I was made aware recently of some comments in Dale Allison's Jesus of Nazareth that have some bearing on preterist eschatology and exegesis. Qualification should be made first that:
- Allison is addressing arguments by Caird and Wright, who probably would/did not call themselves preterists, but whose understanding of certain passages like the Olivet Discourse were/are amenable to preterist views;
- I regard Allison as a careful scholar, but one who (like James Dunn) "waffles" when it comes to reaching conclusions that the evidence clearly warrants, pulling back from acceptable conclusions for no good reason.
The latter emerges again in Allison's treatment of Caird and Wright, whose readings of passages like the OD in terms of the typical language of the Ancient Near East resulted in understandings amenable to a preterist viewpoint: E.g., Jesus' prediction of himself riding a cloud as Son of Man was not a literal prediction that Caiaphas would see him outside his window popping a wheelie on a cumulus one day, but signified royal dignity (per metaphors of YHWH riding on a cloud in the OT) and affirmation of his honor and status. Likewise Wright memorably said that Jews did not expect the beasts of Daniel to literally come slobbering ashore one day on the Mediterranean, but saw these as nations that were their enemies.
Allison's treatment of Caird and Wright makes no mention, that I can find, or how Caird made comparisons to the linguistic contexts of the Biblical era. Indeed the thrust of Allison's retort is somewhat petulantly after the manner of his treatment of Luke 14:26 elsewhere: "Well, why can't we take it literally?"
Most disappointingly, Allison resorts to the expediency of accusation, to the effect that the likes of Caird and Wright are somehow motivated by a desire to make Jesus or the Bible correct ("saving their theology" -- 159; references to "cognitive dissonance", 167), rather than by sincere scholarship (an accusation just as readily, and with as much evidence, turned around on him in a different direction).
It is also difficult to evaluate what Allison holds, and how he might respond to a preterist exegesis of passages like Matt. 24, since he provides little in the way of systematic exegesis himself (though this was perhaps not his purpose).
What particulars Allison offers otherwise devolve to the following:
- He first stresses common belief in a final, trouble-free age in the ancient world. This is not doubted; what is at issue is the means by which this was to be accomplished, and whether Jesus predicted as much specifically as is supposed.
Given the ideological nature of the Kingdom of God in Jesus' teachings, it is not credible to suppose that he predicted something on the order of instant physical change. Allison moreover apparently has no place for an amillenial conception of drastic change of that sort occuring at the time of the final resurrection.
- Specific response to Caird/Wright is particularly disappointing. Allison admits that yes, there can be metaphor in such things, but his response is little more than, "why should we think that's the case here" and "some things are literal in these predictions, so why not this also?" Caird and Wright present detailed explanations of why, and Allison addresses little or none of this (to say nothing of more detailed exegetical treatments by the likes of DeMar and Gentry).
The presence of a literal element does not "literalize" a metaphorical one; no more so does it become that:
"It's raining cats and dogs. I need an umbrella."
...the literal request for an umbrella turns the outside into a realm of literal felines and canines. Allison pleads an exegesis of despair and unknowing; as elsewhere, I said, Allison is a little too reliant on the "what if" method of dealing with arguments, which is a way of saying that the evidence itself isn't cooperating. This is as much as admission that the data and arguments as they stand don't cooperate with his thesis.
- Allison also leans on weak reeds and red herrings overmuch; he appeals to the uncritical acceptance of pseudonymous writings (not as much a problem as he thinks) as a reason to deny the probability of "refined hermenuetics," as if a scholar's preference for Michelob over fine wine might mean that he can't be trusted to understand Greco-Roman rhetoric. Perhaps Plutarch thought there'd be a literal eschatological trumpet, but does a KJV Onlyist's literalist belief discredit Allison's more nuanced beliefs as a Christian? Hardly.
Preterist exegetes also find metaphorical uses of trumpets in the OT; one may also find examples of a phrase that can be literal or metaphorical in different contexts (e.g., "he's about to be hung from a yardarm" can be literal in a prison on execution day, but metaphorical in the press). Allison merely defers when it comes to deciding which is which, then says, "why not default for literal like these guys did?"
- Allison simply denies, with no explanation, that Paul could be speaking metaphorically in 1 Thess. 4:13-18 of Jesus coming on the clouds. He says "[o]ne has difficulty imagining that Paul was not referring to literal clouds in the atmosphere", though why this is simply not a difficulty with one's imagination, apart from what Caird argued about semantics in that context, is not explained.
Indeed, "this sure sounds literal to me" is Allison's base here. Examples from other literature he also either assumes to be likewise literal, with no explanation (e.g., 1 Enoch 70:6 is just as well a metaphor for change in governing authorites rather than a literal prediction of stellar waywardness) or by thinking that some other writers' literalism indicates the same for the NT.
Indeed? If this is so, then this puts a guilty stain on Allison once we make the connection that he, Jack Chick, and Benny Hinn all claim to be Christians. I am obviously being facetious, but that is what Allison's arguments inevitably devolve to.
Allison also makes much of the repetition of metaphors. But repetition of such metaphors or language does not literalize them, any more than repeating "cats and dogs" means we literally view precipitation in terms of the domestic animal kingdom. Allison even offers the same argument as one of our fundamentalist-atheist opponents that because "stars" do literally fall, it's logical to think that Mark 13 means literal cosmic fallings.
This is all the more shocking in that Allison takes with one hand what he gave with the other and admits that bad exegesis was and could be done; but please, he asks: Give him a break. In the end, if he admits this, what his argument amounts to is: "Wright/Caird say a 40-60 balance of literal and metaphorical. I say more like 25-75." So why, to turn the tables, prefer his view, other than to preserve some point of view?
- Further circularity emerges in treatments of Scripture. Assuming the predictions of Is. 40-55 failed (by assuming literalism!) Allison without explanation labels Is. 56-66 a "fix it up" for the failure. Luke 19:11 and Acts 1:6 are read in terms of coverups for failure, again merely by assuming a literalist reading which failed.
In conclusion, Allison offers little that is persuasive in terms of rejecting preterist exegesis.