Sunday, November 13, 2005

Apocalyptic fire, modern needs, resurrection

Every so often comes a book that everyone needs to read, and Resurrecting Jesus is one of them. Dale Allison's sequel to Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet is as good its predecessor, and in some ways even better. It consists of six independent essays, each of which builds on and clarifies arguments made in the previous book.

The first essay, "Secularizing Jesus", argues that the "third quest" for the historical Jesus is a misnomer, owing to chronological snobbery and the fantasy that we are progressive. Allison scores valid points here: many of today's Jesus-questors are indeed repeating the past, whether for good or bad -- and some of them are secularizing Jesus worse than ever before. But there has been more progress in the field than Allison allows. We have a better understanding of ancient Judaism and Mediterranean culture, and have become increasingly diverse in our methodologies. It's a good essay but rather one-sided.

The other five essays, however, are completely excellent and can hardly be done justice in an amazon review. "The Problem of Audience" argues what may seem to be an obvious point, but one which has been given insufficient heed: that Jesus said different things to different people, and didn't expect the same thing from everyone. (In an interesting anecdote from the preface, Allison says he wrote this particular essay because he had nothing better to do, during two long train rides.)

The third essay, "The Problem of Gehenna", shows that Jesus more than likely believed in hell and judgment, however unattractive that is. We moderns may see little prospect in reconciling a God of compassion with the same deity who throws people into an apocalyptic incinerator, but that's no way to guide our interpretation of Jesus: "All of us are bundles of seeming contradictions," writes Allison, "from which generalization I see no reason to exempt Jesus. It would be unimaginative and foolhardy to subdue him with the straightjacket of consistency." Consigning people to hell was standard fare in Jesus' world, and he shows every sign of having done this, especially to his opponents.

Speaking of what's unattractive provides a segue into the quasi-confessional fourth essay, "Apocalyptic, Polemic, Apologetics", which addresses what people like and dislike about an apocalyptic Jesus who was wrong about the end. It ends by being surprisingly stronger for its own excursions into theology, and is my favorite after the sixth.

The fifth essay, "Torah, Urzeit, Endzeit", tackles the controversial question of Jesus and the law. Allison realizes that however we sift the gospel testimony, it's hard to avoid a Jesus who both observed/intensified the law, while in other cases relaxing it. When doing the latter, Allison believes it was often in the interest of competing moral imperatives. For instance, in sabbath controversies Jesus appealed to the hunger of David and his men, or the value of human need, arguing that one imperative can trump another. The commandment was overridden but remained intact. Today we call this choosing the lesser of two evils. Other Torah-controversies owed to Jesus' eschatology -- "the end in light of the beginning" -- insofar as the law contained concessions to the fall and thus required repair. Thus, in cases like divorce and swearing, Jesus replaced Mosaic imperatives with Edenic ones, Moses not being strict enough in view of the apocalypse.

The last essay, for which the monograph is named, takes up half the book, is satisfying as it is long, and the best treatment of the resurrection to date. Allison steers between the dogmatic poles of Tom Wright and Gerd Ludemann, using the best from both worlds, but with a caution and humility lacking in these treatments. Weighing arguments for the empty tomb as legend and history, Allison comes down on the side of history: Jesus' tomb was found empty, and because of this we today have the doctrine of the resurrection. He also discusses the apparitions of Jesus in terms of grief-induced visions, concluding that in some ways the early church was the reception history of what the disciples' bereavement wrought.

One of his arguments for the empty tomb deserves close attention, since at first blush it resembles that of Tom Wright though is actually worlds apart. Wright has claimed that only the empty tomb could have caused the disciples to make the radical claim Jesus was raised from the dead, for there was no Judaic precedent for the resurrection of an individual (messiah or otherwise) before the apocalypse. This is emphatically not Allison's argument. Allison recognizes that lack of precedent is no obstacle to invention and creativity. The disciples could easily have invented an empty tomb/resurrection legend. Religious people make wild claims all the time; apocalyptic movements find creative ways of coping with dashed hopes in order to survive; rude reality reinterprets expectations. Jesus' original prediction about the destruction of the temple was spiritualized in the gospel of John (Jn 2) for precisely these reasons -- in order to cope with failed hopes and broken dreams.

But here's the problem, says Allison, and why Wright is onto something despite all this: the disciples' dreams hadn't been broken. In their minds, Jesus' death wasn't a mark of failure. The crucifixion would have demoralized them but ultimately been taken as part of the apocalyptic drama. Jesus had braced them for such tragedy: they were living in the end times, on the brink of the tribulation, and suffering/death had to precede the apocalypse. The shame and scandal of the crucifixion would have put them, as Allison says, "emotionally down but not theologically out". They would have gone on hoping for the imminent apocalypse and the resurrection of the dead, at which point they would have been vindicated and resurrected with their savior. Jesus' martyrdom does not constitute a failed expectation, and that is why Wright, despite himself, is right. It's not that revisionism is itself unlikely (for indeed it is); it's that there was no need for revisionism in this case. As far as the disciples were concerned, things were still going "as expected".

The upshot is that both Allison and Wright think it took the empty tomb (in conjunction with visions) to cause the disciples to conclude that Jesus was resurrected prematurely. But they arrive at this conclusion very differently -- Allison correctly. Allison also happens to be more humble about what we can say actually happened to Jesus' body: any number of things. It may have been raised. It may have been moved or stolen. Whatever happened, the tomb was empty when found, and because of this, we today have Christianity.

Don't wait to buy this book, but be sure to get the paperback edition. The hardcover goes for an extortionate $100.00 and has no cover art to boot. Resurrecting Jesus belongs on the shelf of any and all who are interested in the study of the historical Jesus, and the relationship between that study and modern needs.


Blogger Ben Myers said...

Thanks for posting this great review!

Blogger Michael F. Bird said...

Loren, of course you leave open the question of whether a study of the resurrection is part of the study of the historical Jesus? Is study of the Historical Jesus and study of the resurrection two seperate enterprises? Both under the aegis of Historical Study, but is resurrection a subset of historical Jesus?

Blogger Loren Rosson III said...


The study of resurrection beliefs, as they pertain historically, should definitely be part of the study of Jesus. How can they not? But if we're trying to find out whether or not the resurrection actually happened, history won't help us. (We need a time machine to answer that question.) Bodies obviously don't come back to life this way. If the laws of nature were broken (i.e. if a "miracle" occurred), again, I don't see how we can verify that other than with a time machine.

Or have I misunderstood your question?

Anonymous Daniel said...

Im a bit confused on how Wright and Allison arrive at the idea that the disciples were not theologically out; werent they expecting him to bring in the redemption as their Messiah?


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