The Historical Jesus: Five Views (Part One)

The Historical Jesus: Five Views (Part One) February 4, 2010

I have begun reading IVP’s The Historical Jesus: Five Views (eds. Beilby and Eddy) which boasts the participation of Robert Price, John Dominic Crossan, Luke Timothy Johnson, James D.G. Dunn, and Darrell Bock.

The book begins with a lengthy review of the quest(s) for the historical Jesus.  This intro is very readable and covers just about all you need to know.  It would make an excellent reference work for the non-specialist biblical scholar or for classroom use.

The first argument is presented by Price who, as a historian, believes that we really cannot know anything about the historical Jesus.  He reasons that through the application of the criteria of dissimilarity, we are left with almost nothing concrete to reconstruct a historical figure.  Also, does not feel that there is any credible material that points to a real historical figure from outside the NT.

When it comes to the basic framework of how Jesus is understood, he finds too many similarities with heroes from myths throughout history – how likely is it that Jesus fits so many of these hero-stereotypes (miraculous birth, mysterious childhood, dies a noble death, body is not recoverable, yet has many holy sepulchers, etc…)?  On the principle of analogy, wouldn’t it be more likely that he was made up?

Finally, working from the common observation that the Gospels frequently echo and mimic OT stories (i.e., they are Midrash), how likely is it that this just happened to be Jesus’ life?  It would not take much more work to build a story around a particular reading of these texts.  Thus, when all is taken into account, for Price, Jesus begins to vanish….

Well – each scholar is permitted to briefly respond.  This is really where the fun begins.  Multi-perspective books with responses is like a reality tv-show.  The reader feels a bit awkward and intrusive when “listening in” because the discussion can get quite heated and lively.  You get a sense for the personalities of these figures that does not surface through their normal books.

For example – because Price is arguing that Jesus was probably not a real person, the fact that John Dominic Crossan tries to defend the historicity of Jesus seems a bit unusual – Crossan playing the conservative!

Luke Timothy Johnson takes a chance to push Price back and show that he ignored some key evidence for Jesus outside the NT.  While Price focused on elements of Jesus that are similar to other heroes of myths, he downplayed the distinctive features of the Jesus in the NT (e.g. ‘crucified and risen Jewish Messiah’).

Dunn begins with “Gosh!” and is astounded that there are still people out there arguing that Jesus never existed.  Dunn pushes Price back especially on methodology – the criteria of dissimilarity was not intended to be a way of denying the historicity of something, but rather that such material makes it difficult to prove historicity beyond a doubt.

It is fun to read the responses because it allows us to see the master-interpreters at work.  We sometimes play a sport in our backyards and generally follow the rules.  It is another thing when we pay to see professionals execute plays and use their honed skills.

I have very little knowledge of the present state of the Historical Jesus discussions, so this book is a real goldmine.  My only regret is that N.T. Wright is not a presenter, as his view is distinctive and influential.  I am sure they asked him, and, of course, he is knee-deep (perhaps neck-deep!) in a magnum opus on Paul.

Well, never mind – more to come.

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