Dale Allison

Allison's Conclusion


It seems to be en vogue for those in the historical Jesus business to end their reconstruction with a vivid picture which summarizes their position, a la Albert Schweitzer – who ends The Quest of the Historical Jesus with his famous “As One Unknown” quote. I kind of like it.

This is Allison's conclusion to his first book on the historical Jesus:

"He does not come to us as one unknown. We know him well enough. Jesus is the millenarian prophet. He is Wovoka. He is Mambu. He is Birsa. What we think of the least of these, his brethren, we think, to large extent, also of him.

Jesus is the millenarian prophet of judgment, the embodiment of the divine discontent that rolls through all things. He sees those who go about in long robes and have the best seats in the synagogues while they lock others out of the kingdom. He sees a rich man clothed in purple and fine linen who feasts sumptuously every day while at his gate is famished Lazarus, whose only friends are the dogs who lick his sores. He sees people who are gorgeously appareled, who live in luxury in royal palaces, and who entertain themselves with the severed head of Elijah come again. What Nietzsche aptly if disparagingly called a "slave morality of chastity, selflessness, and absolute obedience" permits Jesus to see the truth about those who will power instead of justice. They are an evil generation, the blasphemers against the Holy Spirit, the first who will become last. Jesus knows that God promised never again to destroy the world through a flood, but he makes ready for the flood of the end-time anyway. He prepares for the baptism with which he will be baptized.

Jesus is the millenarian prophet of consolation and hope who comforts those who mourn. He sees the poor, the hungry, and the reviled, and he proclaims that the last will be first. He makes the best of a bad situation: things are not what they seem to be; everything will be OK. He declares, against all the evidence, that the oppressed and the destitute are not miserable but blessed. They will have treasure in heaven. They will be rewarded at the resurrection of the just.

Jesus is the millenarian prophet whose realism is so great that it must abandon the world, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life. He knows that we, being evil, cannot fix things, that the wall cannot climb itself. How bad is it? What is the world really like? God's envoy is reviled as in league with Beelzebul, and the city of the great king kills the prophets and stones those sent to it. Clearly all has gone irredeemably wrong. The kingdom of God suffers violence.

But with God all things are possible. So Jesus becomes the visionary, like Daniel. As he watches, thrones are set. He beholds the queen of the South rising from the dead. He sees those who repented at the proclamation of Jonah condemning those who have not repented at the proclamation of one greater than Jonah. Nothing will he hidden. Whatever is covered up will he uncovered.

Jesus' generation, however, passed away. They all tasted death. And it is not the kingdom of God that has come but the scoffers who ask, Where is the promise of his coming? For all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation. Jesus the millenarian prophet, like all millenarian prophets, was wrong: reality has taken no notice of his imagination. Was it not all a dream, an unfounded fantasy – a myth, in the derogatory sense of the word?

Once, long ago, Christ crucified was foolishness, the great rock of offense. For us, however, crosses are jewelry. Today it is Jesus' status as a millenarian prophet that causes those who believe to stumble. No wonder that the debaters of this age, orthodox and liberal alike, have tried to persuade us that we have troubled ourselves unduly. Jesus, they console us, was no fool about the end. He was no apocalyptic enthusiast. Such apologists for God's envoy either pluck out and cast from the tradition all parts that seem to say otherwise, or they wrongly divide the word of truth in overly clever ways. The result is the same. Whether the misunderstanding is that of his first followers or his latter-day interpreters, Jesus himself is exonerated. When he was near Jerusalem he did not suppose that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately. We can blame the students, who in their eschatological errors have not been like the teacher.

But not all was in parables, and maybe Mark was right when he wrote that Jesus explained everything in private to his disciples. Certainly Jesus was not a Delphian obscurantist, nor have the sources obscured him so much from us. He seems to have spoken plainly enough. And what he spoke plainly about was an old world made new, a corrupt world made incorrupt. It has not come. Will it ever?

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."

