Book review: The Historical Jesus

June 26, 2017

The Historical Jesus

Five Views

Publisher: Intervarsity Press

Reviewer: Discerning Reader Team

Available on Amazon

Recommended: Yes

“Who do people say that I am?” It’s interesting that Jesus didn’t start off by asking the disciples the personal question that would follow (“Who do you say that I am?”). He first asked them what other people were saying. The views of Jesus were varied in the first century. They are even more so today.

C.S. Lewis gave us an apologetic device called the “Trilemma”, in which he argued that Jesus must be a liar, a lunatic, or Lord. He could not be simply a “nice teacher.” A brilliant piece of apologetics in Lewis’ day, it is less effective now. Why? Because the Trilemma only works if you accept the authority and authenticity of the original documents about Jesus’ life. Today, by questioning the sources, picking and choosing which parts fit their overall portrait, scholars can wiggle out of Lewis’ three options and offer a number of other views.

The Historical Jesus: Five Views brings together some of the major players in “Historical Jesus” research today. The only thing these contributors have in common is the source material that we find in the Gospels. And even on the source materials, they are divided as to what parts should be considered as historical evidence.

The book begins with an overview of “the quest for the historical Jesus”. There are three major phases to this quest, culminating in recent research which emphasizes the Jewishness of Jesus. But even within the third quest, scholarly views of Jesus have fragmented to the point that no consensus is possible.

The first contribution is Robert M. Price’s essay, “Jesus at the Vanishing Point”. Price makes the case that there never was a Jesus of Nazareth. (If you wonder how anyone can actually make the case for Jesus’ non-existence, you will get a good dose of conspiracy theory here.) Price’s view is effectively shot down by each of the other contributors. James Dunn suggests that Price’s essay should be retitled: “The Jesus Myth – a Thesis at Vanishing Point”.

Next, John Dominic Crossan fashions Jesus as a prophet who taught non-violent resistance to Roman imperialism. Crossan is perhaps most known in evangelical circles for his statement that after Jesus’ crucifixion, his body was probably thrown into a shallow grave and eaten by wild dogs. It’s easy for evangelicals like myself to write off Crossan from the start. But I am challenged by his knowledge of Scripture, which I dare say exceeds that of a good many evangelicals, even some evangelical pastors. Unfortunately, his knowledge is like the scribes of old, always searching the Scriptures, but never coming to the true Jesus revealed therein.

Luke Timothy Johnson’s essay argues that historical study is not the best way to understand Jesus. Johnson clears up misunderstandings about previous statements which seemed to imply that no historical study is necessary. Instead, Johnson wants to shine light on the limitations of historical research, which “all too frequently turns out to be not historical research at all, but a theological agenda wearing the external garb of history.” (167)

James D. G. Dunn writes a brilliant essay on how the Quest for the Historical Jesus has lost its way. He launches a series of protests against the naturalistic presuppositions of those in the Jesus Seminar, and then he makes proposals. Dunn’s essay starts out by taking a wrecking ball to certain pictures of the “historical Jesus” and then finishes by putting down a new foundation for his own approach.

The final essay comes from Darrell Bock. As an evangelical, Bock understands the limits of historical Jesus research. But he still sees value in this conversation because it “can give us a start and can open doors for discussion between people of distinct approaches to Jesus.” (253) Bock makes the case that Jesus’ intentions can best be seen in the symbolism of his actions within a Jewish context of expectation. His essay makes the case for the historicity of the Gospel accounts of Jesus.

I didn’t think that this book could make a serious contribution to the discussion about the historical Jesus. The views are so different that there is very little common ground between the authors, except for the fact they agreed to contribute essays. But surprisingly, the book does succeed at giving an informative look at the current scholarly proposals. The responses of the authors are lively and engaging. If you are looking for a book that lays out some of the historical proposals, The Historical Jesus is a good place to start.

Available on Amazon

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