Both agree on the nature of circularity at the heart of historical Jesus studies. Davies begins with a quotation from E. P. Sanders:
In regard to Jesus research E. P. Sanders correctly observes, “There is, as is usual in dealing with historical questions, no opening which does not involve one in a circle of interpretation, that is, which does not depend on points which in turn require us ot understand other [points],” and he insists that “one must be careful to enter the circle at the right point, that is, to choose the best starting place.” The best starting place, it follows, is one that is historically secure with a meaning that can be known somewhat independently from the rest of the evidence. It further follows, as he rightly says, that one should “found the study on bedrock, and especially to begin at the right point.”
In the field of Jesus research, however, one person’s bedrock is another person’s sand. I cannot honestly think of a single supposed bedrock event or interpretive stance that somebody has not denied. Nor, to my knowledge, are there any two constructions of the “authentic” sayings of Jesus that are identical. One might compile a short set of parables, proverbs, and aphorisms that are universally conceded to be from Jesus, but they will be that set that conveys the least inherent meaning . . . and where one can go from there I am not at all sure. (p. 43, my bolding)
Davies opts, then, to embrace as his bedrock two details upon which “scholars agree almost unanimously”: that Jesus was believed in his time to have been (1) a prophet and (2) a healer and exorcist.
Davies is arguing that Jesus was not a teacher. See my previous post for his reasons. So when Allison argues that Jesus is a teacher, and essentially that this is a bedrock fact, and then “apologizes” (I am not using this word pejoratively) by likewise explaining that the whole enterprise is necessarily circular . . . . well, both Davies and Allison do manage to agree and convince readers of at least one point!
Allison writes, and rather than referring to E. P. Sanders he turns to C. H. Dodd:
C. H. Dodd maintained that when we have made due allowance for the distortions of the tradition, “it remains that the first three gospels offer a body of sayings on the whole so consistent, so coherent, and withal so distinctive in manner, style, and content, that no reasonable critics should doubt whatever reservations he may have about individual sayings, that we find reflected here the thought of a single, unique teacher.” I understand this comment, with which I am, on most days, sympathetic. . . . . Dodd’s words, however, constitute not an argument but an opinion, albeit an informed one; and my own conviction is inevitably a personal, subjective response. . . .
I can think of no line of reasoning that is not, in the end, strictly circular. Nonetheless, there remain some observations that, though they do not firmly establish anything, remain suggestive, observations that may encourage those of us who are otherwise inclined to side with Dodd. (p. 23, my bolding)
In an earlier book Dale Allison made the same point in another context:
Here is what Dale Allison writes on page 60 of Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet:
Jesus turns out to have been a proponent of an apocalyptic eschatology. This result is of course contained in the methodological premise, according to which Jesus was an eschatological prophet. But in this regard history is not different from hermeneutics: circularity we will always have with us.
Allison calls in Hahn as a supporting witness:
Compare Hahn, “Methodologische Überlegungen,” pp. 37-38, who observes the problem of interpreting the individual pieces of the Jesus tradition without first having a total picture of Jesus and the problem of having a total picture of Jesus without first interpreting the individual pieces. His method is similar to my own in that he enters the circle from generalizations about Jesus and the Jesus tradition.
It is encouraging to read scholarly literature by academics who are intelligent, honest and humble enough to acknowledge such a weakness in their methodology. (What one sometimes encounters on internet blogs by a few scholarly types can be rather depressing by comparison.) One can (generally) respect such scholarly works and read them with some assurance that they are reading works by authors aware of their limitations and ultimate fragility of their findings.
Some readers will be aware that I personally think there is a way to avoid this circularity, and it involves adopting some of the principles espoused by the “Copenhagen School” in relation to studies of the history of Israel (Davies, Lemche, Thompson, et al.) which are, in reality, those normally followed among other (nonbiblical) historical disciplines. And that means setting aside the historicity of the narrative of (or presumed to lie behind) the Gospels as a “fact” and relegating it to the status of a genuine hypothesis. But of course to take that step requires for many considerable courage, and that’s very scary.
But I like what Allison says after this about the evidence for Jesus having said the things attributed to him:
We have, admittedly, no proof that Jesus authored any of the materials that, once heard, are hard to forget. So doubt we will always have with us. At the same time, all the relevant items are attributed to him, not to anyone else, and I know of no explanatory advantage in assigning them to some anonymous contemporary or contemporaries of his. (p. 24 of Constructing Jesus)
This, likewise, makes refreshingly much more logical sense than scholarly type bloggers who beg the question by arguing that we know Jesus exists because we have sayings and deeds attributed to him! Of course, the problem for Allison’s point here is that many words are likewise attributed to Moses, many to Mohammad, many to God himself. It is surely the most natural thing in the world to attribute choice free-floating sayings to a figure one wishes to glorify as a source of wisdom or authority. Given Dale Allison’s assumptions and model of Christian origins then his conclusion is perfectly reasonable. Davies has reasons for disagreeing (which I covered in my recent post) and they are also perfectly reasonable.
It all depends on which point one enters the circle.