizes ways in which the individual's internalization of social norms and processes affect how they remember the past:
It is important to grant that such narrative distortions happen at the stage of personal memory long before these stories enter the realm of commemoration. . . . Because the first memories of a historical event are narrativized at the start by the acting agents themselves, these remembering individuals impact how their stories will be retold. "Narrative does indeed create meaning, but it does so in the course of life, and not simply after fact." Moreover, this becomes an absolutely crucial point to underscore when the historical memories are being narrativized within the lifetime of those who experienced these events. (62, 62; citing Denton 2004: 172)

To be sure, differentiating individual and collective aspects of memorial processes is analytically necessary; I really am just quibbling here. But when we forget that the distinction is only ever analytical, we distort (in a negative sense) the objects of our analyses. For more on this issue, I've found Richard Jenkins's monograph, Social Identity (London and New York: Routledge, 1996), very helpful in this regard.

Friday, April 02, 2010

some helpful articles

Both Inside Higher Ed and The Chronicle of Higher Education frequently run interesting or helpful (or sometimes both) articles and blog posts on various issues relating to higher education and academic life. It's a commonly noted problem that many of us (myself included) spend a lot of time (and money) learning how to be practitioners of an academic discipline and then find ourselves becoming teachers. It is, perhaps, akin to apprenticing to become a carpenter and then taking a job as an architect. At any rate, here are links to some articles I've found useful (or just interesting) lately:

Thursday, April 01, 2010

thinking about history

I recently finished the second chapter of Anthony Le Donne's, The Historiographical Jesus: Memory, Typology, and the Son of David (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2009). Le Donne briefly traces the discussion of history and interpretation from Spinoza through Lessing, Ranke, Schleiermacher, Dilthy, Heidegger, and finally Bultmann. Essentially, he's laying the foundation for a historiographical program that takes serious three observations:
  • If perceptions are to be remembered then they will inevitably be interpreted, subconsciously, consciously, or both.

  • (ii) Perceptions that contribute to historical memory are thus always interpreted along each stage of the tradition that they inhabit.

  • (iii) The historian is never able to interpret an uninterpreted past (17; see also 38–9).

Essentially, Le Donne wants to make the point that contemporary critical historiography, which has come to grips (albeit at this end of a long and painful process) with the historian's inexorably interested location. There is no knowledge of the past without a knower, and knowers cannot but see the past from their own particular vantage point. This heightens—rather than obviates—the importance of being critical historians; Ranke and Co. ran into problems precisely because they failed to notice their own presuppositions and values in their historical observations. But (and here's the rub), those same contemporary critical historians have been less able to see the same processes at work in the ancients' portrayals of the past. So Le Donne offers a wonderfully ironic observation about Bultmann's historical program:
For the modern historian, Bultmann urges "encounter" and "dialogue." Bultmann described the historian's task in terms of existential self-involvement. History was not an objective account of facts; it was a subjective endeavor. According to Bultmann, the historian stands in the current of history and is personally affected by it and (in turn) projects this subjectivity back onto his understanding of the significance of this history. . . . But in his assessment of the writers of the New Testament, Bultmann notices these very same "subjective" characteristics and concludes that they were not interested in history(!). Rather, such characteristics demonstrate only their interest in their faith experiences (as if experience and history should be dichotomized). (36)

Inasmuch as Le Donne has identified a fundamental rupture in Bultmann's practice of history, the latter has left behind an impressive (if still incorrect) legacy amongst historians of Jesus. Interestingly, the influence of James D. G. Dunn's recent work on Jesus lies barely under the surface of the last sentence quoted (see Dunn's Jesus Remembered [2003] and A New Perspective on Jesus [2005]). It was roughly about the time that I was working through Dunn's lengthy Jesus-book that I wrote "What is 'Historical' about the 'Historical Jesus'?," and I was making roughly the same point (though with considerably less historical awareness or philosophical sophistication). Notice my essay's second-to-last paragraph:
Studies in social memory suggest that our apprehension of the past is encouraged along and constrained by both past and present. Remembering the past always means turning to a period in time that is not the present and that is different from, and in some ways alien to, the period in time in which we are remembering. There is no perfect fit between past and present. And yet the past is never completely foreign or unrecognizable; otherwise we would lose all motivation for turning to it in the first place. Turning to the past is always connecting two different periods of time in order to make sense of both. This is what "history" is.

And if "this is what 'history' is," then at the end of the day what the evangelists were doing and what critical historians are doing has more in common than we often suspect. Sure our methods are undoubtedly "more sophisticated" than were the ancients' (though we should be wary of such unhelpful value judgments; better to say that our methods are "differently sophisticated"). And Jesus historians aren't (or shouldn't be) pursuing kerygmatic purposes via historical methods (as were the evangelists). But both Mark and Meier, Luke and Lüdemann, John and . . . well, Sanders wrote about a past that was constitutive of the present in which they wrote. Each of these authors may have inhabited a present that was differently constituted by that past than the others, but we should not succumb to the siren song of our own superior technologies for knowing the past, especially when we stand removed from that past by nearly two millennia. The evangelists, after all, did not have to face that particular obstacle.

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