The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus: Review

The Historical Christ and the Theological JesusSynopsis: In The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus, Dale Allison adds to his work in the Historical Jesus field by giving brief (the book is only 120 pages) attention to methodology – how do we uncover a “historical Jesus” from our sources? – and his conclusions about the identity of Jesus based on that methodology.  In regards to these two areas, this book will serve as an introduction to and summation of his thought; he argues in a much more detailed fashion in other works.  Along with these standard topics, Allison wonders aloud what The Quest and its results might mean for the church.  Allison is more personally revealing here than in his other works (although he writes autobiographically elsewhere as well), with personal impressions scattered throughout the book and explicitly set forth in a concluding chapter.  A fantastic introduction to issues surrounding the “historical Jesus,” Allison’s work will leave the reader wanting more.  His conclusions will trouble both liberals and conservatives, but his arguments are ones that each believer, or “quester,” will have to engage thoughtfully.

Overview:  Allison organizes his reflections into five sections, and each will be discussed below…

1. The Problem of Theological Utility / 2. Disputed Questions – In the opening chapters, Allison asks the question, “Should we even care about the historical Jesus?  Does Christian theology have anything to do with the supposed results of The Quest or should it simply be constructed based on canonical images of and thoughts about him?”   To which, as is a common theme in this work and others, Allison “finds himself on both sides at once.”  On one side, his search, as a historian, for the authentic Jesus, has brought him to certain conclusions about the nature of his Christian faith that differ from those of his youth.  His theology has changed based on what he believes to be the results of historical research into the life of Jesus.  On the other hand, he wants to remind us that the results of The Quest have been ambiguous.  Professional historians, using the exact same tools (the “criteria of authenticity” to which he will return), have come to vastly different results.  As Allison puts it:

If contemporary theology wants to include the historical Jesus in its discourse, it is up against grave obstacles, because his identity is unclear.  More than one historical Jesus resides between today’s book covers.  We indeed have a plethora of them.  There is the Jesus of Tom Wright, a Jewish prophet and almost, it seems, orthodox Christian.  There is the Jesus of Marcus Borg, a religious mystic who dispensed perennial wisdom.  There is the Jesus of E.P. Sanders, a Jewish eschatological prophet a la Albert Schweitzer.  There is the Jesus of John Dominic Crossan, a Galilean but Cynic-like peasant whose vision of an egalitarian kingdom and non-violent God stood in stark contrast to the power politics of Roman domination.  One could go on.

On top of this, who is to say that, even if an event in the life of Jesus did not happen in history, it is not a faithful representation of his identity?  An event like the “temptation in the wilderness” may not strike Allison as sober history (“for one thing, as Origen already observed, there is no high place from which one can see the whole world.”), but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t faithfully represent the identity of Jesus:

Was Jesus not a miracle worker, as our story presupposes?  Did he not refuse to give authenticating signs, just as he does here?  Did he not think of himself as leading a victorious battle against the forces of darkness, for which Matthew 4 and Luke 4 stand as fitting illustration?  Did he not have great faith in God, a fact that the dialogue between Jesus and the devil presupposes and expounds?  The temptation narrative may not be history as it really was, yet it is full of memory.  My judgment is that, taken as a whole, its artistic originator has managed to leave us with a pretty fair impression of Jesus, even if the episode does not contain one word that Jesus spoke or narrate one thing that he did.

In the end, Allison thinks the Quest is of value to the church, but it is not as straightforward as some have thought.

3. How to Proceed – Here Alison introduces us to his unique methodology for finding the historical Jesus.  While most in the field have seen their task in terms of applying the “criteria of authenticity” (multiple attestation, dissimilarity, embarrassment, coherence, etc.) to each source and coming away with a group of sayings/stories that are “historical” and discarding a group of sayings/stories that are “unhistorical”, he sees this as wrongheaded.  His primary reason for this belief is that, even agreeing on the same criteria, each scholar’s Jesus is profoundly different.  A common critique of the whole historical Jesus enterprise is that each quester ends up with a Jesus in their own making – one that happens to share all of their same views.  Don’t have room for miracles in your theology?  All miracle stories are unhistorical.  Have a low Christology?  Jesus never spoke of himself in elevated terms – this was all added from the church.  Orthodox Christian?  So was Jesus.  Too often, it seems, the criteria are simply tools that we use to keep the things we like, and discard the rest.  For this reason (that we cannot keep our own views from skewing their use), Allison rejects the idea that applying “criteria of authenticity” to our sources, separating supposedly historical material, and then finding our Jesus, will produce a credible picture of who he was – at least not one that will find consensus among scholars.

Instead, Allison believes that, based on how human memory works (i.e. we rarely remember exact quotes or sequences of events, but rather remember “generally what happened” and fill in the blanks), we ought to be looking only for general impressions that our sources give us.  So if we have 25 miracle stories, it doesn’t matter if we deem this one or that “historical,” it is likely that Jesus was a miracle worker.  The general matters, not the particular.  As Allison puts it:

If the primary sources produce false impressions, such as that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet when he was not, or that Jesus was Israel’s redeemer when he had no such thought, then the truth of things is almost certainly beyond our reach.  If the chief witnesses are too bad, if they contain only intermittently authentic items, we cannot lay them aside and tell a better story…Wrong in general, wrong in the particulars.  In order for us to find Jesus, our sources must often remember at least the sorts of things he did and the sorts of things that he said, including what he said about himself.  If the repeating patterns do not catch Jesus, then how can he not forever escape us?

His methodology is unique and I think his argument for its use is strong.

