Baker Academic

Friday, February 8, 2013

Doing Historical Jesus Research between Docetism and Arianism - Le Donne

One of the things I like most about this book is Crossley’s analysis of the construction of a creditable center.  In short, societies tend to locate the acceptable limits of a cultural dialectic by pointing and laughing.  It’s the old civilization by way of atomic wedgie treatment.  We tend to find “whackos” or “extremists” and position ourselves to the left or the right of these village idiots to make ourselves feel normal.  For example, I think that Mike Huckabee is a complete tool (I didn’t always think this, by the way).  I also happen to think that Keith Olbermann is ninny.  See how easy that is!  You too can become a centrist in just two easy steps!  Just pick two extreme ends of a spectrum and learn two synonyms for “fool”.  Voilà, you’re a centrist.

When Christianity was emerging from the ashes of 70CE, it was quite dangerous to be seen as an extremist.  From the perspective of outsiders, it proved difficult to define Christian ideology.  Were they Jews?  Were they former Jews?  Were they inclined to religious orgies?  Were they against all physical pleasure?  Were they cannibals?  Were they good citizens?  There was a whole lot of mudslinging and name-calling and not-playing-well-with-others report cards.  One of the reasons for this was that early Christian identity lacked definition.  And here we arrive at the functionality of labeling heretics.  I’ll just point out two.

In the early centuries of Christian identity construction, the theological “winners” decided that Ebionitism and Arianism were bad theologies (on the one hand) and Docetism was bad theology (on the other).  In this way, orthodoxy concerning the “incarnation” of Jesus was constructed in juxtaposition to these extremes.  Of course, the canonical Gospels, the NT letters, etc. were used as tools toward this construction.  At this point, let me acknowledge that this is a blog post; so of course I’m simplifying so to get to my point faster.

Here is my point: the doctrine of the incarnation is a paradox.  No amount of logical contortion is going to change this.  As a Christian, I’m fine with it.  As someone who abhors evangelical reductionism, I embrace it.  Even worse, calling it a paradox is a reduction in itself—and I know it (I have this self-loathing thing I’m trying out).  But in the modern, western world, where Scottish Common Sense Realism undergirds the idea of credibility, the incarnation is inevitably framed in Ebionitism, Arianism or Docetism.

Simply put, I would argue that most historical Jesus scholars lean toward Ebionitism or Arianism.  Conversely, most historical Jesus book consumers lean toward Docetism (or perhaps something closer to Apollinarianism).  So…. well, this creates a bit of a tension for folks who would like to do historical Jesus research and continue to live in the credible center.  We find ourselves using phrases like “theological memory distortion in the Jesus tradition” and then we spend a great deal of time trying to convince two distinct groups of heretics that they shouldn’t burn us at the stake.  Docetists calls us liberals and Ebionites call us apologists.  Each perspective has its merits.

The Apostle Paul was really good at being “all things to all people” (or really bad, depending on how you look at it).  It turns out that I’m not very good at this.

When I wrote Historical Jesus, I spent a great deal of thought and energy attempting to demonstrate that memories of Jesus began evolving from the very start (indeed, the concept of a “starting point” might be problematic); that refraction trajectories are the norm; that passive recall is a bad way of thinking about memory.  Indeed, I labored a great deal trying to deconstruct historical positivism for folks with common sense ideologies.  In this process, I ended up saying things like this: “I must make it clear that the changes I impose upon my memories function to make them intelligible in the present. It is memory’s fluidity that makes it seem constant and reliable” (p. 67).
Notice here that I say “seem constant and reliable.”  My point was that memory (most often) reliably upholds the evolution of identity.  My use of the word “reliable” was to argue that memory does not provide access to the past, but neither is it totally chaotic.  But – stupid me – I should have known that the word “reliable” would open my argument up for criticism.  Those with common sense ideologies from an Arian perspective have labeled me a sneaky conservative.  But the fact that I’m talking about “memory refraction” at all makes me suspect to those with common sense ideologies from a Docetist perspective.  These folks have labeled me a sneaky liberal. (NB: I still lack full-time employment and have come to care deeply about capitalist sins like “paychecks” and socialist sins like “healthcare”.)

Please understand that I write this tongue-in-cheek.  I don’t really see myself as the only orthodox person in the universe drifting in a sea of heretics.  That would be a heretical thing to think.  My point is that every portrait of Jesus is going to appear too human for some folks and too divine for other folks.  I don’t really care for heretical labels.  The doctrine of the incarnation is bound to scandalize folks with 19th-century common sense proclivities.  What I cannot get over is the absurd notion that it is possible to hold an unassailable stance on the doctrine of the incarnation.



  1. "...every portrait of Jesus is going to appear too human for some folks and too divine for other folks." Well said. I have centrist tendencies as well. Usually these arise from the willingness to embrace the best of position A while rejecting its worst, then doing the same for position B. Either I am merely a compromiser on all accounts, or the truth of the universe is "always choose the middle"!

  2. Brilliant , short and spot on article .

    Prof. Anthony , however i will disagree on this statement of yours "the doctrine of the incarnation is a paradox" .Paradox is something which SEEMS absurd , contradictory but is true.The doctrine of incarnation is not a paradox but it is a contradiction .

    God is eternal , man is not.
    God is not dependent on anything but man is.
    Man is limited in knowledge God is not .
    Man is fallible God is not.

    These are the exact opposite attributes , we can have either this or that not both together.

    Huston Smith in his book 'The Worlds religions' says on page 340 "Its a blatant contradiction not a paradox"

    C Randall Fross in 'Common sense Christianity' says, "If Jesus was human then he was all of what humans are and indeed this is how the Gospels portray him , experiencing anger , fatigue , uncertainty , reluctance , pain and even death . God means exactly the opposite , you can have either one not both ,some would say it is a paradox but it is not,it is a contradiction. And not just impossible to our understanding of laws of nature which can be wrong but impossible to rules of logic upon which all our reasoning is made"

    What is your opinion prof. Anthony ?

    1. Well, let's say that we go with your definition:

      "Paradox is something which SEEMS absurd , contradictory but is true."

      I think I'm still okay with my original assessment.

      ...and please, call me Dr. Anthony C. Le Donne, Ph.D. esquire a la mode.

  3. Dr. Anthony C. Le Donne, Ph.D. Esq. A la Mode,

    As someone who is trying to be a pastor and have an interest in talking about historical Jesus studies I think I let this issue paralyze me. It is hard to keep a clean conscience and discuss the tough passages of Scripture. Is there a way to bring this issue to popular discussion (ideally video)?
    Thanks for being a sneaky conserval or a liberative,
    Shane D.