Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Historical Christ

I've been meaning to blog a bit on Dale Allison's The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus, which serves up musings on the apocalyptic prophet in terms of theological interests and methodology.

What struck me most was Dale's confession that he is as guilty as the next questor for making Jesus in his self-image. He admits he did this in two books. The first, The Intertextual Jesus, argues that "Q" material is saturated with the Old Testament, which the Q texts echo, revise, and argue with –- just as (in Dale's reconstruction) Jesus himself did.
"It was only after some time after my book on Q appeared in print that I opened my eyes to the obvious: I had created a Jesus in my own image, after my own likeness. Having enthusiastically preoccupied myself with the study of intertextuality for a decade, I had happily discovered that the Jesus of ancient Palestine was just like me, at least in one important respect. He may have been a first-century Jew and in so many ways a stranger and an enigma, but he was also skilled at setting up the sorts of intertextual dialogues that I love to unravel." (pp 16-17)
That's a refreshing self-indictment; I don't know of any HJ scholar who has so candidly admitted to creating a self-portrait. It's also amusing to someone like me who doesn't believe in Q. I'd suggest to Dale that he abandon Q for his intertextual bias alone, but that surely wouldn't fly. With respect to the second book, Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet:
"I argued that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet... Anyone who knows me might well wonder how this could be in any way a personal projection. I am not looking for the end of the world anytime soon... Yet I would be deceiving myself were I to imagine that my Jesus was nothing but the product of brutal historical honesty. I wrote Jesus of Nazareth during an exceedingly miserable period in my life... [and] my chief consolation was hope for a life beyond this one where things might be better, which means I was comforted by a historical Jesus who seemed ill at ease in the world as it is." (p 17)
That's interesting, since Dale has always insisted that Jesus was wrong in his expectations, though I suppose even the fantasy of an apocalypse can be comforting to those who are troubled. I'm put in mind of Paula Fredriksen's statement that "happy people do not write apocalypses" (From Jesus to Christ, p 82). Places like ancient Palestine were hotbeds of unhappiness, to be sure, but we know that misery is ubiquitous. The human species will never relinquish eschatological hopes.

When it comes to methodology, Dale takes a heavy axe to the classic criteria, enjoining us to bid them farewell since they're just "not strong enough to resist our wills" (p 58). "When you make a trap you know what you're looking for, and we wield our criteria to get what we want" (p 59). But not so fast. That "we" needs qualification. However right or wrong John Meier is, I don't for a moment believe he's been using the criteria to "get what he wants". In many cases, he has reached conclusions against his will, or at least different from what he expected going into the Marginal Jew project. Yes, many scholars have bent the criteria to their purposes, but others have allowed themselves to be steered into murky and odious tunnels.

I'm also not sure about Dale's preference for "memory patterns" in favor of the criteria. He claims:
"What matters is not whether we can establish the authenticity of any of the relevant traditions... but rather the patterns 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." (p 63).
On a general level, this sounds like plain common sense, and how can one possibly disagree? On another level, it just sounds like a variant of the criterion of multiple attestation. More specifically, evading individual test cases reminds of the way Geza Vermes prefers to "muddle through" instead of subjecting oneself to more formal controls.

I would suggest that memory patterns about Jesus are valid but should supplement rather than supplant the criteria. Patterns get at basics, while the criteria nail down specifics to whatever degree possible. The former checks the latter. In other words, the more a scholar's reconstructed Jesus opposes general patterns of testimony in the NT, the chances are that the criteria have been bent to the scholar's will rather than vice-versa. (I'm looking at you, Funk-Face and Dr. Crossan.) Consider the case of Dale himself. As he notes (see pp 59-60), his dissertation used the classic criteria without any discomfort; later, Jesus of Nazareth revised and relativized the criteria; now, this book (and a forthcoming one) completely set them aside. But his Jesus has remained the same -- the Schweitzerian apocalyptic –- which would seem to indicate he was on solid ground from the get-go. So maybe all this humility about self-portraits and methodology is a smokescreen, an indirect way of making Dale Allison's scholarship look better than everyone else's?

Enough cynicism from me. The rest of the book is beyond censure. Dale insists on eschewing low Christologies as much as high, on the necessity of theological contradiction, that Jesus laughed loudly and wailed miserably... Hey, it's a Dale Allison book, there's only so much to complain about. Read it, laugh and wail, and pray that we don't have a long wait for his next book, Constructing Jesus: Memory and Imagination.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I applaud modest goals when it comes to the historical Jesus, but agree that Allison may be overreacting to the criteria of authenticity. I'm not sure unhappiness is as closely related to eschatology as you/Allison seem to think.


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