The Historical Jesus: Five Views

James K. Beilby and Paul Rhodes Eddy, eds. (2009)The Historical Jesus: Five Views. Downers Grove, IL: IVP.

The Historical Jesus: Five Views edited by J.K. Beilby and P.R. Eddy is a fantastic introduction to the historical Jesus enterprise. It includes contributes from five scholars with divergent views. Robert M. Price is a mythicist who argues that Jesus never really existed. J.D. Crossan begins with the premise that we must understand the world into which Jesus would have been part by first understanding that world even if he had never existed. Luke Timothy Johnson emphasizes a minimalist reconstruction of the historical Jesus while emphasizing that the literary Jesus of the gospels is the one to whom we should give our attention since he is the one who matters. James D.G. Dunn begins with the oral culture exploring how memories of Jesus evolved into gospel stories. Darrel L. Bock presents the evangelical view attempting to ground the historical Jesus in the Jesus of the gospels.

As a reader I did not find Price’s essays to be worth as much as his criticisms of the others. It seems that all his assertions for why we should denounce the historicity of Jesus are better explained if there was a Jesus of some sort. For instance, it seems like the stretching of Old Testament passages in reference to Jesus are more easily explained if the evangelist were attempting to tie Jesus’ actions with something vaguely similar in Scripture. I don’t see how the assortment of OT references would have worked well to create a Jesus out of the blue. Nevertheless, his constant pessimism made him ask questions of the others that may have not been asked if he was not a contributor.

While Crossan is helpful in that he provides a historical background in which we can find Jesus it seems like he is making Jesus into his own political image. Jesus is Cornel West or Noam Chomsky. He is a critic of imperialism and violence. He would do well as a leftist politician, but I am not convinced he is the Jesus of first century Galilee.

Johnson makes valuable points that there is a small core of what we can comfortably say about the historical Jesus using historical methodology and that the Jesus of the gospels is the one who has changed lives. That being said he was rightly criticized for wanting a Jesus of faith to be believable without asking if he was historical. He makes statements that I think work for a lay audience but I can see why the scholarly community would be critical of his approach.

I found Dunn’s view the easiest to embrace. He discussed how the oral core evolved into the gospel content. He does not try to stretch historical method as much as Bock but neither does he quit as quickly as Johnson. The only criticism is that he does seem to disregard early literary sources more than I would like.

As sympathetic as I am toward Bock it seemed like he did try to go further than historical inquiry allows. I appreciate that he (like N.T. Wright) shows the possibility of Jesus saying some things and viewing himself in certain ways that are historically plausible (I think Johnson quits too early here) but it is true that we have no way of knowing Jesus interior mental state. We can let the gospel interpretations stand but I am not sure we can prove their historicity. At times Bock seemed to slip into apologetics which is fine but as I said it seemed Dunn did more while playing by the rules than Bock.

If you are interested in a good introduction to this subject this is a great book. If you pay attention to footnotes it can take you even further into the subject. Even if this is your only engagement with the subject you will be all the better for reading it.