Baker Academic

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Initial Reflections on Allison's Chapter in Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity - Le Donne

For this week's conference in Dayton, both Chris and I are reviewing Dale Allison's chapter in our recently published book. Dale Allison is quite dear to both of us for several reasons and (just a guess) I think that both of our comments will take a very appreciative tone.

I imagine, however, that my review will push back a bit harder than Chris' will.  This has nothing to do with our personalities - Chris can push back with the best of them (just ask J.K. Elliott).  My bones are with the theme of "disillusionment" (to steal a word from Allison's chapter title) that undermines his confidence in making historical claims about Jesus.

If you'd like a window into the last 25 years of Jesus research and the shifting tendencies that mark this period, Allison's chapter is a must read. His autobiographical reflections in this chapter run deep and cannot be summarized here. But here is an excerpt. He argues

If you've read some of my work on Jesus and memory, you'll know that I concur with Allison's assessment of the frailty of human memory and the necessarily creative elements of memory. But where this becomes a problem for Allison, I do not find myself disillusioned - not in the least. I will not say much more here, but I do not think that "uncertainty" is a cause for concern for the historian. Therefore I am quite optimistic with Allison's suggestion that general impressions of Jesus might yield a great deal of fruit when the Jesus tradition is observed in toto. Dale suggests that episodes in the Jesus tradition that have been judged to be "inauthentic" can contribute to this overall impressionistic portrait of Jesus. For Allison this is a decided step away from nailing down historical facts. I understand historical facts and the ways that they are handled by historians differently.

I look forward to having this conversation in person on Friday.



  1. My two cents: (1)Human memory is frail,(2) because of this, historical facts are always uncertain.

    That human memory is frail does not, however, necessitate that it is entirely deceived or contrived. Especially, I would argue, when there are several people who are invested in the protection of the memory. I do understand that the more significant the memory the greater the embellishment, but how can we be sure that this early community was not a memory-centered scribal culture in which the exact memorization and protection of events is a central practice? Can't we argue that at least some of the writers were Jewish religious folk, meaning that they had been practicing the art of memorization under strict instruction for decades? Can't we argue that these memories belonged not to individuals but to communities who would have kept one another accountable?

    When I was 9 years old I asked a girl to go out with me. I remember her friend, Kristen, standing next to her saying "Say yes, say yes!" I remember Kristen coming up to me in the hall later that day and telling me that Jessica said no. I remember how I felt. I was 9. I didn't have a community to keep the memory alive, I didn't know how to memorize things. Sure, I can't remember "exactly" what Jessica said. But I do remember that she told me in some way that she would have to think about it and tell me later.

    Sure, the gospel narratives probably don't contain a whole lot of "word-for-word" Jesus sayings. But I bet the authors (or the eye witnesses who informed the authors) remembered how they felt. I bet they remembered how they were situated in the upper room when Jesus began washing their feet. It's just a bet. I can't prove it.

    Then there are memories I'm not so sure of. When I was 21 I stole a car and went to jail. I've told the story so many times that I begin to forget exactly what the judge said, or what I told my mom on the phone at 5am that Thursday morning. But I do remember that I called my mom. I remember it was a payphone. I remember her the sadness in her voice. I don't remember exactly what she said. But I bet I could form a pretty accurate reconstruction based on who my mom was.

    Unless they are fairy tales, the gospels represent stuff that Jesus said. Maybe (probably) not word-for-word. But representations. An artist who hasn't seen his home in forty years can usually paint a fairly accurate image of the landscape. There might be a tree out of place or the skyline might be a little bit embellished. But the representation would be unmistakable.


  2. I agree with the post above. It's hard for me to believe the people who say that the gospels are Jesus' words and not an interpretation of his words by the gospel writers. Since memory is frail, one can't really argue and come up with a concrete argument about the fact that the gospel narratives contain the words of Jesus. Instead, I think it is much more plausible to view the gospels as interpretations of Jesus' words and an account of how they felt about him.