Book review: The Historical Jesus: Five Views

Edited by James K. Beilby and Paul Rhodes Eddy


Five noted scholars discuss what we can determine about the historical Jesus: Robert Price, Dominic Crossan, Luke Timothy Johnson, James Dunn, and Darrell Bock. It’s a wide range, from confirmed believers to one who argues that no historical Jesus existed at all.

Jesus scholarship continues to evolve, but it seems to me to be spiraling the target instead of zeroing in. For example, virtually all scholars now accept that Jesus was recognized by his contemporaries as a miracle worker and healer, while less trust is being placed in the “embarrassment criteria” that has prompted scholars to trust the Gospel of Mark above others.

The book is presented in debate style, and the contributors pull no punches. Each presents a short argument, maybe 30 pages long, and then each of the other four write a few pages of critique in response.

Like any good debate, it may leave you more confused than when you began, but if I must choose a “winner,” this time I pick the conservatives. (Please understand that, by “conservative,” I mean relatively so; Christianity within reason—rejection of critical scholarship is not a prerequisite to believing.) I’ve gained a new respect for Bock, and I was especially impressed by Dunn’s discussion of oral tradition. Dunn argues that it’s reasonable, once we capture in our minds the faith of the first followers of Jesus, to trace the Gospel writings back through normal oral transmission to Jesus himself, and suggests that the Gospels are not taken seriously enough by Jesus scholars. It is those who were so greatly impressed by Jesus that can give us the best glimpse of why they were impressed. He closes with this provocative conclusion: “Those who still experience the Jesus tradition as living tradition may well be best placed to appreciate the initial stages of the traditioning process, that it is the ear of faith which is likely to hear the Gospels most effectively, and that the living quality of the Jesus tradition is most likely to be experienced by those who in effect sit with these early assemblies in sharing their memories of Jesus and in seeking to live by them.”

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