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Biblical books and the historical Jesus

Introduction

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There is a huge amount of literature about the bible. It ranges from the excellent to the awful and from the orthodox Christian to the atheist. The sceptical crown is presently being shared among past and present members of the Jesus Seminar. This is a self selecting group of liberal scholars who decided to present their work as representing the consensus view of modern scholarship. The howls of protest from the conservative wing suggests that in fact they don't.

Included below are books by agnostic historians as well as specialist New Testament scholars. In general the later tend to be a rather incestuous lot who feed on each other's theories and suggest things that no historian would even take seriously. For example, John Dominic Crossan and John Shelby Spong claim the empty tomb is a myth even if this is a view that ignores every rule of historical evidence I know of. Both Spong and Crossan are devout Christians although both have their own agenda and this is of course always a problem with this subject. Therefore, I have tried to suggest the influences behind each of the books below.

The Gospels and Jesus
Gospel Truth
The Historical Jesus - the Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant
The Real Jesus
Resurrection: Myth or Reality
The Historical Reliability of the Gospels
The Historical Jesus
The Unauthorized Version
Jesus
The Gnostic Gospels
The Puzzle of the Gospels
Who Wrote the Bible?
Jesus: Life or Legend?


The Gospels and Jesus
Graham Stanton

Stanton is one of the leading biblical scholars in the UK and it is to his credit that reading this book didn't leave me with a clue what his religious proclivities are (although I now know him to be a moderate Christian). This book is intended as a textbook for undergraduates but will be of general interest as an introduction to the subject of the Gospels and the Jesus of history. Because this is a textbook Stanton does his best to present the least controversial view that he can about the subject. For this reason he often ends up saying nothing at all. His examination of who wrote the Gospels is a model of academic vacillation.

I use this book as my guide to where the middle ground in the debate on the Gospels and Jesus is. If I find someone who claims that 'most modern scholars' disagree with Stanton I tend to be suspicious. That said, I do not agree with everything in the book and wish it could have been a little more solid at times. However, it is a useful survey and teaches a good deal about what the texts themselves have to say.

The second half is about Jesus himself and what we can learn about him from the Gospels. The usual warning that the Gospels are coloured by the Easter faith in the resurrection nevertheless leave Stanton confident he can pick out quite a lot. This is interesting but I have seen plenty of other treatments where very different conclusions are reached. However, the central point that Jesus was a Jew teaching within Judaism is vital to grasp. In short, I recommend this book as a sober overview of the subject which has no axe of its own to grind.

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Gospel Truth
Graham Stanton

This book is the best popular introduction to New Testament scholarship one could hope to find. Written primarily as a rebuttal of the claims of Carsten Thiede, Stanton is equally damning about the conclusions of the Jesus Seminar and revisionist scholars in the United States. Sceptics will treat this book with suspicion because the author is honest enough to admit his own faith in the preface. But I stand by my claim that Stanton is as close to the middle ground as it is possible to get in this notoriously polarised field.

There is no headline making conclusion to this book, no radical new evidence and no personal hobby horse being ridden. Instead there is a calm and well written account of the questions of who wrote the Gospels, what we can know about Jesus and who he really was. The archaeological evidence and the recently discovered lost gospels are examined closely. Stanton rightly dismisses the claims of priority for the Gospels of Thomas and Peter as far fetched and only once betrays his irritation at theories about how Gnostics were the 'real' Christians.

My only complaint about this book is that Stanton is not strictly impartial. He reserves his professional venom for the evangelical wing of Gospel scholarship even though he is as dismissive of the theories from the other side. That said, as a confessed Christian, he might have felt he needed to demonstrate his objectivity by pointedly rebuking sloppy conservative academics.

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The Historical Jesus - the Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant
John Dominic Crossan

Of all the books that have come out as a result of the latest Quest for Jesus, none have been as successful or notorious as John Dominic Crossan's The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. There are three reasons for this - Crossan has an unquestioned reputation as a fine scholar, he has a controversial thesis to promulgate and he is a very fine writer. His skill at making extremely difficult ideas make sense to the general reader is a danger too because that reader has not the ability to really challenge what Crossan is saying to them.

