Anthony Le Donne Baylor University Press 2009-08-15

Since Dunn’s book Jesus Remembered, Jesus historians have increased their interest in memory theory and eyewitness testimony. Anthony Le Donne bases his historiography squarely on Dunn’s thesis that the historical Jesus is the memory of Jesus recalled by the earliest disciples, but he develops the thesis in two further directions. First, he applies social memory theory to the Jesus traditions, particularly the study of memory distortion and how it relates to the Gospels. In general social memory theorists assume that political powers distort the past through selective memory. Le Donne expects more positive results. The eyewitness character of the earliest memories should hold the distortion in check. He concedes that all memories involve various levels of distortion. He prefers the term “refraction” to “distortion,” since the latter gives the impression of invention. Social memory theorists use “distortion” as a technical term to mean that the memory process is not simply a recall of the past. But it does not necessarily mean that the memory was invented. However, the nomenclature suggests invention to outsiders. Le Donne’s plea to shift the term is a good one. 

Second, he argues that the social group will generally remember an event if they relate it to a familiar story or type. The type serves as the vehicle for retaining, or narrating, the memory. This is a positive shift. Previous Jesus historians have assumed that the use of typology means the early church invented the tradition based on theological reflection. Le Donne makes a case that the typology would have been the earliest and most natural way to retell an event. By choosing a typology, the narrator places constraints on the memory because of conventions that the larger story establishes. This causes refraction. Le Donne’s method traces how the memory is refracted to isolate the distortion.

In the second part of the book, Le Donne develops his thesis by analyzing the son of David terminology within the Gospel traditions. Intertestamental traditions about the son of David generally refer to Solomon as an exorcist. Le Donne shows that the son of David served as a typology for remembering Jesus, particularly in regard to the restoration of sight to Bartimaeus. Mark retells the story (10:46–52) without developing the son of David tradition. However, Matthew and Luke develop the tradition to explain Jesus’ healing and exorcism ministry. This development shows how the original memory of Jesus as the son of David was further refracted in light of the social memory of the son of David. Le Donne believes that the tradition originates from Jesus’ earliest disciples during His ministry, which causes some difficulty with his construction. He assumes that memories will be refracted in a linear fashion. Signs of primitivity or later redaction do not necessitate that one tradition is earlier than the other. His conclusion that the memory originates prior to Jesus’ death causes further difficulty. Mark’s neglect of a tradition does not require that he was ignorant of the tradition.

Le Donne’s distinction between memories that are refracted or invented presents a significant problem with his historiographical approach. Ultimately by seeking the origin of a particular tradition, Le Donne falls into the trap that he tries to avoid. He asserts that events are either remembered, and therefore refracted, or else they were invented. Much of the book leads the reader to believe that this is the usual historical approach, but substituting “remembered” for “authentic.” However, Le Donne’s analysis of social memory in light of the Jesus traditions reveals great caution. Le Donne’s model for transmission, which includes a conservative approach to typology as well as eyewitness influence on the traditions, suggests that the traditions are stable. One should expect to find very little invention in the Gospels. Le Donne himself believes that there is little refraction between Mark and then Matthew and Luke.

This book holds value for both historical-Jesus scholars as well as those interested in Gospel exegesis. First, it integrates social-memory theory with historical-Jesus studies. This type of research is long past due, particularly since the Jesus traditions were transmitted within a community. Second, Jesus historians, particularly within the Third Quest, criticize the field for its lack of sound historiographical analysis. This volume helps to fill this gap. The interest in social memory is a signpost for the direction of historical method within the Third Quest. Third, Le Donne’s discussion on the Son of David will be key. The tradition rarely uses the term in relationship to other terms such as Son of Man or Son of God. Le Donne develops this nicely as it relates to the therapeutic background of Jesus’ ministry.

About the Contributors

Benjamin I. Simpson

Dr. Simpson joined the faculty in 2006 as the registrar. He has worked at both the Houston and Washington DC campuses. In 2023 he joined the DTS Atlanta campus where he continues helping external students complete their degrees while positively influencing their ministries. His research interests include Jesus, the Gospels, and hermeneutics. He is married to Amber and they have two children: Madison and Eli.