Jesus of Nazareth, Millenarian Prophet by Dale Allison

This is the second book of Dale Allison I have read. More on the other one later.

Published in 1998, which may give you a sense of the time of its writing. The Jesus Seminary was big, with many scholars like John Dominic Crossan leading the debate about who Jesus was. Against this backdrop, Allison pushes back against their understanding of the historical Jesus. And you will big this up pretty quickly, flipping through this book.

It was 2 years before the turn of the millennium, which socially was a significant turning point in history. At least for those of us who lived through it. In particular, the predictions of the “end of the world.”

In some ways, Jesus of Nazareth is a rewrite of the main thrust of Schweitzer’s first quest-ending book, The Quest of the Historical Jesus. But instead of a review of the last few hundred years of works published on the life of Jesus peppered with Schweitzer’s insights. Allison starts with an assessment of the current state of the historical Jesus research and a shift in methodology that is required to move ahead in our understanding.

It is not an in-depth study of the life of Jesus but rather an overview of metrology, a key thrust of Jesus. If you haven’t guessed yet, Allions believes he is an Apocalyptic Prophet.

Then within that understanding, Allsions flushes out with research about Millenille movements from history. And what tenets Jesus and the movement that he started share in common.

With the stage set, let’s get into the “big” contribution that Allsion brings to our understanding of Jesus. Plus, keen specific insights that got me thinking. Lastly, ideas that left me puzzled, either because I believe they flatly are false and do not fit within our knowledge about the historical Jesus. Or ones that I need to percolate on to see if a kernel of value or insight needs to be mined.

But first, the big rocks.

Dale Allison’s Biggest Contribution to the Quest for the Historical Jesus

The author of over 20+ books, it will be hard to summarize everything that Allison has contributed. Still, after reading Jesus of Nazareth, Millenarian Prophet, I found two things significant and compelling.

Better Elevating of Our Sources

If you have read other books on the historical Jesus, you will experience the discussion about the “authentic” sayings of Jesus. Scholars have attempted to develop a framework for evaluating whether or not a saying from Jesus indeed came from his mouth.

An example is in Crossan’s book The Life Of A Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. He has a section containing a list of “authentic” sayings of Jesus. For you can grasp what material he considers trustworthy in developing his vision of Jesus.

Some common criteria that Crossan and other scholars used to determine authenticity are.

  1. Criteria of Dissimilarity: This criterion posits that if a saying attributed to Jesus differs from both the Jewish and early Christian traditions, it is likely authentic, simply because it would be unlikely to be invented by either group.
  2. Criteria of Multiple Attestation: If a saying of Jesus is found in multiple independent sources, it is more likely to be authentic. This is based on the premise that independent affirmation provides stronger evidence than a single source.
  3. Criteria of Coherence: This criterion holds that if a saying of Jesus is consistent with already established authentic sayings, it is also probably genuine.
  4. Criteria of Embarrassment: If a saying or event associated with Jesus was potentially embarrassing or difficult for the early Christian community, it is less likely to be a later addition and more likely to be authentic.

Not as universally used but there is also the the dating of the saying. The closer to the life of Jesus, the more likely it is authentic. On the positive side, you have scholars like Bart Erhman combing through the epistles for “early” creeds of the Christians contained in the other writings.

A more controversial way is the recent trend to separate the hypothetical “Q” sayings source used by Matthew and Luke to early and late dating. Allowing downplaying or dismissing of sayings considered later in dating.

Allison points out that he has used these techniques before but has noticed that two scholars can work through the process with the exact text and come to two totally different results. Despite the attempt to be scientific, it has not produced the results we had hoped.

His proposal is we stop trying.

Stop trying to sift through all the sayings and teachings from Jesus to determine which one is authentic. Indeed, the words he would have spoken.

Instead, focus on the main thoughts behind the saying.

Focus on the forest over the individual trees.

We can safely assume that Jesus held and taught such beliefs if general ideas are regularly occurring. It’s not a perfect solution, but it does help to move away from the constant nitpicking about particular words and missing out on the larger thrust behind those sayings.

Or, loosely paraphrased, “drain out a gnat to swallow a camel.”

Our previous attempt to get to the authentic sayings of Jesus required too much energy and led to endless debates, and we often missed key parts of Jesus’ thoughts.

Plus, defending a general idea is easier than a teetering tower of individual words.

Therefore, going forward, I will use this approach to understanding the words of Jesus. And to be honest, it’s probably the unconscious way I have been evaluating the teachings of Jesus for years already.

Understanding of Jesus

Allison proposes that we must start with a theory of who Jesus was. Then, from that framework, evaluate if the material about Jesus works and best explains it.

