Overview: Allison breaks this book up into five sections: The Problem of Theological Utility, Disputed Questions, How to Proceed, Some Difficult Conclusions, and Some Personal Impressions. I'll take a look at all five parts.
The Problem of Theological Utility and Disputed Questions: In the first two sections of the book, Allison focuses on the question, "Of what use, if any, is the so-called historical Jesus for Christian theology?" That is, should Christian theologians even concern themselves with uncovering a so-called historical Jesus? And, if so, how should that historical reconstruction inform theology? Here Allison discusses the polarization between theologians who simply use canonical descriptions of Jesus for theology and those who want to find a historical Jesus and use that construction to inform their understanding of Christian doctrine. For those who are even interested in finding a historical Jesus, they are in for a challenge, for there is little consensus in the field:
"If contemporary theology wants to include the historical Jesus in its discourse, it is up against grave obstacles, because his identity is unclear. More than one historical Jesus resides between today's book covers. We indeed have a plethora of them. There is the Jesus of Tom Wright, a Jewish prophet and almost, it seems, orthodox Christian. There is the Jesus of Marcus Borg, a religious mystic who dispensed perennial wisdom. There is the Jesus of E.P. Sanders, a Jewish eschatological prophet a la Albert Schweitzer. There is the Jesus of John Dominic Crossan, a Galilean but Cynic-like peasant whose vision of an egalitarian kingdom and nonviolent God stood in stark contrast to the power politics of Roman domination. One could go on. To the outsider, theories about Jesus must seem to crisscross each other to create a maze of contradictions. For the portraits in the marketplace are to large degree not complementary but contradictory."
In the end, Allison believes that yes, a historical Jesus is of value to the theologian, and indeed his own historical conclusions have changed how he views the Christian faith. Although there is no consensus about the identity of Jesus, and the biases of each historian are difficult to overcome, there is real value in the Quest.
How to Proceed: After affirming the value of historical research into Jesus, Allison moves on to consider methodology. How do we go about finding the historical Jesus?
Traditionally historical Jesus scholars have used what are known as "criteria of authenticity" to determine whether a particular passage about Jesus is historical or not. The major criterion have been multiple attestation (Does the story or saying show up in multiple, independent sources?), dissimilarity (Is the story or saying significantly different from what we would expect to come out of 2nd Temple Judaism or the early Christian communities? If so, the story or saying is unlikely to have been "made up."), embarrassment (If the story or saying is embarrassing to the Church, it is unlikely to have been "made up."), and coherence (Does the story or saying fit with other texts that we believe are historical?). Allison himself has used these criterion in the past, but does so no longer. The major problem he sees is that while these criteria are supposed to create a more "scientific" way to determine the historicity of a text, scholars, using the very same criteria, come to vastly different conclusions regarding both the historicity of individual texts and even major paradigms to understand Jesus with.
For Allison, the criteria just don't work. There are hardly any individual texts that he believes we can even reasonably assign a probability of historicity to:
"After years of being in the quest business, I have reluctantly concluded that most of the Gospel materials are not subject to historical proof or disproof, or even accurate estimates of their probability. That Jesus said something is no cause for supposing that we can demonstrate that he said it, and that Jesus did not say something is no cause for supposing that we can show that he did not say it. Similarly, if Jesus did something, that does not mean we can ascertain with any probability that he did it, and if he did not do something , that does not mean we can ascertain with any probability that he did not do it. There is a gaping chasm between what happened and what we can discover or deem likely to have happened...Did Jesus utter the golden rule? I do not see how anyone will ever show that he did, or how anyone will ever show that he did not. I certainly have never run across persuasive arguments for one conclusion or the other. Sadly, this example for me is representative."
The solution for Allison is not to sift through individual sayings and determine whether each is "historical" or "unhistorical," but to look for large patterns in the Gospels. If there is a large body of material that, for instance, portrays Jesus as coming into conflict with religious authorities, then we should conclude that he had public conflict with religious authorities. It does not matter if this or that story is historically accurate, and we will never know either way, but the pattern leads us to believe that he acted in this sort of way:
"The Gospels are parables. When we read them, we should think not that Jesus said this or did that but rather: Jesus did things like this, and he said things like that."
