Searching for a Good Fantasy: A Postmodernist’s Historical Jesus

My copy of Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity arrived today. I had the impression that there is some curiosity “in internet land” as to whether this work will be of interest among Christ Myth theorists. If I am not judging too hastily, I will say, “No”. Everyone knows that the criteria used to establish “historicity” of a saying or deed of Jesus are shot through with logical fallacies. This has surely been well enough publicized by many mainstream and minorstream scholars by now. Or perhaps I don’t wear the same blinkers as many theologians who confuse apologetics with historical research.

The book does not address historicity. Note the title. It says “Authenticity”, not “historicity”.

There’s an interesting Introduction by Anthony Le Donne that I’d like to post on some time. He surveys the history, especially “American” meaning U.S. history, of historical research related to the Bible and Jesus. It reminds me of the title of a book by Ashleigh Brilliant, I Have Abandoned My Search for Truth and Am Now Looking for a Good Fantasy. (Ashleigh Brilliant, I have read, is always on the warpath against anyone who uses one of his epigrams without first paying him for the privilege, so I hope he doesn’t object to my freely promoting one of his many published titles for him here instead.)

I have long looked forward to doing posts on historiography again, and in the process place the postmodernist historiography in its context. In that series I would certainly refer to Anthony Le Donne’s earlier book, Historical Jesus: What Can We Know and How Can We Know It?. That little volume is a handbook for theologians on how to save or redirect a new quest for the “historical Jesus” through a postmodernist approach to sources.
It contains a foreword by Dale C. Allison Jr. He was the scholar, some will recall, cited by James McGrath as being one of the pioneers responsible for paving the way for a whole new revolution in historical studies across the board. (See my post, New Testament Scholars Are Pioneers In Historical Methods.) McGrath learned from Allison the following:

Even fabricated material may provide a true sense of the gist of what Jesus was about, however inauthentic it may be as far as the specific details are concerned. (Review of Dale Allison, Constructing Jesus)

Here is one way to illustrate how postmodernist historical research into the ‘historical Jesus’ works. The illustration is taken from Anthony Le Donne’s Historical Jesus. Le Donne spices up the explanation with geometric and arboreal diagrams and phrases like “moving on from positivism”, “patterns of memory”, “thought-categories”, “memory refractions” and “spiraling memory traditions”. This is a Good Thing™, because it shields the reader from direct exposure to the befuddling logical circuitry behind it all.

First, find two contradictory Jesus “traditions”.

Next, place these two “traditions” 5 centimeters apart on a sheet of plain white paper on a flat table.

Thirdly, sprinkle lightly with extra-fine grade authenticity powder.

Now, with some geometry tools and an HB pencil, draw straight lines from those two “traditions” to a third point so as to form an equilateral triangle. (Don’t worry about the powder. That will add to the final effect.)

Now erase those straight lines and replace them with spirals. (Replace the scattered authenticity powder.)

You have now recreated the original memory refraction that was further refracted through spirals to reach our extant contradictory evidence.

Finally, focus one eye on the start of each of the spirals, roll each eye back through the spirals to their other point, and you will come to understand how we arrived at our extant contradictory evidence.

Ergo, Jesus existed.

Okay, that was tongue in cheek. But it is not far off what Le Donne writes anyway, seriously. Only in Theology Departments!

Le Donne’s case-study (more…)


It all depends where one enters the circle

Reading Jesus the Healer by Stevan Davies alongside Constructing Jesus by Dale Allison is an interesting exercise in chiaroscuro comparisons.

Both agree on the nature of circularity at the heart of historical Jesus studies. Davies begins with a quotation from E. P. Sanders:

In regard to Jesus research E. P. Sanders correctly observes, “There is, as is usual in dealing with historical questions, no opening which does not involve one in a circle of interpretation, that is, which does not depend on points which in turn require us ot understand other [points],” and he insists that “one must be careful to enter the circle at the right point, that is, to choose the best starting place.” The best starting place, it follows, is one that is historically secure with a meaning that can be known somewhat independently from the rest of the evidence. It further follows, as he rightly says, that one should “found the study on bedrock, and especially to begin at the right point.”

In the field of Jesus research, however, one person’s bedrock is another person’s sand. I cannot honestly think of a single supposed bedrock event or interpretive stance that somebody has not denied. Nor, to my knowledge, are there any two constructions of the “authentic” sayings of Jesus that are identical. One might compile a short set of parables, proverbs, and aphorisms that are universally conceded to be from Jesus, but they will be that set that conveys the least inherent meaning . . . and where one can go from there I am not at all sure. (p. 43, my bolding)

Davies opts, then, to embrace as his bedrock two details upon which “scholars agree almost unanimously”: that Jesus was believed in his time to have been (1) a prophet and (2) a healer and exorcist. (more…)


Scholars undermining scholars on questions fundamental to historicity of Jesus

Filed under: Gospel genre — Neil Godfrey @ 9:33 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,
Zeus seduces Olympias. Fresco by Giulio Romano...

