Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, History

Outstanding sequels are rare, third sequels even rarer, but trust Dale Allison to deliver against the odds. Constructing Jesus: Memory, History, and Imagination caps off the author's work begun in the incisive Millenarian Prophet and the even more impressive Resurrecting Jesus, and is a powerhouse presentation of an apocalyptic Jesus who had exalted thoughts about himself, and saw death coming straight at him and didn't run away. Taken as a whole, the trilogy -- but especially this book -- puts to bed fantasies of a non-apocalyptic Jesus, and calls for new ways of assessing the Jesus traditions in place of the classic criteria.

The first part, "Memories of Jesus", covers the fallibility of memory, and is a healthy antidote to monographs which treat the gospels as robust eyewitness accounts. "Even where the gospels preserve memories, those memories cannot be pristine; they must often be dim or muddled or just plain wrong." At the same time, the Jesus tradition is saturated with certain themes, motifs, and rhetorical strategies, and it is in these places that the historian should expect to find at least some reliable memory. Frequently attested themes point to something more promising, albeit more generally, than multiply attested sayings & deeds (pp 19-20), about which no consensus can be reached regarding authenticity.

The second part, "The Eschatology of Jesus", revisits arguments from the previous two books, but with more muscle and finality. Again we see, beyond a reasonable doubt, that if we can't trust the massive traditions of apocalyptic eschatology, then we can't say anything about Jesus at all. Allison also revisits the hobgoblin of consistency -- this section would have someone like Douglas Campbell wailing like a banshee -- and underscores what, really, should be common sense: that even the best theologians are inconsistent, and the most effective charismatics are those who act strangely, unpredictably, and inconsistently. Apocalyptic eschatology, in particular, "has never incubated practical reason". These few pages alone (pp 88-97) should be required reading of every student of the New Testament, let alone the historical Jesus.

The third part, "The Christology of Jesus," is as strong as the eschatological part, and represents fresh material. Even if messianic complexes strike us as egocentric, they were not so in ancient Judaism, and in any case prophets could be reluctant about their divine callings even when accepting them. I think Allison's arguments would have been strengthened by the further observation that in dyadic cultures identity is provided by one's peers more than oneself; and that if certain roles were thrust on Jesus, he would have had to embrace them in some permutation to keep a strong core of followers.

The author proceeds by skewering the scholarly mantra that "Jesus preached not himself but the kingdom", one of the falsest dichotomies plaguing Jesus-scholarship. That Jesus thought he would rule on God's behalf in the future kingdom is more than likely: the Romans crucified him for being "King of the Jews" (and he doesn't seem to have distanced himself from the title any more than he explicitly accepted it), and only in four cases in Matthew's gospel is God himself portrayed as a king (which confirms, incidentally, my ongoing suspicions that if the parable of The Unmerciful Servant goes back to Jesus, it was originally about messianic kingship, not God). As for why Jesus accepted an "anointed" role, he had probably grounded his prophetic ministry in Isa 61:1-3. Allison also discusses the pros and cons of Jesus as Elijah or Elisha come again, finding the data rather murky, and then finds more promise in the idea that he saw himself as an eschatological Moses derived from Deut 18:15-18.

But by far the most intriguing contribution of the Christology section comes in the author's solution to the Son of Man enigma. Eschewing his earlier support for a collective understanding of the figure (see Millenarian Prophet, pp 65-66), Allison now affirms that Jesus believed the Son of Man to be an angelic figure after all -- indeed, his own heavenly twin or Doppelganger, with whom he was one, or would soon become one. Not only is there precedent for celestial doubles and heavenly alter-egos (see pp 296-300), this would resolve long standing puzzles:
(a) If Jesus and the Son of Man were two yet one, it would explain both the earthly human sayings and the heavenly angelic ones.

(b) Dan 7:14 is easily read as an angelic figure (whether or not the "one like a son of man" was originally intended it as a collective figure). The Book of Similitudes certainly read it this way, and, moreover, ultimately identified it with Enoch the seer: Enoch sees visions of the Son of Man (I En. 46, 48, 62, 69) and is eventually translated into him (I En. 71). Jesus may have correlated his own Son of Man identity with a heavenly counterpart.

(c) Hope for humanity's eschatological destiny is often angelic, which could have encouraged Jesus to imagine his future identification with an angelic savior.

(d) If Jesus believed he had a heavenly counterpart, then there is no mystery in the fact that he imagined himself coming on the clouds of heaven while having nothing to say about being removed from earth, and raised to heaven, before that could possibly occur -- he was already up there.

(e) There are traditions of Jesus having a twin (Acts of Thomas, Book of Thomas the Contender), which could possibly descend from a belief in his heavenly Doppelganger. (pp 301-303)
Like Allison, I've gone back and forth between collective and angelic interpretations of Daniel's "one like a son of man" and the synoptic Son of Man, but in recent years have been moving increasingly in the direction of the angelic. Allison's "Doppelganger" proposal (which he cautions is just that, a possibility rather than probability, p 303) reinforces my faith in this direction and invites more investigation.

