Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Constructing Jesus by Dale Allison

I just finished reading Constructing Jesus by Dale Allison (Grand Rapids : Baker), 2010. Dale Allison is a one-time form critic who has largely abandoned the method of attempting to isolate and verify individual pieces of data before then attempting to piece them back together again. He now advocates an approach in which “themes, motifs, and rhetorical strategies” recur over and over across a variety of sources and forms (15, 20).

Allison’s book is divided into six chapters. Chapter one provides an extensive discussion of the research pointing to the fallibility of human memory, concluding that general impressions are more trustworthy than details. Allison argues, therefore, that it “makes little sense to reconstruct Jesus by starting with a few of the latter—perhaps some incidents and sayings that survive the gauntlet of our authenticating criteria—while setting aside the general impressions that our primary sources instill in us” (14).

Although I think Allison is too skeptical about the nature of human memory (see, for example, the discussion on memory in The Jesus Legend by Paul Rhodes Eddy and Gregory Boyd, 237-268), he is certainly right about futility of trying to reconstruct the historical Jesus by ignoring the “the general impressions that our primary sources instill in us” in favor of some isolated bits of tradition that have survived “the gauntlet of our authenticating criteria.”

Chapter two discusses the controversy between the view of Jesus as an eschatological prophet and Jesus as a non-eschatological sage. Allison so thoroughly and meticulously demolishes the non-eschatological views of those like John Dominic Crossan or Marcus Borg that it is hard to understand how anyone could, in all honesty, continue to hold to such views after reading Constructing Jesus.

Chapter three discusses the Christology of Jesus. Against those who see Jesus as merely a Jewish Cynic or Sage, Allison demonstrates that the evidence and Jewish context supports the proposition that Jesus not only viewed himself as the Jewish Messiah, but may have even seen himself one day “ruling on God’s behalf.” Against Marcus Borg who argues that if someone held such views it would be a sign of mental instability, Allison demonstrates Borg’s view does not hold up well when examined in light of other ancient documents.

Chapter four summarizes the view common to form critical scholarship that Jesus was an aphorist and that the discourses attributed to him are all secondary. Allison argues at length from a wide variety of sources that Q 6:27-42 is a unity that preserves a discourse of Jesus. If Q 6:27-42 is a genuine discourse of Jesus preserved in the Gospels, This raises the question as to whether other discourses of Jesus have been preserved in the Gospel accounts as well. Allison says that for the most part, he is skeptical, though he suspects that Q 17:23-33—an eschatological passage—may be another good candidate.

I think Allison has done a commendable job demonstrating (in meticulous detail) how Jesus could actually teach or deliver a sermon and did not just go around speaking entirely in short “one-liners” or parables (Contrary to Crossan, Mack, Funk, et al). But again, I think Allison is entirely too skeptical about the Gospels’ reliability. Other authors have demonstrated that we have good reason to believe that the Gospels were considerably more reliable than Allison seems to believe (e.g. The Jesus Legend by Eddy and Boyd, Jesus Remembered by James Dunn, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses by Bauckham, The New Testament and the People of God, and Jesus and the Victory of God by Wright, and even A Marginal Jew by Meier).

Chapter five asks whether the passion accounts were prophecy historicized (Crossan) or history scripturalized (Goodacre). Crossan’s view is that early Christians made up stories about Jesus to make it look like he fulfilled Jewish prophecies (if that were true, one would have to wonder why early Jews didn’t make up similar stories about Isaiah, Jeremiah, Paul or Bar Kokkba. And why were early Christians so willing to suffer and die for stories they knew they had just made up)?

According to Allison, Goodacre points out that “Crossan cannot plausibly explain why so many items in the passion narratives—Golgotha, Simon of Cyrene, and the inscriptions over the cross, for instance,--were not manufactured from the Tanak” (388). Allison goes on to point out that

“To biblicize is not necessarily to invent. Eusebius, when recounting Constantine’s victory over Maxentius at the battle of the Milvian bridge, cast the latter in the role of Pharaoh, the former in the role of Moses, which does not mean that they fought no such battle, and John Bunyan, writing o his own conversion, drew heavily upon the New Testament accounts of Paul’s becoming a Christians, which scarcely entails that Bunyah’s recollections are free of facts (389).

Although Allison is skeptical about memory, he provides significant evidence to demonstrate that even if all we had was Paul’s letters (the earliest source), we would actually know quite a bit about the events surrounding the death of Jesus—and that what we learn from Paul all matches, and does not contradict, what we find in the gospels—including the facts that Jesus actually anticipated his death and went willingly (427-432).

Chapter six returns to the issue of memory. Allison is skeptical about the reliability of memory and confident that much of what is in the gospels is redactional, and yet, he is also confident that the gospels preserve much that is historical as well—especially in the broad overview.

The bare-bones picture of Jesus that emerges from Allison’s study is that Jesus was an eschatological prophet who not only thought of himself—and was believed by his followers to be—the Messiah, but he may also have thought that he would one day rule on God’s behalf.

Radical critics will undoubtedly say that Allison is too conservative. Others (like me) will argue that Allison is entirely too skeptical. One thing is beyond dispute, however. Allison’s work is scholarly, thoroughly researched, soundly argued, extensively footnoted and very well indexed. It will be hard to take seriously future studies on the historical Jesus which have not interacted with Allison.