Review | The Historical Jesus: Five Views

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Just a heads up: This one is pretty academic and may not be for everyone. I actually wrote it for a seminary class but thought I’d share it with all of you.

Bethel University professors James K. Bielby and Paul Rhodes Eddy have put together a volume in The Historical Jesus: Five Views that provides a glimpse into the broad range of perspectives found among those who quest for the historical Jesus. Robert M. Price, a professor at Johnny Coleman Theological Seminary, begins the book with the most radical of views, followed by DePaul University emeritus professor of religious studies John Dominic Crossan. The works gradually move through the center toward the conservative end of the spectrum with essays by Emory University professor Luke Timothy Johnson and Durham University professor James D. G. Dunn. Finally, the book draws to a conservative close with an essay by Darrell L. Bock, research professor of New Testament studies, Dallas Theological Seminary.

The Historical Jesus begins with a survey of the quest for the historical Jesus, covering its beginnings in the late eighteenth century to today. Bielby and Rhodes provide the reader with a quick glimpse of each separate quest – or stage of the overall quest – as well as the views that drove it or, at times, brought it to a halt. The editors do not bring their own views to bear. They leave that to the contributors.

Their introduction is followed by each contributor’s essay, in which he puts forth his view. Each essay is then followed by responses from each of the other four authors.

Price’s essay, “Jesus at the Vanishing Point,” is easily the most liberal and radical. He has no qualms about sharing his view with the reader. “I will argue that it is quite likely there never was any historical Jesus” (55). He then proceeds to completely deconstruct the Gospels. He does this by relying on the criterion of dissimilarity and the idea that each of the Gospel stories is simply a retelling of an Old Testament story.

John Dominic Crossan’s work “Jesus and the Challenge of Collaborative Eschatology” reduces Jesus to a simple nonviolent revolutionary whose battle was against the Roman Empire. Though not the Messiah, he says, some Jews saw Jesus as “a nonviolent Davidic Messiah” (120). He attributes those of Jesus’ actions in the Gospels that he deems historically accurate to a political motivation, and the crufixion he attributes to Rome’s standard policy in dealing with nonviolent rebels.

Next comes “Learning the Human Jesus” by Luke Timothy Johnson. His conclusions are moderate when compared to those of his fellow contributors. Leaning more toward acceptance of the Gospels’ portrayal of Jesus, he writes that, when taken strictly as narrative, the Gospels provide a valid perspective on the character of Jesus. The question of character “is a question that narrative is distinctly capable of addressing” (173). Johnson still doubts the historical validity of the Gospels.

James D. G. Dunn writes the essay “Remembering Jesus,” in which he accepts a faith-based viewing of the Gospels as a valid historical perspective. He states, “…it is the ear of faith which is likely to hear the Gospels most effectively” (225). Dunn seeks to convince the reader that the right course in the quest is to look for those characteristics of Jesus that can be seen across the Gospels (220). Dunn does not accept all the Gospel material as true, though he is more conservative than prior contributors.

Darrell L. Bock shows himself to hold the truly conservative view in this work. The entirety of his essay, “The Historical Jesus,” gives the reader a view of Jesus as He appears in the Gospels, spelling out His character and motivations as exhibited by His actions. Bock declares that the Gospels’ picture of a “messianic Jesus who saw himself standing at the hub of God’s program and completely vindicated as Son of Man at God’s side” (281) is the most accurate view to take.

In this reviewer’s opinion, Price’s view is the least well-researched. It appears to be based entirely on his own biases and reading of other liberal theologians, rather than on arguments from factual data. The essay’s greatest weakness is his stretching of the criterion of dissimilarity to contend that the Gospel stories are simple reworkings of Old Testament stories. While this reviewer doubts that the criterion in question has any value whatsoever, even the other authors in The Historical Jesus take issue with Price’s use of it. Dunn writes, “Such an extension of the criterion of dissimilarity simply undermines what value it has” (95).

Crossan’s view, while perhaps more informed, is no less biased. He draws upon a great deal of extrabiblical historical knowledge – some of which is dubious at best – but he discounts nearly as much of the Gospel material as does Price. He believes Jesus existed, but his picture of Jesus is shaped by his own values and knowledge of the fishing industry in ancient Palestine (116). Even Price states that Crossan reduces “Jesus to a function of the categories and methods through which he has decided to study him.” (133). Crossan infers in his essay, and outright insists in his response to Dunn, that the Jesus of the Gospels who taught love and pacifism cannot be the same as the Jesus of revelation who will return in violence (234). For Crossan, nonviolence is the one defining characteristic of Jesus, whose life and death hinge on “the crucial difference… between the eschatological kingdom of God and the imperial kingdom of Rome,” which is “Jesus’ nonviolence and Pilate’s violence” (132).

Johnson and Dunn, while espousing slightly different views, straddle the center. Johnson leans more heavily toward the liberal side, and Dunn leans toward the conservative side. However, they both – like the more liberal contributors to this book – rely on sources like Q that may or may not exist to determine which parts of the Gospel are true. For a conservative reviewer, Dunn’s view is easier to swallow, since he accepts faith as a valid historical perspective. Johnson, however, seems inexplicably to accept faith as faith and historical knowledge as something else altogether.

Bock is the one among these contributors who takes the Gospel texts seriously. He writes that the Gospels provide “a multiperspectival impression” that “can be as historical as the autobiographical words of the individual” (251). From there he provides a historical view of Jesus that is drawn entirely from Scripture and, therefore, reads more like a sermon – with generally solid exegesis – than the apparently scholarly views of the other contributors. The only real weakness this reviewer found in Bock’s contribution was that it might have fit better in a different book, but that appears to have been the point of The Historical Jesus: Five Views.

The Historical Jesusis a worthy read, providing opposing perspectives against which to hone one’s views. It strengthened this reader’s trust in the Gospels as the only reliable picture of the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith, who are one and the same.

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