Clarity about Circularity from Historical Jesus Scholar Dale Allison

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by Neil Godfrey

James McGrath has given Dale C. Allison’s latest book, Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination and History, a bit of a bad press in his recent review of it. He famously wrote that Allison explains how a historian can learn the true sense of what a historical person was about through studying fictional material about that person. (See Games Historical Jesus Scholars Play.)

I have not yet read Dale Allison’s latest book so I am unable to comment on what McGrath attributed to him, but I have been catching up with his 1998 book Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet. I had earlier read Dale Allison’s book on the question of Matthew’ “mimesis” of Moses for his portrayal of Jesus, The New Moses: A Matthean Typology, and was impressed with his caution and his thoroughness and consistency of methodological application to exploring how much of Matthew’s Gospel can be attributed to a conscious effort to re-write stories of Moses into the life of Jesus.

I can understand why Dale Allison has one of the more honoured reputations among biblical scholars. He does demonstrate a clarity of thought and understanding of what he is doing when he writes about Jesus that is not always evident among historical Jesus scholars, their peers, or their students.

I have often attempted to point out the circularity of arguments of Historical Jesus scholars in their efforts to “discover” or authenticate any of his words or deeds as historically true. (The circularity extends even to the very idea of the existence of Jesus.)

Dale C. Allison recognizes and admits to this circularity at the heart of historical Jesus studies. He can acknowledge that conclusions are reached because they are inherent in the premise behind the questions asked.

So it is regrettable that fewer of his peers seem to be able to bring themselves to admit this much when engaged in discussions with those who question the very existence of Jesus, or with those outside the guild who notice and question this circularity of method.

Here is what Dale Allison writes on page 60:

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.

Now that I can accept. There is no self-deception or inadvertent deception of readers in the process.

He admits and accepts that the method is circular, and that his history is “not different from hermeneutics”.

To be fair, Allison does not argue that all sayings and deeds of Jesus that are deemed historical are the simple direct product of such question-begging. Some sayings cohere with a number of assumptions or suppositions about Jesus, not just the one contained in the question at hand.

To continue the argument that Jesus had an apocalyptic worldview. He cites Q 12:51-53 (=Luke 12:51-53). This passage (about Jesus not coming to bring peace, but that families will be divided)

is not just consistent with an eschatological outlook but further harmonizes with a biographical fact about Jesus — his own familial conflict — and contains several of the formal features characteristic of Jesus. So the conclusion that certain apocalyptic sayings go back to Jesus is not just a product of the premise: the final conclusion also fortifies the opening supposition. (p. 61)

Of course, the narrative account of Jesus’ conflict with his own family is itself a familiar literary trope — the prophet being rejected by his own family — that places Jesus squarely in the literary tradition of Joseph and David. How could any author fail to pen the ultimate prophet who was not rejected by his own family?

Dale Allison also acknowledges the inadequacy of the various criteria. The arguments about their weaknesses and even mutually contradictory effects have been well covered many times. Allison concludes:

Appeals to shared criteria may, we can pray, assist us in being self-critical, but when all is said and done we look for the historical Jesus with our imaginations — and there too is where we find him, if we find him at all. (p. 7)

One may begin to wonder why any biblical scholar would ignore any argument that really does show the way out of all of this circularity and anchors Christian origins in something more substantial than imagination or hermeneutics. Embracing the normative standards found among other historical disciplines, such as reliance on external controls and literary analysis to guide in deciding what persons and events in a written record can claim historicity, should be noncontroversial. So should the descriptor “sceptic” be coveted by academics and scholars, but its very meaning is misconstrued by many biblical students and teachers.

At least the reader knows where he or she stands, and the status of the conclusions, when reading Dale Allison’s Jesus of Nazareth.

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Neil Godfrey

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16 thoughts on “Clarity about Circularity from Historical Jesus Scholar Dale Allison”

  1. “How could any author fail to pen the ultimate prophet who was not rejected by his own family?”
    The caveat “Ultimate prophet” may weed out just about everyone, I’m not sure how many books have been written about “ultimate” prophets. The number of really awesome prophets not rejected by their family is however large. But they never had you to teach them how to write books.

  2. I will thank you to dispense with the sarcasm. You might also attempt to improve your image as a serious commenter here if you remove your profile message that appears everytime one hovers over your avatar.

    If you wish to be taken seriously then do as I have asked of you before: instead of just flailing about in the air with wild accusations, provide facts to support your assertions. I, and no doubt Steven too, are still waiting for you to justify your wild and unsubstantiated attacks in comments #3 and #4 of the post “Grounds for excluding historical Jesus studies. . . .”.

    As for your sarcastic trolling with this comment here I expect you to make amends by delivering a concise explanation that demonstrates at the same time that you actually comprehend the context and point I was addressing in my post.

    You might also like to consider a point I made in my post on the siblings of Jesus where I wrote:

    Cain killed righteous Abel; chosen Isaac was persecuted by Hagar and Ishmael; Esau threatened the life of Jacob who was forced to flee; Joseph was disbelieved, scorned and cast out by his brothers; Jephthah was rejected by his tribe; David was also mocked and dismissed by his brothers. The theme of rejection of the righteous and godly man by those close to him, including his own kin, is one of the most pervasive of themes in the Jewish scriptures, including the Psalms and the Prophets.

    You wrote in a comment on my post “Biblical studies, surely the softest of options”, “take it from me, be careful about drunk blogging.” Should I understand that you are familiar with drunk blogging?

    1. Sorry about the sarcasm, I’ll try to avoid bringing the conversation to a Steve Carr level. Point 3 of course was in regards to Steve’s notoriously poor communication skill. He seems a bit more educated than his post would suggest( if the Steve Carrs I’ve googled are this Steve Carr) and he should work on that. At any rate, you said some nice things about this Dale Allison fellow, so maybe your toning down the rhetoric on the level of foolishness of scholars who don’t hold your views. Even Robert price was proud to work with the Jesus Seminar, not that you should take marching orders from Price, but is the worst he can say is
      “His criticisms of radical New Testament critics like Burton Mack and the Jesus Seminar (of which I am proud to be a Fellow and in whose deliberations I am privileged to have participated) are finally beside the point.
      Johnson gives an altogether false impression that the Seminar uses some far-fetched and idiosyncratic methodology that respectable scholars would not deign to touch with a ten-foot pole. … The fact of the matter is that most of the Fellows of the Jesus Seminar are far less skeptical, less methodologically rigorous, than Rudolf Bultmann and the critics of the previous generation.”
      It may be a bit soon to call for their exclusion from university research.

      In regards to the initial comment, expanding rejection by family to rejection by tribe, as Japeth, expands the net to include just about every radical thinker, literary and historical. If by conflict with his own family you mean immediate family, I have to point out the ultimate prophet Moses. While you may argue that Moses has a conflict with both Aaron and Miriam, again one would be hard pressed to find a family without conflict literary or historical. But Moses is hardly rejected by his family, they are loyal subservients to the end.

      1. I am also tired of attacks on Steven Carr accusing him of things I simply cannot see in most of his comments. Most attacks on Steven Carr appear to be nothing more than intestinal reactions: “Oh, this is by Steven Carr, therefore by definition it is sarcastic and abusive.”

        I also reject absolutely your imputation when you write:

        At any rate, you said some nice things about this Dale Allison fellow, so maybe your toning down the rhetoric on the level of foolishness of scholars who don’t hold your views.

        I have also said some nice things about many scholars with whom I disagree at some point, even those who have subsequently attacked me personally. I have never launched “rhetoric” on “foolishness of scholars who don’t hold [my] views”! That is the sort of false accusation I would expect to read from McGrath, not a regular visitor to my blog. Do you read my posts and comments? Then you should notice that I address arguments of, and approaches to, and methods of, a particular study. And yes, I also “attack” unprofessionalism when I see it among scholars. That is not at all the same as “rhetoric against the foolishness of scholars who don’t hold my views”.

        I did not make up the notion of the motif of the prophet rejected by his own. It is well known throughout biblical scholarship and folklore studies universally. Your finding the odd exception to the rule does not invalidate the rule. Casey is failing as a scholar when he fails to acknowledge this and address this point where it has relevance to his own interpretation.

        ADDED about 6 hours after first posting:

        Moses, by the way, is in one famous scene attacked by his brother and sister who, like the brothers of Joseph, accused him of setting himself above them. And his wife lost patience with him over the circumcision of his son.

        1. ‘I am also tired of attacks on Steven Carr accusing him of things I simply cannot see in most of his comments. Most attacks on Steven Carr appear to be nothing more than intestinal reactions: “Oh, this is by Steven Carr, therefore by definition it is sarcastic and abusive.”’

          I also don’t recognise this portrayal of me.

          Perhaps people are just adopting True Biblical Scholarly standards and using fictional material….

          I also get tired of scholars never answering questions.

          I asked Mike Kok a simple question. Has Maurice Casey ever reconstructed the Aramaic original of any Greek document?

          Mike Kok never answered, although his review of Casey’s book was predicated on Casey’s alleged ability to reconstruct the Aramaic originals of Greek documents.

          This is a bit like the child asking to see the tailoring qualifications of the tailors who produced the Emperor’s New Clothes. You are not going to see any clothes these tailors have ever made, no matter how many times you ask for them.

        2. Isn’t Neil allowed to point out standards of Biblical scholarship which argue that things happened and give evidence of them happening by pointing to texts which never mention them?

          From Mike Kok’s review of Maurice Casey’s book…

          ‘Much better is the criterion of embarrassment, which argues that it is unlikely that the early church would invent material that was counterproductive to their missionary efforts, and the growing discomfort with the baptism of Jesus is a perfect case in point (Matthew has John desire to be baptized by Jesus, Luke has John imprisoned before the baptism, John drops the baptism altogether….’

          I love the idea that evidence for something happening is the fact that one source is silent about it.

          This is True Scholarship.

          1. Be careful — in the wrong hands these magical criteria can lead to absurd results.

            For example, we could say that Mark’s written source as well as Q (both written on Casey’s wax tablets in Aramaic, now missing) obviously predate Paul. So when Paul is silent about the banal teachings of the Great Teacher, the rich cast of characters who appear out of nowhere and disappear into the mist, including the Disciples, we might be tempted to say he was embarrassed.

            But the Great Scholars have already proved that Paul simply didn’t want to bore his audience with things they already knew. Not embarrassed. Not ignorant. Just polite.

            Here’s a handy rule of thumb. If the criterion you’re using yields results you don’t like, then you’re either doing it wrong, or it’s a bad criterion. A good carpenter always blames his tools.

        3. while family conflict is a common motif in literature, history, and biography, I still don’t see the evidence to support “How could any author fail to pen the ultimate prophet who was not rejected by his own family?”
          In fact, and it is wholly due to my ignorance that I didn’t to mention this earlier, but it doesn’t seem that either Luke, Matthew or John have Jesus rejected by his family. Have I missed something?

          I had thought that they did, but I was reading his “who are my mother and siblings” line with Mark in mind. Without Mark’s bit about his people coming to restrain him for madness, the saying in Matthew and Luke doesn’t seem like family conflict, they soften it so it seems that they just can’t get though the crowd to see him, and Jesus elevates all his followers to his family, this can hardly be read as Jesus’ family rejecting him, nor do i see it as him rejecting his family. That I have the same rights under the law as a rich man is not to put down the rich man.

          Ironically if Mark had been a little less popular we might not be debating whether every writer of an ultimate prophet tale would include his rejection by family. The impression Luke, Matthew, and John is that Jesus and his family got along great and they were supportive of him, not at all like “Cain killed righteous Abel; chosen Isaac was persecuted by Hagar and Ishmael; Esau threatened the life of Jacob who was forced to flee; Joseph was disbelieved, scorned and cast out by his brothers; Jephthah was rejected by his tribe; David was also mocked and dismissed by his brothers.”
          Now if that were the case do you think that the good relationship of Jesus with his family contrary to the above examples would prove historicity for Jesus’ family relations? Of course you wouldn’t.

          1. The central point you are sidestepping is that the idea of a prophet or man of God or hero being rejected or scorned by his own is a common motif throughout folk literature, and we find it no less in the Jewish scriptures and literature. It is a standard theme, and it would be remarkable if an invented Jesus was not portrayed the same way. He was created to fulfil other scriptures and godly types. Why not this very common one, too? It serves to make the holy man even more of a hero — he is given a special relationship with God, and a special destiny, that is beyond the comprehension of his peers.

            Matthew and Luke were not creating the story of Jesus. They were modifying Mark’s story to adapt it to emerging doctrinal church beliefs. By Luke’s time Mary was herself becoming venerated, and James was reputed to have been a leader of the church. So this is where the criterion of embarrassment really does apply. Luke had to change the embarrassing narrative of Mark.

            John does also use the family outcast theme. It is even more radical than Mark’s, though. For John it was God who is the royal parent who adopts out the son to foster parents just as in many popular tales. This, however, is of a different literary tradition from Mark’s. For John Jesus was never truly “human” in the sense he was in Mark, but was always very divine and in control of everything. Even his crucifixion was described in a way to show him in charge throughout. Human relationships were the same — Jesus was always in charge of every moment. It was God his divine father who, “cast” or “adopted him out”: See http://vridar.wordpress.com/2007/08/05/novelistic-plot-and-motifs-in-the-gospel-of-john/

            1. I fail to Jesus in conflict with God in John, and I’m hardly sidestepping the point. Neither John, Luke, Matthew, or for that matter, Paul, feel the the need to have Jesus rejected by his family. Given the examples, it doesn’t seem any more remarkable that an invented Jesus be accepted by his family than a Shakespearean play be about a king. I don’t think the derivative status of Luke and Matthew in regards to Mark change that notion. They felt a story of an ultimate prophet could be told without family rejection. Frankly I’m mystified why Mark, if he were writing a parable about a divine figure, would have him doubted by his blood relatives as loony. Who are these people? Is it supposed to be Israel as the mother and brothers of Gods son?

              1. Do you take time to read carefully the arguments and think about them in order to understand them? You can still disagree with them, but at least you will be able to disagree with an argument that you understand.

                If your response each time is to say that you don’t understand an argument (and it so often is), then it indicates you are not really taking the time or effort to understand it before analyzing why you disagree with it.

                If it really is incomprehensible, then you will be in a position to ask for clarification.

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