Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Historical Jesus: Five Views - A Review 1

I linked a sneak peak at this book in an earlier post. I just started the book last night and would like to start a series of short reviews as I read along. To be honest I was half tempted to skip the introduction and jump to the first essay by Robert Price who believes that an historical Jesus never existed. I'm so glad I didn't. This is a critically important chapter especially if the topic is new to you. It will help orient you to the history, major issues and the significance of the topic.

The introduction is an excellent survey of the history and major issues of the study of the historical Jesus and is loaded with valuable bibliographic references. Theories about Jesus abound and I thought I had heard them all. I should have known better. I was stunned to read that one writer actually argues that Jesus and the apostle Paul are the same person!

Paul Rhodes Eddy and James K. Beilby highlight the four stages of scholarly research in the quest for the historical Jesus. They begin with 1) the "old quest" (from Reimarus to Schweitzer - 1778-1906); 2) the "'so-called' no quest" (from Schweitzer to Kasemann - 1906-1953); 3) The "new quest" (also called the "second quest" from 1953 - 1970s) and 4) the "third quest" (1980s - present). Each of these periods is fleshed out with the major players and rising factors that changed and shaped the prevailing views of Jesus primarily in German liberal scholarship. While this four-stage history is widely accepted there are some who question it as simply an "overly narrow, parochially German perspective." (28 n. 70) While Eddy and Beilby grant the title of "father of the quest" to Reimarus they note that, contrary to Schweitzer and many today who claim that Reimarus had no predecessors, the roots of the quest actually stem back into the seventeenth-century British and French deism. In particular they point to British deist Thomas Chubb (1679-1746) who saw Jesus as a "sort of first-century Palestinian Deist, garbed in the seamless robe of reason and natural religion." (12)

The second part of the introduction covers the "current state of the third quest." Eddy and Beilby cover a wide variety of issues and among the most important is the matter of methodology. The third quest has raised the importance of methodology to new heights. But while many can agree that methodology is important it's not long before the disagreements begin. Some suggest a return to the thought period of "no quest" arguing that the search for the historical Jesus should be abandoned since nothing good can come from it and at the end of the day it really doesn't matter since (quoting William Arnal) "the Jesus who is important to our day is not the Jesus of history, but the symbolic Jesus of contemporary discussion." (32) Others, like Luke Timothy Johnson (a contributor in the book) object to the process since "historical proposals are always contingent and open to later revision--hardly the type of thing the Christian community could base its very identity on over time." (not a quote from Johnson but their summary of his thought). (33) Though differences abound Eddy and Beilby assert that while a "consensus in Jesus studies is elusive, it is not entirely absent." (47) Chief on the consensus list is one major item--the Jewishness of Jesus. "One of the most scathing critiques that a contemporary scholar can receive today is that he has ignored or even underappreciated the Jewishness of Jesus." (49) But, again, the harmony of opinions quickly stops. What that "Jewishness" looked like is the spark of a whole new debate. They point again to Arnal who says the entire discussion is a "'red herring,' since within a radically diverse Judaism, Jesus could turn out to be just about anything and still potentially qualify as 'Jewish.'" (49) Many other issues are raised which I won't cover here. The issues are covered in brief format yet very informative.

What has the third quest produced? Here's a sample of the reconstructions the third quest has produced of Jesus: "an eschatological prophet, a Galilean holy man, an occultic magician, an innovative rabbi, a trance-inducing psychotherapist, a Jewish sage, a political revolutionary, an Essene conspirator, an itinerant exorcist, an historicized myth, a protoliberation theologian, a peasant artisan, a Torah-observant Pharisee, a Cynic-like philosopher, a self-conscious eschatological agent, a socioeconomic reformer, a paradoxical Messianic claimant and, finally, as one who saw himself as, in some sense, the very embodiment of Yahweh-God." (53)

We could ask, "Will the real Jesus please stand up?" In the remainder of the book we'll hear the case of five different scholars attempting to answer that question. Let the debate begin!

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