Review of Dale Allison, Constructing Jesus

Review of Dale Allison, Constructing Jesus September 19, 2010

Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and HistoryI 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 Qis 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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  • thanks for that very useful review, another one for the wishlist methinks!

  • Are you implying that you particularly don't "vote" for the mythology of Jesus? How come?

  • Tim

    Very helpful review, James. Sounds excellent. It does seem like another paradigm shift within HJ studies is underway, and Allison seems to be among those leading the way in this regard. I'm sure this will be the book I start reading as soon as I purchase it at this year's SBL conference.

  • '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.'So Washington did not chop down that cherry tree, but we can glean from the story the true sense that Washington was an honest man.More importantly, mainstream historian scholars should read stories of Washington chopping down that cherry true and use them as evidence about the character of Washington, however inauthentic it may be as far as the specific details are concerned.That is what true scholarship involves.

  • Is this really an echo of Gethsemane, as Allison claims, 'For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, "Abba, Father."'How can it be? Allison claims on page 418 that because Mark uses Abba only once, Paul must be referring to Gethsemane traditions.And the urgency of 'cry' suits the description of Jesus in the garden who is 'distressed' andagitated.So the passage draws on Gethsemane tradition.Can somebody explain the logic of Allison's argument here?Jesus prayers to be saved from death are heard (Hebrews 5, which Allison cites as referring to Gethsemane).But Jesus's prayer was not 'heard'. The cup was not taken away from him. How can Allison claim that Hebrews 5 is about Gethsemane when it claims that Jesus prayed to the one who could save him from death and his prayer was heard.When Mark has Jesus praying to be saved from death and realising that his prayer was futile? All Allison is doing is matching up adjectives in a literary analysis -‘cry’, ‘distressed’, ‘agitated’ -, and claiming he is an historian.Just where is the primary data?The sort of primary data that historians use?

  • Steven, I doubt that the authors of the Gospels would have understood Jesus' prayer not to have been heard.I would try to explain further, but past comments suggest that your questions are attempts at sarcasm, and although they often betray a failure to understand the primary and secondary sources, any attempt to treat them as genuine questions will witness the person kind enough to explain your misunderstanding being subjected to a barrage of scorn and ridicule.

  • James,Thanks for a very helpful review. I look forward to reading this work of Allison's. I tend to agree that the Jesus Seminar people went about things the wrong way. The simple fact is that we will never know with certainty the ipsissima verba of Jesus but I do think we can hear the ipsissima vox in parts of the Gospels.

  • Thank you for this review, although at 500+ pages, I won't be able to read it. I "googled" Dale Allison and one of the first hits was a critique by William Craig (reasonable faith). And this sparked a question I've been pondering lately. There is so much controversy on the nature of Jesus – what is the consensus? Science relies on trust, but who can I trust in Christianity?

  • Question about this quoted text: "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."Is this Allison's argument/belief or yours, James? I'm just trying to see where Allison is talking and where you are commenting.Nonetheless, looks like a very interesting book. I hope to read it sooner than later.

  • Gilgamesh, that is me trying to summarize a point that Allison made in much more detail, and so the question of whether my take on Allison accurately depicts his own is a question that I may not be able to answer accurately! His key points in that section, as I remember them, were that (1) the Gospel authors were not writing what they understood to be fiction, (2) they do not show the critical/skeptical stance that even some ancient historians were capable of, and (3) they certainly include material which historians today will not be able to judge to be historical, but not because they considered themselves to be writing fiction.Like a Child, I would certainly trust Dale Allison to a significant extent (although not uncritically!), because Allison has shown an admirable capacity not only for being open to criticism and humble about his conclusions, but for rigorously trying to apply to his own conclusions the same degree of skepticism he applies to those of others. But as in fields like the natural sciences, so too in history, one should see where there is consensus and where there is genuine significant disagreement among experts, since that will give a good sense of what is relatively certain and what is relatively uncertain.

  • Alright, sounds very worthwhile. Thank for for the elaboration.

