Sunday, January 26, 2014

Interview: Dale Allison on the existence of Jesus




Dale C. Allison (Ph.D, Duke University) is a prominent New Testament scholar and historian of Christian origins. He is currently the Richard J. Dearborn Professor of New Testament Studies at Princeton Theological Seminary. In this interview (with, arguably, one of the best NT scholars today) I have asked Allison to elaborate on why it is that the existence of a historical Jesus is the most plausible thesis to uphold--contrary to the recent Jesus mythicist revival--and why scholars such as himself are warranted in such a conclusion. I thank Dale for accepting the interview.



1) As of late a majority of (mostly) internet “skeptics” have become convinced by the thesis that the existence of Jesus of Nazareth should be questioned, and even subsequently denied. This thesis is commonly referred to as Jesus mythicism. What is your prima facie reaction, and the reaction of the scholarly community, to such a thesis?

Informed New Testament scholars will have a sense of déjà vu. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, several books argued that Jesus was a myth. Prominent proponents of the thesis were Arthur Drews and John M. Robertson. Their books and similar volumes generated a large response among mainstream liberal German scholars, including Adolf Jülicher, Erich Klostermann, Paul Schmiedel, Harmann von Soden, and Johannes Weiss. Albert Schweitzer provided an overview of the debate; see his The Quest of the Historical Jesus (first complete English edition, 2001), chapters 22 and 23. The consensus has always been that the skeptics lost, and so work has gone on from there.

Given this, and if I may presume to speak for the scholarly community, my guess is that most New Testament scholars are more annoyed than anything by the renewed debate. It's always a pain to reopen things you learned as a graduate student and that you've taken for granted your whole career: you don't want to entertain the possibility that you've built on a faulty foundation. Too scary. So it's natural to assume or hope or wish that nothing terribly new is being said. My guess is that, for this reason, the new books are not being much read. I'd also guess that many are relying on Bart Ehrman's volume, the idea being that Bart is hardly a conservative, and if he thinks that the new contributions aren't convincing, then they probably aren't worth wrestling with.

Speaking now for myself rather than for the guild, I've paid no attention to the recent contributions on this topic. I haven't even read Ehrman. That's because I've written my books on Jesus and wish to go to other things. In other words, I'm not reading what anybody these days is saying about Jesus. I've done the best that I can with the topic and want to investigate other things, and I find it impossible to do that if I'm still trying to keep up with the latest publications.

One more observation on the recent resurgence of the mythical point of view. It may be driven in part by the internet. In the past, most of the gatekeepers of the discipline—acquisitions editors—wouldn't have been interested in the topic. The internet, for better and worse, has changed this. It's now possible for a movement to make itself felt independently of the big publishers.

2) In your writings, especially in your commentary on the gospel of Matthew, you have demonstrated that the gospels—again, mostly Matthew—make much use of Old Testament narratives to illustrate the story of Jesus. Some mythicist scholars have claimed that such use of OT themes instead lends credence to the view that most of Jesus’ life, as presented in the gospels, was completely fabricated as a sort of midrashim based on the OT. What is your opinion regarding the plausibility of such a thesis?

I understand the reasoning, which is at the heart of Strauss' great book on Jesus, wherein he argues again and again from typology to fiction. I agree with him about some things. But not everything. We should be careful here. People can engage in typological interpretations of themselves. Martin Luther King, Jr., presented himself sometimes as akin to Moses, at other times akin to Lincoln. Alexander the Great thought of himself as being like Achilles. Julius Caesar thought of himself as being like Alexander. Napoleon thought of himself as being like Caesar. General Santa Anna thought of himself as being like Napoleon. Obama went to his first inauguration by train and created parallels between himself and Lincoln. Eusebius, when recounting Constantine's victory over Maxentius at the battle of the Milvian bridge, cast the latter in the role of Pharaoh, the former in the role of Moses, which does not mean they fought no such battle. John Bunyan, writing of his own conversion, drew heavily upon the New Testament accounts of Paul becoming a Christian, which scarcely entails that Bunyan's recollections are free of facts. Paul himself seems to have seen himself in Jeremiah and Deutero-Isaiah. One could go on and on. Sometimes typologies grow out of autobiographical interpretation. This is my view about Jesus and the NT Moses typologies: he probably thought of himself as the prophet like Moses, an idea that the tradition then developed. In any case, you can tell a story in multiple languages, and Scripture is a sort of language. In fact, I doubt that some of the early Christian leaders could have said much of anything without borrowing scriptural language.

One also should beware of assuming that people can't have large self-conceptions. History is full of human beings who have aspired to greatness, who have sought to lead others, and who have imagined themselves to be at the center of what they believed the gods or God were doing. That the NT gives Jesus roles and titles from the OT doesn't logically entail that all those roles and titles were foreign to his own thought.

3) How can the abundance of attestation to Jesus of Nazareth be compared to the attestation of other historical figures of antiquity?

It's not great compared with those who have left us written texts. It's not bad compared with most people who didn't leave written texts. It's better for example than most of the Jewish political figures we know about from the turn of the era, and better than any of the rabbis or Bar Kockba or any of the so-called false prophets in Josephus.