The book can be split roughly into three segments and I find that they are presented in the order of decreasing usefulness. The first section is uniformly excellent and covers the use of modern post structuralist historical method on the cultural background to the New Testament. Crossan is a modernist par excellence and also a Marxist so the combination works very well. His emphasis is on the oppression and struggle of the peasants against the ruling class with the little tradition of the lower classes listening to over the dominate great tradition that has been handed down to us by history. The best sources are Egyptian papyrus fragments dealing with domestic disputes and reading the Great tradition Josephus against himself.

This is all fascinating stuff which is well worth the cost of the book on its own. My girlfriend studied history in the Marxist tradition so I enjoyed seeing these methods used for a period that I was interested in. Furthermore, the standard of Crossan's writing far outstrips the usual drivel of academia and makes the details of ancient sociology accessible to a wide audience.

The next section of the book examines what Jesus said and taught. We are expected to see this through the lens of peasant class struggle rather than traditional Christian teaching. Crossan also uses a careful methodology which involves cataloguing all the sayings of Jesus both inside and outside the New Testament ("NT") according to the number of independent citations and how early they are. This is laudable but suffers from two major drawbacks: Firstly Crossan takes an extremely revisionist view of when the NT and other works were written with an early Gospel of Thomas and extremely late Acts and John. He also draws lines of dependency that are untenable given the current state of the evidence most especially between the synoptic Gospels and John. The second problem is that Crossan is happy to reject even the best attested sayings such as the Lord's Prayer and the Son of Man sayings if they do not agree with his hypothesis. The evidence is being shaped to fit the theory rather than the other way around.

Needless to say the Jesus that emerges from all this is one that seems remarkably consistent with the Marxist methodology of his discoverer. He is a peasant preaching sharing and passive resistant to the oppressive rulers while adopting a life similar to the travelling sages of the Greek Mediterranean. This is all well and good but it is hard to see how this character had the absolutely earth shattering influence that he did. Every seeker after the historical Jesus seems to produce someone in his own image and for all his learning and erudition Crossan has done exactly the same thing.

The last part of the book is about what Jesus did and what happened to him. Crossan is highly agnostic about this but at least insists that Jesus existed, He defends the veracity of most of the Testamonium Flavium and also quotes Tacitus. But other than the fact of the crucifixion he will be drawn no further. He cannot say why it happened although suggests that the disturbance in the temple might have had something to do with it. Neither does he accept any of the passion narratives as being true.

Crossan's argument goes like this. He insists that as soon as Jesus was arrested all his disciples immediately fled back to Galilee so none of them knew what had happened to him. Therefore, transformed from being illiterate peasants to well read rabbis, they comb the scriptures for prophecies about Jesus and from these they reconstruct a passion narrative. This forms a 'Cross Gospel' that is then freely adapted by Mark. The other evangelists use both Mark and the Cross Gospel (now preserved in the Gospel of Peter) to give us the passion accounts we have today.

So Crossan not only needs to postulate a new document, the Cross Gospel, that he has no evidence for, he also completely ignores the historical record by claiming it was all a fiction. Furthermore, scholars are nearly unanimous in saying that the Gospel of Peter is late and based on all four intra-canonical Gospels, not the mythical Cross Gospel that Crossan needs for his thesis. As for Jesus' burial in a tomb, he claims that Mark made it up. But in dismissing the story Barabas, he quotes Philo of Alexandria saying how at a high festival crucifixion victims were given back to their families for a descent burial. Archaeologists have even managed to dig up a Jewish crucifixion victim from a tomb near Jerusalem! Crossan dismisses all of this for no better reason than he has already determined that the passion narrative is fiction.

The biggest question that hangs over this book and which is not adequately addressed even in the last chapter is why this unremarkable Jesus who suffered an obscure death ever became the most influential figure in Western history. It is hard to believe there were even Christians around for Paul to persecute, let alone join, if their founder was such a non entity as Crossan believes.

