Author steers middle course in examination of historical Jesus

Published February 1, 2000

CHARLOTTE ALLEN provides a rare service for a readerly, but non-specialist audience – a far-ranging discussion of a controverted field, which aims to be fair without self-destructing in insipid neutrality. Allen is engaged and engaging as she manoeuvres adroitly to stalk the hydra-like quest for the “historical” Jesus which has occupied both scholars and public for over 100 years.

[pullquote] Her book opens with a careful and energetic representation of the cultural canvas and events surrounding Jesus himself, followed by the earliest “quarrels” (100-400 CE) concerning Jesus and the historical faithfulness of the Gospels. These first pages are golden.

Moreover, they set up her major argument: that Jesus appeared in a complex Jewish milieu, although this constraint has not proved convenient for many subsequent interpreters who have co-opted the image of Jesus “as a vehicle for some of the best and worst ideas of Western civilization.”

Amid the riot of centuries and ideas, there are only a few places where Allen’s avowed lack of specialization mars the analysis. At one point she accepts uncritically the view that a messianic “Son of Man” appeared in I Enoch prior to the Gospels. Later, she offers two (probably) mutually exclusive views regarding the construction of the gospels; the primacy of the hypothetical document “Q” favoured by the Jesus Seminar and the theories of Albert Lord concerning oral transmission, intriguing to N.T. Wright and Richard Horsley. But such slips are rare.

Allen steers a middle course between those who make outrageous claims for historical inquiry, and others who dismiss it as faddish.

In our time of contraries – touching faith in the experts and total scorn, her work is welcome.

Dr. Edith Humphrey teaches at Carleton University and Augustine College, Ottawa.


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