Baker Academic

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Jesus' Self-Understanding

Dale Allison on Jesus scholars' preoccupation with Jesus' self-understanding:
Nobody’s identity can be reduced to words or to deeds or to self-consciousness, or to combination thereof. Let me explain. In serious moments, people sometimes ask themselves, “Who am I?” It’s a perplexing question. It encompasses the past, the present, and the future. It must account for feelings as well as thoughts. And the point I wish to underline: it sets before the mind’s eye the faces of the many people with whom one has had significant interactions. So the question quickly becomes: who am I in relation to others, and who are they in relation to me? 
I’m reminded of the Russian sociologist, Alexander Luria, who reported that when in the 1930s he asked an illiterate peasant in Uzbekistan about his character. The answer was this: “How can I talk about my character? Ask others. They can tell you about me; I can’t say anything.” 
Makes sense to me. 
Before returning to Jesus, it might be helpful to ask what critical methods you might employ to investigate the identity of some other human being, say, yours truly. Who am I, really? I suppose you could ask me. But if you stop there, the picture would be woefully incomplete and distorted, wouldn’t it? I might, of course, be full of helpful facts about myself. Although, I fear that I might—like Davy Crockett—enjoy throwing in a few entertaining whoppers, not wholly tethered to the truth. But I think that you would also want to talk to some other people, say, my wife and children. In fact, you can be confident that they know all sorts of things about me that I don’t know! Or would not think, or forgot to tell you. You might want to interview my brother or other relatives, lifelong friends, and current students…. All of these informants—it goes without saying—will enrich your understanding of me, of who I’ve been and who I am today. To suppose instead that one could find the real, or the authentic, or the original, or the “historical Allison” by disregarding the testimonies of family, friends, and acquaintances, in order to focus solely on what I have said or done would be silly. Maybe, however, we’ve been somewhat silly with regard to the historical Jesus. Maybe we have unthinkingly reduced biography to autobiography. Certainly we have set aside Matthean redaction, and Markan theology so that we can get back to Jesus as he was before people wrote him up. But shouldn’t we be more circumspect here?
Listen to the full lecture here:

My thanks to Ken Berry for the link.



  1. Since we don't have an autobiography of Jesus, it seems to me that our understanding of what Jesus's self-understanding was depends upon (1) the few things he supposedly said about himself; (2) the few things that people supposedly said about him in his presence and his reaction to that; (3) other things he supposedly did or said; (4) the things people supposedly did or say about him or in reaction to him.

    All of that seems to depend upon ascribing some sort of historical reliability to the Gospels.

    1. At the very end, much depends upon what we will * infer * from any historical data.