Zeus seduces Olympias. Image via Wikipedia

Here is a stock criticism of the Gospel accounts of Jesus by sceptics generally and mythicists in particular:

The historical Jesus is swallowed up by myth. Look at the framework of his Gospel story: virgin birth, facing Satan in the wilderness, transfigured on the mountain, resurrected from the dead. Without these mythical motifs Jesus is pretty ordinary. 

Here is a stock response from scholars:

Ancient biographical texts similarly contain mythical elements in their framework: the influence of the gods is shown in signs, dreams, etc. Such a mythical framework does not justify our disputing in principle the historicity of the traditions handed down within this framework. (p. 114, The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide, by Theissen and Merz)

More, the scholars who framed that response to the sceptic added two examples from ancient biographies to illustrate and support their claim that the Gospels are no different from other ancient biographies of historical persons: both alike are said to include mythical embellishments to their narratives.

But take a closer look at that claim. I will quote the scholar’s account of these ancient biographies that supposedly supports their claim that they are similar in this respect to the Gospels (Scholarly claim 1). I will then quote translations of the actual biographies themselves so we can see how faithful that scholarly comparison was (Plutarch and Suetonius in their own words).

After that I quote another renowned biblical scholar himself observant (or secure) enough to face up to the discrepancy between what his peers say about the evidence and what the evidence itself indicates (Scholarly claim 2).

One will forgive me if I sometimes let slip with occasional slivers of cynicism in relation to biblical scholars who present themselves as honest public intellectuals while at  the same time resorting to tendentious claims about the evidence for their scholarly arguments. I conclude with another rant about the failings of too many historical Jesus scholars as truly responsible public intellectuals. (more…)


Explaining the noble lies (or pious fiction) in the Gospels

Walk on the water

Image via Wikipedia

Mainstream scholars struggle trying to explain why the Gospel authors included clearly symbolic — nonhistorical — tales about Jesus in their gospel narratives.

Marcus J. Borg, Mark Allan Powell, Dale C. Allison, Roger David Aus, John Dominic Crossan, John Shelby Spong and Robert Gundry are some of the scholars who acknowledge tales such as the virgin birth, Jesus walking on water, the transfiguration, the miracles of the loaves, the resurrection appearances are fabrications, metaphors.

(So much for that argument that there were enough surviving eyewitnesses or people who knew eyewitnesses to keep the evangelists honest!)

Marcus J. Borg writes of stories like Jesus and Peter walking on water, the turning the water into wine at the Cana wedding, and the virgin birth:

Purely metaphorical narratives . . . are not based on the memory of particular events, but are symbolic narratives created for their metaphorical meaning. As such, they are not meant as historical reports. (p.  57, Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary) (more…)


How many stories in the gospels are “purely metaphorical”?

Resurrection: Son of God Jesus triumphs over d...

Image via Wikipedia

Dale Allison concludes his book Constructing Jesus with a discussion of the intent of the gospel authors. Did the gospel authors themselves think that they were writing real history or did they think they were writing metaphorical narratives, parables or allegories?

Allison refers to Marcus Borg and others (e.g. Robert Gundry, John Dominic Crossan, Robert J. Miller, Jerome Murphy O’Connor, John Shelby Spong, Roger David Aus) who have gone beyond their scholarly predecessors for whom the question was, “They thought they wrote history but can we believe them?”, to “Did they think they were writing something other than history and have we misunderstood them?”

They are not claiming that we must, because of modern knowledge, reinterpret the old texts in new ways, against their authors’ original intentions. They are instead contending that the texts were not intended to be understood literally in the first place. (p. 438)

I would love to read the books Allison cites but till then will have to rely here on his brief remarks.

Of O’Connor, Allison informs readers that he reasons that Luke’s two accounts of the ascension of Jesus are different because Luke did not think he was writing history (The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700 (4th ed., 1998)). (more…)


Respecting the honesty of conservative historical Jesus scholarship

1913 Reinhardt College Bible Study Class
Image via Wikipedia

I have been catching up with two conservative historical Jesus scholars and once again I find their honest perspectives about their historical methods refreshing.

Luke Timothy Johnson in The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels is quite upfront with stating the obvious: the historical Jesus model does not work as an explanation for the start of Christianity unless, at minimum, there really were a series of resurrection appearances to a widespread number of witnesses. (Or you could just read the subtitle if you were in a real hurry to know his views.)

To try to suggest that the religion took off light bolt lightning around the Mediterranean world because one or a few disciples had inner-experiences that convinced them that Jesus was still somehow “alive and with them” in a mysterious way just does not cut it.

And if Christianity began with a string of real resurrection appearances then its origins are completely beyond the norms post Enlightenment historical methodology. It is beyond secular historical inquiry.

Here are the words of LTJ (with my emphasis): (more…)


The Twelve: Dale Allison’s argument for their historical reality

The Last Supper
Image via Wikipedia

This is from pages 67 to 76 of Constructing Jesus (2010) by Dale C. Allison. Allison begins with the evidence for the twelve.

1 Corinthians 15:5 is the earliest reference we think we have to the twelve. The letter is usually dated to the mid 50s, twenty or twenty-five years after the usually accepted date of Jesus’ crucifixion. It refers to the twelve as if the readers of the letter should already know who they are. (Will discuss the Corinthians passage again later in the post.)

3 For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. 6 After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. 7 After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles. 8 Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time.

The Gospel of Mark uses the same designation (“the twelve”) for disciples selected to be with Jesus: Mark 3:14 f.; 4:10; 6:7

[3:14] And he ordained twelve, that they should be with him, and that he might send them forth to preach,
[3:15] And to have power to heal sicknesses, and to cast out devils:

[4:10] And when he was alone, they that were about him with the twelve asked of him the parable.

[6:7] And he called unto him the twelve, and began to send them forth by two and two; and gave them power over unclean spirits;

John’s gospel also speaks of these:

[6:67] Then said Jesus unto the twelve, Will ye also go away?

[6:70] Jesus answered them, Have not I chosen you twelve, and one of you is a devil?
[6:71] He spake of Judas Iscariot the son of Simon: for he it was that should betray him, being one of the twelve.

[20:24] But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came.

Then there is the story in Acts about the replacement being made for Judas. This is in Acts 1:12-26.

The book of Revelation also speaks of the twelve apostles:

21:14 Now the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.

Then there is the famous passage in Matthew 19:28 and Luke 22:28-30 (considered by many to be derived from Q) that presumes the audience of Jesus is the twelve:

Matt: 19:28 So Jesus said to them, “Assuredly I say to you, that in the regeneration, when the Son of Man sits on the throne of His glory, you who have followed Me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

Luke 22:28 “But you are those who have continued with Me in My trials. 29 And I bestow upon you a kingdom, just as My Father bestowed one upon Me, 30 that you may eat and drink at My table in My kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”

All this looks straightforward enough. Why should there be any doubt that Jesus really did have a band of twelve with him? A number of biblical scholars have raised doubts, however, and Allison attempt to persuade readers their doubts are groundless. (more…)


Scholars who question the historicity of Jesus’ baptism and why they “do not persuade”

Baptism of Jesus

Image via Wikipedia

I was struck by a sentence by Dale C. Allison in his Constructing Jesus that began as follows:

Indeed, Jesus seems to have submitted to John’s baptism. . . . (p. 53)

Only “seems”? I did not know that any theologian and biblical scholar who accepted the historical reality of Jesus doubted it. So catch that footnote number and make a quick check. Here is the explanatory footnote:

This is rarely doubted, although see William Arnal, “Major Episodes in the Biography of Jesus: An Assessment of the Historicity of the Narrative Tradition,” TJT 13 (1997): 201-26; Leif E. Vaage, “Bird-Watching at the Baptism of Jesus: Early Christian Mythmaking in Mark 1:9-11,” in Reimagining Christian Origins (ed.. Castelli and Taussig), 280-94. Arnal and Vaage do not persuade, in part because, as Mark’s account of the crucifixion and Luke’s theological use of Jerusalem show, remembered facts may not only serve literary ends but may also be fully clothed in legendary and mythological dress. The snag here is that almost every bit of tradition is integrated into the surrounding Synoptic narratives and serves clear editorial ends, so unless we are to find only fiction in the Synoptics, observation of such integration and such ends cannot suffice to determine derivation.

This is why I like Dale Allison so much. He is equal to the most honest biblical scholar that I have encountered who also believes in the historicity of Jesus. He essentially admits his belief is a belief and does not kid himself (or his readers) that his reasoning is not circular. There are a number of other theologians who cannot face this fact about their own writings.

