Reviewed by Brennan HILL, Theology Department, Xavier University, CINCINNATI, OH 45207
Many Christians will be able to identify with the writer's early experience of being raised with a literalistic vision of Jesus. This perspective, which was nourished by the many "lives of Christ," assumed that the gospels were vastly more historical and biographical than they indeed are. Thus a traditional portrait of Jesus Christ was dervied by harmonizing the gospels and assembling the "facts" of Jesus' life into a synthetic whole.
The author of this text attempts to present another more contemporary portrait of Jesus, using some of the findings of modern biblical criticism. Here the gospels are viewed as later documents which were produced by Christian communities. The accounts of Jesus, from this point of view, are more expressions of a later post-resurrection faith in Jesus Christ than they are biographical accounts of his life.
A key distinction in this author's search is between the real Jesus, the actual person who lived in Palestine 2000 years ago, and the historical Jesus, which is more of a scholarly construct that is formulated amidst debate among biblical scholars. More important is the distinction between the Jesus of faith and the historical Jesus. The former is the Jesus Christ who is professed in the gospels as raised from the dead and glorified as savior, while the latter is the "person in history" whom scholars attempt to glimpse in their research. One wishes that the author had spent more time explaining this key distinction since it is at the very heart of the contemporary understanding of the gospels.
This text offers a fine, popular overview of the contemporary "search" for the historical Jesus. The author writes as an armchair scholar, surveying the sources and examinging the recent findings on the socio-history background of Jesus' times, Jesus' Jewish background, his relationship with John the Baptist, and his ministry as a "charismatic sage." Next, the author deals with Jesus's miracles, his titles, and his teachings about the kingdom of God. The latter chapters of the book deal with the last days of Jesus, including the last supper, his arrest, crucifixion and resurrection. Throughout, the author is searching for clues to what might be "history remembered," as opposed to material that is "prophecy historicized." It is clear that the author identifies more with the Raymond Brown school of "history remembered" than with the schools of John Dominic Crossan and the Jesus Seminar, which givwe much less historical credibility to the gospels. The survey would be much more useful if the two schools were discussed in more detail. While there are some references to Crossan's work, the Jesus Seminar is by-passed altogether.
There is an interesting portrait here of Jesus as a first-century Galilean who was most likely a product of his times and his culture. The geographical, sociological background on Galilee, Palestine, and Nazareth is interesting and useful. The author deals with such issues as Jesus' profession as a woodworker, his literacy and family background. Using the findings of such scholars as Freyne, Horsley and Hanson would have added more depth and incisiveness to this background. Crossan's exhaustive study of the Mediterranean area at the time of Jesus would also have been valuable material to incorporate. Missing also is any substantive comparison of Jesus to the pharisees, sadducees, scribes, essenes and zealots. The many excellent studies of these figures offer the modern searcher for the historical Jesus extraordinary parallels and contrasts. Recent excavations in Sepphoris and other cities surrounding Nazareth might also have been included. These studies have prompted scholars to suggest that Jesus was exposed to significant urban influences.
The chapter on Jesus the Jew is of profound importance, since Jesus was primarliy a Jewish reformer. The author explores Jesus' Jewish piety, his connections with synagogue and temple, as well as his struggle with interpretation of the Law. Reference to Jesus' "table fellowship" is also discussed, and his unique openness to all kinds of outcasts and sinners is signaled.
The author's analysis of the gospel accounts of the last days of Jesus is quite useful. here one sees the many possibilities for locating what might be valuable memories of historical details in the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth.
This is a valuable introductory text for initiating students to the fundamental questions and issues surrounding the search for the historical Jesus. Significantly, it provides a methodology to make the transition freom a literal approach to the gospels to one which is linked to contemporary studies.