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The Real Jesus
Luke Timothy Johnson

With a subtitle "The misguided quest for the historical Jesus and the truth of the Traditional Gospels" there can be little doubt about the central thrust of this book. Johnson chiefly has the Jesus Seminar in his sights but also gives us a little light relief by skewering a few amateurs like AN Wilson and John Selby Spong.

The whole historical Jesus movement is, of course, in the words of one of its central figures John Dominic Crossan, "a very safe place to do theology and call it history, autobiography and call it biography". I think someone should have realised by now that as there are as many historical Jesuses as there are scholars involved. This is one of Johnson's central points. Another is that the academic debates surrounding the subject do not lend themselves well to the megaphone of the media. Even so, the Jesus Seminar cannot resist creating as much publicity as it can for its own rather fuzzy view of Jesus.

The fact is that we cannot achieve philosophical certitude about Jesus or any other ancient figure. Classicists have now accepted that to say they know nothing at all is rather boring but Jesus scholars see it as a heaven sent opportunity to make something up. And the fact is that if we read the Gospels like we do any other ancient document we find we do know rather more about Jesus than liberal scholars care to admit.

After getting the Jesus Seminar and modern scholarship out of his system, Johnson proceeds to write a very good short book on none other than the historical Jesus. It helpfully delineates what history can history can can't tell us, the need for historical controls when accessing evidence and what, maybe, the historian can say about Jesus.

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Resurrection: Myth or Reality
John Shelby Spong

Spong is a liberal Episcopal bishop who has written a number of books attacking Christian fundamentalism. His point that the central message of the inclusiveness of God's love seems to be missing from much extremist rhetoric is a good one. Unfortunately, that doesn't excuse this book which is a piece of all round poor scholarship.

His thesis depends on reading the Gospels as a Jewish mid rash, that is as allegorical or fictional accounts based on Hebrew scripture that are intended to enlighten the reader. Certainly if one chooses to call the Gospels allegorical and fictional one is going to conclude that much of what is described did not happen. The trouble is that there is no evidence that the Gospels were intended to be read in this way. In particular, Luke insists he is writing down what happened and John twice claims eye witness attestation. Spong could claim they were making it up but not that they intended that their readers wouldn't believe what they wrote was true.

This book is a good example of revisionist thinking. The author rejects the miraculous a priori. He is then left with the texts that contradict his point of view so he has to explain why they say what they do. The usual method is to make the texts so remote from the events they describe that we can simply interpret them any way we like. The revisionist will then interpret them as fictional. Historians, of course, cannot do this. They just have to take the evidence as they find it. And that means that they accept that the tomb was empty on Sunday morning. If they don't believe Jesus rose from the dead then they have to claim persons unknown moved the body. They also accept that the disciples thought he had risen and founded a religion on the strength of it.

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The Historical Reliability of the Gospels
Craig Blomberg

This book is based on a much longer multi volume work under the editorship of the renowned FF Bruce. Blomberg has taken the most important points from that to defend the Gospels as being accurate history - at least by the standards of the time. He examines the various modern forms of criticism and finds them to have useful elements that have been taken too far. Form criticism, in particular, is attacked as being based on erroneous assumptions about oral tradition.

Blomberg then examines various alleged problems in the Gospels. He has to defend more than necessary as he seems to be writing from an evangelical point of view. For example, I doubt Jesus cleansed the temple more than once and we were told by Papias that Mark didn't arrange his account in chronological order. However, there is interesting stuff here on how some of the more problematic passages can be interpreted as well as a dismissal of some the more desperate attempts by sceptics to find errors (like the length of Jesus' ministry).

The book ends with a useful look at information about Jesus in the rest of the NT, the early fathers and pagan sources. Overall there is no question that Blomberg is coming from the evangelical tradition. This doesn't detract from the strength of some his arguments or the scholarly spirit with which he goes about his enquiries. However, one should be on the look out for when he is seemingly trying to defend the indefensible.

