James Beilby and Paul Eddy, ed. The Historical Jesus: Five Views. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009. 312 pp. $26.00 paperback.
“The contemporary interest in Jesus within popular culture is, of course, fueled by a parallel interest in the academic world.” (pg. 10) And just as there is a plethora of “views” in the popular culture regarding Jesus, so it goes in the academic world. In fact, one might posit that with every view, popular or academic, there is someone out there with an opposition to that view. With so many facts (perceived or verifiable), and with so many outright opinions in both popular and academic circles, what is a person to do who genuinely desires to know Jesus as He really was in first century Palestine?
With that massively opaque and rabbit-trail enducing question, editors James Beilby and Paul Eddy (both of Bethel University - St. Paul, MN) bring us the timely and much-needed The Historical Jesus: Five Views from IVP Academic. This book is suitable for upper level college classes or a good primer for Seminary/graduate scholastics, as well as clergy and informed laypeople. This reviewer would not recommend it for the average layperson inquirer as the language and concepts are quite heavy, and to follow the argumentation from the contributors would require keen insight into logic, philosophy of methodology, the familiarity of historical and theological language, and somewhat of a grasp of “the issues” involved. It is indeed a book the average Christian or interested person can move into, but they would do better to acquaint themselves with something like The Historical Jesus for Dummies (Wiley Publishing, 2008) however pompously the title to those series of books may be.
The contributors to this book are all very well known Biblical scholars and historians in their own right. The editors Beilby and Eddy start out the book with a superb introduction to the “quest for the historical Jesus” setting the stage for the debate to come. This “third quest” as we are purportedly now in has brought many scholars to believe that we are at a crossroads, where some have thrown their hands in the air, either wanting to berid the entire expedition or to start over with a clean slate (pgs. 30-47). Then there are others in modern academia who wish to continue to ask probing questions about how we got to this debate in the first place (pgs. 10-28) and to persevere on as N.T. Wright did in 1982 with his important essay to get the debate moving forward from a season of stalemate.
The book is set up in five main sections, for each contributor to propose their thoughts about this issue and then for each other contributor to offer a short response. There is simply too much material to cover in this short review but this reviewer would like to offer some thoughts as the overall flow and substance of all the essays. This reviewer thought that all the contributors did a good job of presenting their case, but was somewhat disappointed with each of the responses. Granted, a person can only rebute so much in a handful of pages, but it seemed to be somewhat of a theme (by and large) for each response to follow this pattern: brief summarization of the argument, rebuttal as to where the essayist “got it wrong”, and then a substantive portion of the response bent on recapping their own thoughts on the historical Jesus that may or may not have to do with the essay being critiqued.
Essentially what is going on here is that with this unbelievable myriad of views both in popular culture and academia, each contributor has their own hobby horse of what they feel is primary in the debate and thus vica vi dismiss the other contributors thoughts as secondary at best or even irrelevant. For example, it’s not tactful scholarship (and hinging on ad hominem) to accuse the self-professed “village atheist” (pg. 55) in the bunch, Robert Price, of laughable and irrelevant scholarship (pg. 94ff) where (frankly) this reviewer thought that Price (however incorrect he is in this reviewer’s thinking) presented one of the most thoughtful presentations in the whole book!
Can we know anything, really, about the historical Jesus with so many different views out there, each with valuable insights and each with their own presuppositional hobbyhorses? It seems as though those on the (pardon the pun) left of the spectrum, the more skeptical of the bunch including Robert Price and John Dominic Crossan (perhaps also Luke Timothy Johnson), would say that it is irrelevant if Jesus even existed, but all that matters are the ideas of Jesus (so says Price, pgs. 55-83). On the other hand, Crossan (pgs. 105-132) and Johnson’s (pgs. 153-177) notion (who are relatively similar) that indeed Jesus existed, but it is incredibly difficult to understand anything about him, particularly given the unreliability of the four Gospels. Or Dunn (pgs. 199-225) and Bock’s (pgs. 249-281) notion (who again are relatively similar) that the four Gospels are reliable and we can know a great about Jesus from them accompanied by other external sources (primarily Josephus) and historical rigor toward first century cultural analysis (both Jewish and Greco-Roman).
In this reviewer’s mind, it seems as though the presuppositional hobby horses that each of the contributors are arguing for, with validity of each aside, get in the way of answering the questions raised in the historical Jesus debate and, as Wright did in 1982, get the debate moving forward. For example, Crossan emphasized heavily, as well as in his responses to each contributor, his own thesis of Jesus shaking up the Roman establishment with his nonviolent resistance in an otherwise horribly violent context. This reviewer does not disagree with this thesis, per se, but would instead posit that Jesus’ emphasis on nonviolent resistance is, a) secondary to the broader emphasis of proclaiming the Kingdom of God, and thus b) Jesus’ nonviolent resistance points to the way the Kingdom of God ought to look, flying in the face of (as Augustine put it) the Kingdom of Man. With each “thing” that Jesus does, whether it be healings, exorcisms, or his own nonviolent resistance to an otherwise violent surrounding, this is all done within the context of his very first proclaimed truism: “The time has come, ‘ he said. ‘The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” (as in Mark 1:15).
With the debates surrounding the quest for the historical Jesus, it is this reviewer’s urging (however infinitely small in impact), for “questers” and contributors to the conversation to narrow their modus operandi by asking key, big picture questions and searching out answers for those questions. Is Jesus’ nonviolent resistance primary to his purpose for the Christ event? For Crossan apparently it is, but for the other contributors it is not. So why continue on one’s hobbyhorse in response to others who do not even discuss what you are critiquing? This reviewer is not trying to pick on Crossan alone; to be sure, all the contributors are in the same boat. Let us all move this conversation about the historical Jesus forward, pining our own hobbyhorses for another day. If Jesus of Nazareth existed: why, to what impact, and what does that mean for those of us who call Him Lord? These were the concerns of the Gospel writers and have been the concern of Christians for two thousand years. Let it be for us today also.