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.


Rich Griese said...
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Rich Griese said...

Sounds like an effort to support a view that our texts come from reporter / historian type people, rather than radical religious zealots.

I don't think most people that are not trying to support christian supernaturalism will buy it.


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