June 27, 2010

Allison on Jesus' Wilderness Temptations

Dale Allison remains my favorite 'skeptic'. Reading him just makes my brain happy. Not my faith, necessarily.  But oh my goodness, he's sharp.  Consider these lines on Jesus' wilderness temptations:
Like Origen long ago, many modern scholars have judged this story [Mt.4:1-11 & Lk 4:1-13] to be unhistorical. I think that they are right: the dramatic temptation story is a haggadic fiction produced through reflection upon Scripture. Yet whoever first told the tale did so in the knowledge that Jesus (i) was a miracle worker, (ii) refused to give self-authenticating signs, (iii) thought himself victorious over demonic forces, (iv) could quote the Bible, (v) had faith in God, and (vi) associated his ministry with God's Spirit. --Dale Allison, Seeking the Identity of Jesus, p.70, Richard Hays & Beverly Gaventa, Eds
What I love: Allison's historical method works through critical minded analysis to affirm positive characteristics of Jesus as the Gospels themselves present Him, elsewhere.  What I don't love:  if Jesus "thought himself victorious over demonic forces", but wasn't, then we have a deluded Jesus as well as deluded or deceptive witnesses informing the earliest 'Jesus traditions'.  And how much is supposedly fiction?  Dale keeps using the 'F' word as the passage goes on:
So the temptation narrative, which recounts events that probably never happened, nonetheless rightly catches Jesus in several respects. It accordingly illustrates the obvious fact that fiction need not be pure fiction, that fiction can indeed preserve the past, so that the line between the two can be indistinct.
Again, as far as skeptics go, this is brilliant stuff, and I like Dale's positive attitude.  On the other hand, I don't know how anybody will ever have grounds to declare that fantastic events "probably never happened".  YES, it's a moralizing, haggadic passage that mirrors debate common among Jews at that time.  That doesn't mean Satan didn't engage Jesus in such a style, or that the drama was more trumped up than historical.  YES, these accounts are incredible, but that doesn't automatically make them un-credible.

What I do appreciate, however, is the challenge Dale prompts in myself.  Sure, I can easily make opposing assertions, but what do I really think Matthew and Luke intended their readers to take from this story?  More importantly, does what I think have any historical credibility at all?

Let's find out.

Stay tuned...

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"If I have ever made any valuable discoveries, it has been owing more to patient observation than to any other reason."

-- Isaac Newton