Who was the “historical Jesus”? To answer, many would open their Bibles and turn to their favorite Gospel. But since the Enlightenment, some have tried to “peel” away the “theology” of the Gospels to get to the real “history” of the person: what was he like, what did he really teach, etc. The conversation continues today in James K. Beilby and Paul R. Eddy’s edited work entitled The Historical Jesus: Five Views (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009).
The introduction gives a nice 45 page summary of the history of Jesus research and orients the reader to the present discussion. Each of the five contributors writes about a 30 page argument for their view, followed by about 20 pages (total) of responses from the opposing authors.
First, Robert M. Price argues that there was, in fact, no historical person named Jesus of Nazareth in the first century. Instead, he defends the position that the Jesus-myth is a combination of borrowed Old Testament citations and contemporary mythology. John Dominic Crossan writes of a Mediterranean Jewish peasant whose message of peace was later changed to become a violent apocalyptic teacher.
Luke Timothy Johnson views historical Jesus study as valuable, but ultimately not as profitable as studying Jesus on a literary level and allowing the narrative to instruct our thinking. James D. G. Dunn argues that how Jesus was remembered (that is, his lasting impact of faith on his followers) is the real key to understanding the historical person. Finally, Darrell L. Bock writes that validating certain historical events in the Gospels gives us a window into understanding Jesus and an open door for dialogue with those who are skeptical.
The Historical Jesus: Five Views was awarded Christianity Today’s best book of 2011 in the category of biblical studies for a good reason. It brings together five of the most important authors in the field who dialogue together in a mostly respectable and helpful way. The introduction works well with the book (although I would’ve liked to see a conclusion by the editors as well). The “responses” by the various authors at the end of each chapter are, for the most part, short (not always a given with this style of book but definitely a plus).
Unfortunately, the book falters at the same level that most “views” books seem to stumble. The language and discussion quickly becomes so technical that most non-academics will struggle to keep up with the arguments. Thus, a book intended to help the average reader understand the issues writes itself out of its target market. Furthermore, I would guess that anyone truly able to interact and work with these arguments would rather read the contributors’ more substantial books on the topic (like Dunn’s Jesus Remembered, Bock’s Key Events, or Crossan’s Historical Jesus). However, this work will serve as a good introduction to the issue for those looking to read more.