2015-10-01

What Biblical Scholars Say About Historical Jesus Studies

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by Neil Godfrey

Dale C. Allison (November 25, 1955-) is an American New Testament scholar, historian of Early Christianity, and Christian theologian who for years served as Errett M. Grable Professor of New Testament Exegesis and Early Christianity at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. He is currently the Richard J. Dearborn Professor of New Testament Studies at Princeton Theological Seminary. — Wikipedia (2nd Oct 2015)

historicalchristI like reading Dale Allison. He is open and forthright about his methods. When some biblical scholars indignantly insist that their field is faith-neutral (after all it includes atheists and agnostics and Jews!) and that they are as on the level as any other historians could possibly be, I wonder if they have ostracized Dale Allison from their community.

Allison acknowledges the circularity at the heart of historical Jesus arguments and that the Gospel narratives are largely midrashic parables. But he is a serious historian nonetheless (according to the lights of historical studies within theological circles) and does the best he can to know “the historical Jesus” despite the challenges thrown up by the nature of the sources:

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. (See Dale Allison on Memory and Historical Approaches to the Gospels)

In The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus Allison clarifies what he means by the above:

What matters is not whether we can establish the authenticity of any of the relevant traditions or what the criteria of authenticity may say about them, but rather the pattern that they, in concert, create. It is like running into students who enjoy telling tales about their absent-minded professor. A number of those tales may be too tall to earn our belief; but if there are several of them, they are good evidence that the professor is indeed absent-minded.

Dale C. Allison Jr.. The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus (Kindle Locations 839-841). Kindle Edition.

(Think that “historical method” through for a few moments.)

With thanks to Anthony Le Donne for alerting me to Dale Allison’s The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus here are a few more of Allison’s insights worthy of note:

I have never been without theological motives or interests. Until a few years ago, however, I had not attempted to pursue those interests with much diligence or to examine my motives with much care. Recent circumstances have pushed me out of my historical-critical pose. After accepting a teaching post at a Protestant theological seminary, I soon discovered that future pastors are not interested in undertaking historical labor without the prospect of theological reward. In order, then, to keep my audience, I was compelled to complement my critical inquiries with theological deliberations.

Dale C. Allison Jr.. The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus (Kindle Locations 20-23). Kindle Edition.

Don’t misunderstand. Dale Allison firmly believes he is professional enough to recognize (at least in hindsight) when his historical reconstructions of Jesus have been guided by theological interests as the following quotations will demonstrate. Before making those acknowledgments, however, he draws on his experiences in the wider field to recognize what his peers are also doing.

In recent years we have seen works by Larry Hurtado and Richard Bauckham arguing for the earliest “Christians” attributing to Jesus a very high divine Christology from the very beginning of their faith. If you have wondered if these professors might be influenced by their own conservative faith, Allison encourages your suspicions. He tells us we can also predict the personal beliefs of scholars who flatly reject any form of high christology: 

Who doubts that authors who themselves have a high christology tend to write books in which the historical Jesus himself has a high christology? Or that those who are uncomfortable with Nicea and Chalcedon more often than not unearth a Jesus who humbled rather than exalted himself? The correlations between personal belief and historical discovery must be endless.

Dale C. Allison Jr.. The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus (Kindle Locations 218-220). Kindle Edition.

As I mentioned at the beginning, Allison is honest and self-critical about his methods:

I had created a Jesus in my own image, after my own likeness. Having enthusiastically preoccupied myself with the study of intertextuality for a decade, I had happily discovered that the Jesus of ancient Palestine was just like me, at least in one important respect. He may have been a first-century Jew and so in many ways a stranger and an enigma, but he was also skilled at setting up the sorts of intertextual dialogues that I love to unravel. So I had found Jesus, and he just happened to be a learned and admirable expositor, a man after my own intertextual heart.

Dale C. Allison Jr.. The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus (Kindle Locations 230-233). Kindle Edition.

And he digs deeper still:

Yet I would be deceiving myself were I to imagine that my Jesus was nothing but the product of brutal historical honesty. I wrote Jesus of Nazareth during an exceedingly miserable period in my life. The details are irrelevant. I need only say that my prospects for happiness seemed to have come and gone, and I was sunk in a slough of despond. And – this is the point – my chief consolation was hope for a life beyond this one where things might be better, which means that I was comforted by a historical Jesus who seemed ill at ease in the world as it is, a Jesus who did not expect much good from this present evil age, a Jesus who hoped chiefly in a God of the future.

