Posted by: Curtis W. Lindsey | March 15, 2011

“The Historical Jesus: Five Views” edited by Beilby and Eddy

Historical Jesus Five Views

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.

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  1. I’ve read your review twice. And I some questions. Why is it important to read the views of men who must be non-believers? How can you understand the historical separate from biography–the life of Christ and His teaching. Wouldn’t that be like understanding the historical Thomas Jefferson apart from his writings and work, or apart from what others of his generation wrote and said about him?
    Is the historical Jesus different from the Jesus of the gospels?
    Is the historical Jesus an issue for your generation or younger students?
    I suppose my real question is– why is this an important topic for you?
    And of course I may be missing the point entirely.

    • Mrs. Redmond, so good to hear from you. Here are a few quick thoughts:

      1. Importance of views from non-believers: how will we know what some are saying if we don’t read them? Surely there are kernels of truth in many things.

      2. Your point about Thomas Jefferson is right on the money, and unfortunately it is sometimes forgotten. For example, the argument is occasionally made that we can’t know anything about the REAL Jesus because he didn’t write anything. All it takes is a trip to wikipedia to learn about ANYONE who didn’t write anything to know that is false. I agree that to learn about Jesus a invaluable resource would be what was written about him, especially if these writings were from eyewitnesses or first-hand authorities.

      3. Is the historical Jesus different from the Jesus of the Gospels? Well that is the very issue this book is tackling (although in a round-a-bout manner). Some would say “no” because the later “theology” was “added” to the Gospels to the point that the historical Jesus (i.e. the man who walked the ground in first-century Judea) is wholly obscured. I would say “yes,” because to say something is “theological” shouldn’t exclude it from being “historical.” This is the point that many of the conservative voices in the discussion (Darrell Bock’s article, for example) are making.

      4. Is this an issue for my generation? Maybe, although the “historical Jesus” discussion has been around for a while. Perhaps the proliferation of media has pushed the once solely “academic” discussions into the mainstream (I’m thinking or academic/popular authors such as Bart Ehrman). I think the issue is this: because everyone wants Jesus to look a certain way or teach a certain thing, it becomes important to understand what he REALLY taught and did. (I heard a poem one time at A&M that discussed the various “Jesi” of our current culture, and the poet’s assessment was correct.)

      5. Why an important topic for me? A couple of reasons: (1) I enjoy studying the Gospels, (2) the point I made (or tried to make) in no. 4 above, and (3) because I want to be prepared for the conversations that are coming. For example, when someone says, “I don’t believe Jesus existed. I mean, I’ve never seen anyone raised from the dead so Jesus must be a myth,” I want to be ready to dialogue.

      Ok, so that wasn’t so “quick.” Sorry!

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