  • 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. It may, but it might only provide a sense of what the fabricator wanted his audience to think Jesus was about.I don't think Steven chose a very good example because the cherry tree story may fairly reasonably capture how Washington was viewed by his contemporaries. Better examples might be the kind of stories that were concocted about Sitting Bull and Custer immediately after the Battle of the Little Bighorn. The purpose of the stories was to justify the government's treatment of the Indians, not to give anyone a true sense of the gist of what either man was about.With Jesus, we lack the independent sources that we have for Washington, Sitting Bull, and Custer that help us to figure out whether the fabrications actually capture that "true sense."

  • Right, those are exactly the kinds of questions historians ask and need to ask – Is this depiction motivated by ideology? If so, whose? Do we have contemporary sources that reflect a different viewpoint? Do the sources we have indicate that they are arguing against another impression that seems to have been more widespread? And so on…

  • Very helpful – thanks for this. He covered some of this, I think, in his recent little book, the name of which escapes me (Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus?).

  • Yep, that's the title – and I thought it was a great book, too.

  • Yea, absolutely, excellent book.

  • Thanks for the illuminating review.I’m surprised that Allison considers chronological order to have relatively little importance, for a correct assessment of chronological order is essential to enable the modern biblical student to see how each gospel adapts material from earlier source(s). This can tell us a great deal about the reliability of individual passages, and is thus a prerequisite to getting at the historical truth about Jesus.

  • Allison would agree that redaction criticism allows us to do that. What I understand him to be saying (it's a point I made myself in "Written Islands in an Oral Stream") is that in particular when the time between two works is a short one, we need to ask whether we're dealing with redaction by an author whose only source is the written one before him. In at least some instances we need to consider the possibility that the later author may be supplementing his source with material that was known to the author of that source. In some instances, it might even be the case that the earlier author wrote something different than the story that was circulating orally, and the later author "fixed" it by replacing what was written with the story as he always heard it. And so the point is not to at all undermine redaction criticism, but to recognize that the chronological relationship between two literary works may not automatically tell us everything we need to know about the relationship between two traditions they record.

  • Anonymous

    So I read the review and am left wondering: what is Allison's view of who Jesus was and what he really did? pf

  • First of all, I'd like to thank Dr McGrath for recommending a scholar who swims in more theologically conservative waters than he does! I've got a little fed up with the rhetoric and posturing that scholars use to dismiss theology/scholarship that doesn't suit their tastes. So thank you for this preview!Having just read WL Craig's review of Dale Allison, I think that there is not a huge difference between Craig and Allison as scholars of the New Testament (although Craig is primarily a philosopher and secondarily a theologian, I think everyone should grant that he has some expertise the texts that discuss the Resurrection.)Craig views the Empty Tomb as historically "very likely". Allison views it as historically "likely". That's hardly a world of difference. And you can see exactly why Craig disagrees with Allison.(I think it's regrettable that he calls one of Allison's arguments "silly"…but he certainly doesn't think that Allison is silly!)The disagreement is strongest over the nature of physical immortality, and over the nature of explanation (when it is reasonable to infer a miracle, or to refuse to infer to a miracle). So when NT scholarship is set aside, philosophical differences emerge.In fact, after reading Craig (a conservative evangelical who obviously admires Allison -"I've never seen a better presentation of the case for scepticism about Jesus’ resurrection") and Dr McGrath's endorsement above, I'm excited by this new book. (I have to say that I'm slightly bemused by the idea that science only ever offers consensus.)

  • Anonymous said…So I read the review and am left wondering: what is Allison's view of who Jesus was and what he really did? Same here!

  • Anonymous

    Hi, I am from Australia.What does anyone really know about what happened way back when and "where"?We cannot even account for our own appearance here, because to do so you would have to take into account how the entire Cosmic Process, with all of its space-time paradoxes, somehow coalesced into "creating" the body-mind-complex that you now identify with.And yet people such as the current author presume to know so much about the "historical" Jesus.That having been said please check out this radical (meaning going to the root) Understanding of the origins and political purposes of the Bible and the "historical" Jesus. Steven Carr is correct. There is NO primary data, it is all conjecture and layers upon layers of hear-say.