Dale C. Allison Jr.. The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus (Kindle Locations 238-242). Kindle Edition.

But don’t one’s peers put a check on how far we can slip into writing our own autobiography when we reconstruct our Jesus” Yes indeed — but who are our peers?

While we inevitably read ourselves into the texts, we can at the same time come to conclusions that neither arise solely from our expectations nor simply confirm our wishes. Furthermore, we are not in this alone but are members of a guild. The predispositions of one jostle against the predispositions of another in a sort of communal dialectic, which enables those who so desire to enlarge themselves.

Dale C. Allison Jr.. The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus (Kindle Locations 271-273). Kindle Edition.

So we have many scholarly reconstructions of Jesus; on what basis do theologians decide which one to favour?

But how will our theologians go about deciding which school or scholar?

I am not sure what the answer should be in theory, but I am certain that, in practice, the method is that of attraction. Theologian A adopts the reconstruction of historian B because theologian A likes the Jesus of historian B. And the fondness of A for B derives undoubtedly from theological logical congruency. That is, A and B share similar ideological inclinations. So whereas some theologians may earnestly wish to appeal to the Jesus of history and may think they are in fact doing this, what happens more often than not is that they are really utilizing the Jesus of their own theological predilections, because those are also the predilections of the historian(s) they have chosen to follow. Like is attracted to like. All one need to do to see the truth of the matter is ask, Which pastors and theologians have made use of the Jesus Seminar and which pastors and theologians have made use of Tom Wright?

Dale C. Allison Jr.. The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus (Kindle Locations 297-302). Kindle Edition.

23 Comments

  • John MacDonald
    2015-10-01 21:27:50 UTC - 21:27 | Permalink

    Allison starts by saying:

    “What matters is not whether we can establish the authenticity of any of the relevant traditions or what the criteria of authenticity may say about them, but rather the pattern that they, in concert, create. It is like running into students who enjoy telling tales about their absent-minded professor. A number of those tales may be too tall to earn our belief; but if there are several of them, they are good evidence that the professor is indeed absent-minded.”

    So Allison’s argument in the above quote is that (I) you wouldn’t make up something “mundane” about a mythic figure, and (II) that a gospel about mythic figure couldn’t have a common theme about the mythical character’s “personality” running through the various imaginary pericopes about Him. Allison has clearly begun by using circular reasoning about why something should be considered historically authentic. Maybe Allison should have titled his book “Non Sequitur.

    Next we read from Allison:

    “I had created a Jesus in my own image, after my own likeness. Having enthusiastically preoccupied myself with the study of intertextuality for a decade, I had happily discovered that the Jesus of ancient Palestine was just like me, at least in one important respect. He may have been a first-century Jew and so in many ways a stranger and an enigma, but he was also skilled at setting up the sorts of intertextual dialogues that I love to unravel. So I had found Jesus, and he just happened to be a learned and admirable expositor, a man after my own intertextual heart.”

    Allison has clearly seen some fallaciousness in his former approach. My question would be how could we determine what amount (if any) of the “intertextuality” goes back to a feisty historical Jesus, and how much of it was just the gospel writer playing intertextual hopscotch?

    Finally, Allison writes:

    “But how will our theologians go about deciding which school or scholar?

    I am not sure what the answer should be in theory, but I am certain that, in practice, the method is that of attraction. Theologian A adopts the reconstruction of historian B because theologian A likes the Jesus of historian B. And the fondness of A for B derives undoubtedly from theological logical congruency. That is, A and B share similar ideological inclinations. So whereas some theologians may earnestly wish to appeal to the Jesus of history and may think they are in fact doing this, what happens more often than not is that they are really utilizing the Jesus of their own theological predilections, because those are also the predilections of the historian(s) they have chosen to follow. Like is attracted to like. All one need to do to see the truth of the matter is ask, Which pastors and theologians have made use of the Jesus Seminar and which pastors and theologians have made use of Tom Wright?”

    So the criterion that determines our construction of the historical Jesus is “attraction.” We’ve gone from “historical verisimilitude,” to “which portrait of Jesus turns you on the most?”

    I see that they’re earning their money over at Princeton 😉

    • Bee
      2015-10-02 10:44:10 UTC - 10:44 | Permalink

      Yeah. But at least he questions it all … at least sometimes.

