Book Plunge: Five Views on the Historical Jesus

What do I think of the five views? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.

Historical Jesus study is one of the most controversial fields today. Despite what many atheists today think, it’s not filled with conservative evangelical Christians. Oh sure, some are in there, but any one can be a historical Jesus scholar regardless of their worldview.

So what happens when you get five scholars from five different fields to come on? Everyone ends up critiquing everyone and that’s the great benefit of these counterpoint books. One gets to see multiple perspectives and how they interact.

The first view is Robert Price’s.

It’s hard to say that without snickering.

Why? Because Robert Price is one of few on the planet in the field who actually holds to the idea that Jesus never existed. His essay naturally fails to deliver as he does not interact with sources outside of the NT hardly, such as Tacitus, and he too quickly dismisses the passages in Josephus. Meanwhile, he wants to find a parallel for everything in the Gospels somewhere in the OT, and some of them particularly amusing. For instance, the healing of the paralytic in Mark 2 who was lowered through the roof is based on King Ahaziah being afflicted by falling from his roof and then the result of him lying in bed.

If you think I’m making that up, it’s on page 69. I am not.

Now of course there are some Old Testament parallels, but it should not surprise us the NT would be written in the language of the OT since these were people familiar with the OT and would be making allusions to it seeing Jesus as a fulfillment. This would in fact give honor to the person of Jesus.

The responses are just as hilarious, particularly James Dunn’s response. Dunn is absolutely stunned that someone like Price even exists. Interestingly, another scathing critique of Price’s essay comes from John Dominic Crossan.

Crossan’s essay is in fact where we’ll go next.

Crossan presents a Jesus who interacts much with the politics of his day and talks about God bringing His Kingdom. So far, so good. Yet for Crossan, Jesus had followed John the Baptist in a more apocalyptic message, but then toned it down when He saw John beheaded and decided to say the Kingdom was here in the sense that God was making His presence known. It was already here. From that point on, Jesus is a teacher of the love and grace of God.

It sounds well and good, but keep in mind Crossan has also said the crucifixion of Christ is as sure a fact as any in ancient history. As I read Crossan’s essay I kept wondering “How on Earth would this Jesus be crucified?” This Jesus might be at worst an annoyance, but He would not strike anyone as a political revolutionary. He would not be teaching a message that would be radical to the people of the time.

This Jesus then is not the one that I think could be the Jesus of the Gospels. He would not be someone who is stirring up controversy whatsoever. Pilate would not have considered him a threat. No one would have considered that He was in anyway thinking He was a Messiah or a King.

The next essay is by Luke Timothy Johnson. Johnson has a unique approach and it’s rather difficult to figure out. He wants us to study history, but he wants us to realize that history has limits. From what I gather, Johnson is more interested in us getting to know the person of Jesus by reading the Gospels as literary works. No harm there. That should be done.

My concern with this is that it gives the impression that it’s praising history from one viewpoint and going against it from another. If Johnson’s view is that studying the Gospels will not tell us everything about the historical Jesus, well who would disagree with that?

At the same time, I do think Johnson deserves the rightful praise for reminding us that whatever genre the Gospels are, and I hold that they are Greco-Roman bioi, that we should definitely read them as works of literature.

The next essay is James Dunn. Personally, I found this one the most helpful essay of all. Dunn presents a brief look at what he has in Jesus Remembered, a massive work of his on the historical Jesus. He invites the reader to look into the question of the oral tradition and reminds us that our society is different from theirs.

He also asks us to look at why things happened. Why did Jesus have such an impact on the disciples and this even before the events of Easter? What was it about Jesus that made the difference? These are the kinds of questions that need to be asked, especially when dealing with more fundamentalist types like Bart Ehrman.

Finally, we have an essay by Darrell Bock. Bock comes from the evangelical sphere so he’s also the only one to really talk about the resurrection. I found Bock’s essay interesting but in some places, lacking. Why when Pilate’s actions are mentioned is not the death of Sejanus mentioned that would highly affect Pilate’s response? Still, one will find a good presentation of a common evangelical view of Jesus in Bock’s essay.

Of course, a book like this cannot cover everything, but it will give the layman a good introduction to how historical Jesus study takes place. I highly recommend it.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

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