The Historical Jesus: Five Views
Authors: James K. Beilby and Paul Rhodes Eddy
Publisher: IVP Academic
For those unfamiliar with the phrase, “the historical Jesus,” James D. G. Dunn, one of five scholars sharing their views on the subject, offers a simple definition: “ ‘The historical Jesus’ denotes Jesus as discerned by historical study. Those engaged in the quest of the historical, those at least who have sought to clarify what the phrase ‘the historical Jesus’ denotes, have usually made the point that the term properly denotes the life and mission of Jesus as they have been ‘reconstructed’ by means of historical research.” This is a historical approach to Jesus rather than a faith approach.
Since the five scholars come from diverse backgrounds, and seek to use historical methods to discover what can be known about Jesus, the results vary widely, and can even be confusing and disconcerting, especially to evangelicals used to seeing Christ primarily through the eyes of faith. Again, believers have to keep in mind that this is an attempt to reconstruct Jesus through purely historical means.
The book starts with an excellent introduction by the authors on the history of this study. I thoroughly enjoyed their forty-five page overview that traces the beginnings of this quest to the present day.
“Jesus at the Vanishing Point,” written by Robert M. Price, a member of the Jesus Seminar, is easily the most controversial article. At the outset, Price tells readers that after having been a pastor of a Baptist church for half a dozen years, he is now a happy Episcopalian, rejoicing “to take the Eucharist every week and to sing the great hymns of the faith.” No problem there. What he never explains, in all of his argument for the “Christ-Myth” theory, is how he reconciles his religious practice with the idea that Jesus never existed. To be fair, it is outside the scope of his analysis, but I could not stop thinking about the implications. If Christ never existed, then He never rose from the dead. If that is the case, the apostle Paul tells us that our “faith is in vain.” Furthermore, Paul says, “If in this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” In other words, if the resurrection is a myth, which it would be if Christ never existed, and if all we have is this life, Christians are strongly deluded.
How can Price celebrate a faith whose founder never existed? This is not to say that he fails to present arguments in his defense. He provides plenty of analysis, but I found it unconvincing.
My intention is not to denigrate Price or John Dominic Crossan, a cofounder of the Seminar and another contributor to this book. However, I want to address one of his thoughts. In relation to Jesus’ view of the imminence of God’s kingdom, he writes, “Jesus watched, learned and changed his vision of God.” In another place, where he partially quotes another author, he writes, “If ‘the future, definitive, and imminent arrival of God’s kingly rule was central to Jesus’ proclamation’ (p. 398), then Jesus’ central proclamation was quite simply wrong and misguided.” It would be better to recognize that his inability to reconcile a seeming contradiction does not mean that Jesus was wrong. If history can show that Jesus thought of himself as divine, how can Crossan imply that He was wrong, or that He needed to change his vision of God? Jesus could not be God if he was wrong about anything. I think history, rightly known and understood, will prove Jesus right.
On the positive side, I appreciated Luke Timothy Johnson’s thoughts on the limits of historical analysis, especially as applied to Jesus. Similarly, James D. G. Dunn’s discussion of oral history is helpful. Darrell L. Bock, from Dallas Theological Seminary, presents and defends evangelical views.
As for the format, each scholar has an essay, which in turn is critiqued by the other four. All of them are obviously well-versed, and they show no disrespect toward each other. Finer points are sometimes hard to follow because the analysis gets technical. Having the counterpoint arguments provides an additional opportunity to understand the main points. It also helps to separate the wheat from the chaff, which can be a challenge for the reader.
Christians have nothing to fear from historical inquiry, or any other type of inquiry. Sometimes the Christ of faith is obscured by religious dogma and our own blindness. “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face” (1 Cor. 13:12a ESV). A quest like this can serve a useful purpose when it helps us to know more of the truth and see Christ better. There should be no disparity between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith.
In reading a book like this, it helps to have already settled that the Bible is God’s Word. Otherwise, one can easily become confused and even misled by what is wrongly considered to be true. Being able to apprehend truth by faith can guard one from wrongly interpreting historical data. None of this should be taken to mean that Christians have a faith that can’t be verified in any way by factual knowledge. There is sufficient evidence to support that the Scriptures are true and reliable. Any investigation that actually gets at the truth will serve to confirm or enhance our understanding of what God has revealed in His Word.