Greg Monette. The Wrong Jesus: Fact, Belief, Legend, Truth…Making sense of What You’ve Heard. Carol Stream, IL: NavPress 2014. 288 pp. $14.99.
Jesus has been a hot topic this year, with the release of Ehrman and Bird et al.’s dueling Christology books this past March bringing about a flurry of blog debates on matters pertaining to historical Jesus and early Christology. All the interaction I’ve seen with the two books have come from academic-types. When the assertions of Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God become popularized among the masses (as is typical with his trade books which have a tendency of become NYT bestsellers), how will the average person in the pew be able to separate truth from error? How can they be equipped to offer a historically responsible rejoinder to the attacks on Christology? Greg Monette’s The Wrong Jesus is a very accessible introduction to the historical Jesus that both addresses perennial apologetics issues in relation to Jesus as well as tackles some of the topics that have come into the spotlight as a result of Ehrman’s latest book.
Monette begins by sharing a little of his own story of growing up in a devout Christian home and almost losing his faith in college when he took what he thought would be easy courses related to Jesus and the New Testament. I had a similar experience, where I excitedly signed up for a Christian origins and New Testament course at my secular university months after becoming a Christian. Little did I know that everything I was just starting to believe about Jesus and the Bible was going to be challenged week in and week out.
This book was written to help you have an honest and secure foundation in Jesus of Nazareth and understand how taking the time to rethink what you know about him can literally change your life as you discover where faith and history collide. I’m convinced that by doing this, you’ll avoid creating (and keeping) a portrait of the wrong Jesus and instead will have a healthy view of the real Jesus – a portrait that stands up under historical scrutiny and discovery.
While there is definitely overlap between this book and other typical apologetics books focusing on Jesus and the NT (e.g. evidence for the existence of Jesus, reliability of the NT witness, manuscript evidence and faithfulness of transmission, evidence for the resurrection), what is unique in this book is significant enough and strong enough to merit it a place on one’s apologetics bookshelf. One unique aspect of this book is that it’s more than an apologetic; it’s also an introduction to historical Jesus studies; as such, it covers some ground that is not typically covered in apologetics concerning NT/Jesus, such as the criteria of authenticity and the Synoptic Problem.
Another unique aspect of this book is that Monette frequently cites skeptical scholars (e.g. Crossan, Ehrman) in making his case for various aspects in relation to the historical Jesus. Typically evangelicals only use evangelical scholarship in defending their case, and skeptical/non-Christian scholars, if quoted, are solely quoted for the sake of rebuttal. I think citing skeptical scholars positively is significant for several reasons. First, from the perspective of scholarship it’s helpful to see not just where you disagree with those in an opposing camp, but also where you agree. Secondly, it definitely bolsters confidence in certain historical truth claims that are foundational to our faith when even non-Christian scholars agree. This can also provide extra apologetical “oomph”, whether for a seeker reading this book or for the Christian using this information in dialogue with non-Christians. Most apologetics books are really only helpful for Christians, even if the authors hope they are read by non-Christians. However, Monette’s book is one that I would actually recommend to a non-Christian because of the fine historical work and scholarship.
I think that the standout chapter of this book is the sixth one on archeology. Here Monette highlights eight of the most significant archeological discoveries of the past century in relation to Jesus and the Gospels, including the remains of a crucified man named Yehohanan. One of the most startling and earth-shattering revelations in Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God is the fact that Ehrman no longer believes that Jesus received a proper burial. Without evidence for the burial, defending the resurrection becomes impossible and moot. In a few brief pages, Monette provides a stellar overview of literary and archeological evidence that during peacetime in Roman Palestine, crucified criminals were given proper burial.
As a pretty conservative evangelical, there were two aspects of this book that made me uneasy. One relates to the nasty “i” word that has recently stirred up a bit of controversy – inerrancy. Classical inerrantists will likely troubled by many places in which Monette expresses a view of Scripture that seems to have room for error. For example, “When we read through the Gospels, we can have confidence that the basic structure of the material describing Jesus is reliable” (57). “These stories are quite reliable, not necessarily perfect, but really good depictions of what Jesus really said and did” (63). “Maybe someday we’ll dig up an old text or artifact that will explain how Luke correctly recorded the census during Quirinius, or maybe we won’t and we’ll realize that Luke or his source(s) made a mistake. In the end, it’s not a major issue” (114). While statements such as these make me uncomfortable because of my current position in relation to inerrancy and biblical authority, having just read Walton’s The Lost World of Scripture I can see how certain errors can be accommodated within a high view of Scriptural authority. However, it does make me hesitant to recommend the book to young believers and those who may not have read or thought much about issues of biblical authority. I would likely try to pursue further conversation on biblical authority with those to whom I recommend The Wrong Jesus.
The second thing that made me uncomfortable is chapter 9, “Was Jesus a Feminist;” because I’m a complementarian, the reasons are obvious. I’m going to refrain from engaging with specific disagreements, not only because it is so complicated and controversial a topic but also because I don’t think the material in this chapter is central to the aims of this book. I honestly wish this chapter wasn’t a part of the book because it makes me hesitant to recommend it to complementarians. Of course for egalitarians (which seems to be the overwhelming majority of Christians), this is not an issue.
In summary, I do think that The Wrong Jesus is a great introduction to the historical Jesus and provides some apologetical insights into Jesus and the NT that are unique in contrast to other books on these topics. Monette presents first-rate scholarship in an accessible manner with candid and relatable language. Each chapter ends with discussion questions (making this a suitable book for group discussions) and suggestions for further reading. While I’d recommend this book to some without reservations (e.g. those more mature in faith and somewhat well-read on biblical authority and gender roles), because of the two concerns above I’d pursue follow-up conversations with others to whom I recommend the book.
*Many thanks to Greg for sending me a copy! This did not influence my review.