The following review is published in full with Thomas L. Brodie’s permission:
In 1977 the London-born historian Michael Grant stated that no serious scholar would postulate the non-historicity of Jesus (Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels, New York, Macmillan, 1977, 200). And, almost as if to vindicate Grant, the following years saw an extraordinary flow of books each setting out a reconstruction of Jesus’ history.
Yet a problem remained. While these many books essentially agreed on Jesus’ historical existence they agreed on little else. The reconstructions were so diverse that when Luke Timothy Johnson was writing his introduction to the New Testament (1985)—a serious scholarly writing—he omitted any summary of the quest for the historical Jesus, and when, due to demand, his second edition included an appendix, ‘The Historical Jesus’, he first listed some of the proposals about Jesus’ history and then said of them ‘one may well wonder whether anything more than a sophisticated and elaborate form of projection has taken place’ (The Writings of the New Testament. An Interpretation. London: SCM, 1999, 629).
Very recently several books, some not as serious as Johnson’s, have denied that Jesus existed, but Bart Ehrman has responded to them (Did Jesus Exist, The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. New York: HarperOne, March 2012). Ehrman’s case rests largely on long-standing arguments, especially on the idea, very popular in the twentieth century, that the gospels are based ultimately on oral traditions.
Into this situation steps the Thompson/Varenna volume bearing the views of thirteen writers (July 2012). The contributions are diverse, but overall the book reflects a seismic shift: it claims that the primary background for the gospels is not oral tradition but the world of ancient writing/literature. And the most basic question raised by this book is whether Jesus existed historically or whether he is a literary figure:
The essays…have a modest purpose. Neither establishing the historicity of a historical Jesus not possessing an adequate warrant for dismissing it, our purpose is to clarify our engagement with critical historical and exegetical methods in the hopes of enabling the central question regarding the function of New Testament literature to resist the endless production of works on the historical Jesus. Our hope is to open a direct discussion of the question of historicity much in the spirit of the more than decade-long discourse and debate by the European Seminar on Methodology in Israel’s History which has been so profitably engaged in regard to the historicity of figures and narratives of the Hebrew Bible and the related construction of a history of ancient Palestine (editors’ Introduction, p. 11, emphasis added).
The essays form three parts, the first on Scholarship.
Into the Well of Historical Jesus Scholarship
- 1. Jim West (Quartz Hill School of Theology, California) – A Very, Very Short Introduction to Minimalism
- 2. Roland Boer (University of Newcastle) – The German Pestilence: Re-assessing Feuerbach, Strauss and Bauer
- 3. Lester L. Grabbe (Univ. of Hull) – “Jesus Who is Called Christ”: References to Jesus Outside Christian Sources
- 4. Niels Peter Lemche (Univ. of Copenhagen) – The Grand Inquisitor and Christ: Why the Church Doesn’t Want Jesus
- 5. Emanuel Pfoh (National University of La Plata) – Jesus and the Mythic Mind: An Epistemological Problem
For West, the Bible is so focused on theology that it is not possible to affirm or deny historical propositions. ‘Minimalism began…with the Chronicler…. Maximalism… distorts the theological message of the text by transforming it into historical source materials’ (p.31).
Boer reviews the complex heritage of Feuerbach, Strauss and Bauer, notes the economic decline of the West in relation to the East and then concludes ‘it is good time to return to a more sceptical position in relation to the founding documents’ (p. 56).
Grabbe maintains that the evidence provided by Tacitus and Josephus to the existence of Jesus ‘is minimal but nevertheless significant…Its value lies in its independence from Christian tradition’ (p.69). Comment: It does not seem clear how one can be sure that Josephus, for instance, who for thirty years lived in the same city as a Christian community, is independent of some knowledge of what Christians were saying.
Lemche wrestles with the long-standing perceived divide between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith, and with the present division between those who engage biblical research and those who avoid it.
Pfoh’s field is historical anthropology of Syria/Palestine (c. 3300-600 BCE) and his ‘main aim is to reflect from strictly historical and anthropological perspectives, on what we can know about the figure of Jesus and what we cannot’ (p.79). He hopes to make ‘a plea for a critical understanding of the nature of ancient literature and the intellectual world supporting such’ (p.79). For him ‘our historical conclusions regarding [Jesus]…cannot be very positive…My opinion is that such an inquiry is doomed to failure…We cannot test a mythic figure historically….’ (pp. 91-92).
Paul and Early Christianity: Historical and Exegetical Investigations
- 6 Robert M. Price (Johnnie Colemon Theological Seminary) – Does the Christ Myth Theory Require an Early Date for the Pauline Epistles?
