Review of Dale Allison, Constructing Jesus

I am delighted to have had the opportunity to read an advance copy of Dale Allison’s forthcoming book, Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010), and am grateful to Baker Academic for having allowed me to do so. (The best glimpses publicly available can be found here).

I will jump briefly to the final pages of the book, before returning to begin at the beginning. An early reader of a draft of Allison’s manuscript suggested that it would represent the end of the third quest for the historical Jesus. Allison expresses himself with characteristic humility, and suggests that such numbering of quests is itself problematic, never mind declaring a particular phase to have ended. I begin by mentioning this because that reader and I concur on one major point: this book is an incredibly important contribution to the study of Jesus as a historical figure, with the potential to mark a watershed between the way things tended to be done before it was published and how we proceeded after taking its challenge to heart. It as important in what it claims we may never be able to know with any degree of certainty, as for the positive conclusions it draws about Jesus.

The book opens with a preface in which Allison indicates that this is his fourth, and he hopes last, book on the historical Jesus. Some chapters are based on papers he has read or previous studies, while others are new material.

Allison describes himself as abandoning the rules by which he previously played (p.x). Whether that assessment is too drastic deserves careful consideration, but hopefully this review will provide enough information so that those interested in this field will understand why Allison views the contrast between his earlier approach and his current one as so sharp.

Chapter 1 bears the title “The General and the Particular: Memories of Jesus.” This is the chapter which presents Allison’s methodology, which includes extensive consideration of recent research on memory. What we know about memory, Allison emphasizes, should trouble all those involved in the “quest for the historical Jesus,” since even if we were confident that we have access to eyewitness testimony, we could not assume that the information we have accurately reflects what actually happened.

Nevertheless, since memory more often gets the gist right than the details (as many studies have emphasized in recent years), Allison suggests a complete reversal of the dominant approach to the historical Jesus. Rather than trying to identify individual sayings and actions that can be proven authentic beyond reasonable doubt, we should focus first and foremost on the overall impression the sources give. If they were unable to preserve the gist intact, after all, then the chances of them having preserved details with accuracy become vanishingly small (see esp. pp.14,16). And even if a particular detail in the Gospels is a summary by the author rather than a saying of Jesus himself, it may give us an accurate impression. Even fabricated material may provide a true sense of the gist of what Jesus was about, however inauthentic it may be as far as the specific details are concerned.

Allison suggests this approach is at odds with the focus on individual pieces of tradition, assessed in terms of criteria of authenticity. My own sense is that Allison has rightly identified a tendency to place the cart before the horse, as it were, but it may prove in the long run that having been duly reversed, there may be a place for sifting through sayings and applying criteria, once the key broad strokes have been noted and studied. Nevertheless, the shift of focus from minutia to generalities and broad impressions certainly represents an approach that differs radically from that of many working in historical Jesus studies, and I expect Allison’s proposal to be a discussion point in the academy immediately and for many years to come.

Chapter 2 focuses on Jesus’ eschatology, and this provides a good first testing ground for the approach Allison proposes. This chapter, like many others throughout the book, will provide an extensive survey of material, not because each of those particular passages can be shown to contain authentic material, but because such a survey indicates where a wide range of sources agree on the general impression they give – or in some cases, work hard to reinterpret the general impression which other sources take for granted as a given.

Already in applying his method to this topic, we see an important advantage. Since, as Allison emphasizes, “no saying spells out everything, every saying presupposes something” (p.46), focusing on individual logia before surveying the gist leaves interpreters prone to find meanings in individual or even multiple sayings which, in the context of the overall emphasis in the tradition, are less likely.

Allison also brings cross-cultural studies of millenarian movements, eschatological fervor in the first century, evidence of statements that are in apparent tension with one another from a range of historical figures, as well as many other considerations to bear on the subject. His persuasive case is peppered with memorable gems (e.g. “Consistency is the hobgoblin of nonapocalyptic minds”, p.96), and these are worth mentioning not only because they make the book all the more enjoyable, but because they illustrate nicely the relationship between long discourses and short memorable phrases, which is of course an aspect of historical Jesus study, and one that Allison turns his attention to in a later chapter.

The treatment of Jesus’ eschatology in chapter 2 includes two lengthy excurses which discuss the relationship of Jesus to John the Baptist, and of the terminology of “kingdom of God” to the phrase “the world to come,” challenging the axiom that “kingdom of God” was focused on the notion of “divine rule” without spatial or territorial aspects being at all in view.

Another key point that Allison makes is that chronological order is of relatively little importance when we are dealing with a short number of years, whether between Q1 and Q2, or even between Mark and Matthew or Luke, both of which are thought on occasion to supplement Mark with genuine memory or potentially authentic tradition in places (p.121). And so playing the first edition of Q off against the second doesn’t seem a methodologically sound way of getting at the most authentic material. A difference of years or even decades does not present the same situation that a difference of centuries does, from a historian’s perspective. Having made these points, Allison nonetheless emphasizes that Q1 is not as devoid of eschatology as is sometimes maintained.

