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Book Review – Jesus as a Figure in History (Mark Allan Powell)

Mark Allen Powell. Jesus as a Figure in History, Second Edition: How Modern Historians View the Man from Galilee. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013. 288 pp. $30.00.

JesysMy first encounter with historical Jesus research was in a Christian origins and New Testament course at my secular university less than a year after I had become a Christian. While my evangelical faith remained intact through the course by God’s grace, the impression I got about historical Jesus work was that this is the business of non-Christian scholars seeking to debunk the foundational truth claims of Christianity. I went along the next several years with no interest in this field whatsoever, only occasionally brushing shoulders with it unintentionally through apologetics and gospels studies. Needless to say, my opinion of the field based on a very limited and one-sided exposure has changed.1

In Jesus as a Figure in History, Mark Allan Powell provides a very accessible introduction to the field of historical Jesus research from the perspective of a journalist researching an academic movement. Though Powell is a confessing evangelical Christian and has chaired the Historical Jesus Section of the Society of Biblical Literature and was a founding editor of the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, he aimed to be descriptive in this book rather than argumentative, writing in an unbiased way with an ideologically neutral tone.

Chapter 1 sets the stage for the rest of the book (which focuses on the scholarship of the past three decades) by providing a brief survey of historical Jesus studies that demonstrates how we got to where we are. Key figures and their contributions to the discipline are introduced, and the various quests for the historical Jesus are defined and explained. Chapter 2 provides an overview of the data and sources historians use to study Jesus (archeology, Roman literature, Jewish literature, New Testament epistles, Synoptic Gospels, Gospel of John, noncanonical gospels, agrapha) as well as a survey of nine key criteria of authenticity that are applied to these sources in historical Jesus research. Though different scholars have different approaches, the sources and methods outlined in this chapter are basic and generally employed by all.

Chapter 3 examines a few snapshots of certain aspects of who Jesus was that have been suggested by modern scholars: Jesus the social prophet (Richard Horsley), Jesus the charismatic Jew (Geza Vermes), Jesus the magician (Morton Smith), Jesus the sage (Ben Witherington III), Jesus the Cynic philosopher (F. Gerald Downing), Jesus the itinerant radical (Gerd Theissen), Jesus the millenarian prophet (Dale Allison), Jesus the mamzer rabbi (Bruce Chilton), and Jesus the purported Messiah (Paula Fredriksen). Chapters 4-9 provide a more in-depth treatment of the work of the “big six” historical Jesus scholars – Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, E.P. Sanders, John Meier, and N.T. Wright. In contrast to the snapshots of chapter three, these scholars have all more or less tried to produce comprehensive portraits of Jesus. Each of these six chapters follows a similar structure: overview of the scholar, his method for studying Jesus, resulting portrait of Jesus, and criticisms from the guild.

The concluding chapter provides a summary of key issues in which there continues to be disagreement. Powell addresses the disagreements in method (sources, criteria, approach) as well as disagreements over Jesus’s relationship to Judaism, eschatology, politics, and the supernatural. Whereas Schweitzer sounded a death knell for historical Jesus studies a century ago, today the field is alive and well. The appendices look at the work of scholars who claim Jesus never existed, the relationship between historical Jesus studies and Christian apologetics, and scholars who try to develop a psychological profile for Jesus. I found appendix two particularly interesting as a Christian and as someone who was at one time very engaged in apologetics. Powell takes a look at how Christian scholars engage in this discipline and the challenges therein, focusing unsprisingly on Darrell Bock and Craig Keener. He notes the unfortunate yet unsurprising marginalization of Christian scholars in this field, and also points out some reasons why Christian apologetics has an uneasy relationship with historical Jesus studies.

Jesus as a Figure in History is a phenomenal introduction to historical Jesus research. This kind of descriptive introduction to the field is uncommon; most of the literature is that of a particular scholar sketching his particular portrait of Jesus or writing from his particular perspective. Powell truly does write in an unbiased way. When he presents criticism of a scholar’s work from the guild, he also points out strengths and contributions. This book is also very accessible and doesn’t require any prior knowledge in the field. Powell explains everything very clearly. This is definitely a must-read for anyone with an interest in historical Jesus research that is seeking an overview of the field and the contemporary issues. And though Powell points out an uneasy relationship between historical Jesus research and apologetics, I actually feel that any Christian with a passion for apologetics and evangelism should be acquainted with the field of historical Jesus research. Some non-Christians are very knowledgeable about the work of scholars like Crossan and Ehrman, and it would be a challenge to engage in dialogue without some familiarity with this kind of critical scholarship.

1 Evangelicals without exposure to historical Jesus research should note that this is an academic field dominated by non-Christians/non-evangelicals. Therefore, when you read in this area, you are bound to read things that you fundamentally disagree with and things you find extremely offensive to your faith convictions.

Purchase: Amazon

A free electronic copy was provided by the publisher in exchange for an unbiased review.

Leave a comment


  1. Wow sounds like a book worth getting


  1. Book Log: June 2014 |
  2. Book Review – The Historical Jesus: Five Views |
  3. Favorite Books of 2014 |

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