If we can't trust major patterns in the Gospels, then we can't trust our sources at all. When discussing Jesus' eschatology, Allison makes the following remark:
"I do not contend, because I do not believe, that all this material comes from Jesus, directly or indirectly. Nor do I insist that any of it is word-perfect memory. To repeat what I have said before: the Synoptics are not primarily records of what Jesus actually said and did but collections of impressions. They recount, or rather often recount, the sorts of things that he said and did, or that he could have said and done. As for eschatology in particular, my contention is that either a decent number of the entries in my catalogue fairly characterize what Jesus was about, or the tradition is so full of mnemonic holes and fictional accretions that the quest is a vain aspiration and we should find some other pastime with which to amuse ourselves."
Some Difficult Conclusions: Using his unique methodology (although he would argue that his conclusions should hold regardless of methodology), Allison argues here that the the historical Jesus is the Apocalyptic Jesus. That is, Jesus believed that the world would soon end, a final judgment would ensue, and a new world – the Kingdom of God – would be born. Furthermore, Jesus believed that he himself, as the final messianic prophet, would usher in this new age.
"...Jesus had firm eschatological expectations, to which he gave frequent expression. More precisely, he envisaged, as many did in his time and place, the advent, after suffering and persecution, of a great judgment, and after that a supernatural utopia, the kingdom of God, inhabited by the dead come back to life, to enjoy a world forever rid of evil and wholly ruled by God. Further, he thought that the night was far gone, the day at hand."
Allison knows that his conclusions, in the line of Albert Schweitzer, will trouble both conservative and liberal Christians. A historical Jesus who held these beliefs is advantageous to neither.
Some Personal Reflections: To end the book, Allison includes a personal section in which he discusses how his conclusions about Jesus have changed his own faith. In the end, he finds that he must adopt Jesus' dream of a future ruled by God, for it the only way to make sense of the world as it is and the hope of a Loving Creator:
"Such (eschatological) expectation implicitly concedes that life as we have known it does not make sense. It posits reward and punishment in a life to come precisely because they are missing from the here and now. It locates meaning in the future because there is a deficiency of sense in the present. It hopes for better someday because today it is worse. Eschatology does nothing, of course, to explain away evil, and it leaves us with the question, Why would God be better to all in the future than God seems to be now? To which Jesus prudently returns no answer. But he does share with us his audacious imagination, born of his unswerving conviction that, despite appearances, God is profoundly good. His fundamental intuition is that the creator must be the redeemer, that the divine Father is good enough to ensure that those who mourn will be comforted, loving enough to guarantee that those who weep with someday laugh...
We do well, I suggest, to follow his lead. For although eschatology is not the solution to the problem of evil, without eschatology there can be no solution. If what we see on earth is all that we will ever see, if there is no further repairing of wrongs beyond what we have already witnessed, then divine love and justice do not really count for much. This is not, for me, a theological cliche but a philosophical necessity."
Allison ends another of his works Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet, in a similar vein:
"And yet, despite everything, for those who have ears to hear, Jesus, the millenarian herald of judgment and salvation, says the only things worth saying, for his dream is the only one worth dreaming. If our wounds never heal, if the outrageous spectacle of a history filled with cataclysmic sadness is never undone, if there is nothing more for those who were slaughtered in the death camps or for six-year olds devoured by cancer, then let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die. If in the end there is no good God to calm this sea of troubles, to raise the dead, and to give good news to the poor, then this is indeed a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing."
Reflections: I agree with virtually everything Dale Allison says in this book. He bears witness to just how complicated historical Jesus study can be, while also clearly laying out his tentative conclusions, which I find persuasive. He does so with humility and from a perspective of faith, albeit a faith that many won't be comfortable with.
Regarding his methodology, I am sold. If we can't trust major patterns in the Gospels, then trying to find the historical Jesus is a vain endeavor. Likewise, looking at individual sayings and dubbing them historical or non-historical, or perhaps assigning probabilities of historicity, may work for a small amount of texts, but not for the vast majority.
In my mind, Allison towers over others in this field and deserves a much wider readership than he seems to have.
Personal Takeaways: This book pushed me over the edge into seeing Jesus of Nazareth as primarily an Apocalyptic Prophet. In many ways, this was the straw that spurred my break from traditional understandings of Christianity and into an interest in contemplative practice. I had widdled my faith down to Jesus, and then I came to accept that he was wrong about the end of the world. The way I understood my own faith was forever changed. Although this book was initially threatening and disorienting, in the end, I found it to be freeing. It opened me up into new ways to think about Jesus, Christianity, faith, and spirituality.
If there is one book to read as an introduction to the Quest for the Historical Jesus, this is it.
For more, here is a lecture by Allison in which he reads from most of the sections of this book. The lecture leaves out the sections of the book focused on eschatology.