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Book Review – The Historical Jesus: Five Views

James K. Beilby and Paul Rhodes Eddy, ed. The Historical Jesus: Five Views. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009. 312 pp. $26.00.

5 views HJ

At the end of the first quest of the historical Jesus in 1906, historical Jesus research was thought to be more or less dead. Yet today the field is as alive as ever as we find ourselves in the midst of what many are calling the third quest. Exciting work is being done by participants all along the spectrum from no belief that Jesus even existed to evangelical faith in Jesus Christ. This diversity of perspectives and voices can be confusing for the uninitiated.

The Historical Jesus: Five Views from IVP Academic’s Spectrum Multiview series is an excellent introduction to the field. In the 46-page introduction editors Beilby and Eddy survey the four stages of the scholarly quest for the historical Jesus, highlighting the most significant scholars, publications, and ideas. They also provide an overview of the important issues and debates in the current phase (“third quest”) and introduce the contributors to this volume – five noted scholars of the present phase. I have no quibbles with any of the contributors chosen, but I do find the absence of N. T. Wright surprising. Apart from the introduction, this book is structured such that after every essay, each of the other contributors presents a brief response.

Robert Price
Robert Price is the only contributor to this volume who does not believe Jesus was a real person. He first lays out his methodological presuppositions: principle of analogy, criterion of dissimilarity, ideal type, consensus is no criterion, and scholarly conclusions must always be open to revision. Price then presents an overview of the traditional Christ-myth theory (where he makes the claim that there are no secular sources that mention a miracle-working Jesus, dismissing the oft-cited section of Josephus as inauthentic), argues that “virtually the whole Gospel narrative is the product of haggadic midrash on the Old Testament” (67), that many facets of the Jesus story parallels ancient myths, and that alternative traditions regarding dates related to Jesus demonstrate an attempt to anchor a mythic Jesus in recent history (80-81). Crossan, Johnson, and Bock all address secular literary evidence for the life of Jesus; Johnson, Dunn, and Bock all take issue with Price’s use of the criterion of dissimilarity. All four of the other contributors dismantle Price’s arguments from ideal type/hero typology.

John Dominic Crossan
The purpose of Crossan’s essay is to outline how he sees “Jesus as a Galilean Jew within Judaism within the Roman empire as those two traditions confronted one another in the territories of Herod Antipas in the 20s of that first common-era century” (106-107). His first step is imagining as if Jesus had never existed – the context of the Roman empire and the Jewish interaction with it spans almost half the chapter. The second step is determining the earliest layer of Jesus tradition and whether it coheres with the matrix established in the first step. Here Crossan addresses John’s relation to eschatology and the paradigm shift to Jesus’s eschatology. For Crossan, “the first and most important discussion about the historical Jesus should be on his vision of collaborative eschatology” (131). Johnson shows how Crossan’s commitment to an anti-imperialist construal of Jesus resulted in methodological inconsistency. Dunn humorously protests Crossan’s critique of Meier as a “rich case of a pot calling a relatively polished kettle black” (146). Bock challenges his identification of the Common Sayings Tradition (common to Q and Gospel of Thomas) as the earliest identifiable large-scale stratum of Jesus sayings as well as his emphasis on Jesus’s concerns with Rome and sociopolitical agendas.

Luke Timothy Johnson
Johnson thinks that for those who claim to be Christian in any meaningful sense of the term, Jesus is best learned through the practices of faith. The other position is that Jesus is knowable only through historical reconstruction – the premise here is that the Christian position got Jesus wrong.  In between are what Johnson calls “fuzzy mediating positions espoused by those calling themselves Christians yet seeking to ground their convictions concerning Jesus in some form of historical inquiry(156). I disagree with this somewhat dismissive statement (as do Dunn and Bock in their responses). Johnson goes on to address the question of knowing Jesus purely as a historical figure, apart from faith in his resurrection. Johnson highlights some of the limits of history in general as well as limits of history concerning Jesus and then argues that a literary-critical engagement with Jesus in the Gospel narratives as narrative is what leads to a fuller knowledge of him in his human character. Dunn tackles Johnson’s denunciation of source criticism and Bock advocates for a combination of historical and literary reading as opposed to Johnson’s either-or.