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The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ
Gary Habermas

Habermas is an evangelical scholar and makes no effort to hide it. This book is a half polemic against revisionist scholarship and half a look at the various sources available on the life of Jesus outside the Gospels. Habermas always puts both sides of the argument in his attacks on the various theories he covers but I can't help feeling that his opponents could have had their ideas better expressed than this.

This book devotes attention to the theories that have received the most publicity rather than those taken most seriously by scholars. For example, Habermas refutes the conclusions of books like the Holy Blood and Holy Grail or The Gnostic Gospels which are usually treated with contempt within university departments. That said, I suppose someone has to challenge these best-selling conspiracy theories and he does quite a thorough job of a very easy brief. There is also a chapter on the Jesus Seminar who are nothing if not high profile. I frequently find them quoted as a consensus view on the Internet despite the fact they are nothing of the sort.

The second half of the book is a survey of the evidence for Jesus outside the Gospels. This suffers from having the Turin Shroud included as evidence. I would place this sort of conjecture right up there with Hancock, Pagels etc. in the lunacy stakes. Habermas gives far too much credence to those few scientists who reject the carbon dating of the shroud to the 13th century. Yes, it's just possible there is something in the Shroud but there are much weightier pieces of evidence that should get more attention. The Shroud deserves about two lines.

So this book is rather low brow and would be good for Christians who want to see the revisionist best sellers refuted and a short summary of the evidence for Jesus. As a persuader it fails.

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The Unauthorized Version
Robin Lane Fox

This is getting on a bit now but remains the best single volume treatment of the bible from the point of view of an agnostic historian. Fox is knowledgeable, opinionated and highly readable. Both sceptics and believers will find plenty to their liking here because Fox simply refuses to be pigeon holed as a revisionist or conservative. He doesn't give much truck to Genesis, rubbishes the Gospel infancy narratives and thinks that early Israelite history is a conflict between Yahweh and all the other Gods. On the flip side he assigns John's Gospel to the apostle himself, thinks Kings has elements based on contemporary sources and thinks Paul wrote all his letters except the Pastorals.

What Fox does is treat the Bible like he does any other ancient document. Most NT scholars with their multiplicity of sources and criteria for authenticity refuse to do this. This comes as a breathe of fresh air after the stifling environment of most NT studies. For Fox there is no question that the tomb was empty and he has to answer as to why it was. We need more real historians to enter this subject but, unsurprisingly, most are unwilling to do so.

The inerrantist will not be happy about this book, as Fox has to time for this point of view. He is also far better on the NT than he is on the OT, perhaps because it is much closer to his own period of classical history. However, you can learn a vast amount from this brilliantly written book. As long as you are willing to look at it with an open mind and remember that it is a piece of secular history it is an essential must read for both sides of the debate. It is pleasing to see how much the secular historian can accept of what is in the Bible.

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Jesus
Michael Grant

Few classical historians can have written more works than this grand old man of letters has. This book came out way back in 1977 and now seems to be largely forgotten. I have to admit that it isn't really a great read and Grant is not remotely concerned about a lot of the questions that exercise NT scholars. For example, there is nothing here about who wrote the Gospels and their reliability as sources.

That said, it is a useful antidote to the extremists who claim that Jesus never existed or that we can know next to nothing about him. And he says of the historian "...he cannot justifiably deny the empty tomb." This point seems to have passed many revisionist scholars by.

Grant is doubtless a learned man and he could have developed a much better treatment of this subject than present here.

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The Gnostic Gospels
Elaine Pagels

This book is a classic in the field of revisionist Gospel scholarship and part of the thinking that newly discovered documents much later than the Gospels give us a clearer view of early Christianity than the New Testament. Since the Gnostic Gospels was first published in 1979 the Nag Hammadi library has become much better known and many other authors have joined in trying to show they are of much greater significance than they actually are.

