Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Coming Soon from Baker Academic - Constructing Jesus

Dale Allison is an impressive scholar and it is with great pride and excitement that Baker Academic is releasing Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History.  The catalog description follows:
"What did Jesus think of himself? How did he face death? What were his expectations of the future? In this volume, internationally renowned Jesus scholar Dale Allison Jr. addresses such perennially fascinating questions about Jesus."
"Representing the fruit of several decades of research, this major work questions standard approaches to Jesus studies and rethinks our knowledge of the historical Jesus in light of recent progress in the scientific study of memory. Allison's groundbreaking alternative strategy calls for applying what we know about the function of human memory to our reading of the Gospels in order to "construct Jesus" more soundly."
I admit I'm a bit hesitant about this work.  Allison did a previous work for Eerdmans called The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus which left me with a lot of questions.  Craig Blomberg gave a fairly positive review of the book.  He concluded:
"But his book remains so filled to the brim with common sense, lessons from history, profound insights, self-disclosure and self-effacement, refreshing candor and "equal-opportunity" criticism for all scholars that it is one of the few works I can recall reading with which I had fairly significant disagreements in key places but still absolutely loved and couldn't put down."
I responded to Blomberg with this comment:
"Thank you for the thoughtful review. I, too, enjoyed the book in spite of many disagreements. I thought Allison's conclusions were just a bit overly optimistic given the argument of the book. He critiques the traditional methods of criteria as too subjective, yet I found his own method of "repeated patterns" simply a variation of multiple attestation. If, however, the particulars of any given event are so unreliable on what basis can we formulate reliable general impressions just because they are repeated? To say that a "Jesus who sounds like us, makes us comfortable, and commends our opinions is no Jesus at all" is saying a lot given how little confidence Allison places on what we can know for sure what Jesus said or did. Who can say this wasn't the real Jesus? Finally, Allison seems to have a general distrust of much of the gospels as historically credible documents. He noted that the papers written by his students was rarely affected in their exegesis by whether or not something was historical or not (p. 43). Does this make the gospels little more than Aesop's fables? Should the historicity of an event affect our exegesis?"
Blomberg responded with simply "Good points!"  I had hoped for more but I appreciated his response. So with that as a background I'm anxious to see what Allison does in this new volume.  Here's are a couple of paragraphs from his first book which will give you an idea of my concerns:
"The temptation narrative may not be history as it really was, yet it is full of memory.  My judgment is that, taken as a whole, its artistic originator has managed to leave us with a pretty fair impression of Jesus, even if the episode does not contain one word that Jesus spoke or narrate one thing that he did.  Memory and legend are not easily disentangled, so when we try to weed out the fictions, will we not be uprooting much else besides?" (26-27) 
"I remain skeptical that we can very often show that any particular saying or story goes back to Jesus or does not go back to him.  We need to quit pretending to do what we cannot do.  The Gospels are parables.  When we read them, we should think not that Jesus said this or did that but rather: Jesus did things like this, and he said things like that."  (66)
"Do we not know that tradition always exaggerates and that a tendency to mythomania seems to be part of human nature?  How can anyone with a good education wholeheartedly believe that Jesus walked on water, that he fed five thousand with a few food scraps, or that he restored the dead to the land of  the living?  Such incredible things seem opposed to ordinary human experience.  Similar things do, however, often appear in archaic tales that everybody knows to be fictional."  (68-69)

The book will be released in November with 592 pages and sell for $54.99.  Make no mistake about it--agree or disagree Allison will be must reading for serious students of historical Jesus studies.

Dale C. Allison Jr. (PhD, Duke University) is the Errett M. Grable Professor of New Testament Exegesis and Early Christianity at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.

1 comment:

Paul said...

"How can anyone with a good education wholeheartedly believe that Jesus walked on water, that he fed five thousand with a few food scraps, or that he restored the dead to the land of the living?"

Easy...just expell any notion of a God who performs miracles. I suppose C.S. Lewis did not receive a "good education."