James D. G. Dunn
The purpose of Dunn’s essay is to clarify three protests and corresponding proposals that are easily missed in his massive Jesus Remembered. Protest 1 is against the assumption that faith prevents a clear historical view of Jesus. Dunn’s corresponding proposal is that “the quest should start from the recognition that Jesus evoked faith from the outset of his mission and that this faith is the surest indication of the historical reality and effect of his mission” (203). Protest 2 is against a twofold assumption: 1) “the only way to understand both the relation of the traditions in the Synoptic Gospels and the earliest transmission of the Jesus tradition is in literary terms” (207); and 2) oral tradition functioned like written tradition; or that it is no longer possible to say anything about the oral phase of the Gospel tradition; or that only the written tradition is reliable (208). Proposal 2 affirms the necessity of taking oral tradition seriously  and the possibility of envisaging the oral phase of the Jesus tradition. Finally, Protest 3 is against the assumption that we must look for a Jesus who was distinctive from his environment; the corresponding proposal is that we should look first of all for the Jewish Jesus. Price finds the key weakness in Dunn’s timeline to be his placing of Epistle Christianity. Crossan helpfully points out that “oral tradition operating without any document is not the same as oral sensibility operating within a document. And neither is performative variation the same as hermeneutical variation or polemical variation” (235).

Darrell Bock
Having begun with the view most to the left (Price and the case against the existence of a historical Jesus), this book concludes with Darrell Bock presenting the evangelical view. While I knew I would enjoy the whole book, as an evangelical I was probably most looking forward to Bock’s essay as well as how the other contributors would respond. As a product of the Enlightenment, the scholarly quest for the historical Jesus seems innately and inevitably hostile to conservative faith convictions; not only that, but evangelicals are typically not received well at the table even if they do desire a spot. “For many critics, the evangelical view of Scripture is said to skew evangelicals’ discussion of Jesus issues. For many evangelicals, especially lay evangelicals, the skepticism surrounding much of historical Jesus work is to be shunned as a rejection of the Bible as the Word of God” (249).

Bock’s essay begins with a look at the nature and limitations of historical Jesus research in order to argue that there can and should be evangelical approaches to the historical Jesus. Then the bulk of the essay presents an evangelical take on Jesus, drawing together key themes, events, and sayings to present a portrait of the historical Jesus.

Non-evangelical historical Jesus scholars (or perhaps even evangelical scholars making a greater attempt to “play by the rules”) will inevitably protest that Bock assumes the credulity of all the Gospel sources. Though Bock does employ criteria of authenticity in his essay, the charge could be made that he uses them selectively to confirm texts but never to reject a text. Johnson expresses these criticisms quite strongly: “Bock has not yet really engaged the Gospels critically as sources. Despite the statements that open his essay, he has not yet grasped what historical analysis requires” (296).

The Historical Jesus: Five Views is a must-read for anyone interested in the quest for the historical Jesus, but it is especially helpful for those unfamiliar with the field. Most books on the topic either summarize a particular person/work/period or are written from a particular perspective or are responding to a certain scholar’s work. The only other book I’m aware of that surveys the entire history of the quest as well as presents the major figures and topics being explored today is Mark Allen Powell’s Jesus as a Figure in History (my review here). While Powell’s book is an excellent introduction and overview, it is written by one person summarizing the work of many scholars.

The advantage of this IVP volume is that, like other volumes in the Spectrum Multiview series, it brings together some of the most notable and accomplished voices in the field to highlight their own work and to respond to each other. Also, out of the five contributors in this volume only one (Crossan) is covered in detail in Powell’s book, so there isn’t much overlap besides in survey material. Though I didn’t summarize or highlight a lot of responses, they are what “make” a multi-view book, setting it apart from other books on the same topic. The responses in this book were insightful and delightful to read. The Historical Jesus: Five Views is an excellent book for anyone interested in the scholarly quest (especially those looking for an introduction/overview) of the historical Jesus and would also be a great text for an introductory course on historical Jesus or the Gospels.

Purchase: Westminster | Amazon

*Many thanks to IVP Academic and A.W. for sending me a free copy in exchange for an unbiased review!

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  1. Wow what a wide spectrum.


    • As a multiview book should be 🙂 One of the biggest surprises for me was that several times Crossan referred to himself as a Christian…I never thought of him as one and didn’t think he’d self-identify that way. I truly wonder how he could think of himself as a Christian when he doesn’t believe Jesus died for our sins or that he rose from the dead…plus, it’s really misleading for Christians to hear him profess to be a Christian.


      • Many years ago I heard a debate he had with Robert Morey and it struck me how much Crossan was a theological Liberal who kept insisting he was in the fold of Christianity…when he denies so much of Christianity!


  1. Book Log – July 2014 |

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