People of the Books: The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus by Dale C. Allison, Jr.

[A note:  My apologies, patient Reader, for the fact that this is coming out a bit late today.  My intarwebs were slain earlier and are just now back on line–how fascinating a feeling of disconnectedness it is to be without Internet, especially to one who remembers the Days Before it had such a hold.]

So this past week has been interesting because I’ve spent a record six days in a row at my church—I know, sad, right?  In the absence of a Job, I’m finding work for myself; in this case, I’ve been organizing the sacristy, because that’s how I roll.  And one of the things we had tucked away in there was a seven foot tall wooden cross, which I brilliantly decided needed to go somewhere else.

Here’s the thing about crosses big enough to hang children on; they’re quite heavy, and extremely cumbersome.  After some moments of thinking it through, I realized that about the best way to move the thing was to hook it over one shoulder and literally bear it down to where I needed to go.

Yeah.  That worked.  And by “worked,” I mean it took me another five minutes to get over the willies of truly carrying a cross on my shoulder through the halls of my church.  I’ve mentioned before the complex relationship I have with the cross and its place in Christianity, so add that neurosis to actually carrying a cross like you see in all the movies and we have one heck of a moment worthy of therapeutic intervention.  I couldn’t do it at first.  Because it made the story real.

I’m not saying that I don’t think Jesus was real when I’m not spending my afternoons carrying crosses; I’m very aware of how real He is.  I’m just saying that it’s much harder to gloss over the idea of some flesh-and-blood Dude carrying the instrument of His own very painful demise through city streets when you’re getting a slight idea of what that might have been like.  It’s great that I own a rosary and three cross necklaces.  It’s not as great when I’ve felt wood digging into my collarbone, when I’ve bent forward to keep the long end from dragging and slowing my already leaden step.

So I roll that experience into reviewing this book, because this book very much wants you to look at what it means to talk about the “real” Jesus.  Talkative loaned this to me a while ago, because he (like Interpreter, but for very different reasons) finds this journey of mine highly entertaining.  And I was struck immediately by the title—it seems backwards to me.  Yet Jesus is theological and the idea of Christ is historical, and the whole book is just a bit off-kilter like that.

For me, this was a really solid and accessible introduction to some of the scholarship and ideas in the tug-of-war between historians and theologians.  It picks apart the blind spots of both and lauds their worthy findings.   Curiously, Allison never really says anything to fix  these blind spots or ground the findings; I felt like we never got past “but I tend to agree with X.”  That’s great, but my scholastically trained mind wants to know why that matters.  Why is your take on this more or less valuable than all of these other scholars you’re condensing and presenting?  There are no absolutes here, because we are so limited by the lack of sources and so steered by our desires to “know” who Jesus was.

I kind of appreciate this, in the sense of appreciating someone’s willingness to look at this debate and admit that we don’t and never will “know” anything at all, really. But it does leave one sort of feeling…unfulfilled, perhaps, after finishing the book.  And Allison admits this himself.  In chapter 3, How to Proceed, he says, “Our desire to know something does not mean that we can know it…we have too much self-esteem, too much confidence in our own abilities…In my case, at least, experience has tamed ambition.”

This, I feel, is the book in a nutshell; the general concept is “here’s what we think we know about who Jesus was, and the rest we sort of stumble into because we really know absolutely nothing.”  Thankfully, he never advances the idea that we should just give up the chase, as some do.  I may have stopped reading entirely if he had done so.  He does have a sort of removed attitude about the whole affair, though—comme ci, comme ça is the expression stuck in my mind.

So I did like this book, especially for the way it lays the Gospel portrayals next to each other and recreates their composite Jesus.  I may even track down my own copy at some point.

But for now, I steel myself to the moments of carrying crosses through the cobwebbed closets and wonder at this Jesus of ours and how entirely earthy a celestial Being He is.

Rating:  3/5 stars


2 thoughts on “People of the Books: The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus by Dale C. Allison, Jr.

  1. treegestalt says:

    We are able to know God — because God desires to be known, and teaches anyone who wants to understand, according to his appetite. This is, of course, a lifelong — truly eternal gig.

    Knowing the exact words and deeds of Jesus, though… It’s significant that we have no true ‘Gospel According to Jesus’. If we’ve been given precision; we would have imagined we understood. Given mystery & contradiction, some of us still imagine we’ve got it down — but most of us realize we don’t. Some of us keep working at it, and praying for clues — and actually, some questions get answered by us growing into the capacity to see them differently.


    • Thanks for stopping by, Tree Gestalt! I agree, it is significant that we have no Gospel of Jesus (although some of the apocrypha comes close); although that’s frustrating, I prefer it that way. Jesus was a Man of action and knew that at least one of His many followers would keep track of what had been going on. The mystery allows so much, though, which is a blessing and a curse.


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