Jesus of Nazareth—Millenarian Prophet

Written by Dale C. Allison Reviewed By Alistair I. Wilson

Allison prefaces the three substantial chapters of this book by explaining that they are the outcome of an aborted project to write a comprehensive study of the historical Jesus, and describes them as ‘fragments that have fallen from the ruins of a project that the builder has abandoned’. This means that this is probably not the place to begin an acquaintance with Life-of-Jesus research. At the same time, Allison’s writing is so fresh and provocative that those who have some acquaintance with the subject matter will find reading this book a stimulating experience.

Allison begins with a discussion of the Jesus tradition. A significant portion of this chapter is devoted to consideration of J.D. Crossan’s distinctive method of dating and classifying ancient sources. Allison commends Crossan for his concern for method but believes that his proposal is severely flawed. His detailed discussion raises important cautions regarding the value of statistical analyses in the search for authentic Jesus tradition. In fact, Allison believes that much of the search for the history of tradition is ill founded, and that a more valid method of approach to the Gospels is the construction of an overall interpretative framework within which as much of the data as possible makes sense. In Allison’s view, the correct framework is that of the apocalyptic prophet.

The first chapter is followed by a ‘detached note’ on ‘Some Common Features of Millenarianism’. This is an intriguing sociological discussion of movements throughout history and from around the globe. This note illustrates Allison’s comparative ‘history of religions’ approach to the study of Jesus.

Allison begins his second chapter on the eschatology of Jesus, with a discussion of E.P. Sanders and M. Borg. Evangelical readers may well find his provocative statements less than convincing: ‘eschatological thinking is not (maybe about this Albert Schweitzer was wrong) Konsequent or consistent about anything’ or ‘[Jesus’] poetic mind roamed in a mythological world closely related to that of the Dead Sea Scrolls, a world alive with fabulous stories … and fantastic images … That world did not celebrate logical consistency as a virtue’ (115).

Allison also deals with Jesus’ view of the resurrection of the dead, the restoration of Israel, and the great tribulation. He discusses the issue of the imminence of such events in Jesus’ thinking, and in doing so dismisses the view that imminent expectation is representative of the sort of Christian prophetic utterances which have been incorporated into the Jesus tradition. However, as he defends these sayings as authentic tradition, he concludes that Jesus expected the eschatological events to take place within his own lifetime. This leads on to a discussion of the nature of the language of cosmic catastrophe. Allison tends to regard such language as literal, though with the mediating comment that ‘The literal and the symbolic need not be sundered’ (164).

The final chapter is substantially shorter than the previous two, and presents a case for Jesus to be regarded as a ‘millenarian ascetic’. Allison draws on Gospel material relating to wealth and, more extensively, sexual desire. Allison is aware of how unpalatable an ascetic Jesus is to much contemporary thinking about Jesus, both popular and academic, and appears driven to demonstrate how different Jesus was from modern expectations.

Allison has an attractive writing style, and his prose contains numerous literary echoes and allusions for those with eyes to see. This aids the reader’s concentration in the midst of rather technical argument. Allison’s challenge to see Jesus in terms of his own time and culture rather than the reader’s is valid and must be heeded. Yet, as an evangelical reader, I came away from this book dissatisfied with Allison’s approach. Too much is given away. The poignant and plaintive tone of Allison’s closing words suggests that his thoroughgoing eschatological prophet may not, in the end, bring us face to face with the Jesus who was worshipped as ‘Lord’.

In short, this book is thought-provoking and contains useful exegetical discussions, but is not the best place to begin studies on the historical Jesus. ‘On the other hand, readers of this journal who wish to wrestle with Allison’s ideas may be interested to consult the extended discussion (fifteen pages) of Allison’s book in Ben Witherington’s excellent recent volume, Jesus the Seer: The Progress of Prophecy (Peabody: Henrickson, 1999).

Alistair I. Wilson

Alistair I. Wilson
Highland Theological College UHI
Dingwall, Scotland, UK