  • How does anyone know what happened anywhere way back when? By using historical methods and sifting through evidence, that's how! Depending on the data, we may or may not be able to draw conclusions, and with varying degrees of certainty.But your certainty that we have only conjecture and multiple layers of hearsay strikes me as coming from someone who is unaware that Paul claims to have "gotten to know" or "gotten information from" Peter, as well as spending time with James, Jesus' brother. That doesn't mean the information is accurate or trustworthy. That's what historical method is for – sifting through evidence and assessing it's worth.Skepticism is appropriate – but it should be accurate skepticism, not the pseudo-skepticism that misrepresents the situation and pretends to be critical while in reality simply being an excuse to believe whatever one wishes.

  • pf and Like a Child, your question is a good one. In this volume, Allison is focused on methodology and specific questions, rather than trying to put together a synthesis of what we know into a plausible historical reconstruction. Given that he says that the majority of sayings and other material has to go in the "uncertain" pile, it isn't surprising that he doesn't try to offer this. But he does draw some clear, positive conclusions, such as that Jesus had an apocalyptic outlook, and understood himself to have an exalted status awaiting him when the kingdom dawned. He did not try to escape his fate, and although he was crucified it was not because he was leading an armed uprising.Perhaps this is fitting, given the emphasis of Allison's method on "gist" being what is most faithfully preserved: The book gives us a sense of the "gist" of Jesus.

  • Dr. McGrath, to what extent would you agree with Allison's view on apocalypticism? Do you agree He was a prophet who did expect a serious reshaping of the physical world, insofar as the coming of the son of man, stars falling from the sky, moon turning dark, language is literal? Grace and peace, Daniel.

  • Hi Daniel. I definitely lean towards Allison's view rather than that of the Jesus Seminar, and I think Allison's latest book offers sound methodological reasons for doing so. Of course, from our perspective the language of stars falling from the sky makes no sense literally (stars are bigger than the Earth and would have a long way to "fall"). I'm not closed to the possibility that some of the language used may have been an ancient way of saying the events would be "earth-shattering" (not necessarily literally, hen or now). But when all is said and done, Jesus seems to have expected the arrival of the Kingdom of God, something radically different than what human history had been or experienced before, within the lifetime of his contemporaries.

  • Ah, very intriguing. I have been exploring this topic to an extent since this past summer. With this said, I've read through N.T. Wright, Andrew Perriman, some Witherington, and a little bit of Hurtado in his commentary on Mark.It seems as if the language is non-literal in my estimation; the issue I'm having now is did Paul expect some kind of literal resurrection in his life time. Personally, I want that not to be true. It seems for the Thessalonian and perhaps even 1 Corinthians 15:51-52 that Paul did, indeed expect something soon, and I'm not necessarily convinced that it's a snatching up by Jesus in a non-literal sense of the word as some scholars have argued.If you don't mind me asking, what are your thoughts on this?Daniel.

  • I had much the same experience, of not wanting Paul, or worse Jesus, to have expected a near end. It is entirely possible that, in trying to avoid reading my own desired results into the evidence, I've gone further than necessary in the other direction.I would love to spend more time looking at the Nazirite vow that Jesus is reported to have made at the Last Supper. It seems to indicate something about his expectations about what would soon unfold, although I don't feel confident I can say precisely what.His words about the temple being destroyed and rebuilt also seem to point to an expectation of something "apocalyptic" in the ancient and/or modern sense.These are just a few thoughts, written hurriedly…

  • newenglandsun

    One Amazon reviewer says this:

    “If you believe every word of your old and new testament is divinely inspired by God, then this is obviously a tool of Satan.”

    Sounds like my kind of book! I’ll have to check it out. Thanks for the review here from you as well.