The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus

The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus June 5, 2009

Dale Allison’s recent book The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus is simply fantastic. It refuses to separate unnecessarily matters of history and faith, yet neither does it run them together in ways that are inappropriate. It refuses to simply take for granted the assumptions of either conservatives or liberals, challenging many of our basic assumptions about history and historical methodology as well. I highly recommend it.

Allison begins by reviewing the history of Christian thinkers’ awareness of discrepancies and other historical problems (see too pp.34-35 on a rabbinic discussion of Job as parable, and Gregory of Nyssa’s rejection of a story’s historical factuality on moral grounds). There may be a long history of ignoring problems and of allowing theological assumptions to trump what the text actually says, but recognition of certain historical issues go back very early into the church’s history. His statement of purpose and of his own perspective (p.5) is succinct, eloquent and highly quotable, as is much else in the book.

Allison acknowledges honestly that the “assured results” of critical scholarship do not last very long (pp.10-11). Of course, the same has historically been true in the sciences, but as increasing amounts of data have been amassed, it has become increasingly unlikely that certain key conclusions will have to be revised completely. But the natural sciences are very different from the humanities. The data of the world is perpetually accessible, while increasing amounts of historical data are not always forthcoming. At any rate, Allison also notes (pp.13-14) that theologians inevitably have to lag behind historians (he notes how one might often find a theologian citing Cullmann on matters of New Testament).

The way sayings can be misattributed is illustrated (although Allison himself doesn’t make anything of it) when George Tyrrell’s famous remark about Adolf Harnack is quoted, about him having seen in the historical Jesus his own “Liberal Protestant face, seen at the bottom of a deep well” (quoted p.15). The saying is, of course, often wrongly attributed to Albert Schweitzer.

Allison speaks with a refreshing honesty. A great example is when he writes on the subject of N. T. Wright’s treatment of the risen saints from Matthew 27:51-53, “These lame words lack all historical sense. They are pure apologetics, a product of the will to believe, and a prize illustration of theological predispositions moving an intelligent man to render an unintelligent verdict” (p.21).

Allison emphasizes that hindsight is not to be excluded from historical study, as though anything written about a figure like Abraham Lincoln after his death would be less insightful and accurate than things written while he was alive (p.24). He then goes on to explain why, even in narratives that may provide no factual historical data, we may still be dealing in a very real sense with memory about Jesus. “The temptation narrative may not be history as it really was, yet it is full of memory…Memory and legend are not easily disentangled, so when we try to weed out the fictions, will we not be uprooting much else besides?” (pp.25-26). Allison also provides some interesting discussion of religious experience and what would technically be categorized as altered states of consciousness, and warns against assuming that material that describes unusual visions or apparent miracles must be late. There are plenty of eyewitness accounts of such phenomena even today, and while that doesn’t do anything to solve the issue of their veracity, it does show that even eyewitnesses can be the source of such material.

Perhaps the most important discussion with respect to historical methods is Allison’s conclusion that the criteria of authenticity cannot provide the sort of certainty that they were intended to, and that even when they can, most of the material remains of uncertain authenticity. Moreover, if the New Testament texts are as wrong or deceptive about Jesus as some have maintained, it is folly to think that we could use them to get back to a historical Jesus about whom we could know things with confidence. “Because our criteria are not strong enough to resist our wills, we almost inevitably make them do what we want them to do: we, with our expectations and preconceptions, bend them more than they bend us” (p.58). Specific illustrations, including self-critical personal ones about his own historical research, are provided.

Allison provides a helpful treatment about how things that are probably true about the historical Jesus are problematic to both conservative and liberal theologies. On the one hand, the Jesus of the New Testament (never mind the Jesus of history) has regularly been a problem for the view of him as divine (pp.82-85). On the other hand, a Jesus who thought himself to be central to God’s eschatological plan has often seemed less sane and less theologically useful to those on the other end of the theological spectrum. As Allison puts it at one point, Most Christians cannot abide an errant Jesus” (p.96). Allison’s own solution is helpful, and not at all surprising for Liberal Christians: treat the Gospels as we treat Genesis, recognize that the Parousia is a parable. Yet for all that, he affirms that we still need eschatology, because of the problem of evil (pp.108-112).

Allison’s book attempts to bring historical study into conversation with theology. Whatever one may think of this or that conclusion, his honesty about his own assumptions and perspectives, and his fair criticisms of problems across the spectrum of theological views and motivations, makes his contribution a valuable one.

See also the reviews by Greg Carey, Scot McKnight and Craig Blomberg.

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