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The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus
by Dale C. Allison Jr.
Eerdmans, 126 pages, $16

Christians have had good reason to be suspicious of the quest for the historical Jesus. From the deists of the Enlightenment to modern-day writers such as Robert Funk, the movement has always had anticlerical and antiorthodox tendencies.

Of course, as Origen had noted all the way back in the third century, much of the material in the four gospels is contradictory. Some sifting is therefore necessary in order to determine the chronological order of events in Jesus’ life. For a large percentage of the early Church, the solution was to collapse the gospels into a single narrative known as the Diatessaron. In the end, however, the Church rejected this presentation and passed on to us the fourfold witness of the gospels. And this has left the Church the messy problem of making sense of the contradictions between the narratives.

A challenge for the religious reader in the modern age has been the promotion of biographies of Jesus that stand at considerable variance from all four gospels. The most prominent exponents of this approach are Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, and Elaine Pagels. Perhaps the most controversial element of their approach has been the way they downplay Jesus’ eschatological teachings regarding the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God and the significance of the Passion for Jesus’ own self-understanding. Both, such writers typically claim, were fictions created by the early Church and read back into the life of Jesus”which they say they discovered through a fourth-century Gnostic text called the Gospel of Thomas (containing, they say, earlier traditions than the four canonical gospels) and Q (a hypothetical document that would have contained the source material for those traditions that Matthew and Luke share but are not found in Mark).

Though this thesis is not highly respected in academic circles, publishing houses and other media ­outlets have given these individuals broad coverage. And now comes Dale Allison, a highly respected New Testament scholar who has dedicated most of his life to the problem of the historical Jesus. He is the author of one of the most important commentaries on the Gospel of Matthew published over the past century, and a reviewer has called him one of the five most important thinkers in Jesus research over the past 125 years. Deeply indebted to the work of Albert Schweitzer from the turn of the twentieth century, he has cogently argued time and again for the historicity of the eschatological preaching of Jesus and the significance of the Passion.

In The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus , Allison takes on a task of a different sort: He attempts to show how scholarship about the historical Jesus should be related to a personal faith in Christ as Lord and Savior.

A number of excellent insights emerge over the course of the book. Allison warns us to be wary of “truths” that the guild of New Testament scholars claims to have established. “The biblical guild,” Allison writes, “is not a group-mind thinking the same thoughts. Nor are experts a single company producing a single product.” The results of Jesus research are extraordinarily varied whether we consider them across the centuries or even in our present day. The bon mot of Chesterton applies quite well: “There is no history: There are only historians.”

Biblical research is probably even more burdened by the dangers of subjectivism than many other areas, because the source materials for our inquiries are so limited. Without sources other than the biblical texts themselves, there are no absolutely certain criteria for establishing historicity. Among the criteria that scholars use, one of the most problematic is, paradoxically, also one of the best”the principle of embarrassment, which claims that those traditions about Jesus that would have been most embarrassing to the early Church have the greatest possibility of being true.

So, for instance, no modern scholar disputes that Jesus was baptized by John. John was a contemporary eschatological preacher like Jesus, and the Church would have had every reason to be worried that some might confuse the two. To have Jesus baptized by John would have suggested that Jesus was his pupil. No one in the early Church would have made up a story like that. It must have been a somewhat embarrassing detail that the canonical writers “massaged” by attributing to John a clear confession of subordination (“He must increase, but I must decrease”).

But the problem with the criterion of embarrassment is that, though it certainly collects a set of traditions about which one can have little doubt, it also misses an enormous amount of material that must also have been true. Clearly Jesus did and said things over the course of his public ministry about which the early Church was not embarrassed. Yet the criterion of embarrassment is often irresponsibly used by scholars who are not enamored by the traditions of the Church to create a picture of Jesus that stands in stark contrast to all claims about Jesus that the Church holds dear.

Allison argues that such criteria for determining the historical core of the Jesus traditions should be abandoned. Scholars often have “too much confidence” in their abilities, Allison argues, and they do not pay sufficient attention to the fact that their theories are frequently “underdetermined by the data” that supposedly supports them. If we wish to persist in the quest to uncover a historical core to the tradition, then it would be far wiser to attend to the wider pattern of ideas that the various traditions about Jesus create. The eschatological ones form an excellent case. They are so widely cited”not only in the gospels but also in the earliest epistles”that it is almost inconceivable that they do not go back to the historical figure of Jesus himself. Allison is not arguing that each one of the details about Jesus’ eschatological preaching will be a point of uncontested historical truth but that the pattern that emerges will be trustable.

Allison also makes the important point that nearly all of what we know about Jesus comes from his disciples, and, if those disciples completely misunderstood him or even deliberately falsified much of what they saw and heard, then there is little hope we will know much at all. Building on this point, Allison suggests that we make a distinction between historical and theological tasks. As historians, we should recognize no limits to the questions asked or solutions proposed, but, once the gospels move to the pulpit and are preached, their status as canonical literature must be respected. In this respect, Allison is quite different from N.T. Wright, who has far more confidence in his ability to reconstruct a historical portrait that coincides with the picture depicted by the canon and the Church.

In my opinion, Allison is more honest than Wright about the dangers of a purely historical approach. But at the end of the day, I do not believe that Allison provides a solid argument for why the Church should attend so studiously to the canonical narrative. One misses in Allison’s work the theological and hermeneutical depth of a figure such as Brevard Childs.

At the end of his book, he returns to a theme that has been a focal point for much of his career, the eschatological preaching of Jesus. Scholars have long worried about the nature of Jesus’ expectations about the kingdom of God. Did he expect it to break in within his own lifetime? As Allison notes, the Church has worked around this tension by claiming that the events of Easter and Pentecost mark the onset of the kingdom that would come into full fruition at his second advent. But some scholars, such as Schweitzer, have argued that Jesus had a much more immanent eschatology. If this is true, there can be no question that Jesus was wrong”neither his death nor resurrection brought the kingdom into full view (cf. Acts 1:6“7). Allison remains a follower of Schweitzer in this regard and concludes that “we must go our own way, without Jesus in the lead.”

I was surprised at Allison’s confidence in this historical judgment, given that the Kingdom preaching of Jesus is so multifaceted and complex (on this, see the work of J. Meier). Though I believe that one can make a case for the limits of Jesus’ knowledge as an earthly creature (as conditioned by his self-emptying, or kenosis ), it seems ill advised to assert that we must go our own way apart from Jesus. If it is true that Jesus did not know the day or the hour of the kingdom’s consummation, that would be because in his full assumption of our fallen state he has assumed the limits of human knowledge that go along with it. We need not go our own way, I would claim; rather, like Jesus, we should put our wholehearted trust in the Father and order our lives in the expectation that Jesus will return tomorrow.

I am not sure that Allison would disagree with me on that sort of formulation. Perhaps he went to such an extreme to make the rhetorical point that he would follow the historical evidence no matter the theological consequences. Such honesty is commendable, but better that such honesty be wed to a more profound Christology.

Still, The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus is an excellent guide for the neophyte or advanced student who wonders how one might reconcile modern biblical scholarship with the claims of faith.

Gary A. Anderson , a contributing writer for First Things ,is professor of Old Testament at Notre Dame.