      Wish he’d take his occasional doubts more seriously. They’re fairly well articulated, and quotable. Though you’d always have to note, after a quote, that his doubts are as yet, not his final position.

      • John MacDonald
        2015-10-02 21:33:08 UTC - 21:33 | Permalink

        Allison’s comments are a clear characterization of the misuse of method by biblical scholars.

  • David Ashton
    2015-10-01 21:38:59 UTC - 21:38 | Permalink

    The joke is that modern critics see themselves in JC – welfare socialist, liberal humanist, ethnic chauvinist &c – or not so funny that they use the NT as a pick-n-mix for commercial or other reasons – militant revolutionary, gay feminist, freemason, ufonaut &c. Anything but the Son of God, moan the traditionalists and/or fundamentalists.

    However, while one cannot prove beyond reasonable that one is reading about a teacher who actually existed, rather than a composite fiction, I do believe that one can detect in much of the “verbal” record a “consistent” personality with a lively imagination and sense of humor.

    • Geoff
      2015-10-02 03:44:21 UTC - 03:44 | Permalink

      Yes, I agree with this, in fact, it’s a pretty fair description of me during my Catholic anarchist days. As I have stated before, I wanted to believe that Jesus was a revolutionary. Fifteen years ago, I would have soaked in the zealot hypothesis like a sponge. Jesus, the original Che Guevara. It was my own desire as a history undergrad to research the origins of Christianity beginning with Jesus’ movement through the institutionalization of Church doctrines. I thought of Jesus as a humble man who preached non-violent resistance and gave his life as an example to us all and was only deified by the likes of Paul. Try as hard as I could to fit the evidence into my hypothesis, I just couldn’t do it. I eventually had to admit to myself the possibility, maybe even the probability, that there had not been a Jesus. Then in a CARM forum, Metacrock accused me of following Earl Doherty, and I googled him, and that was quite the eye-opener.

      • David Ashton
        2015-10-02 09:53:31 UTC - 09:53 | Permalink

        With due respect to you personally, I have detested all these gormless student fashions from the 1960s to the present, especially (1) waving Chairman Mao’s inane red book, and (2) denying a “platform” to un-PC speakers at “uni”. Che Guevara was a killer and also a bit of a “racist”. The only superficial similarity to HJ or JC was the Holy Face on the ubiquitous T-shirt. The T-shirt I preferred was the much rarer one that said, “Communism killed only 60 million – what else to like?”

        • Geoff
          2015-10-03 15:33:21 UTC - 15:33 | Permalink

          This discussion isn’t about that, but I would say you are encumbered with some very heavy stereotypes that you need to relook at.

          • David Ashton
            2015-10-03 21:59:06 UTC - 21:59 | Permalink

            Thank you, Geoff, for your gratuitous but well-meant advice without any well-informed specifics. Would my “very heavy” stereotypes about (say) Stalinism include my study of his “Problems of Leninism” and his main book on the Nationality Problem, perusal of “his” History of the Soviet CP, my reading of the biographies by Sebag-Montefiore, Trotsky, Service &c &c, my recent reading of material from different angles on the Russo-German Pact (including the analysis of the CPGB position by Gollancz et al in 1941), most of the works by the recently deceased Robert Conquest and his critics such as Getty and Wheatcroft, the WW2 casualty controversies, numerous books on Collectivisation, Gulags and the Purges (including Pritt & Sloan), the operations of the KGB & GRU overseas, the question of the “Holodomyr” & its death-toll, the disputes about alleged Soviet war-plans in 1941, the postwar policies in eastern Europe, &c &c &c ?

      • Neil Godfrey
        2015-10-03 00:31:59 UTC - 00:31 | Permalink

        At the same time there were “Jesus people” riding on the cultural winds of the day. A Catholic friend of mine told me with great pride how he had managed to maintain his pacifist demeanour when being arrested at a street rally (probably an anti-war rally) the police were attempting to break up. His model was Jesus — he often spoke of Jesus as his role model. He was not alone. Compare today and notice that one scholar, James Crossley, who loves to take something akin to an economic-Marxist view of Christianity’s origins, has a picture of Jesus who (thanks to Tim’s observation here) appears to be modelled on James Crossley himself:

        Crossley's portrait as a Che Guevara Jesus crucified?