If the idea of a non-eschatological Jesus retains its popularity in scholarly circles even after Allison’s detailed critique, I will be surprised – and disappointed. Methodological detail by methodological detail, Allison highlights everything that is problematic with many arguments used in contemporary historical Jesus study, and so apart from individual historical conclusions, Allison’s book will hopefully stimulate vigorous discussion of questions of methodology in the academy for years to come, and study of the historical Jesus stands to benefit immensely from that.

Chapter 3 focuses on the Christology of Jesus. Allison discusses historical examples of individuals who were turned into messiahs against their own protestations, and suggests based on the New Testament evidence that Jesus was not himself such a figure. His choice of twelve who would sit on thrones suggests a more exalted status for himself, as at least a Moses or Joshua. He may merely have thought of himself as messiah-designate. But such indications from Jesus’ own teaching are likely to be the root cause of later Christian belief that Jesus was the messiah, rather than religious experience having caused Jesus to be viewed as messiah when no one (least of all Jesus himself) had previously thought of him in those terms. In this context, Allison also surveys the widespread belief in heavenly doppelgangers and asks whether the “Son of Man” sayings might reflect that sort of belief.

Chapter 4 has the title “More than an Aphorist: The Discourses of Jesus.” Its major theme is summed up well by the quote from John A. T. Robinson with which it begins: “It is hardly to be supposed that Jesus went round peppering his auditors with pellets of disconnected apophthegms” (quoted p.305). The sayings of Jesus, the conventional wisdom tells us, circulated as disconnected one-liners, to be brought together later by authors. Allison does not entirely disagree with this, but suggests that in some passages (for instance in Q 6:27-42) we probably encounter exceptions, not in the sense that we have precise transcripts of what Jesus said in detail, but in the sense that we have material that may have circulated (and been adapted and transformed) as a larger remembered unit, rather than as very short individual sayings circulating independently. In the process, Allison discusses possible intertexts that may have been in mind (such as Leviticus 19) and also parallels to sayings of Jesus in rabbinic tradition. Some of the examples are quite striking – such as the rabbinic parallels to Jesus’ saying about a speck in another’s eye and a beam in one’s own (pp.363-4). Characteristics which are sometimes used to divide material as having circulated independently – such as change from second to third person – are shown to be quite common in ancient literature in material that deserves to be considered a unity.

Chapter 5 focuses on the death of Jesus, and one of its key points is that the categories of “history remembered” and “prophecy historicized” are not mutually exclusive. Clearly in at least some instances the church preserved genuine recollections which were at the same time recalled in connection with, or using the language of, passages from Scripture. In this chapter, Allison carefully sets forth what we would know about the death of Jesus if we only had information from Paul’s letters, and it is more congruent with the passion narratives from the Gospels, and hints at a far greater number of details found in the latter, than tends to be noticed. Paul hints at Jesus’ humility, his acceptance of death, and echoes material from the more extended passion story (as for instance in the use of Abba and other echoes of Gethsemane). The evidence points to Paul having known a passion narrative with significant details, and not merely brief statements like “Christ was crucified.” Allison considers Bultmann to have been too skeptical when it comes to this matter. And this is important if we are to understand the overall message of this book: For all his reservations and cautions, Allison is persuaded that the quest for the historical Jesus has not been in vain.

Chapter 6 returns to justify an assumption that has run through the book, namely the assumption that the Gospels are not intended to be purely fictional compositions. Allison offers extended comparison with other ancient literature, asking whether some stories of miracles in rabbinic sources, for instance, might have been intended as humor rather than factual reporting. Be that as it may, the Gospel authors, on the one hand, set their story in specific times and say that things actually “happened” or “came to pass” – including things that historians today cannot but view as legend or otherwise non-historical – while on the other hand they do not generally offer material that has the tell-tale signs of humor. And so it may be that the best explanation is that material grew through well-known and well-documented processes of elaboration – in some cases, the authors or their sources telling what “must have happened” given what they believed about God and Jesus; in others, they simply failed to be critical in passing on information that they had received. This is potentially a negative conclusion from the perspective of Borg and others who have argued that some stories were never intended to be taken as factual, but were symbolic from the outset. But it is valuable from the stance of mainstream historiography, if we are challenged as to why the Gospels are treated as works of history (however much some of the contents may be set aside as uncertain or unlikely) rather than fiction. The indications provided by the authors of these works, and comparison with other ancient sources, all point in the direction of the Gospel authors having believed they were recording history – the only question being whether they did so well or poorly.

The end of this chapter, the end of the book, finds Allison emphasizing that he makes no claim to have found the “one right method” for historical Jesus study. On the very last pages, he briefly permits a few thoughts about the relationship between history and theology, and what he might think if he were viewing his life’s activities retrospectively from his deathbed.

The book is so full of detail that no summary can do justice to its richness. There is little that it would make sense to add to what has already been said, except to emphasize that through the whole volume runs Allison’s characteristic humility and willingness to openly admit that there are some things that remain uncertain, and perhaps will always remain so. And that makes the book admirable – it welds together the desire for knowledge that motivates the historian, with the realization of the limitations of our sources and methods that anyone who does historical research must sooner or later encounter. As a call to use the best methods possible while cognizant of what they can and cannot do, Allison’s volume will surely inspire a new generation of scholars to engage the material, and do better than their predecessors as a result of taking his arguments to heart.

I strongly recommend this book, and look forward to the rich academic discussions it is bound to stimulate.

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