4) Many mythicists label the gospels as “untrustworthy” on the grounds that they contain discrepancies. This leads to their belief that the gospels cannot be utilized for historical material regarding Jesus of Nazareth. Does the reality of such discrepancies in the gospels render this claim warranted? Is a text either completely trustworthy or untrustworthy, or are there varying levels of reliability when dealing with historical texts?

Most decent historical sources are neither completely trustworthy nor completely untrustworthy but a mixed bag. Just think about contemporary biographies of modern figures, which often disagree radically. Just go out and read ten different biographies of JFK or Bill Clinton. They often disagree about small historical particulars, and they often disagree in terms of general evaluation. Famous and important people provoke different reactions. The goal of the historian is to sort and weigh probabilities, on the assumption that none of our sources is infallible.

Re memory: My wife and I disagree about our memories all the time. About things that happened years ago, months ago, weeks ago, days ago, or hours ago. It happens so often that it's a standing joke, and we've reconciled ourselves to the fact that, when there is no third witness, we can't figure out who is right and who is wrong. Heck, sometimes we both must be wrong. But we're not mythographers, because what we are almost always misremembering is related to something that happened. It's faulty memory, not no memory.

Socrates is to the point here. Plato's view of him is very different than Xenophon. Many of the details and impressions differ. There is much here for scholars to wonder about and debate. But Socrates wasn't a myth.

It's also worth thinking about conflicting testimony in court. When people disagree on their recollections of an accident or crime scene, we don't conclude there was no accident or no crime. We just say that memories are frail and then try to find the true story behind the disagreements. I've argued in Constructing Jesus that we can try a similar approach with the sources for him.

5) A problem that is commonly stated against the cogency for the existence of Jesus is that there is no contemporary attestation of Jesus’ existence. We have the writings of Paul that date to a couple of decades after Jesus lived and then we have the gospels that come towards the latter half of the first century. But, none of these writings were written by people who were eye-witnesses to Jesus’ life—and, therefore do not provide the desired contemporary evidence. What are your opinions regarding the efficacy of such an argument? Are there other historical figures attested in antiquity that lack contemporary attestation?

Yes, we are at least once removed from Jesus since he wrote nothing extant and since I don't think Matthew wrote Matthew or John wrote John or Peter wrote 1 Peter or James wrote James or Jude wrote Jude. This—just like the frailty of memory and so much else—makes our work hard. But for me this is history, which means that we weigh probabilities and try to find the best working hypothesis. It's not a question of certainty. You can doubt everything if you want to. It's a question of what's more plausible, and it's my sense of things that positing an historical Jesus leaves us with fewer problems than the alternative.

6) How integral is the attestation of Paul to the existence of Jesus? What aspects of Paul’s writings are of value in determining the existence of Jesus?

I'd think an historical Jesus more likely than not even if we just had the first-century gospels. But Paul greatly adds to the probability. Here I can't say anything beyond what Weiss argued a century ago, that Paul claims to have known brothers of Jesus and to have spoken to at least one of them and also to have known a guy named Peter/Cephas who is everywhere else remembered as a follower of Jesus.

7) What sort of sources does a historian ideally look for that can attest to the existence and life of an individual in antiquity? Do the sources that attest to Jesus satisfy such a search?

I don't work with ideals. I just work with what we have and see no point in wishing for what we don't have. The evidence for me is enough to show that Jesus existed and enough for us to say some interesting things about him. Other cases—I think e.g. of Zoroaster and Buddha—are much harder in my opinion.

8) It is no doubt that the sources that attest to Jesus are colored by theological bias. Does this tendentiousness on behalf of the sources render them as invalid for historical inquiry? 

If we had only pro-Mormon sources, if all other traces of Joseph Smith had disappeared, we'd still have good reason to infer that Joseph Smith was an historical figure. The same for Muhammad. The same for Jesus, although I do think Josephus (not a Christian) said a few things about him even if it's impossible to reconstruct the original. Anyway, aren't most sources for most famous ancient people from biased observers, from people who are cheering or booing?

9) What would, ideally, be the nature of the evidence, or lack of evidence, that could possibly convince you that a figure like Jesus, though his existence is attested, didn’t in fact exist?

Nothing if he were like Jesus, because Jesus was an historical figure. Otherwise: if positing a pure fiction explained more data than positing an historical figure, then you go for the fiction. Tobit. Daniel. Noah. Job. Enoch.

But perhaps by "figure like Jesus" you mean somebody who is presented as a sort of wonder-working deity. This brings up the problem of miracles. My claim is that whether anything miraculous or paranormal ever occurs or has occurred isn't germane here. All that matters is that the world is full of first-hand accounts of miracle stories—Craig Keener's recent book has that right—and that there are such things as charismatic healers and wonder-workers. Lots of miracle stories circulated about Sabbati Sevi while he was still alive; so too the Baal Shem Tov; and some of them came from people who knew them. Heck, however you explain it, thousands of people testified to having been healed by Oral Roberts. This doesn't mean we can just trust the miracle stories in the gospels. Strauss probably did account satisfactorily for some of them. Moreover, I don't know how you could ever e.g. argue that some pigs once ran off a cliff after an exorcism near the Sea of Galilee in the time of Jesus. 

Nonetheless, miracles miracles everywhere can't in itself be an argument against Jesus having existed. If it were, then what would we do with Francis of Assisi and Kathryn Kuhlman? It's safer to infer that Jesus was a miracle worker.

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