This idea may win or lose you right here. As you can guess from the book title, Allusion proposes that Jesus is best understood as a millenarian prophet. In other words, a promoter of the end times. That Jesus believed that he stood on the cusp of the end of time as he knew it and the beginning of a new era. That the kingdom of God was about to arrive.

A slightly different angle is that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet.

I won’t go into more detail here. For a fuller explanation, check out Was Jesus an Apocalyptic Prophet? or read his book.

The Apocalyptic Jesus: A Debate, where he argues against 3 members of the Jesus seminary that the best lens to understand Jesus is as an end-time prophet.

Now to the gems of truth scattered in Jesus of Nazareth, Millenarian Prophet.

Helpful Idea for Understanding the Historical Jesus

When you read the book, you probably find other sparkling insights, but here are mine.

The first is his honesty as a historian in the level of certainty we can have about the material and the life of Jesus.

He recognizes it may be unsettling, but it is the best place to be.

“It may be frusterating to leave so much undecided; but where the data are not conclusive, our conclusions should be modest.”

P.58

What great advice. We all need to take this to heart and approach our discussion with a little more humility.

Highlights of Jesus of Nazareth

Rethinking Criteria of Dissimilarity

Next is related to historians’ struggle to wrestle the “sayings of Jesus” away from the early church. This happens with the principle of Criteria of Dissimilarity, where it is only determined as authentic if it is different from the early church and Judaism.

This has led to throwing out many sayings simply because Jesus was a man of his time. Sharing beliefs with his contemporaries.

“Rather, in most cases we are dealing with a mixed products”

p.59

Instead, if we accept, we have nothing that was not written down by early followers of Jesus, aka the church, meaning everything we have about him has gone through their lens and filters. And that’s okay. Trusting that they had held views similar to his, being his disciples.

Early Recognition

Agree or disagree with this next one, but to me, it makes sense.

“Jesus’ followers already, in his own lifetime, identified him as an eschatological figure “annointed” by God, then the step to confession of him as “the anointed One” would not have been large.”

p.67

The speed at which Jesus was declared “The Christ” and even reference to being God after his death is mind blogging. Except if you accept, as Allison proposes, that the apostles were already thinking of him in exalted terms before his death.

The leap or step to god status would have been much smaller than if they held Jesus to be an ordinary human before.

Don’t read too much into it, but Peter’s confession of Jesus being the Christ/Messiah may be a historical event (Matt.16). Peter, in some way, had decided that Jesus was part of God’s salvation plan. Then, after his death, the leap to saviour was logical.

Skill as a Communicator

Jesus was able to draw a crowd; the best example of this is if you take the feeding of the 5 000 as being factually accurate. People enjoyed listening to Jesus speak. So much so that he was able to draw a crowd of thousands.

Even despite it being attested to in all 4 gospels (one of the few events to), to take it as an exaggeration, it appears that Jesus was known as a teacher. But why?

“whatever success he enjoyed derived as much from his creative abilbity to relate, in novel fashion, conventional symbols directly to his audience’s situation as from their political, economic and social circumstance.”

p.171

There is a lot to unpack in Allison’s statement, but the biggest takeaway is the talent of Jesus as a communicator. I often jump too far ahead. That Jesus attracted a crowd and attention because who he was. But the fact of the matter may be more complicated. It was his skill in a turn of words and their relation to those around him.

Jesus and John the Baptist

Regarding Jesus’ popularity, Allison makes a good point earlier in the book.

“Perhaps the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist… when the later was killed a charistmatic vacuum was created which the former then filled.

p.94

The common narrative is that John the Baptist was the forerunner for Jesus. “Preparing the way,” etc. But it is quite possible that John the Baptist’s more successful ministry (Sanders) provided Jesus with an opportunity once John was arrested and ultimately executed. For Jesus to step in, the people were accustomed to John the Baptist and were looking for a replacement.

Allowing Jesus to rise in popularity rapidly.

It may have been more than just his teaching that helped Jesus.

Puzzling Ideas from the Book

Any good author will leave you questioning.

Allision left me with some questions also. Some are I need more time to think about. Adapting slowly to new information.

Others, my initial gut response is. No. That the dots that Allison connected should not have been drawn. There is key information about Jesus that does not work with his conclusion. And I humbly disagree.

History in Fiction

I loved and hated this one.

“ So what we seem to have in Q 4:1-13 (The temptation of Jesus story) is an illustration of the obvious fact that historical fiction can instruct us about history.”

P.60

First, what I loved. It’s a simple story about Jesus’ life, and he is able to discover 6 “facts” about Jesus. Very insightful facts that will help me as I try to understand this carpenter turned preacher from 2 000 years ago.

What I hate or puzzles me is his phrase, “historical fiction.” Now, Allison knows more than I do. And I admit understanding the temptation of Jesus, as recorded in Matthew and Luke, is hard. But I am cautious of writing off an event just because I don’t comprehend it.

