There are good books, and there are great books on the historical Jesus, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Historical Jesus (Baker, May 2011, $22.99 list). falls into the latter category, on top of which its a lot of fun to read. Bruce N. Fisk has done what I wasn’t sure was possible at this juncture —- make the Third Quest for the Historical Jesus interesting and entertaining again. The greatest compliment I can give to a book is, that I wish I had written it, and this book falls into that category. It is that good. So what sort of book is it?
Bruce Hindmarsh in his blurb nails it—-It is three books in one: 1) a textbook introducing Historical Jesus studies and the Synoptic Problem to student: 2) its a handbook or guide book to visiting Jesus sites in the Holy Land and 3) an entertaining novel of one young man’s search for greater certainty about what is true about Jesus. The book does not try to resolve all our historical conundrums about Jesus, but rather helps us enter the discussion and understand why history matters when it comes to the Life, Person and Work of Jesus. The book is also filled with helpful charts, interesting pictures, useful bibliography, and is very well written indeed. Consider for a moment the following which is one of the closing paragraphs of the book—
“The Man who traversed the land and the One who strides the Gospels has many faces. He is preacher and prophet, poet and peasant, seer and sage. He lurks at society’s margins and lingers in its marketplaces. His was a suspicious birth, an obscure childhood, and an unlikely public launch in the shadow of a desert holy man [i.e. John the Baptizer]. His tales of the kingdom spun from the common fibers of the underclass, clarified but also mystified. His miracles impressed some and offended others. And his sense of mission drove him to confront not only the minions of hell but also the gatekeepers of the temple. Very little about Jesus was straightforward and self-interpreting. Almost no story pointed in only one direction. If Jesus was often difficult to track, he was always impossible to tame.” (p. 266).
So many useful scholarly tomes on Jesus are frankly turgid or tedious when it comes to the writing itself. That’s definitely not the problem with this book. It is easy and enjoyable to read, and what is most interesting is that it involves the ongoing conceit of a fictional discussion between a bright believing student Norm and his former more skeptical teacher Prof. Guilder. The book is well researched, interacts with many of the major players in the historical Jesus discussion, comes to carefully reasoned conclusions, and doesn’t fudge the evidence. Hooray.
Not surprisingly some of the chapters are stronger, and longer than others. In general the longer ones are the stronger ones, especially the helpful discussion at length about Jesus’ miracles and how we should view them today. Fisk, in the guise of ‘Norm’ does an excellent job of avoiding modernistic reductionism on the one and simple dismissal of modern critical thinking about miracles on the other. This book is full of good critical thinking and discourse, and as such can serve as a good conversation starter. It has also got a lot of fresh new insights into key texts as well, which surprises even me who has read far too many books on the historical Jesus.
I do have some hesitation in saying that this is the ideal ‘college’ level textbook on the historical Jesus. It actually presumes a pretty high level of critical thinking and savvy. I would say it could serve as a textbook for an upper level college course, especially for religion or Bible majors, and is just perfect for seminary courses meant to introduce the student to historical Jesus discussion, and why it matters. No textbook can be all things to all people, and happily this one doesn’t try to be. The book, as a bonus. also has a rather high level of interesting quotes of rock songs, secular as well as Christian (no Hip Hop, no rap), which may or may not endear this book to college and seminary students these days. I certainly thought it was cool, but sadly I don’t know too many ‘Norm’s of that age who are classic folk and rock or classic Christian folk and rock aficionados these days….. I’m just saying….. Most of them wouldn’t know Bob Dylan from Bob Dole, or Bruce Cockburn from Bruce Springsteen.
What’s missing in this book? Here are a few things that can be improved in its second edition: 1) unless I missed it, there is no discussion of texts like Mark 10.45 when it comes to figuring out how Jesus viewed his coming death. In fact the whole book tends to avoid discussing the death of Jesus’ salvific worth or intent. This is unfortunate; 2) there is not enough discussion in this book about Jesus’ messianic self-understanding. For example, a great deal more needed to be said about the various and diverse Son of Man sayings, and different sorts of Son of Man sayings.
Especially unsatisfactory is the way the crucial material in Dan. 7 is presented— the notion that the Son of Man coming on the clouds is about his exaltation into heaven simply does not work because: 1) the seen is about the endowing of the Son of Man so that he may judge the world on earth, which is where the Yom Yahweh always transpires in the OT; 2) the imagery of coming on the clouds is the imagery of theophany, of the divine one coming down to earth, not going up; 3) the Son of Man is personally given a forever kingdom (contrast the giving of an eternal kingdom to the line of David in 2 Sam. 7), and 4) the Aramaic here probably refers to the worship, not merely the service of the Son of Man by humanity. In short, this is the perfect chapter and phrase for Jesus to use if he wanted to depict himself as a: royal, b: truly human; and also c: divine. Only the person of God rules forever and is worthy of worship. It is no accident that in Mk. 14.64 Jesus refers to himself as returning as the Son of Man on the clouds to judge the very people who were currently judging him in the Sanhedrin, a true reversal of fortunes.
I do have a small personal bone to pick as well. It would have been a pleasure to me if Brother Fisk had read and interacted with some of the books I have written on the Historical Jesus, many of which have been widely read and widely used as textbooks and scholarly monographs, and still are (I’m thinking especially of The Christology of Jesus, Jesus the Sage, Jesus the Seer, The Jesus Quest, and What Have They Done with Jesus? , none of which are even in the bibliography, a real surprise). It would have been fun to see what ‘Norm’ got out of reading BW3, but alas, it was not to be.
Despite these shortcomings, this will be one of my books of choice for the new course I am preparing to teach on “The Historical Jesus and the Christ of Faith’. It deserves all the kudos it is now getting. The book is remarkably free of any sorts of typos, and it is even the sort of book you could give serious Bible students touring the Holy Land in order to get them to stretch their knowledge and understanding of Jesus. In fact, I think I will use it for my May 15-30 2012 tour of the Holy Land. To all the Norms out there I will say— ya’ll come and we can discuss it in the Holy Land.