As we saw in the last post, Allison thinks that the traditional method of sifting the NT materials to reveal pristine, authentic bits of knowledge about Jesus is doomed to failure. More promising, he argued, is discerning the general picture of Jesus, based on recurring themes.
For example, citing numerous passages in the synoptic gospels, such as Jesus’s prohibition of divorce, his command to love enemies, his admonition not to bury the dead, his enjoining of unlimited forgiveness, and others, Allison concludes that “Jesus made uncommonly difficult demands on at least some people” (p. 63). We can confidently believe this even if the individual units can’t be historically authenticated.
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” (p. 63).
We can make similar assertions regarding other recurring patterns: Jesus was an exorcist, he spoke of God as father, he taught in parables, he came into conflict with the existing religious authorities.
More controversially though, Allison thinks that we can be fairly certain that Jesus (1) was an apocalyptic prophet with a high sense of his own role in God’s eschatological drama and (2) was perceived and remembered as a worker of miracles. Both of these conclusions fly in the face, to some extent, of liberal opinion on the historical Jesus. Scholars such as Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan have downplayed Jesus’s apocalypticism and are uncomfortable with the notion that Jesus had an exalted view of himself. And much liberal theology is uneasy with the concept of miracles, period.
Note that Allison doesn’t claim to be doing the scholarly spadework to demonstrate these claims, and he isn’t claiming these are incontestable findings. But he does pose a dilemma for those who would deny them:
If the primary sources produce false general impressions, such as that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet when he was not, or that Jesus was Israel’s redeemer when he had no such thought, then the truth of things is almost certainly beyond our reach. If the chief witnesses are too bad, if they contain only intermittently authentic items, we cannot lay them aside and tell a better story. Given how memory works, how could we ever feel at ease with a Jesus who is much different from the individual on the surface of our texts? Wrong in general, wrong in the particulars. In order for us to find Jesus, our sources must often remember at least the sorts of things he did and the source of things he said, including what he said about himself. If the repeating patterns do not catch Jesus, then how can he not forever escape us? (p. 66)
I have to say this is pretty convincing to my mind. It’s not too different from the conclusion Luke Timothy Johnson comes to in his book The Real Jesus. The gospels, Johnson argues, preserve the pattern of Jesus’s life, even if they don’t get all the historical details right.