His explanation of how this was a “haggadic” is reasonable. But I will need more time to perculote on it. If I am doing the text justice by calling them fiction when neither author seems to clearly state this.

Did Jesus Promise to Rebuild the Temple?

The next is also along the lines of understanding the narrative in the gospels.

“The pertinent point is that our early sources protest too robustly when they go out of their way to stress that Jesus never prophesied the rebuilding of the temple.”

p.100

Allison’s point is that the gospels present too strong of an argument that Jesus never said he would “rebuild the temple in Jerusalem.” Therefore, he must have said it.

Again, Allison knows more than I do, but is it equally possible that Jesus never did say he would rebuild the temple in his new kingdom? But this rumour was circulating, so the writers wished to counter it by being clearer with Jesus’ words.

Again, thoughts and stewing will be required.

Why Twelve?

There are many reasons, from the effectiveness of teaching to the limits of social groups, why Jesus selected 12 as his apostles. The men that he focussed the majority of his time on. Allison, along with Sander, proposes that the number is symbolic. Sander goes even as far as to say there may not have been 12 specific men.

But the thing of interest that Allison brings to the conversation is an example.

“(Sabbatai Sevi) chose 12 rabbinic scholars to represent restored Israel.”

P.101

More than 1600 years later, another who claimed to be the Jewish messiah appointed 12 also to represent the full restoration of the 12 tribes of Israel.

Different in outcome than Jesus but shows how, in a similar context, the numbering could be more symbolic than practical. I find it hard to know when to look for symbols or practical reasoning, but it’s good to hear for others of possibilities.

A little beyond the immediate life of Jesus, but in a discussion about the Restoration of Isreal and the “Twelve,” Allision commented.

“the twelve do not appear to have played much of a role in the post-Easter period.”

p.142

We know little of what the 12 did after Jesus’ death.

MacArthur in Twelve Ordinary Men tells of many of the exploits of the 12, but beyond what is often cited as “mythical” stories, we have little historical evidence of such activities. Even what is called the “Acts of the Apostles” record little of their actions except for Peter and little of John after Pentecost.

Was Jesus’ ministry a bigger flop than often portrayed?

Worth considering.

Ministry Success

Related to the “success of Jesus’ ministry” is Allison’s later statement.

“Now if, as the tradition indicates, Jesus and his itinerants at some point came to be truly disappointed in the Galilean response to their activities,”

p.144

I often think of Jesus in the context of a successful preacher/teacher drawing crowds of thousands. But if this was the case, why did he curse Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum (Matt. 11 Lk. 10) for lack of response?

Do I need to shift my image of Jesus’ and his ministry?

It wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns, with success at every turn, but times of rejection and unfruitful ministry beyond just the Pharisees’ opposition.

Or is that too extreme of a reaction to these few statements?

Figurative or Literal Prophecy?

Lastly, Allison uses the paradigm of a millenarian, an end-time prophet, to understand the life of Jesus. But this leaves the struggle of a failed prophecy that the world did not end within the generation of Jesus.

Scholars like Caird and N.T. Wright countered by proposing that, yes, Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet, but it was metaphorical.

“How could one ever falsify a metaphorical prophecy?”

P.165

Allison does not find this acceptable. Because of the struggle portrayed in early church literature of believers struggling with the failure, lack of fulfillment of the prophecies. If it was “metaphorical,” how can it be proven wrong or doubted?

Leaving me still contemplating what did Jesus have in mind.

There is obvious symbolism in his teaching about the end, but also clear predictions. More wrestling will be required.

Ryan Nickel

Two loves of my life beyond my wife and 4 children are history and the person of Jesus. From childhood, I was captivated by history and still love reading and learning about the past. One life in particular that intrigues me in history is the person of Jesus. It's fascinating to think about how the course of human history was changed by a carpenter turned preacher. Both in our times and also in his. I attempt to process all I am learning about him through conversations, writing and shooting videos about the life and teachings of Jesus. With each word drawing me closer into his life. Ryan Nickel has been part of range of churches, including Baptist, Evangelical Free and Church of Christ. In 1999 I graduated from Peace River Bible Institute with a Bachelor of Religious Studies.

Recent Content

About Us

"Discovering the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth."

That is the mission of this website, and we hope that we can help you to experience.

If you spend much time in church, in a library, online or on youtube, you probably heard about Jesus Christ.
Well, so have I.

In my experience, and maybe yours, the emphasis seems to always be on Christ, not Jesus.

What I mean is the God side of the strange blend of God/Man. Or as some refer to as the Post Resurrection Jesus.

This is all great, but what has caught my attention is not the exalted Lord, but the carpenter who lived and died in a distant land, a long time ago.

A carpenter turned preacher who changed the world.