The fourth part, "The Discourses of Jesus," is to me the least satisfying part of the book, no doubt for its reliance on Q, and its top-heavy focus on a single pericope. Here the author devotes over 75 pages to the Sermon on the Plain, arguing that Lk 6:27-42 points to a reliable recollection of discourses that Jesus uttered habitually, like a stock sermon, rather than on one occasion. It's not so much that I have a problem with the general conclusion. Allison is on solid ground about "stock sermons": as an itinerant, Jesus was surely "less like a modern pastor facing a single congregation and forced to come up with new ideas, and more like a seasoned professor teaching an introductory class for the umpteenth time" (p 24). I just see red whenever Luke's sermon is prioritized or held to be more historical than Matthew's, since there are powerful reasons to believe Luke truncated Matthew's unwieldy and unaesthetic version. The lesson of this section is nonetheless sound, that in addition to aphorisms and parables, at least one of Jesus' discourses owe to reliable memory derived from multiple episodes, implying that other discourses may too, though Allison is more reserved, for instance, about the eschatological discourse of Mk 13 and the instructions on mission in Mk 6:7-10/Mt 10:5-42/Lk 9:3-5; 10:2-16.

The fifth part, "The Passion of Jesus," argues powerfully that Paul was as much familiar with a passion narrative as the gospel writers were, and that it's a sure bet that Jesus was a martyr. "There is less evidence that Jesus cast out demons, yet who disputes that he was an exorcist?" (p 433) Paul spent enough time in Jerusalem not long after the crucifixion that he could have learned about the circumstances of Jesus's death from those who were with him, and like Donald Akenson (Saint Saul), I would go stronger than Allison on this point: it's incredible that he would not have learned about something like this. Regarding the passion narratives themselves, Allison upholds Mark Goodacre's contention that "history remembered" and "prophecy historicized" are not mutually exclusive, and that, contra Crossan, to biblicize is not necessarily to invent. The passion accounts are memories told in the language of scripture.

The sixth and final part, "How Much History?", addresses whether or not the gospel writers believed their own stories about Jesus, to which there is no tidy answer. On the one hand, the ancients didn't see history everywhere in the bible (in the Talmud one rabbi insisted that Job never existed and was just a "parable"; Origen was comfortable with spiritual truth being preserved in material falsehood in the gospels; and then there was Philo), on the other, they certainly believed things we deride as false (many miracles, the creations accounts of Genesis, apocalyptic prophecies of the end, etc.). Allison suggests an under-appreciated index that can help us gauge how literally an ancient author intended a story: humor. The hilarity and absurdity in (for instance) Judith, Jonah, The Acts of Peter and Andrew, The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, and The Testament of Abraham show these works to be products of authors who are declaring their nature up front, and advertising fiction. The canonical gospels, on the other hand, appear to do just the opposite. (Though as an aside, I must confess there's at least one synoptic text which makes me laugh uncontrollably when I try imagining the scenario: Jesus' cursing of the fig tree, which wasn't even supposed to be bearing fruit to begin with; I honestly find this as funny as Thomas' infancy report of him cursing & killing the boy who bumps into him.) The bottom line, says Allison, is that our critical sensibilities are deficient guides on this issue, and we shouldn't underestimate how literal minded people can be about stories that academics see as purely metaphorical.

Constructing Jesus beckons us to fields where memory patterns and themes supplant detailed sayings and deeds. I haven't given up on the classic criteria as much as Allison has -- and frankly, not even Allison has done so as much as he thinks. He half-acknowledges breaking his own rule in demonstrating the historicity of Pilate's sentence for the crime of being "King of the Jews" (pp 231, 233-240), basically wielding a version of both the criterion of discontinuity (with early Christianity) (p 235), and of course, execution. He thus implicitly acknowledges that there are at least some cases where the criteria work, and I'm again put in mind of Donald Akenson, who railroaded the criteria as almost completely useless, save in rare "glaring" cases where an eight-year old can see the process at work (i.e. the embarrassing account of Jesus' baptism by John).

More successfully -- in fact, completely so -- Constructing Jesus pounds the last nail in the coffin of minimalism. I've often said that it's better to be a mythicist than a minimalist -- the former at least don't pretend to be able to construct a historical Jesus on the assumption that our sources are so untrustworthy; the latter (read: Jesus Seminarians) cut their own throats. But it's even wiser to be a millenialist than a mythicist, because, as this book shows, our sources, while legendary, are more reliable than either mythicists or minimalists allow. It's Dale Allison's final say in a trilogy that stands as the definitive guide to what Jesus was about, and in many ways the best of the three.


Blogger Stephen C. Carlson said...

Thanks for this. I now have to put it on my reading list.

Anonymous Arianne A.G. said...

" I just see red whenever Luke's sermon is prioritized or held to be more historical than Matthew's, since there are powerful reasons to believe Luke truncated Matthew's unwieldy and unaesthetic version. "

If one accepts Allison's premise that Jesus' sermon on the mount/plain was comprised of a collection of saying Jesus habitually uttered (a hypothesis which I always found probable), why do we even need to bother to prioritize Matthew over Luke or vise versa? It seems quite easy to imagine Jesus saying both the Lukan and Matthean versions of the sayings, perfecting his lessons as he becomes more experienced and changing his wording depending on his audience. What teacher says the same exact same thing over and over again from class to class without ever revising his lesson plan at all?

Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

That's actually a good point and probably an indicator of how churlish I was being over Q.

Blogger Steven Carr said...

I liked the bit where Dale Allison said that even fictions can contain facts.

He then lists a lot of stories about Jesus,points out that quite a few can hardly be called historical,and concludes that Jesus must have been an exorcist because that is what the stories are about.

Still, a real historian has no hesitation in extracting facts from fictions.

Blogger Chris Petersen said...

Excellent review as usual, Loren.


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