4. Some Difficult Conclusions – Based on his methodology, Allison reaches some conclusions about Jesus that are bothersome to just about everybody.  Specifically, Allison believes that Jesus himself had a lower Christology than the church eventually bestowed upon him (i.e. he didn’t believe he was the second Person of the Trinity), but a higher Christology than the liberal church wants him to have – Allison’s Jesus is the Apocalyptic Jesus.  Like Schweitzer, Allison believes that the best way to categorize Jesus, the best paradigm to view him with, is that of an End Times Prophet.  When Jesus announced that the Kingdom of God was at hand, he meant that God would soon judge the world and “make all things new” creating a utopia for those deemed worthy.  On this understanding, Jesus believes himself to be the final prophet, sent to usher in this reality.  As the title of this section admits, this is a difficult conclusion to adopt, both for conservatives and liberals.

5. Personal Impressions – To end, Allison gives his personal impressions on what adopting this version of the historical Jesus might mean for himself and the church.  Allison finds that he must enter into the religious vision of Jesus and find the same Future Hope – for a loving Father (in whom Allison believes) and present human woe are incompatible if such a Future never comes.  As he concludes in his first book, Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet:

…despite everything, for those who have ears to hear, Jesus, the millenarian herald of judgment and salvation, says the only things worth saying, for his dream is the only dream worth dreaming.  If our wounds never heal, if the outrageous spectacle of a history filled with cataclysmic sadness is never undone, if there is nothing more for those slaughtered in the death camps or for six-year olds devoured by cancer, then let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.  If in the end there is no good God to calm this sea of troubles, to raise the dead, and to give good news to the poor, then this is indeed a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing.

Personal Takeaways: One of the most interesting pieces of this book for me personally is Allison’s reflection on the authenticity of miracles in the Jesus tradition and of “visions” of him in the present.  For instance, when debating the authentic nature of a friend’s vision of Jesus, Allison remarks:

The truth to my mind, however, is that, unless we are dogmatic, flat-earth materialists, we cannot be confident as to what actually took place.  Because I myself have ostensibly both seen and heard from a deceased friend, and because members of my immediate family and some close friends I trust have had similar experiences, my mind is open to possibilities more than mundane.

Elsewhere, when debating the authenticity of “the Transfiguration”, he recounts a similar event experienced by his friend:

The foregoing testimonies intrigue me all the more because I personally know a man who claims to have seen a human being transfigured into light.  This is not for me a foaftale (ibid.), that is, it does not concern the proverbial friend-of-a-friend but comes to my ears from someone I know and have no reason to disbelieve (and who has refreshed my memory by kindly sharing with me his relevant journal entry)…In 1992 my friend John decided to seek initiation as a Sufi.  The process involved having an audience with a Sufi master who was then making a tour of the States.  The two men met in a small room for a short period of time.  They sat face-to-face in lotus position.  No words passed between them.  But the occasion was memorable, for John relates that, after a bit, the master began to emit a light, which became brighter and brighter until it lit up the whole room, after which the luminescence gradually faded away, and the encounter was over.

Such reflections from an academic such as Allison are fascinating to say the least…

Ultimately this book was the last straw that led me down the path I was already headed – that is, to concluding that the best way in which to understand Jesus is Schweitzer’s Apocalyptic paradigm.  What a painful idea for an Evangelical such as myself to accept!  Allison’s personal reflections on the matter are at least part of the reason why I stayed with the Church.  I am more than grateful for his candidness, without which, I don’t know where I would be religiously.

Final Thoughts: The Historical Christ and The Theological Jesus is an excellent introduction to “historical Jesus stuff” and Dale Allison’s thought.  I highly recommend it for any interested in such matters.  But be warned, his arguments may persuade you against your will.  For another positive review, check out James McGrath.  For a less glowing perspective check out Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth.

  • Howard Pepper

    Thanks for the good review, John. As far as I can recall, I hadn’t “met” you before our very recent connection on Pete Enns’ blog; nor discovered this blog… but very glad I have. I intend to explore much more of it asap. Will be interested in more of your own story as well as your articles, etc.

    Connecting to the Schweitzer point from the Allison review and from our other exchange, it is interesting that we both may have similarly known about him or read some (maybe all of it, for you) of his 1906 “Quest” book (reading all of it was more than I wanted to wade through… unlike “The Kingdom of God…”, which engaged me fully… written for different audiences, of course). But apparently you’d not engaged him much as I hadn’t (and still haven’t gotten into his “Reverence for Life,” etc., which must be fascinating and helpful for those meaning-and-purpose-minded).

    Quick serendipity re. him: Soon after finishing his “Kingdom…” book and writing about him and the book on my blog, I had rare occasion to be on the Chapman Univ. campus (just an hour+ from me), having just prior discovered that they have a museum and foundation under his name… bust out front (they have many, scattered over campus), etc. Anyway, I realized he not only was an astounding man, but truly multi-talented and brilliant; and apparently the rare type with such abilities who was truly humble and “earthy” while capable of the most elevated thought and serious academic pursuits. I think it fair to say he was very “Christ-like” though his beliefs pretty far from Evangelical (its followers the main users of that term, to my awareness). Of course, per your review above, just WHOSE “Christ” is one like (or not like)? :)

    • John Marcott

      Yeah, I own his “quest” but it didn’t really grab me either. I pretty much know that he championed an Apocalyptic Jesus and of course his famous “he comes to us as one unknown” quote. I’ll have to check out some of his other works. Thanks for the response! It sounds like we are on similar journeys…