Dale Allison: The Apocalyptic Jesus


Dale Allison is arguably the foremost historical Jesus scholar representing Jesus primarily as an Apocalyptic Prophet.  In the line of Albert Schweitzer, other modern scholars who accept that Jesus expected a final judgment in the near future include John P. MeierBart Ehrman, Thom Stark, EP Sanders, and Paula Fredriksen.

To summarize Allison's reconstruction, I will be using his The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus.  I have also previously reviewed this book here.  Probably the most natural way to understand Allison is to look at his historical method, and then at how he uses this method to address the questions of Jesus' eschatology and self-conception.  


Method


One question that is often not explicitly addressed, but which underlies historical Jesus research, is that of historical method.  That is, how do we determine what parts of the gospels go back to the historical Jesus and what parts can be assigned to the invention of the early church?  Traditionally, scholars have used four criteria for determining the authenticity of a passage – multiple attestation (if the saying appears in more than one source, it is more likely to be authentic), dissimilarity (if a saying is different from the proclamation of the early church and from 1st Century Judaism, it is likely to be authentic), embarrassment (if a saying is embarrassing to Jesus, the disciples, or the church, it is likely to be authentic), and coherence (if a saying fits with other sayings deemed "historical," it is also likely to be historical).  For Allison, the criteria just don't work:

 

"Scholars have, since the 1960s, often discussed the so-called criteria of authenticity, the sieves by which we supposedly enable ourselves to pan for original nuggets from Jesus. The names of the chief criteria are now well known: multiple attestation, dissimilarity, embarrassment, coherence. While they all at first glance appeal to common sense, further scrutiny reveals that they are fatally flawed. Dissimilarity, which allows us to hold as authentic items that are dissimilar to characteristic emphases of Judaism and of the church, presupposes that we know far more about the church and Judaism than we do. Multiple attestation overlooks the obvious problem that the more something is attested, the more the early church must have liked it, so the more suspicious we may well be about it. I do not, however, wish to review here the defects of the traditional criteria. Those failings have become increasingly apparent over the last two decades, and much of the discussion is becoming tedious because repetitious: we have entered an echo chamber. I also wish to say little about recent suggestions for revising our criteria – a trick I was still trying to perform ten years ago – or about replacing them with new and improved criteria. My question is not Which criteria are good and which bad? or How should we employ the good ones? but rather Should we be using criteria at all? My answer is No. In taking this position, I am setting myself against the dominant academic tradition, which has sought to find which bits of our texts represent Jesus' own views. Some may well wonder whether we are good for anything if we cannot sandblast the ecclesiastical soot from the tradition and restore the original. Others, perhaps suffering from a bit of physics envy, may insist that rigorously applying criteria is our only hope for keeping our discipline scientific and avoiding wholesale subjectivity. I am of a different mind. 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 to 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. Put otherwise, the set of materials whose origin we can reasonably assign to Jesus or the church is scarcely identical with the set of materials the tradition credits to Jesus. The former is instead a subset of the latter, and a small one at that. Did Jesus utter the golden rule? I do not see how anyone will ever show that he did, nor 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 is for me representative."


Because Allison does not believe that almost any individual saying can be conclusively deemed "authentic" or "inauthentic," his way forward – his historical method – is to look for large patterns in the gospels.  For instance, if there are many sayings which show Jesus coming into conflict with religious authorities, we must conclude that Jesus likely came into conflict with religious authorities.  If the large patterns of the synoptic gospels are wrong about Jesus, then we ought to give up the Quest, for our sources are simply too flawed.  

Allison gives an example of his method with an uncontroversial dimension of Jesus' ministry:
 

"With regard to the sources for Jesus, the traditional criteria of authenticity privilege the parts over the whole. It seems more prudent to privilege generalizations drawn from the whole than to concentrate upon one individual item after another. As a demonstration of how this works in practice, consider the following traditions:

• Jesus prohibited divorce: 1 Cor. 7:10; Mark 10:2-9; Luke 16:18.

