The Jesus We Follow, and Preach

“The unexamined Christ is not worth having.”

So reads the final sentence of the introduction to The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus, the newest book by Dale C. Allison Jr. (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2009).

Allison’s point is that Christian theology must take account of what historical research can and cannot tell us about Jesus of Nazareth. Christian faith cannot turn a blind eye to history and the conclusions reached through ongoing historical research, yet it must acknowledge the limits to what historical inquiry can provide. Those who assert that we just need to take Jesus exactly as the Gospels present him to us are playing as fast and loose with history as are those who pretend that historical methods are capable of invalidating everything the Gospels say about him.

Allison teaches New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and is a leading figure among those who conduct research into the historical Jesus. He’s also a committed Christian. This book offers his refreshingly honest attempt to grapple with the question of how critical biblical scholarship (historical scholarship, mostly) rightly informs Christian theology.

That question, as most visitors to may know, is one that every seminarian asks, at least in one form or another. More than a few “average churchgoers” ask it, too.

I’ll make my big statement now, to get your attention: If this year you have the time and energy to read only one book about biblical scholarship, this should be the one. (Full disclosure: I’ve never met Dale Allison. I get no kickbacks from his royalties!)

The issues Allison addresses are vital. Most people don’t get exposed to the sensible historical scholarship that scholars produce about Jesus–what the “real” Jesus might really have said, done, or had done to him. Most seminarians today spend more time–with good reason!–learning literary and rhetorical methods of interpreting the Gospels.

Most seminary graduates, given their schedules and priorities, do very little to stay current with this kind of historical research into the man behind the Gospel portraits. In turn, few are prepared to say much about it to their congregations, other than scary campfire stories about the Jesus Seminar and the ballyhooed pronouncements it makes about the authenticity of the deeds and sayings we find in the Gospels.

The church at large pays a huge price when its leaders ignore or dismiss this scholarship. They find themselves with little to say in response to the sensationalism that grabs headlines. Notice that almost everything about “the historical Jesus” that finds its way into the public’s consciousness can most politely be described as “fringe scholarship”:

  • Sometimes it’s a crank hawking a self-published book that purports to have made a definitive scientific or historical case proving that Jesus never existed.
  • Sometimes it’s irresponsible claims with no basis in evidence or reason (either “We’ve found Jesus’ bones in this tomb!” or “Jesus said everything the Gospels say he said, exactly as they present it!”).
  • Sometimes it’s basic knowledge disingenuously packaged to insinuate a bold exposé of some imagined scandal (“Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all talk about Jesus differently! They don’t tell the same story! The church has been lying to us!”)

There’s a lot more to studying Jesus than the schlock that seeks and steals the spotlight. And a Christianity that pays no attention to those studies–out of either casual ignorance or head-in-the-sand denial–suffers greatly on account of it.

It’s not that the historians’ Jesus (or Jesuses) is the only true Jesus. Rather, the historians’ research into Jesus demonstrates the limits of what we can know even as it sketches a basic portrait of Jesus that both suffers from and confounds our tendencies to impose our own ideas and images onto him.

You don’t need to be a Bible scholar to understand Allison’s short book. He provides background as he works through his presentation. Along the way, he generally hugs the middle ground:

  • Yes, our ideological biases influence our historical judgments; but, no, this does not mean that critical historical methods are entirely subjective.
  • Yes, theology needs to concern itself with the historical Jesus; but, no, understanding the authentic Jesus and his significance does not mean that we can ignore what others said about him after he was gone.
  • Yes, there are limits to what historical scholarship can reliably reveal (limits that all too often go ignored); but, no, that does not mean that critical study of the Gospels cannot tell us about the kind of person Jesus was and the kinds of things he did.

What difference does it all make? Allison’s answers are incomplete; he does not write a thoroughgoing Christology. But he identifies a number of sober suggestions that may help save Jesus–and us!–from the narrow theological requirements we impose upon him:

  • The Jesus we glimpse in and behind the Gospels sometimes frustrates our theological categories and systems. As a result we rightly encounter a Jesus who refuses to bow to our assumptions. As Allison writes, “A domesticated Jesus who sounds like us, makes us comfortable, and commends our opinions is no Jesus at all” (page 90).
  • The imminent eschatological (end-time) expectations we see throughout in the Gospels cannot fit into the worldviews held by most modern people. This requires us to rethink or reappropriate Jesus’ and the early church’s understandings of the culmination of God’s reign, not unlike how modern science forced new, figurative interpretations Genesis 1–2.
  • The Gospels leave us uninformed about countless details of the circumstances in which Jesus said what he said. We have a much easier time interpreting Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John than we do Jesus. Being a little more honest and humble about this reality might go a long way.

Allison approves of Albert Schweitzer’s appraisal of Jesus as mysterious–one who must remain a stranger and an enigma to his modern disciples. But, for the faithful, the consequence of such a situation is hardly skepticism or utter relativism. It is acquiring new vision to encounter Jesus–through scripture, through research, through memories, through testimony, and through experience.

Reading the Gospels and thinking about Jesus Christ are tasks that deserve all our intelligence and faithfulness. Not many books help us do so as well as Allison’s does.