The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus
Craig Blomberg's review of "The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus" by Dale C. Allison.
Dale C. Allison, Jr., The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus. Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2009. x + 126 pp. Pap. $16.00 ISBN 978-0-8028-6262-4.
Dale Allison, New Testament professor at Pittsburgh Seminary, is probably best known for co-authoring the massive three-volume International Critical Commentary on Matthew. But his writing keeps returning to questions surrounding the quests of the historical Jesus, here in the published outgrowth of a series of lectures delivered at Duke in 2008. The title is carefully chosen. While Allison is ruthlessly honest about what he believes the quests cannot accomplish as historical endeavors, he nevertheless finds enough reason to believe that the Jesus of history saw himself as the Messiah (Christ) and that one can derive a theological agenda from the historical Jesus. In his introduction, Allison describes his pilgrimage as “doubt seeking understanding” (p. 5)!
Chapter one sets out with stark clarity the changing trends of Jesus scholarship, so that one era’s critically assured results are largely replaced by a quite different and contradictory set a quarter of a century later. Allison shows how scholars to the present day continue to remake Jesus in their own image, just as Schweitzer demonstrated that pattern for the bulk of the nineteenth century. Meanwhile, pastors and teachers inevitably gravitate to the portraits of Jesus they like, paying far less attention to those they do not, so that they are insufficiently challenged to see if their approaches to Jesus can really withstand rigorous scrutiny. Still, Allison thinks that New Testament portions that may not reflect historical events in the form in which they now appear may be theologically accurate windows to what Jesus was all about. He highlights three-the temptation narratives (given the battles Jesus fought with evil throughout his ministry), the passion narrative in Mark (given his principle of enemy-love and non-resistance that permeates the Sermon on the Mount), and 1 Corinthians 13 (not ostensibly a historical narrative at all, but what could have inspired it but the self-sacrificial ministry of Jesus himself?).
Chapter two shows how the historical problems get worse before they get better. The classic criteria of authenticity and their more recent revisions alike promise far more than they can deliver, which is why the Jesus Seminar can come to extremely skeptical results about almost all of the Gospel of John and I can argue that a core of probably historical material can be viewed as probable in most of John’s pericopes. All scholars, usually fairly early in their careers, develop a general picture of Jesus and of the amount of accuracy we can expect from the various Gospels and seldom acknowledge how thoroughly their subsequent work is driven by the non-negotiables they have already established. Allison indicts even himself. Having come to think of Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet with an expectation of the nearness of the end and a touch of asceticism, and even after realizing all of the subjective factors that lurk behind masks of greater objectivity, he acknowledges that he still thinks that portrait is the historically most reliable. But he marvels at how little assessments of historicity impinge in most of his students’ work on the meaning they derive from Gospel readings, a reminder perhaps that they can still serve Christians well theologically, even if we have to acknowledge that a much higher percentage of the Gospels function like parables, where we are unable to determine how much really happened, but it doesn’t matter.
How then should the quest proceed? Allison’s third chapter suggests that criteria for evaluating the probable historicity of individual sayings or deeds of Christ will never be developed to deliver the goods they advertise. Instead, we should look to the broad contours of what the Synoptic Gospels most pervasively stress. This fits the way memory works in general; we may unwittingly get details wrong, but we remember big pictures. Often accompanied with long lists of supporting texts and motifs, Allison insists we can conclude with a high degree of probability that Jesus insisted on self-sacrifice from his followers, performed exorcisms, supported John the Baptist, repeatedly spoke of God as a surprisingly loving Father, taught in parables, and came into regular conflict with the religious authorities. Whatever titles he did or didn’t use for himself, “Jesus probably believed himself to be not just an eschatological prophet, but the personal locus of the end-time scenario, the central figure of the last judgment, someone akin to Melchizedek in 11QMelchizedek, or the Elect One in the Parables of 1 Enoch” (p. 66). So pervasive are the stories of Jesus working miracles and so commonly elsewhere in religious and non-religious accounts do credible accounts of people’s encounters with the numinous appear, that we scarcely can write off the Synoptic miracle stories as merely akin to the far more fanciful apocrypha. Allison uses the Transfiguration as a good example, while at the same time stressing that our global perspective remains independent of our ability to demonstrate the authenticity of any single narrative.
What is the theological significance of the results of a quest followed along these lines? Allison’s answer is that we must guard against both too high and too low a Christology. John’s is too high, and the tacit docetism of many early Church Fathers and many contemporary conservatives only exacerbates the problem. But the perspectives of the Jesus Seminar as a group or of key scholars like their former co-chairs, Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan, are too low, as they fool themselves into thinking they can reject dominant and pervasive themes of the Synoptic tradition and replace them with non-traditional portraits. More than once Allison stresses that if the main contours of the Synoptics are wrong, then no one, neither the Gnostic gospel writers, nor the modern skeptics are in any position to propose a better alternative; sheer agnosticism remains the only option. Meanwhile, “a domesticated Jesus who sounds like us, makes us comfortable, and commends our opinions is no Jesus at all” (p. 90). Above all, eschatology and Jesus’ warnings of coming judgment are here to stay, however unpopular the theme is to many today. Most all religions address the topic, it was pervasive in antiquity, and it is absurd to believe Jesus did not also address it pervasively. But it is dressed in the mythological garb of the day; we are not to look for Christ literally returning on the clouds of heaven to rule on earth. Instead, Jesus hoped for a better future, he believed in life after death in which that future would be fully realized, and he taught that it should inspire his followers to have compassion on the poor and outcast and seek justice for the oppressed and marginalized, already in this life, as a foreshadowing of the fullness of life to come.
In a short closing section of “personal impressions” he observes that eschatology is necessary if there is to be any adequate accounting of the problem of evil. “If the sufferings of the present time are never eclipsed, if there is nothing beyond tragedy and the monotony of death, then I for one do not believe that Jesus’ good God exists. But as I do believe in his God, I must believe in a resurrection of the dead or, if I may echo Plato, something like it” (p. 111). And the pattern in Jesus’ teaching of suffering followed by vindication is also so entrenched in the Synoptics that it must be authentic. Indeed his very life incarnates the extremes of joys and sorrows, making him both “sympathetic and convincing” (p. 118). But the two extremes are not equal opposites. “There can be no tie, for evil is bound to lose.” Thus, “the resurrection does not balance crucifixion and the grave. It defeats them” (p. 119).
Allison’s work will not make conventional conservatives or liberals happy, and that is his point. Neither does his understanding of the historical Jesus or of the God who gave us the Bible, including the Gospels, with the kind of mix of history and theology that leaves classic conservatives wrong to find it primarily historical in genre and classic liberals wrong to reject its pervasive theology as either non-normative or irrelevant for the twenty-first century. Both camps will protest that he could have made most of his main points and yet not taken them quite so much to task. And if presuppositions are as determinative as he stresses they are, what is missing in the volume is a discussion of whether one or more collections of presuppositions might actually turn out to be more legitimate than their rivals. Allison has not demonstrated that the center of the spectrum is automatically the right place to locate oneself, either historically or theologically. But his book remains so filled to the brim with common sense, lessons from history, profound insights, self-disclosure and self-effacement, refreshing candor and “equal-opportunity” criticism for all scholars that it is one of the few works I can recall reading with which I had fairly significant disagreements in key places but still absolutely loved and couldn’t put down. A must for anyone concerned with the Christ of history or the Jesus of faith (as well as the more traditional pairing).
Craig Blomberg, Ph.D.
Distinguished Professor of New Testament