• Jesus sent forth missionaries without staff, food, or money: Matt. 10:9-10; Mark 6:8-9; Luke 10:4.

• Jesus instructed missionaries to get their living by the gospel: 1 Cor. 9:14; Matt. 10:10; Luke 10:7.

• Jesus commanded loving and doing good to enemies: Matt. 5:38-48; Luke 6:27-36.

• Jesus forbade judging others: Matt. 7:1-2; Luke 6:37-38.

• Jesus asked a prospective follower not to bury his father: Matt. 8:21-22; Luke 59-60.

• Jesus spoke of hating one's father and mother: Matt. 10:37; Luke 14:26; Gospel of Thomas 55, 101.

• Jesus enjoined disciples to take up a cross: Matt. 10:38; Mark 8:34; Luke 14:27.

• Jesus enjoined unlimited forgiveness: Matt. 18:21-22; Luke 17:3-4.

• Jesus exhorted hearers to lose their lives in order to save them: Matt. 10:39; Mark 8:35; Luke 17:33.

• Jesus called people away from their livelihoods: Mark 1:16-20; 2:14.

• Jesus figuratively demanded violent removal of hand, foot, and eye: Mark 9:42-48.

• Jesus asked a wealthy man to relinquish his money: Mark 10:17-27.

• Jesus forbade taking oaths: Matt. 5:33-37.

• Jesus commanded money to be lent without interest: Matt. 5:42; Gospel of Thomas 95.

• Jesus called some to a life without marriage: Matt. 19:11-12.

• Jesus asked a prospective follower not to say farewell to his parents: Luke 9:61-62.

• Jesus asked his disciples to renounce all of their possessions: Luke 14:33.

I infer from this collection of materials that Jesus made uncommonly difficult demands on at least some people. Whatever he may have taught about compassion, and whether or not his motivation owed something to eschatological expectation, he insisted on self-sacrifice, to the point of demanding that some individuals follow him immediately and unconditionally. This historical verdict holds whatever tradition histories one draws up for the various units. 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 privileges "general impressions" created by the texts instead of sifting through, trying to find a core of "authentic sayings," and then reconstructing from there.  This method leads him to his conclusions on two hot-button topics, Jesus' eschatology and self-conception.


Jesus' Eschatology


Adhering to his historical method, Allison catalogues material in the synoptics which paint a picture of Jesus expecting a final, eschatological judgment in the near future.  
 

"Consider the following list of observations, whose length should trouble those who wish to bid farewell to Weiss and Schweitzer:

• A few logia declare that the sands of ordinary time have almost run out: Mark 9:1; 13:30; Matt. 10:23 (cf. Luke 18:8: 'he will vindicate them speedily').

• The same temporal conviction appears in Matt. 23:34-35 = Luke 11:49-51, which declares that all blood shed from the foundation of the world will be 'required of this generation.' In order for this to make sense, 'this generation' must be the last generation.

• 'The day of judgment' and its abbreviated stand-ins 'the judgment' and 'that day' envisage the eschatological assize: Matt. 10:15 = Luke 10:12; Matt. 11:22, 24; 12:36; Luke 10:14.

• Luke 12:5 = Matt. 10:28; Mark 9:43-45 (cf. Matt. 18:8-9); and Matt. 5:22; 23:15, 33 refer specifically to Gehenna, the antithesis of heaven, the frightful place of postmortem or eschatological punishment.

• That place of punishment is depicted as a place of fire in Matt. 7:19; Mark 9:47-48; Luke 12:49; John 15:6 (and perhaps Mark 9:49), as often in Jewish apocalyptic texts.

• Matt. 18:6-7 = Luke 17:1-2 and Mark 9:42 warn that the punishment for harming others will be worse than having a millstone around the neck and being thrown into the sea. Only the eschatological judgment could impose a fate worse than that.

• Matt. 22:13 and 25:30 speak of 'the outer darkness.'

• Matt. 24:51 refers to 'the weeping and gnashing of teeth.'

• As it appears in Matt. 24:45-51 and Luke 12:42-46, the parable of the unfaithful slave functions as a warning about the coming judgment.

