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Book Review – The Message of Jesus: John Dominic Crossan and Ben Witherington III in Dialogue

Robert B. Stewart, ed. The Message of Jesus: John Dominic Crossan and Ben Witherington III in Dialogue. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2013. 240 pp. $25.00.

crossan and withThis book presents the dialogues and accompanying papers from the sixth annual Greer-Heard Point-Counterpoint Forum in Faith and Culture held at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in 2010. This forum brings together a respected Evangelical scholar and a respected non-Evangelical or non-Christian scholar to dialogue on an important subject in religion or culture. The goal of the forum is to facilitate respectful, irenic exchange of ideas that does not require any party to compromise his convictions.

Robert Stewart, the editor of this book and the chair of the forum, opens the book with a survey of the quest of the historical Jesus that pays particular attention to hermeneutical issues and their influence upon key scholars in the history of historical Jesus research. Chapter 1 presents the transcript of the dialogue between John Dominic Crossan and Ben Witherington III from the first evening of the forum, which consists of an opening address by each, a dialogue between the two, and a Q&A session. For Crossan, the message of Jesus is that the eschatological vision of the kingdom of God, the “Great Divine Cleanup of the World,” needs our divinely inspired participation and collaboration; furthermore, the coming of God is nonviolent and therefore so is our participation in it. For Witherington, what Jesus preached was the saving intervention of God through his own ministry and that of his disciples. Without his death, resurrection, and return, there would have been no completion to the story of the Son of Man.

The remaining seven chapters consist of four papers presented on the second day of the forum (by Craig Evans, Amy-Jill Levine & Myrick C. Shinall Jr. , Stephen Patterson, and Darrell Bock) and three additional essays (by Robert Miller, Craig Blomberg, and David Wenham). For Evans, the focus of Jesus’s teaching is the reign/kingdom of God and the redemption of Israel. His paper begins with a look at Jesus’s proclamation of the rule of God and the scriptural roots of this proclamation, moves into an analysis of how Jesus understood and applied the Jewish scriptures (a deliberately subversive interpretation of Scripture), and concludes with an inquiry into Jesus’s relationship with the Judaism of his day (not one of opposition as is commonly taught by Christians).

Levine and Shinall’s paper examines the parable of the laborers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16) and how it might instruct us today, especially in relation to economics and issues of inequity. Next, Patterson’s paper investigates why Jesus spoke in parables; why so much of the Jesus tradition is polyvalent, and what that means for us in discerning his message. Subsequently, Miller argues that Matthew both manipulated Old Testament prophecies to fit his stories as well as manipulated his stories to fit Old Testament prophecies in order to portray Jesus as fulfiller of prophecy. From these examples, Miller goes on to assert that since Matthew’s proof-from-prophecy theme has been foundational to Christianity’s conviction that it is superior to Judaism, and since this conviction has had such pernicious consequences for Jews historically, Christians have an intellectual and moral duty to let go of Matthew’s mistaken premise that if  Jews truly understood their Scriptures, they would become Christians.

Bock’s paper addresses the question of whether there can be Evangelical approaches to the historical Jesus that can contribute to the discussion. Obviously Bock’s answer is “yes,” and he demonstrates how by way of one key argument from one key event in the life of the historical Jesus (Peter’s declaration at Caesarea Philippi of Jesus being the Messiah), drawn from a technical study he had done with several Evangelical colleagues. This book, Key Events in the Life of the Historical Jesus: A Collaborative Exploration of Context and Coherence, is an 800-some page study originally published in the WUNT series and subsequently republished by Eerdmans; as Bock himself wrote, the proof is in the pudding. Bock demonstrates that Evangelicals can make contributions to historical Jesus studies and argues that a confessional voice belongs at the table and should not be dismissed simply on the basis of faith, provided the scholar uses arguments and methods shared by all.

Blomberg’s essay tackles the Fourth Gospel, the perpetually left-out sibling at the historical Jesus table. He demonstrates that if one proceeds through the Fourth Gospel major pericope by major pericope isolating those portions that find themselves historically commendable, consistent patterns in Jesus’s teaching would emerge that supplement the standard historical-Jesus portraits based on the Synoptics alone that neither essentially replicate them nor inherently contradict them. The theme that Blomberg traces out in this paper is Jesus as purifier. By way of application, Blomberg points out at the end of his paper that because “contagious holiness” was at the heart of the agenda of the historical Jesus, it should be more at the heart of what his followers are about. In the concluding essay, Wenham argues for Jesus tradition in Paul by looking at the “Word of the Lord” in 1 Thessalonians 4:16, the “law of Christ” in Galatians 6:2, and the “command of the Lord” in 1 Corinthians 14:37.

The Message of Jesus brings together a range of perspectives on historical Jesus research from Evangelical, non-Evangelical, and non-Christian scholars. This aspect combined with the introductory survey on historical Jesus studies makes this book a fantastic introduction to the field and topic. While those familiar with the work of these scholars aren’t likely to discover anything too surprising, there are still fresh insights to be gained from this enjoyable work. This is a great book for anyone interested in historical Jesus research, from the novice to the scholar. I have no reservations in recommending this book to Evangelicals who are aware of critical scholarship and have read and thought somewhat rigorously about their evangelical convictions, especially in relation to Scripture. But because this book presents essays from not just Evangelicals but also non-Evangelicals and non-Christians, I’d be hesitant to recommend it to a large sector of lay Evangelicals. Bart Ehrman provides a good litmus test here; if you’ve Ehrman and are still Evangelical, you can handle The Message of Jesus. And if you enjoy reading material from perspectives different from your own, you’ll enjoy this book.

Thanks to Fortress Press for providing a digital copy in exchange for an unbiased review!

Purchase: Amazon

Samples from Fortress Press

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  1. Thanks Jennifer!


  1. Biblical Studies Carnival – June 2014 | Reading Acts
  2. Book Log: June 2014 |

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