- 7. Mogens Müller (University of Copenhagen) – Paul: The Oldest Witness to the Historical Jesus
- 8. Thomas S. Verenna – Born Under the Law: Intertextuality and the Question of the Historicity of the Figure of Jesus in Paul’s Epistles
Price and Verenna argue strongly for Paul’s independence of an historical Jesus. For Müller, however, the effect of Jesus on Paul’s life is such that it presupposes Jesus’ historical existence, and he concludes, ‘If Paul is assumed to have been a historical person, the same must be assumed with regard to Jesus of Nazareth’ (p. 130).
The Rewritten Bible and the Life of Jesus
- 9. James Crossley (Univ. of Sheffield) – Can John’s Gospel Really Be Used to Reconstruct a Life of Jesus? An Assessment of Recent Trends and a Defence of a Traditional View
- 10. Thomas L. Thompson – Psalm 72 and Mark 1:12-13: Mythic Evocation in Narratives of the Good King
- 11. Ingrid Hjelm (Univ. of Copenhagen) “Who is my Neighbor?” Implicit Use of OT Stories and Motifs in Luke.
- 12. Joshua Sabih (Univ. of Copenhagen) – Born Isa and Baptized Jesus: The Quranic Narratives about Isa
- 13. K. L. Noll (Brandon University, Manitoba) – Investigating Earliest Christianity Without Jesus
Concerning the historicity of the gospels, Crossley expresses caution about recent efforts to squeeze more history from John than the gospel allows. Thompson and Hjelm illustrate how the gospels’ content and shape are governed by something other than history, namely by Old Testament features such as patterns, themes, stories and motifs.
Sabih postulates that the Quranic figure of Isa is not identical with the Jesus of the NT, but the Isa of later Muslim tradition is (p. 219).
Finally, Noll’s thesis is that ‘any quest for a historical Jesus is irrelevant to an understanding of the earliest social movements that evolved into the religion now called Christianity. This is the case even if a historical Jesus existed and made an effort to found a movement of some kind’ (p. 233). For Noll the origin of Christianity has a kinship with the origin of Islam and the processes of evolution.
Overall, this volume contributes to a crucial development, namely moving historical investigation beyond the usual restrictions of the historical critical method, particularly beyond reliance on the theory of oral tradition, and bringing it into new terrain, especially that of literature.
However, having reached new terrain, this volume tends to rush further ahead into areas of theory, history and theology without doing justice to the full demands of engagement with literature. The problem is not just that its task is unfinished—as its editors would acknowledge—but that it seems unclear how to advance, unclear about the need to settle down to the slow detailed work of mapping the literary terrain in detail, often verse by verse, so that, before saying much about the history of Christian origins, it first establishes a reasonably clear map of the history of the literature, in effect the history of the composition of the New Testament, both of its many parts and, where possible, of its totality. In David Gunn’s words, ‘Write the history of the literature and then the [larger] history can be written’ (‘The Myth of Israel’, in L. L. Grabbe, Did Moses Speak Attic, JSOTSup 317, Sheffield Academic, 2001, 182).
Such prior mapping is indispensable. If, for instance, the investigation cannot account for the data underlying the theory of Q, or at least give some idea of how that can be done, its proposals regarding history and theology will have fatal gaps.
However, it is of the nature of the hermeneutical circle not only to establish the details that clarify the whole, but also to allow a vision of the whole to clarify the details, so it is appropriate from time to time to leap ahead into theory and into wide historical and theological vistas. And that is what this volume has done. Its writers are like explorers who have been parachuted at night into terrain that is still largely unknown and they are sending back preliminary reports. They do not always give a clear picture, and at times they may get lost, but the land must be crossed, and they are worth listening to.
Thomas Brodie also reflected upon my chapter on Paul in the following way:
As I see it your chapter on Paul reflects both the volume’s strength and limitations.
On the one hand it has wonderful broad lines of thought, especially on the crucifixion. In fact given what Bart Ehrman (Did Jesus Exist?) wrote about the impossibility of a Jew envisaging a crucified Messiah, I wondered would it be worth your while writing an article that discusses Ehrman’s view and elaborates your own proposal.
On the other hand—and this is very understandable (if nothing else time and space would not allow)—you did not greatly engage the nuts and bolts of the epistles, the more prosaic fabric that holds the text together, verse by verse, and that shows just how detailed and complex is the process of rewriting.
Another question that occurs is whether the writer of the epistles, while they did not know a historical Jesus, knew that their work would be taken up by writers who would turn their work into a history-like form, as the prophets had been turned into history-like form by Hebrew narrative. In other words was there more coordination between the NT writers than we generally allow? I’m certain there was, but how much more?
Most of the essays in the volume, including your own, could become books.
Overall I’m very happy with the review. I thought his conclusions perceptive and useful, as were his questions. On one brief note, I have commented on Ehrman’s book and interested readers can check it out here: