This review appeared in the Jul-Sep 2013 vol. 170 no. 3 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.Subscribe Today
Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and HistoryBaker Academic, Grand Rapids November 1, 2010
Honesty marks Dale Allison’s approach to historical Jesus studies. Though many scholars, both conservative and liberal, will not agree with many of Allison’s conclusions, all will agree that he writes on the basis of thorough research. His thesis is that by looking at the larger patterns within the tradition, one can discern the general characteristics of the historical Jesus. Allison does not debate the historicity of a single tradition, but composes the basic framework of the historical Jesus from the sum total of the tradition. This is consistent with his prior work, but in this book he substantiates his view with the latest research on memory theory. Since memories shift, a theory of Jesus resting on a single tradition should be rejected. However, he argues, the overall thrust of the tradition will reveal how the community remembered Jesus, though some details of specific events may be questioned.
Concerning Jesus’ eschatology, Allison contends that the tradition consistently indicates that Jesus maintained an apocalyptic outlook. Concerning His Christology, the tradition consistently portrays that Jesus viewed Himself as the center of God’s eschatological plan. The tradition reveals that Jesus was an itinerant speaker, but the sayings in the Gospels appear to be abbreviated. Allison argues that the Lukan version of the Sermon on the Mount is authentic, but other sayings probably were originally part of larger speeches or were characteristic sayings. Also he argues that the tradition suggests that Jesus’ death was remembered as voluntary.
Allison’s method moves away from much that is advocated to discern authentic traditions. Tools that many historians use he considers faulty. Historians who focus on authentic themes and rule out other traditions as contradictory, he finds, do so with circular arguments. For example, Jesus proclaimed Himself as an eschatological agent and yet He preached humility. If these themes seem contradictory in nature, then one of them must be inauthentic. For this reason many of the traditions that describe Jesus’ self-proclamation of the Messiah are labeled inauthentic. Another solution might be that Jesus’ humility should be considered inauthentic. Or perhaps Jesus proclaimed Himself the Messiah, but He also preached humility, holding these two ideas in tension. Allison ends up with this last solution. When facing seemingly contradictory positions, Allison gives examples of recent figures who hold similar contradictory positions. For example, Jerry Falwell was both active in politics and interested in eschatology. If the historian distrusts the gospel traditions, then one aspect of the tradition must be emphasized over against another. A portrait of Jesus that differs from the traditional picture is impossible.
This book is commendable on many levels, but two aspects stand out. The research is extensive, exhaustive, and up to date. Allison addresses the more controversial topics surrounding the historical Jesus and offers the latest research. For those working within the field this can serve as a jumping off point in many regards. Furthermore, Allison presents a critical discussion of the more pervasive methods in the field and offers a welcome alternative to approaches that have made little headway. In many ways he represents a dissenting voice among historical Jesus discussions. Second, Allison states in the preface that this will most likely be his last work on the historical Jesus. Constructing Jesus represents the culmination of several years of sustained thinking on the subject by an esteemed writer in the field. If he applies the same judicious attention to other areas of biblical studies, the benefit will be theirs.
—Benjamin I. Simpson