        • Mark Erickson
          2015-10-06 02:24:26 UTC - 02:24 | Permalink

          I don’t think so. The style makes me think of a Che Guevara t-shirt.

          • Neil Godfrey
            2015-10-06 03:22:01 UTC - 03:22 | Permalink

            No question about the Che Guevara pose, but the face is not the face of Che. Compare also Crossley’s subsequent book cover.
            Che_Guevara

            jesuschaoshistory

  • David Fitzgerald
    2015-10-01 22:22:21 UTC - 22:22 | Permalink

    When I was reading Allison’s absent-minded professor analogy above, I was reminded of Morna Hooker’s near-identical analogy in Jesus, Criteria & the Demise of Authenticity – and how disturbed I was by it then!
    It’s mind-blowing to see historians so blithely embrace such a deeply flawed mindset and not recognize what a circular trap they are building for themselves…
    -DF

    • Tim Widowfield
      2015-10-01 22:26:09 UTC - 22:26 | Permalink

      The more powerful the mind, the easier it is to construct self-deluding arguments.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2015-10-01 22:42:24 UTC - 22:42 | Permalink

      Such gossipy bits in the works of historians like Suetonius are dismissed as nothing more than tendentious gossip — if my recollection of my undergraduate studies is correct. Such gossipy tales make up works like the “Augustan History” and are the reason ancient historians dismiss it as useless as a source for any reliable information about the Roman emperors. And let’s not even take up the student gossip for serious deliberation . . . .

      Meanwhile, when we can so clearly see the textual sources for such narratives . . .

    • 2015-10-02 14:33:42 UTC - 14:33 | Permalink

      Of course there real was Huckleberry Finn because Tom Sawer tells us so. And I personally saw it in a movie.

  • Bee"
    2015-10-02 10:32:19 UTC - 10:32 | Permalink

    Well, here’s some good news though. A new German doctor is now on staff on The Jesus Blog. Her field is Paul. And she seems mostly willing to in effect, support part of the Doherty thesis. That Paul knew practically nothing about any historical Jesus; just the product of his own vision or desires.

    • Bee
      2015-10-02 10:35:56 UTC - 10:35 | Permalink
    • Neil Godfrey
      2015-10-03 00:56:48 UTC - 00:56 | Permalink

      Christine Jacobi — see her introduction to the Jesus Blog — is currently studying under Jens Schröter. See Does Social Memory Theory Advance Historical Jesus Studies? for Schröter’s influence on Chris Keith. See Historical Jesus Studies ARE Different Methodologically From Other Historical Studies for some interesting quotes I’ve taken from Jens Schröter in Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity where he states what I have attempted to point out often on this blog — that establishing historical “facts” by means of “criteriology” is unique to biblical studies.

      • John MacDonald
        2015-10-03 01:37:03 UTC - 01:37 | Permalink

        I’ve yet to see a philosopher use the criterion of embarrassment to help determine facts about the historical Socrates.

        • David Ashton
          2015-10-03 11:17:23 UTC - 11:17 | Permalink

          In the case of “apostolic Christianity” there is an intrinsic limit to the embarrassment, or supposed conflict-of-interest, criteria in that the followers of Jesus are expected to be humble or to fail him in some respects (e.g. Peter). In his own case, there are examples of apparently conflicting attitudes, e.g. towards Samaritans. However, it would not be rational to accept as true everything that shows him in a poor light (e.g. premature prediction of the last days?) and simultaneously to reject ipso facto everything to his apparent credit.

  • Sili
    2015-10-02 10:59:55 UTC - 10:59 | Permalink

    So we cannot be certain Robin lived in Sherwood, but the stories consistently make him a friend of the poor.

    • Geoff
      2015-10-02 16:53:54 UTC - 16:53 | Permalink

      Yeah, you can make the same point, using the same tools and logic to defend the existence of numerous legendary, mythical and entirely fictional characters.

  • 2015-10-02 14:28:22 UTC - 14:28 | Permalink

    I do not mean to be silly or trite, but I do not find it plausible that “The Night Before Christmas” tells us anything about the real Santa Claus and when we examine the many stories, cartoons and movies, for instance Miracle on 46th Street, we are still in tbe dark about who the real Santa is and just what the meaning of his life is. In other words, no matter how many times you add zero to zero you still get zero. One mythical story plus another mythical story is still myth. After thousands of stories about Zeus, whaf he did,what he said, where he lived and travelled, he is still a myth.

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