• The enigmatic Matt. 24:40-41 = Luke 17:34-35 (cf. Gospel of Thomas 61), about one being taken and another left, means either that the wicked will be plucked from the earth (cf. Matt. 13:41) or (more likely) that the righteous will be taken to meet the Son of man in the air (cf. Mark 13:27; 1 Thess. 4:17). Whatever option is correct, the final judgment coincides with a supernatural sorting.

• Luke 17:26-30 (cf. Matt. 24:37-39) likens the coming judgment to Noah's flood and sulfur falling upon Sodom, both events being, in Jewish and Christian literature, popular prototypes of the last judgment and end of the world.

• Matt. 13:36-43 interprets Matt. 13:24-30 (= Gospel of Thomas 57) as an allegory of the division of just and unjust on the final day.

• Matt. 13:47-50, the parable of the net, depicts the same division under a different figure.

• Matt. 25:31-46 presents a memorable picture of the great judgment, introduced by the simile of a shepherd separating sheep from goats.

• The threat of eschatological judgment has its counterpart in the promise of heavenly or everlasting reward: Matt. 5:12 = Luke 6:23; Mark 10:29-30; Matt. 5:19; John 6:40; 14:2-3; Gospel of Thomas 19, 114.

• The tale of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31 promotes humanitarian conduct by depicting pleasant reward in `Abraham's bosom' and miserable retribution in 'Hades.'

• The paradoxical sayings about reversal in status – the first will be last, the last first, etc. – are not naively optimistic observations about everyday human experience (Matt. 10:39 = Luke 17:33; Matt. 23:12 = Luke 14:11; Matt. 25:29 = Luke 19:26; Mark 4:25; 8:35; 10:31; Matt. 13:12; Luke 18:14; Gospel of Thomas 4). This is why they use the future tense – 'will be exalted'; 'will keep it [life]'; 'will be first.' They foresee see God turning the world upside down, which can only be the result of the coming judgment.

• In view of the parallel in the Kaddish ('May he let his kingdom rule in your lifetime and in your days and in the lifetime of the whole house of Israel, speedily and soon') and the associations that 'kingdom' often has in ancient Palestinian Jewish literature, 'your kingdom come' (Matt. 6:10 = Luke 11:2) is more likely than not a prayer for God to redeem the world once and for all.

• Mark 1:15; Matt. 12:28 = Luke 11:20; and 22:18 attach temporal verbs to 'kingdom' (e.g., Matt. 10:7 = Luke 10:9). They thereby advert not to a changeless reality but rather to the dramatic advent of an unprecedented, supernatural reality. In these sayings, 'the kingdom of God' is nearly synonymous with 'the age to come' or 'the new creation.'

• The futurity of the kingdom is also manifest in the sayings about entering it (Mark 10:15, 23-25; Matt. 5:20; 7:21; 23:13). The future tense in Mark 10:23 and Matt. 5:20, the parallelism in Mark 9:43-47 ('into life' = 'into the kingdom'), the eschatological sense of passing through the narrow door or gate in Matt. 7:13 = Luke 13:24, and the circumstance that it is not the kingdom that enters people but people who enter the kingdom all make the meaning plain enough: the saints will, at the end of days, cross the threshold into a redeemed world.

• The Jesus of Mark 10:30 invokes the distinction, known from the rabbis, between 'this age' and 'the age to come.'

• Some logia about the Son of man clearly allude to the scene of the last judgment in Daniel 7: Mark 13:26; 14:62; Matt. 10:32-33 = Luke 12:8-9; Matt. 19:28 = Luke 22:28-30; John 5:27.

• The canonical Jesus believes in the resurrection of the dead: Mark 12:18-27; Matt. 12:41-42 = Luke 11:31-32; Luke 14:12-14; John 5:28-29.

