Some book reviews on Jesus

Some book reviews on Jesus September 9, 2010

Though I am a “Paul” guy by education, I have a strong interest in Jesus studies as well. Currently I am reviewing a number of books on the Historical Jesus. Here are some notes…

Finding the Historical Christ (Paul Barnett; Eerdmans, 2009).

In this third volume in a series entitled “After Jesus,” Barnett sets his sights on deconstructing the popular academic assumption that there are two Jesus (of history, and of faith) and that Jesus only became “the Christ” to his disciples retrospectively as a result of Easter faith.

Early in the book (chs. 2-3), he attempts to establish that the canonical Gospels are both early and reliable historical sources.  He also discusses the “Hostile Sources” – Josephus, Pliny, and Tacitus. In the fourth chapter, Barnett relates a historical reconstruction of the basic narrative of Jesus told by Christians. He comes to the conclusion that the apostolic summaries of the Jesus story “were formulated in Jerusalem within the college of the apostles led initially by Peter” (p. 73).

Chapters 5-7 deal with Mark, Luke, and John, investigating their origins, sources, and purposes. Somewhat unique to this study is the discussion of “Christ” in Paul’s letters where Barnett points out that Paul uses the term “Christ” of Jesus regarding his identity after the resurrection, but also before.

Finally, before a short concluding chapter, Barnett looks again at some details in Mark and argues that in such minutiae Mark seems to get social, biographical, and geographic details right. This, he reasons, should offer it some overall credibility.

I need to make a few confessions up front. First, I had a terrible time trying to follow the flow of the chapters. Thus, it is hard for me to judge as a whole. Secondly, I have not really been a fan of his work in general. However, in the details there are a few things to admire.

First, Barnett demonstrates a wealth of historical knowledge. For example, when dealing with the question of “How can we trust the disciples to offer a true depiction of their beloved teacher?”, Barnett gives the example of Suetonius’ writings on Vespasian. Despite the emperor claiming on his deathbed that he was “becoming a god” (line 24) and Suetonius’ title for the work being Vespasian, Afterwards Deified, we still find Suetonius capable in his writing of portraying the emperor as a “nongodlike, all-too-human man” (Barnett 3).

Secondly, and I already hinted at this above, Barnett helpfully brings Paul into the discussion as a source.

However, I had many frustrations with Barnett’s logic and argumentation in the details. For example, he has a habit of making questionable conclusions based on meager evidence. He is quite sure that Mark 11-16 was written as a separate entity. He takes the “we” passages in Luke literally without much interaction with the debate. He assumes the “naked man” in Mark must be the author. He speculates why the high priest is not named in Mark.

In any case, I found this book an interesting read, but not something I would recommend to others. I believe reading a combination of the works of Bauckham, Blomberg, and Hengel will get you to some of the same ends without the confusion.

The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus (Dale Allison Jr.; Eerdmans, 2010)

Perhaps on the other side of the world of Jesus studies from Barnett we have this short (124 pp.) series of lectures by one of my favorite scholars, Dale Allison. I first encountered Allison’s work in the book Seeking the Identity of Jesus. In many ways, this book offers his latter-career reflections on Historical Jesus studies. In a nutshell, he has grown tired and skeptical of the methods and hopeful aims of the guild. Too much work and time have been wasted trying to do “scholars’ work” to find Jesus hidden in texts and artifacts.

I don’t want to label this book as cynical, but it borders on it. Allison is very personal, autobiographical, and frank in this book. It is like one long Facebook update.

Allison comes right out and admits that even he is guilty of finding the Jesus he wanted to find – an eschatological prophet. Tools or no tools, he discovered this same Jesus time and time again. He argues, instead, for a model of study that looks at larger patterns rather than criteria that question or confirm one word or saying.

I was quite impressed with Scot McKnight’s endorsement of the book where he places Allison in the same category (of fine Jesus scholars) as Kaehler, Schweitzer, Bultmann, and Kaesemann. I highly recommend this book as well.

I would think, though, that this book would be more useful if you have spent some time in NT scholarship and study, rather than if you are beginning your theological/Biblical studies. While being a very “light” book physically, it weighs heavy on the soul of the historian and theologian.

FINALLY, in the category of “Jesus” things, I have to point out the awesome deal on the book Jesus in Johannine Tradition which is selling for $4.99 at CBD.

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