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.  


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.  


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.