• The belief that unprecedented tribulation will herald the advent of the new age and that the kingdom of Satan will not go away without a fight, appears not only in Mark 13:3-23 but also in Matt. 11:12-13 = Luke 16:16 (the kingdom now suffers violence) and Matt. 10:34-36 = Luke 12:51-53 (cf. Gospel of Thomas 16; it is the time not of peace but of the sword).

• Several times Jesus admonishes people to be on the alert because the eschatological crisis may come at any time: Matt. 24:43-51 = Luke 12:39-46; Mark 13:33-37; Matt. 25:1-13; Luke 12:35-38; 21:34-36.

• Mark 14:25 and Luke 14:24; 22:30 look forward to the eschatological banquet.

• Jesus has twelve disciples, their number being that of the tribes of Israel. This circumstance almost certainly reflects the common expectation, with roots in Jeremiah and Ezekiel, that, at the end of days, all twelve tribes would return to the land. The twelve are a symbolic representation of restored Israel. In line with this, Matt. 19:28 = Luke 22:28-30 promises some of Jesus' followers that they will 'judge' – which means either 'rule' or 'pass judgment upon' – the twelve tribes of Israel. The return of the scattered from the Diaspora is also the subject of Matt. 8:11-12 = Luke 13:28-29, for the 'many' who come 'from east and west' and are hosted by the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, must include the scattered tribes.

• Some texts depict Jesus as 'the Messiah;' an end-time deliverer: Mark 8:27-30; 11:9-10; Matt. 23:10; John 1:41; 4:25, 29; 6:14-15; 9:22; 10:24; 11:27 (cf. Mark 15:2, 9, 18, 26, 32).

• The canonical Jesus regards eschatological oracles in the Hebrew Bible as being fulfilled in his own time; see Matt. 11:10 = Luke 7:27, citing Mal. 3:1; Mark 9:13, adverting to Mal. 4:5-6; Mark 14:27, quoting Zech. 13:7; and Matt. 5:17, asserting in general that Jesus fulfills 'the law and the prophets:'

• Jesus, responding to a query from John the Baptist, implicitly equates himself with the latter's 'coming one' (Matt. 11:2-5 = Luke 7:18-23), an eschatological judge (Matt. 3:11-12 = Luke 7:16-17). He does this by taking up the language of prophetic texts in Isaiah (26:19; 29:18-19; 35:5-6; 42:18; 61:1), implying that he is their fulfillment. The beatitudes, where Jesus comforts those who mourn (Matt. 5:3, 4,6,11-12 = Luke 6:20-23), do something similar inasmuch as they too echo Isaiah 61; and Luke 4:16-19 has Jesus reading from Isaiah 61 and finding its prophecies fulfilled in his ministry.

• Luke 19:11 says that, when Jesus neared Jerusalem, his disciples 'supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately'; and John 21:20-23 (discussed below) reflects the belief of some Christians that Jesus promised the end during the lifetime of his disciples."


He concludes:
 

"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. Opting, as I do, for the former alternative entails that Jesus had firm eschatological expectations, to which he gave frequent expression. More precisely, he envisaged, as did many 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.

This is not to say that Jesus had only eschatology on his mind. Although I once subscribed to and publicly defended Schweitzer's 'thorough-going eschatology,' I do so no longer. I suppose I was the victim of system-mongering, of the rationalistic impulse to make all the pieces of the tradition fit snugly together without remainder. I have come to see that too much associates itself only obliquely, if at all, with eschatology, that the puzzle will always have large lacunae, and that we will always be left with pieces that go nowhere. Nonetheless, Jesus did, when gazing about, perceive a perishing world, and in accord with then-contemporary readings of the prophetic oracles of the Hebrew Scriptures, he hoped for a re-created world, a heaven on earth, a paradise liberated from devils and illness. And this was for him no vague inkling or tangential thought but a consuming hope.

His dream, however, has remained a dream. It is not just that, as Matt. 24:36 = Mark 13:32 says, the Son had no knowledge of precisely when the end would come. It is rather that the Son expected and encouraged others to expect that all would wrap up soon, and yet run-of-the-mill history remains with us: Satan still goes to and fro upon the earth."

 

Jesus' Self-Conception


Tied in with eschatological expectations is the issue of Jesus' self-conception.  Allison again creates a list of material which portrays Jesus as an end-times deliverer:
 

"Consider these Synoptic materials:

• Jesus said that the Son of man will return on the clouds of heaven and send angels to gather the elect from throughout the world: Mark 13:26-27; cf. 14:62; Matt. 10:23 (allusions to Daniel 7's depiction of the last judgment are clear).

• The sons of Zebedee asked to sit at the right and left hand of Jesus and so presupposed his eschatological enthronement: Mark 10:35-40; cf. 14:62.

• Jesus selected a group of twelve disciples, whose number must represent the tribes of Israel (cf. Matt. 19:28); and as he was not among their number but instead their leader, his leadership of renewed Israel is implied: Mark 3:13-19.

• Peter thought that Jesus must be 'the Messiah': Mark 8:29; cf. 14:61-62.

• Jesus declared that the fate of at least some individuals at the final assize will depend on whether they have acknowledged or denied him: Mark 8:38; Matt. 10:32-33; Luke 12:8-9.

• When Jesus went up to Jerusalem, crowds hailed him with the words, 'Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David': Mark 11:9-10.

• Jesus prophesied that he would destroy and rebuild the temple: Mark 14:58.

• When the chief priest asked Jesus whether he was 'the Messiah'; he replied by applying Dan. 7:13 and Ps. 110:1 to himself: Mark 14:61-62.

• The Roman governor Pilate asked Jesus whether he took himself to be 'the king of the Jews'; and Jesus did not say 'No': Mark 15:2.

• Jesus called himself 'Lord' and warned that not to do what he commanded will bring personal destruction: Matt. 7:21-27; Luke 6:46-49.

• Jesus, in response to a query from John the Baptist, equated himself with the latter's 'coming one': Matt. 11:2-4 = Luke 7:18-23 (the answer draws on prophetic texts in Isaiah and makes an implicit claim to fulfill them).

• Jesus warned cities rejecting him – not John the Baptist or someone else – that they will suffer for it at the eschatological judgment: Matt. 10:15; 11:21-24; Luke 10:12-15.

• Jesus avowed that people who 'receive' his disciples really 'receive' him, and that to 'receive' him is to receive the one who sent him, God: Matt. 10:40; Luke 10:16.

• Jesus interpreted his success in casting out demons 'by the finger of God' – an allusion to Exod. 8:19 that makes him Mosaic – to mean that God's kingdom had arrived; he thereby made himself out to be the chief means or manifestation of its arrival: Matt. 12:28; Luke 11:20.

• Jesus assured his followers that they will judge – which means either 'rule' or 'pass judgment on' - restored Israel, and he cannot have thought of his role as any less: Matt. 19:28; Luke 22:28-30.

• Jesus read from the beginning of Isaiah 61 and proclaimed that its prophecies were fulfilled in his ministry; he thus claimed to be the anointed prophet of Isaiah's eschatological vision: Luke 4:16-19."


Again, Allison concludes:
 

"As with the argument about Jesus making extraordinary demands, so here too: I do not contend (or deny) that Jesus formulated any of the sayings just cited, or that any event or circumstance referred to must be deemed historical. I am rather displaying a pattern. Jesus' starring role in the eschatological drama is all over the tradition, in words attributed to him and in words assigned to others, in stories as well as in sayings. Mark firmly attests to it. So also does the material common to Matthew and Luke but not in Mark. So too traditions unique to Matthew and Luke. And it would be easy enough to add material from Paul, Acts, John, the Gospel of Thomas, and elsewhere. So my inference is that, whatever titles he may or may not have used, Jesus probably believed himself to be not just an eschatological prophet but the personal locus of the end-time scenario, the central figure of the last judgment, someone akin to Melchizedek in 11QMelchizedek, or the Elect One in the Parables of 1 Enoch."


Thus Allison's Christology is "too high" for liberals.  Jesus did, in fact, have an exalted self-conception, that of the final prophet and eschatological judge.  It is also "too low" for conservatives, as Jesus likely did not consider himself "equal with God" – the second member of the Trinity.  His reconstruction also, of course, cuts against traditional, orthodox understandings of Jesus by claiming that he was mistaken about the final judgment and end of the world.  In short, Jesus as Apocalyptic Prophet is unsettling to both progressives and conservatives.  


Conclusion


Allison accepts the general impressions of the synoptic gospels and concludes that Jesus' primary message was the imminent coming of the Kingdom of God.  Jesus believed that a final judgment, resulting in a sorting of the righteous from the unrighteous, would soon take place and that the righteous would inherit the Kingdom of God on earth.

This is not to say that this is "all Jesus was about."  For instance, Allison likely wouldn't object to many of Borg's categories for Jesus (healer, charismatic, etc.), but, for Allison, the expectation of a near end was the driving force of Jesus' proclamation: "the Kingdom of God is at hand."

The following is a lecture in which Dale Allison reads large portions of his The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus. In this lecture, he leaves out portions of the book which deal with Jesus’ self-conception and eschatology.

The Historical Christ and The Theological Jesus: Review


In The Historical Christ and The Theological Jesus, Dale Allison discusses the challenges inherent in the "quest for the historical Jesus," his methodology for historical criticism of the Gospels, the paradigm of Jesus that emerges from his methodology, and personal impressions about how his historical studies have informed his own faith.  This is required reading for anyone embarking on their own quest to understand who Jesus of Nazareth was as a historical figure.  

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.

The Luminous Dusk: Heroes


In this final excerpt from The Luminous Dusk, Allison laments that our culture has given up on the concept of heroes – models of how a human life should be lived – and, instead, settled for celebrities.  

"If there is indeed an instinct to emulate what appears before us, then at present we must be emulating celebrities.  Observation confirms the inference.  Celebrities are trendsetters.  Who first models our hairstyles?  Our skirt lengths?  Our eyewear?  Now this is not in itself objectionable.  Nor do I protest that so many celebrities, stained by riotous living, are decadent, unworthy of emulation.  The problem is more fundamental.  It is that celebrities are not heroes – this is, they are, even when upright, too small to do us any good.  Celebrities are, as their numbers necessitate, average people.  This is why their sins – extramarital affairs, multiple divorces, drinking binges – are so humdrum.  They are just like us.  But to look at ourselves is to emulate ourselves, which means giving up "ought" for "is."  To look in a mirror does not expand one's horizons.  We need rather to dream, which is what heroes and poets, not celebrities, make us do...

Hebrews II says this: 'They conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, received promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.'  We should, against the modern habit, hold these for memories, that they might hold us.  Our amnesia should not be for heroes, whose virtues are our sunlight, but for their modern usurpers, who represent the ordinary condition of humanity, which so obviously tends toward sin and sloth and mediocrity.  Celebrities do not conquer kingdoms, enforce justice, receive promises, stop the mouths of lions, quench raging fires, escape the edge of the sword, win strength out of weakness, become mighty in war, put enemies to flight.  Why exchange gold for pyrite?"

 

The Luminous Dusk: The Bible


This excerpt is taken from the chapter The Fate of the Book in which Allison discusses our culture's growing illiteracy, especially in regards to religion:

"But of course the Bible is so much more than a great puzzle book whose secrets can sometimes be unearthed by the reductionistic historical criticism with which, for good or ill, I was indoctrinated in my youth.  The inexplicable divine mystery still speaks through the old pages and through my hermeneutical confusion; and in the end I must pursue the book because it has always pursued me.  It has made me sing the song of Simeon.  It has made known my transgressions so that they are ever before me, and it has freed me from my past so that I am free indeed.  It has so shaped my intellect that, even when I do not end with it, I always begin with it.  And what little good deed doing I have done has come from memory of the Good Samaritan and the Son of Man's words to the sheep and the goats.

I have come to live and move and have my being in the Bible, as also in the Jewish Halakha and Haggadah that illuminate it, and in the history of its interpretation, and in the Christian traditions it has brought forth.  I want this book read to me on my deathbed.  Despite my modernity and my cynical nature, despite my dissection of it and my quarrels with it, the Bible remains profitable for teaching, for correction, and for training in righteousness. It comforts.  It inspires.  It commands.  When I push its pages apart, I lay my finger on God's heart.  I hate to see people not reading it."

 

The Luminous Dusk: Silence


Dale Allison is hands down my favorite New Testament and Historical Jesus scholar.  For me, more than any other author, Allison represents a scholar who is both committed to following the evidence where it leads – even when it leads to uncomfortable places – and maintaining a life of faith.  

His scholarly work mainly surrounds Historical Jesus studies and he is a, if not the, leading voice of those who promote Jesus as primarily an apocalyptic prophet.  In this regard, Allison stands in the line of Albert Schweitzer.  His book The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus has been, and continues to be, instrumental in my understanding of Jesus and the Christian faith.  

Outside of Historical Jesus studies, Allison has also written several books about other matters of faith.  This series will be a collection of quotations from The Luminous Dusk, which contains Allison's reflections on Christian spirituality.

This quotation is taken from the chapter Mute Angels:

"The analysis of divertissement was central to Pascal's thought.  It is not difficult to fathom why.  Pascal was a Roman Catholic and defender of his faith.  The Pensees is in fact an extended defense of the Christian religion, an apology.  One of its aims is to expose the sources of unbelief, and for Pascal divertissement was among these.  He was persuaded that only those who gaze within and conduct close self-examination, who seek stillness of body and silence of thought, can gain and preserve authentic religion.  For Pascal, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was to be found when human nature was at rest.  The logos was to be heard in the silence, the divine fire beheld in the darkness.

Pascal's observation of a link between silence and religion is confirmed by a great cloud of witnesses.  The entirety of the Christian tradition is here seconded by the rest of the world's sundry religions, which with one voice advise that faith without quiet is dead.  The Koran and the Talmud, the Bible and the Avesta, the Darshanas and the Analects praise silence.  Religions are at one it teaching that, without quiet, the roots of piety will at best be shallow.  The idea that God speaks not with the wind or the earthquake or the fire but with a still, small voice is a commonplace; it is general religious wisdom.  In all places and at all times those longing to touch another world have instinctively known what to do – enter a desert, climb a mountain, join a hermitage."

 

 

A Sufi Initiation


The following is a quote from The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus, by Dale Allison.  In discussing the historicity of various gospel events (here, the transfiguration), Allison draws from analogous stories in other religions.  Here he recounts the experience of his personal friend:
 

"The foregoing testimonies intrigue me all the more because I personally know a man who claims to have seen a human being transfigured into light.  This is not for me a foaftale, that is, it does not concern the proverbial friend-of-a-friend but comes to my ears from someone I know and have no reason to disbelieve (and who has refreshed my memory by kindly sharing with me his relevant journal entry).

In 1992 my friend John decided to seek initiation as a Sufi.  The process involved having an audience with a Sufi master who was then making a tour of the States.  The two men met in a small room for a short period of time.  They sat face-to-face in lotus position.  No words passed between them.  But the occasion was memorable, for John relates that, after a bit, the master began to emit a light, which became brighter and brighter until it lit up the whole room, after which the luminescence gradually faded away, and the encounter was over."


– Dale Allison, The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus


These type of "paranormal" events pop up in the mystic traditions with some regularity.  In the Hindu tradition, they are called siddhis.  What's interesting is that the mystics themselves don't attribute much importance to them.  Often they are even seen in a negative sense, a potential distraction from the real work to be done.

I don't know what to make of stories like these, but I do find them interesting to think about.  I think if I experienced something like this, I would take it as some type of confirmation that I was moving in the right direction.  

"The miraculous" is not the heart of mysticism, but it seems to be at least potentially related.