Baker Academic

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Dale on Dale: Allison Reflects on Martin's Essay

One of the most prominent threads of modern historical Jesus research is the thesis that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet. I don't know if this thesis has won the day, but the voices that support this thesis have had more longevity than those supporting others. In my lifetime the voice with the most longevity and gravitas on this topic has been Dale Allison. I am of the mind that in order to make progress in our debates over Jesus' violence or nonviolence, we must discern what sort of apocalyptic categories best explain Jesus' hopes and aspirations. Professor Allison isn't so sure that (a) we can recover such categories with any confidence and (b) that a better understanding of these categories would help even if we could. I will have to think about this a bit more before I give up my initial curiosity – perhaps in a future post – but my knee-jerk thought here is that there is much more to be said about first-century apocalyptic, even if Dale has exhausted his interest in the topic.

Happily, Dale reflected a bit on Dale Martin's recent JSNT essay anyway. In the email exchange that follows, Allison offers a brief explanation of his own background to the Jesus-as-zealot thesis and asks four questions unaddressed by Martin's essay.

My questions:

Dale, I was wondering whether you might answer a few questions about Jesus' apocalyptic hopes/aspirations. There has been a move in some circles to revive the old Jesus-as-violent-revolutionary argument. I think that this discussion is worth having again but requires a better understanding of apocalyptic categories first.

It seems to me that there were various forms of Jewish apocalyptic hope in the first century. Some folks hoped that God would act as warrior / judge on behalf of Israel. Some believed that this would include a literal overthrow of Rome. Some believed that this would include a purified Temple (perhaps made in Heaven, and not by human hands). Some believed that they would fight alongside angels in a war that mirrored a cosmic power struggle. (Am I missing any key variables, nuances, permutations here?) It is possible that some folks thought of apocalyptic metaphors as simple metaphors. So here is my question: which kind of "apocalyptic prophet" was Jesus? Did he expect to fight a literal war against Rome, beginning from the Jerusalem Temple? I ask because your thought seems to have evolved since you first started researching this topic.

Second Question: given the rise of popularity of apocalyptic literature circa Second Temple Judaism, it seems clear that some groups had a few definitive apocalyptic categories that guided their imaginations. For example, God as judge, the rising and falling of empires, etc. What would you say are the key categories that are common to most folks circa Jesus with an apocalyptic imagination.

Allison's responds (I've added hyperlinks):
.... As for the zealot hypothesis, which I suppose is on the table because of Dale Martin’s interesting, recent contribution (not Aslan’s book, which I judged from reviews I didn’t need to read):

I have a sort of prejudice here, and the inertia of habit. It goes back to the 70s. I looked at Brandon in college, and then I read Hengel’s two little books on the subject and decided Hengel was right. And that was almost the end of worrying about the subject. I’ve conducted business since then on the assumption that Jesus’ apocalyptic hope was passive. Nonetheless, over the years, whenever I’ve lectured on Reimarus, I’ve confessed to my students that I’m not sure what to make of the swords in Mark and Luke. I’ve never read anything that made much sense to me. So that’s always been there in the background, and Dale Martin is right to press the issue.  
Furthermore, even though I haven’t worked with a zealotic Jesus, I’m not dogmatic. Arguments from silence are often fragile, but sometimes they have force. In this case, if Jesus had been an armed revolutionary, I doubt that our sources would portray him as such. Luke’s apologetical maneuvering to make Christianity politically harmless is obvious, and one suspects that any post-70 Christian source (which might include Mark, who knows?) would probably expunge memories of such a Jesus. The sort of whitewashing that Brandon posited makes sense to me. So I think we have to keep an open mind.  
On the other hand, I’m not inclined to do more than that, and with reference to Martin’s article, I have a few questions.  
First, was it really the case that carrying a sword in Jerusalem was as significant as Martin claims? I don’t know, not having done any research myself on the issue. But I wonder. We certainly know that people in the Graeco-Roman world and so presumably in Judea also often travelled with small swords to protect themselves. What then did they do when they reached a city gate? Now Wyatt Earp, in the wild days of Dodge City, did demand that people hand in their guns before crossing the bridge into the city. But is there any record of such a thing in the ancient world? I don’t recall any. My uninformed bet is that they kept them.  
Second, I don’t recall Dale making any comments about Luke 6 and the parallel material at the end of Matthew 5. This is from Q, if you buy that hypothesis, and so presumably predates the Jewish War. Moreover, I at least think there’s a good chance this stuff rightly remembers Jesus. So how do we put Luke 6 together with an armed revolutionary? Perhaps it can be done, but I haven’t seen it done yet. 
Third, I’m convinced that Jesus both foresaw his death and didn’t resist it. The evidence for this is quite extensive (I have a chapter on this in Constructing Jesus), and I’m not sure how to harmonize this with a Jesus who expected the angels to come down and fight. If the angels were going to join him, didn’t he expect to win? Why anticipate martyrdom?  
Fourth, if Jesus and some of his followers were armed, I’m not sure why he was arrested. Why wasn’t he just killed in Gethsemane? You don’t arrest an armed band that’s just said “en garde!” (or the Aramaic equivalent). You kill them, right? My guess is that only one guy drew a sword, two at most; otherwise there likely would have been blood all around. 
What weight these points have, I don’t know. Unlike you bloggers, I’m very slow on my feet, which is why I stick to publishing books: before something appears in public, I want to have thought about it for a long, long time; and even then I often enough have regrets. 
But as for your specific questions: 
I’m not sure I agree that we need to have a better understanding of apocalyptic categories. What we know is that there was a variety within apocalyptic thought—just as you remark. My sense is that in Jesus’ time and place you could have violent apocalypticists, pacifistic apocalypticists, and all sorts of people in between, including the sort of figure Martin envisions. That’s enough to make his Jesus possible and to make the Jesus I’ve worked with—a Jesus who expects God’s kingdom to displace Rome, but without the need for swords--possible. That’s as far as the Jewish sources can take us. For the rest we have to work from the Christian sources.
As for your question regarding the key categories common to most folks in Jesus’ day with an apocalyptic imagination, I would say I don’t know. I am here more cynical that most Jewish and Christian historians. Lots of texts have disappeared. Just look at all the Dead Sea Scrolls that are fragments of texts we don’t know, and recall (from M. R. James’ book) how many books the church fathers refer to of which we have no known traces at all. Beyond that, texts don’t always capture all that’s going on, and my guess is that many ideas circulated without ever leaving much written trace. Moreover, the truth is, if you ask how many apocalypses we have from Galilee when Jesus was alive, the answer, I believe, is: maybe one, the Testament/Assumption of Moses (and that perhaps only in a second edition). We like to think that we know a lot. I think we know very little. So I have no idea what most folks with an apocalyptic imagination were thinking about in Jesus’ time and place. 
Sorry to be so brief.
All the best,
My thanks to Professor Allison for his speedy reply and willingness (albeit reluctance) to allow me to post his off-the-cuff thoughts. -acld 

1 comment:

  1. Anthony and Dale A., thanks! But, "pacifistic apocalypticists"? Are we talking here about individuals, apocalyptic conscientious objectors? Or are we talking about the whole schmear, a peaceful apocalypse?