Baker Academic

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Holly Carey's Review of Historical Jesus - Le Donne

A few days ago I posted a short excerpt of Holly's review for my book in the Stone-Campbell Journal. It occurs to me now that I only posted the two most critical paragraphs of her review. This could give a false impression of her overall tone. I here reproduce the entire review.

thank you Holly,

Anthony LE DONNE. Historical Jesus: What Can We Know and How Can We Know It? Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011. 146 pp.


This little volume packs a punch! Seeking to evaluate historical Jesus concerns through the lens of postmodern thought, Le Donne takes two enterprises that are seemingly at cross-purposes and demonstrates that, by thinking outside of the modern “box,” students of the Bible can indeed say some things about the historical Jesus with confidence.

Le Donne’s main argument is that there is no objective, journalistic historical account of Jesus. Those who deal with issues of historiography would agree with him that all “history” is remembered, and that this outcome is a “history” that is filtered through the presuppositions, interests, emphases, and experiences of the one who is writing it. Particularly admirable about Le Donne’s approach is his recognition that the Gospels are more about the significance of Jesus’ words and actions, rather than a verification of them.

Le Donne coins his own terminology in several places throughout the book, the most significant of which is “memory refraction.” Central to his argument is that our memories help to interpret and make meaning of our past for our present. This is significant for a study of Jesus, because it recognizes that the same process took place for the early Christian communities from which the Gospels came. For Le Donne, this approach can avoid the despair experienced by historical Jesus scholars through the last 100 years, who have bemoaned their inability to get back to the “original” Jesus with any certainty. Any attempt to get back to a sterilized history of Jesus’ life is misplaced. Le Donne sees the road of social memory theory as one that can get historical Jesus scholars to their destination, if they would only recognize the signs.

Le Donne begins each of the three sections of the volume with a barrage of questions about the historical Jesus. He then discusses the issue of perception, memory, and history—and their relationships to each other. He ends by applying these insights to a particular element of the Jesus story, such as his relationship with his own family or his politics. This approach is helpful because it sets the discussion in a particular context, allows Le Donne to argue for his postmodern approach to history, and then provides a test case for that argument.

In a book which aims at a readership that is not familiar with much academic discussion of these issues (this is demonstrated, for example, by the in-text definitions and introductory explanations of the historical Jesus criteria), there are areas where Le Donne should have anticipated some hesitation or resistance to his arguments. To be fair, he does do this in a number of places, as in his replacement of the term “memory distortion” with “memory refraction” and the corresponding explanation (108).

It is hard for me to imagine a lay person reading this and not wondering how, for instance, memory refraction can be reconciled with the inspiration of Scripture. I have no doubt that Le Donne has considered this, but the absence of an explicit discussion of such issues might be troubling to the average reader. In addition, Le Donne seems to lump the entire discipline of textual criticism with a desire to get back to one “original” account of Jesus’ life (75-76). Although some text critics may have this as their goal, many others aim only to piece together a text that is closest to each of the Gospels as they were first written (maintaining the distinctions of each one), which does not seem to me to be an unworthy enterprise, and therefore may not deserve the criticism it receives from Le Donne.

Le Donne is that rare author who is able to take complex issues, suggest an innovative approach to them, and discuss them in a clear and interesting way. This book is indeed an important contribution to the historical Jesus enterprise, and is also a helpful introduction to these issues for beginning students and oth-ers who are new to the academic study of the Bible.


Associate Professor of Biblical Studies

Point University


  1. Hi , sir Anthony Le Donne and sir Chris Keith , iam a great fan of you both .I keep following your blog but iam commenting for the first time .

    Iam too interested in the historical and actual Jesus , who he was , what he preached etc .

    I have read various scholars on the same issue (E.P Sanders, James Dunn, Raymond Brown, Bart Ehrman, Paula fredrickson , Geza Vermes etc )and now i ordered your book and will read it once i get it.

    I want to say thank you for the book and the brilliant blog ,i will thank you once again after i read your book.

    Sir i want to ask you a question , please do answer.

    Question : Are the predictions of Jesus about his own death the actual sayings of Jesus or attributed to him ?

    E.P Sanders,Paula fredrickson say that they were put into the mouth of Jesus and are not the actual sayings of Jesus even Raymond Brown concurs the same.

    Sir what is your view on this.

  2. Replies
    1. Thank you for your kind words Ali,

      I have taken a swing at this very difficult question here: