Dale Allison on the limits of the quest for the historical Jesus

Over the holiday I read Dale Allison Jr.’s The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus. Allison is a well-regarded historical Jesus scholar with a number of tomes to his name and a practicing Christian. This book is his attempt to come to terms with how his work as a historian affects his personal faith.

As part of this endeavor, Allison takes a critical look at the various “historical Jesuses” that have been paraded for our acceptance over the last several decades. These are usually reconstructions based, in part, on identifying the supposedly authentic sayings and deeds of Jesus, to the extent that they can be excavated from the overlay of ecclesiastical spin and theological reflection in the New Testament. Taken with various social-scientific theories and an improved knowledge of 1st-century Judaism, scholars have produced a diverse set of “Jesuses”: Jesus the Cynic peasant-philosopher, Jesus the egalitarian social critic, Jesus the mystic wonder-worker, Jesus the apocalyptic prophet, and so on.

Allison, however, is critical of the standard procedure for historical Jesus reconstruction. He argues that trying to isolate particular sayings and deeds as authentic rests on faulty assumptions about the way memory works. Empirical studies suggest that human memory is far better at grasping overall impressions or gestalts of events and much worse at accurately recalling specific details like, say, the precise words spoken by someone or the exact order of a series of events. This casts serious doubt, Allison contends, on the method of trying to identify the “authentic” sayings and deeds of Jesus. Furthermore, the traditional criteria used by scholars to determine the authentic material just aren’t strong enough to render a portrait of Jesus that can resist the theological agenda of the person doing the reconstructive work. It’s no surprise, Allison says, that, a century after years the liberal Protestant scholar Adolf Von Harnack, looking down the well of history, mistook his own liberal Protestant reflection for Jesus, the various historical Jesuses tend to reflect the theological and ideological positions of their proponents.

Moreover, he says, if the primary sources we have for Jesus’s life–the four gospels–are as unreliable in their understanding of who Jesus was as many of the historical Jesus scholars claim, then we are simply reduced to agnosticism. To try and reconstruct an entire personality apart from the impression that person made on other people completely misunderstands the nautre of personhood and memory. Instead, he says, we should focus on the whole rather than the parts: the general impression that Jesus made can be found in the gospels, even if we can’t say with certainty that any particular saying or deed goes back to him:

Given that we typically remember the outlines of an event or the general purport of a conversation rather than the particulars and that we extract patterns and meaning from our memories, it makes little sense to open the quest for Jesus by evaluating individual items with our criteria, in the hope that some bits preserve pristine memory. We should rather be looking for repeating patterns and contemplating the big picture. We should trust first, if we are to trust at all, what is most likely to be trustworthy. (p. 62)

And this implies that the canonical witnesses to Jesus, and the overall picture they paint, is the most reliable source we have. If we were to try and disregard their understanding of what Jesus was like in the attempt to base a reconstruction on some supposedly authentic bits and pieces, we could never produce a reliable picture:

Because the Synoptics [i.e., the gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke] supply us with most of our first-century traditions, our reconstructed Jesus will inevitably be Synoptic-like, a sort of commentary on Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Nothing else, however, can carry conviction. If we insist instead on countering in significant ways the general impressions left by our early sources, the pictures we paint in their place will be like sidewalk drawings done in chalk: we may delight in making them, and others may enjoy looking at them, but they will not last very long. (p. 66)

In the following posts I’ll take a look at what kind of Jesus Allison thinks this leaves us with and what he thinks some of the implications are for theology and the life of faith.

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One thought on “Dale Allison on the limits of the quest for the historical Jesus

  1. Pingback: The apocalyptic Jesus and the divine Christ « A Thinking Reed

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