Theologian James McGrath challenged me to address a scholar like E.P. Sanders “point by point” and still deny the historicity of Jesus, and when I did so, including a discussion of what Sanders argues about the baptism of Jesus, McGrath belatedly responded with a weak and meek “I do not agree”. I had hoped for some serious response that included a statement of reasons for his disagreement. I would much rather engage with Dale Allison who does demonstrate an ability to give a reasoned response. (more…)


Why Jesus chose the Twelve: Dale Allison’s exegesis

Greek icon of the Twelve Apostles (in the fron...

Image via Wikipedia

Dale C. Allison in his recent book, Constructing Jesus, believes that we can learn, or at least “confirm”, what Jesus taught about the “end of the age” by looking at the careers of the Twelve Disciples/Apostles.

He begins by discussing various opinions about whether or not Jesus really did call twelve disciples at all, and if so, whether or not they constituted a formal institution of church leadership. I will look at that discussion in the next post.

So given that Jesus did indeed call “Twelve” as an ongoing institution, Dale Allison asks what was he thinking. Why did he do this?

This seems a strange question to ask if one is interested in a serious historical inquiry into the origins of Christianity. We simply don’t have any evidence to tell us what Jesus was thinking.

But Allison’s discussion is interesting because it does demonstrate for us lay people just how biblical scholars work. They are not doing historical research by sifting the evidence. They are doing biblical exegesis. And this makes sense, since they are for most part “theologians”, not “historians” in the same sense as the likes of Arnold Toynbee or G. R. Elton or Eric Hobsbawm. (more…)


Thoughts on Dale Allison’s thoughts on memory and historical approaches to the study of the Gospels

Filed under: Allison: Constructing Jesus,Historiography — Neil Godfrey @ 3:49 pm
Tags: ,

Having just read the first chapter of Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History by Dale C. Allison I can finally comment on what surely strikes most people as a curious statement to come from someone who claims to be a historian. In reviewing Allison’s opening chapter McGrath claimed that Allison was contending that

Even fabricated material may provide a true sense of the gist of what Jesus was about, however inauthentic it may be as far as the specific details are concerned.

This certainly does capture what Allison writes of his approach to finding “the historical Jesus” in the Gospels.

Allison considers the results of a wide range of studies on human memory and considers what these must mean for the accuracy of the Gospels, given the assumption that the Gospels are records of what was passed down about Jesus via fallible memories of those who had met him.

Allison even writes:

All this is why fictions may contain facts; an accurate impression can take any number of forms. Even a work as full of make-believe as the Alexander Romance sometimes catches the character of the historical Alexander of Macedon. Similarly, tales about an absentminded professor may be apocryphal and yet spot-on because they capture the teacher’s personality. The letter can be false, the spirit true. (pp. 13-14) (more…)


Clarity about Circularity from Historical Jesus Scholar Dale Allison

James McGrath has given Dale C. Allison’s latest book, Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination and History, a bit of a bad press in his recent review of it. He famously wrote that Allison explains how a historian can learn the true sense of what a historical person was about through studying fictional material about that person.(See Games Historical Jesus Scholars Play.)

I have not yet read Dale Allison’s latest book so am unable to comment what McGrath attributed to him, but I have been catching up with his 1998 book Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet. I had earlier read Dale Allison’s book on the question of Matthew’ “mimesis” of Moses for his portrayal of Jesus, The New Moses: A Matthean Typology, and was impressed with his caution and his thoroughness and consistency of methodological application to exploring how much of Matthew’s Gospel can be attributed to a conscious effort to re-write stories of Moses into the life of Jesus.

I can understand why Dale Allison has one of the more honoured reputations among biblical scholars. He does demonstrate a clarity of thought and understanding of what he is doing when he writes about Jesus that is not always evident among historical Jesus scholars, their peers, or their students.

I have often attempted to point out the circularity of arguments of Historical Jesus scholars in their efforts to “discover” or authenticate any of his words or deeds as historically true. (The circularity extends even to the very idea of the existence of Jesus.)

Dale C. Allison recognizes and admits to this circularity at the heart of historical Jesus studies. He can acknowledge that conclusions are reached because they are inherent in the premise behind the questions asked. (more…)


Games Historical Jesus Scholars Play

Penguin 14 002768 8

Image by scatterkeir via Flickr

A review of Dale Allison’s forthcoming book, Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History, illustrates both in its post details and subsequent comments how far removed Historical Jesus studies are from the way history is practiced in other (nonbiblical) fields.

These comments of mine on this review address

  1. starting assumptions of the reviewer
  2. problems left hanging by the reviewer’s discussion of Allison’s book
  3. the games played by HJ (Historical Jesus) historians when they claim they are doing what other (nonbiblical) historians do
  4. the game of avoidance used by HJ historians in response to radical critiques of their assumptions and methods.


Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.