Review of The Historical Jesus: Five Views

Review of The Historical Jesus: Five Views, edited by James Beilby and Paul Rhodes Eddy, a book that contains contributions from Robert M. Price, John Dominic Crossan, Luke Timothy Johnson, James D. G. Dunn, and Darrell L. Bock. This or something like it was published in American Theological Inquiry. Paul shared much of this review in a December 2011 email to persons who had supported Paul financially.

Publication: December 2011

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The Historical Jesus: Five Views opens with a broad survey of historical Jesus research lucid enough to give the uninitiated a feel for the major historical contours of the field, yet still packed with enough facts, figures, and theories that a second or third reading would be rewarded. This is a prelude to the main portion of the book, the five essays and twenty responses from Robert M. Price, John Dominic Crossan, Luke Timothy Johnson, James D. G. Dunn, and Darrell L. Bock.

Robert Price argues for the Christ-myth theory from the absence of secular citations of Jesus’ miraculous activity, the historical precedent of dying and rising god myths that could explain the veneration of a resurrected Jewish sage, and the epistles not evidencing a historical Jesus. Where did most of the gospels material come from? That, he says, is creative midrash, the evangelists taking Old Testament texts, twisting, adding, deleting, and renaming them until they have a product worthy of their fertile imagination or religious community. Complaining that Price’s Jesus vanishes by denying all the evidence that makes him visible, Luke Timothy Johnson nevertheless admits that proper historiography and the limits of the verifiable evidence only yield a small amount of sure historical facts about Jesus. Noting that the four gospels disagree at so many points with each other, he suggests redirecting one’s focus from historical facts to the gospels’ remarkable convergence on Jesus’ character – his obedient faith in God, his self-disposing love towards others, and his example for discipleship. According to Johnson, this narratival reading is publicly available, gives a richer picture than many sociological depictions would, and provides the best historical access in regard to Jesus.

James Dunn and Darrell Bock dispute such meager territorial claims for the historian, both finding in the gospels more historical facts than Johnson would admit. Dunn protests against key methodological assumptions of the quest for the historical Jesus. The “Christ of faith”, he says, does not obscure the view of “the historical Jesus,” the relationship between the earliest tradition and the Synoptics is not mainly literary, and looking for a Jesus distinctive or different from his environment is misguided as a working assumption. To these three protests he adds his own constructive proposal, culminating in a thoroughly Jewish Jesus, one evoking faith and memory from the beginning, and remembered through an informally controlled oral tradition. Bock ties Jesus’ kingdom of God to God’s vindication of Jesus. Jesus reached out to the fringe of society, calling for total commitment while extending forgiveness and the mercy of God. Then came Peter’s confession of Christ, and Jesus at last fully revealing the centrality of his own person in God’s kingdom – evidenced in his temple clearing, the last supper, and Jesus’ applying Psalm 110 (and probably Daniel 7) to himself, a centrality vindicated by God in the resurrection. These, according to Bock, are solid historical facts around which something more than a skeletal Jesus can be fleshed out.

John Dominic Crossan understands the message of John the Baptist and Jesus in very different terms than Bock and Dunn. John the Baptist centered a movement on himself, heralding the imminent arrival of a fiery and vengeful God. But John died, and his God never came. So Jesus changed his view of God, Crossan says, and insisted that God was already here, waiting for his people to join him to bring about his kingdom. Jesus’ message was an invitation to come, see how he lived, and live like him. What that amounted to was healing the sick, eating with those you healed, and announcing God’s presence in that mutuality.

This volume is a handbook in historical method. With regard to methodology, Price’s principle of analogy, which neatly precludes the miraculous in a manner similar to Hume’s take on miracles in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, seems suspect, and his negative use of the criterion of dissimilarity rejects wide swaths of authentic Jesus tradition. On the other end, Johnson’s concern for proper historiography poses a substantial challenge, even if frequently surmountable, to more defined pictures of the historical Jesus. Crossan’s sociological approach to the rise of John and Jesus also brings to the fore the ongoing question of how much Galilean economics and politics shaped (or did not shape) the identity of these two figures.

As important as this last question is, responses to Crossan leave the reader with the impression that only one side of the story has been told. Johnson accuses him of “playing fast and loose with sources, with logic and with his own painstakingly elaborated methodological principles” (140), a point echoed in Dunn’s own observation that the “selective acceptance of one sequence of texts, and effective dismissal or denigration of others … is poor scholarship” (145). Crossan, of course, would object, but the agreement of Dunn and Johnson against Crossan points to a danger inherent in five views books. Equal attention to every view, necessary though it is for the genre, risks the impression that all five views are equally plausible. They are not. Although Price and Crossan’s views are interesting, the most plausible account of the Historical Jesus seems closer to that of Johnson, Dunn, or Bock.

Overall, the quality of the contributions, responses, and introductory essay make the book worth the price, the time spent pondering its disagreements rewarded, and the intended reader prepared to delve still further into the most fascinating figure of history.

Keywords: Historical Jesus Studies

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