What they tell us about is an off shoot of Christianity called Gnosticism that thrived in Egypt between the second and forth centuries. The ideas of this sect were far more mystical than orthodox Christianity and seem to tie in nicely with our own New Age philosophy. This makes Gnosticism seem relevant and appealing today. Pagels attempts to show how there was a battle for the soul of Christianity in the second century that was won by the masochistic tyrants of the Catholic church rather than the free loving feminists of Gnosticism. To achieve this she quotes from selected passages and tries to present a coherent Gnostic philosophy from the hopeless mish-mash of ideas in the original sources.

Professional scholar that she is Pagels couches her ideas in plenty of maybes, perhapses and possiblies. But her central claim, that Christianity was formed because of the political agendas of the early Christians rather than from the teachings of Jesus and the apostles has become the dominant revisionist hypothesis.

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The Puzzle of the Gospels
Peter Vardy and Mary Mills

Vardy as produced a good few of these "Puzzle of..." books which are intended as basic textbooks for theology students. They include a survey of the various views on the subject with some quite incisive analysis from Vardy himself. Unfortunately the books in this series cost a fortune in the United States although they are available as cheap paperbacks in the Britain.

This is the first book I read on this subject and it equipped me pretty well to understand the debate. The debate on the Gospels has been going on for at least a hundred years and it is worth getting a rough idea of where it's been before diving in. This book gives an outline of each Gospel, the Q hypothesis, the quest for the historical Jesus and how to study the Bible.

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Who Wrote the Bible?
Richard Elliott Friedman

This is an excellent book that should be read by anyone interested in either the writing of the Old Testament or the history it describes. Although decried by evangelical scholars for his advocacy of the 'documentary hypothesis', Friedman is in fact quite a conservative among critical scholars.

The title is a bit of a misdemeanour as the book only covers who wrote the beginning of the Old Testament and in particular the first five books. Traditionally it is Moses himself who is credited with these although at no point does the Bible say so. This view is today challenged by the documentary hypothesis that posits four different authors usually called J, E, P and D for reasons the book explains.

Like many populists Friedman takes his own speculations too far but the core of the case for the documentary hypothesis is made rigorously and convincingly. For myself, I accept it as true and read the Old Testament on that basis. I do not think that JEPD has any implications for our faith and indeed is very helpful to explain the blood thirsty God of the Exodus in terms of the events occurring when the text was actually written. Friedman is also a useful counter to the rather more extreme theories about the Old Testament that claim it is not based on fact at all and all dates from the Babylonian exile or afterwards.

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Jesus Life or Legend?(out of print but check out Rekindling the Word)
Carsten Peter Thiede

Most papyrologists are a reserved bunch who keep out of the limelight. Their science is an esoteric subject and we laymen can only take their word for what they say. Thiede is a German scholar who does not like what some commentators have made of the papyrologists' work and, being one himself, has decided to set the record straight.

This book, originally from 1990 and now updated to include the latest research, is fun to read and contains a great deal of useful information. Thiede enjoys blowing his own trumpet a good deal and is viewed as something of an iconoclast in his field. Clearly, though, he knows what he is talking about. The book examines manuscript and archaeological evidence about Jesus from the viewpoint of the non-sceptic. Some of what Thiede has to say is unconvincing and he does not always adequately differentiate between facts and his own speculation. It is all entertaining stuff nonetheless and a useful antidote for the sceptics' "modern scholars believe...". Here is a modern scholar who is on the other side of the argument.

The background to life in the Roman Empire of the New Testament is invaluable and fascinating. We learn about how scrolls were used and carried around (and hence the importance of the four Gospels having their own names from the start rather than only being called Matthew, Mark, Luke and John at a later date), the transition from scrolls to codices or books and the archaeology of ancient Rome and Palestine.

There is a large amount here on the redating of the Magdalene papyrus and the identification of the Dead Sea Scrolls fragment 7Q5 with Mark's Gospel. Having looked into this I am fairly sure of the later and highly dubious about the former. The chapters on this area alone are worth the price of the book and I recommend it to all open minded enquirers.

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James Hannam 2000.
Last revised: 3 December 2000.