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On this page, we will offer multiple recommendations of books that are useful for the reader in understanding the historical Jesus. Books are grouped according to author last name.
Darrell Bock, Studying the Historical Jesus
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The sub-title to this work is A Guide to Sources and Methods and the content of the book serves this goal admirably. Bock begins with a 30 page introduction to the sources that inform readers about the historical and cultural background of Jesus and his ministry. He gives an excellent overview of works such as the Apocrypha/Deuterocanonical books, Philo and Josephus, as well as an analysis of the four canonical Gospels and their relationship to those other works.
Next, Bock leads the reader on a tour of Jesus in his cultural context (this section is especially appropriate for Tekton readers). This is the strongest section of the book. Bock surveys and analyzes the non-biblical literary evidence for Jesus concluding that the historian can be very confident that Jesus, as a historical person, indeed existed. This is followed by an incredible analysis of the sociocultural and political history of Second-temple Judaism up to the time of Jesus.
Bock helps the reader learn about the main social values of the ancient peoples such as honor/shame, purity and the patron-client relationship, issues that are essential to a proper understanding of the Gospels. His review of the political history of Judaism is especially helpful due to several charts and maps summarizing the political leaders and High Priests from the pre-Maccabean period until the time of Christ.
Finally, Bock discusses the various critical methods that have been used to study the Gospels throughout the last several centuries. He gives an excellent presentation of Historical, Source, Form, Redaction, Tradition, and Narrative criticisms by highlighting their respective strengths and weaknesses as well as how they have been abused by skeptics. Bock is especially effective in showing what can and cannot be demonstrated historically using each respective critical method. For example, some skeptics using the Historical critical method have tried pitting different versions of stories in the Gospels against each other as though the two texts are competing (especially where the words of Jesus are concerned).
Bock points out that the Gospel writers were usually trying to capture the ipsissima vox ("very voice") of Jesus as opposed to his ipsissima verba ("very words"). Therefore, the texts are not competing against each other at all, but rather are trying to capture the gist of the teaching of Jesus and convey it to the church. The chapter on Source criticism is the most useful, especially for quick review, since it includes charts showing the literary relationships among the synoptics as well as the content of the hypothetical Q document.
Overall, Darrell Bock has written a wonderful gem of a book that is perfect for the beginner or intermediate student of the Gospels. It is especially well-suited to act as a "springboard" book that can help readers advance to more technical material. After reading this work one would surely be ready for The Jesus Quest by Ben Witherington or Honor, Patronage, Kinship, and Purity by David deSilva. Though very dense with information, the book is very cogently presented-a highly recommended work.
-P. F. Wheatly
Gregory Boyd, Cynic Sage or Son of God?
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One of the current discussions in certain NT circles todaymost notably among members and supporters of the Jesus Seminaris the idea that Jesus began as some sort of basic Cynic sage who was (rather rapidly) transformed into the Son of God by his followers. Boyds book is a welcome prescription for that particular line of thought, which we see as merely the latest attempt to find a Jesus that dont bother nobody with outrageous claims to divinity.
Boyd begins with a helpful overview of the quest for the historical Jesusa quest that began as early as 1778 with Reimaruspolitical Jesus whose disciples stole the body and proclaimed a resurrection. The modern quest finds itself in two basic divisions:
- The third quest party, in which many conservative commentators find a home; and,
- The post-Bultmannian questfrom which we have the Jesus Seminar. Naturally, this is also where the Cynic sage theory finds its roots.
Boyd continues with an analysis of the Cynic sage theory from two of its leading proponents: Burton Mack and John Crossan. This includes a discussion of who the ancient cynics actually were, as well as an exposition of some of the basic presuppositions of the Cynic thesis (for example, heavy reliance on non-canonical materials, such as Q [Mack] and the Secret Gospel of Mark [Crossan] . He then moves to a specific analysis of the methods and backgrounds of Mack and Crossan, devoting a full chapter to each.
The chapters following offer strong critiques of the post-Bultmannian assumptions required for the Cynic sage theorywhich turns out to be far too reliant on questionable research and premises. Most notably, the series of assumptions required about HOW Jesus was transformed from a simple Cynic sage to the Son of God is of particular concern; even Mack comments on how astonishing the speed of this transformation was. Included are helpful discussions concerning anti-supernatural bias, Jewish oral tradition, diversity in the early church, relevance of non-canonical Gospels (notably Thomas and Q), and the stripping of eschatology from the historical Jesus.
Boyd then focuses more closely on the central arguments of the Cynic thesis, with particular concern for the influence of Hellenism in Galilee (a strongly hellenized Galilee is quite essential to the Cynic thesis) and a study of the parallels offered between Jesus, Paul, and the Cynics.
The last several chapters address the works of Paul, Mark, and Luke in terms of defending their historicity and veracity and howing how the Cynic thesis deals with them (mostly, by either a) ignoring them or b) putting them off as wholesale fabrications, which is what Mack particularly does with the works of Mark and Luke). Included are discussions of the churchs kerygma, and Pauls links with Jesus; defended also are the traditional assignments, accuracy, dating and authority of the Gospel of Mark and the Book of Acts.
The last chapter critiques Crossans and Macks view of the resurrection. Included are defenses of some necessary components of the traditional view, and a summary of how Crossan and Mack treat the evidence of the Gospels and Paul.
While not as detailed as some might like, Boyds work offers an excellent starting point and provides an accessible set of discussions for understanding (and refuting) one of the more prominent, latest editions of the Who Was Jesus? question to emerge from the post-Bultmannian camp. Ample notes and an impressive bibliography give direction for further study. This work is highly recommended for those with an interest in contemporary issues in apologetics.
There is also a more popular version of the book we can recommend, titled Jesus Under Siege.
Paul Copan (ed.), Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up?
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If you want to read this book because you think you'll see John Dominic Crossan get defeated in debate, you won't be disappointed. He does get defeated, but I still found the book disappointing as a whole. Now let me explain why.
It is a peculiarity of our culture to think that declarative assertions (e.g., "sound bites") solve problems and give answers. Only in a society that thinks 20 minutes of Mike Wallace interviewing less than 5 people equates with "complete, unbiased" coverage of any given issue can we think that a debate solves anything. Unless the topic is very, very narrow, it seldom does. The oral debate format favors he with the best show to offer, regardless of who is actually right, and no one ends up being any better informed.
Evaluations of the debate between Crossan and Craig, given by Craig Blomberg and Ben Witherington, make exactly the same point, and Craig himself admits to these shortcomings in the format in a closing essay. As Witherington puts it: The debate "had some interesting moments but often failed to grasp the nettle."
So as to content. We start with opening statements by Craig and Crossan, with Craig offering the usual outline of arguments he has presented in several places (and in some cases, as Blomberg points out, overstating scholarly support for his position -- another hindrance of the debate format).
Crossan does -- nothing in response. He almost completely ignores Craig's arguments; he equivocates with terminology; he involves the emotional spectre of respecting the faith of others; he brings Bultmann back into the picture -- and nothing is accomplished. By this virtue alone does Craig win the debate, since it seems Crossan showed up for a different one. The metaphor of trying to nail jello to a wall applies well when reading what Crossan has to say in response to Craig.
From here there is a discussion moderated by Bill Buckley, and again little is accomplished. Then there are comments from four scholars who read the debate.
Robert Miller, a Jesus Seminar fellow, prefers to ignore the debate in favor of a lengthy comparison of apologetics to the spread of kerygma, along with some psychoanalytic commentary for explaining the differences in the Resurrection accounts. Marcus Borg promotes Bultmaniann faith and fails to properly comprehend the nature of the resurrection body (see here).
Craig Blomberg's entry, along with Ben Witherington's, fill in the many gaps we wish had been in Craig's arguments -- in fact, one wishes that either of them had been on stage that night rather than Craig, although perhaps time constraints would have turned either of them into less-impressive presenters as well.
Finally, Crossan and Craig offer some final thoughts, with Crossan mostly (irrelevantly) offering a list of his motivations. Apparently, he understood his instruction to reflect on the debate to mean, "Tell how you got involved and why" as opposed to "Reflect upon your position." Craig spends him time focussing on the issues and refuting Borg and especially Miller. In other words, just as in the debate, Craig pressed the case, and Crossan did no. And thereby nothing new was accomplished (although we did see some fine intellectual sport).
So, then -- pick up this slim, inexpensive tome if you like, but except for the last entires by Blomberg, Witherington, and Craig, expect little useful.
James Dunn, A New Perspective on Jesus
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In this book, James Dunn argues for the primacy of oral tradition in a revised form along the lines of Kenneth Bailey, as per chapter 4 of Wright's Jesus and the Victory of God. The recommendations are an interesting read, as is the publisher: You’ve got Gordon Fee and Darrell Bock plugging the book with the likes of Bruce Chilton and Dale Allison, and the book is published by Baker Academic (not the first place I would've pictured Dunn publishing). That combination intrigued me enough to buy the book, and it proved to be what I think is a brilliant little introduction on how to handle oral tradition properly in relation to the Gospels.
The book is only 125 pages of text (136 in total) and nearly 50 pages of that is an appendix, from which fairly large chunks were basically cut and pasted and placed in the main text, which is annoying. It’s a good size, but could possibly have been 10 or so pages shorter without losing anything.
It presents some (what were to me anyway) novel ideas on the oral tradition of the Gospels that provide some rather powerful arguments in favour of their reliability. He undercuts Kloppenborg and Co.’s take on Q (Dunn still waves the Q flag, but not as vigorously as most) by demonstrating that much of that material has been preserved reliably from an oral tradition started in a pre-Easter, pre-Passion Galilean setting, as opposed to postulating a post-Easter Galilean community that knew nothing of the passion. If the so-called ‘Q community’ (an idea he summarily destroys elsewhere in the book) didn’t know anything about Jesus’ death, it’s because it hadn’t happened yet! Whatever one’s take on Q, I find that rather amusing.
He says that this book is a condensation of the key methodological arguments he makes in his Jesus Remembered, which I haven’t read. If that’s the case though, I think that could be a good read too (except it’s apparently over 900 pages long -- And he throws out the birth narratives, but he stakes for the resurrection). A New Perspective on Jesus sort of parallels Wright’s Who Was Jesus? without going over the exact same ground all the time, and I think they complement each other well.
This is not a direct attack on the way-out Jesuses of the Da Vinci Code variety (that sort probably wouldn’t know who Dunn was), but it’s a strong indictment on mainstream historical Jesus research on ignoring the importance of oral tradition. It also serves as a great primer on oral tradition in the gospels.
Craig Evans, Fabricating Jesus
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I'm going to encourage you to buy this book with the same caveat as another I recommended with a similar title (Reinventing Jesus): Buy it not because it has a lot of new material in it (for veteran readers of this site, it will not; for new readers, it will), but becauase if you don't, publishers will not produce more quality material we need like this.
Evans covers some of the same territory as that prior book, but he covers a lot of different ground too. The one regret I have is that Evans did not cover some authors in depth (such as Tom Harpur, who gets a scant few paragraphs). One senses that Evans, as a serious scholar, preferred not to give such persons credibility by addressing them.
Still and all, there are many gems here and "aha" moments, as when Evans looks at Ehrman and Price, and his descriptions will bring to mind the concept of "fundy atheist" we've seen here more than once. The parody of the opening page of The da Vinci Code is exceptionally funny. Some of the topics covered are passe' in the popular lit (such as the Gospel of Thomas and the Cynic sage thesis) but they're still floating around, so don't think this is out of date. It isn't. I also have never seen some of the claims addressed ever made (such as, "Jesus was not interested in Scripture," which seems remarkable to have been posed) but yes, they were. Pick it up and add it to your library.
Paul Eddy and Greg Boyd, The Jesus Legend
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Paul Rhodes Eddy and Gregory Boyd have put together a substantial volume that deals another hard blow to the critical assumptions of the school of "Form Criticism", but also wages war against the views of hypercritical popular writers and scholars in regards to the New Testament.
It was this latter task, in fact, which was the primary target of the authors. In this work Eddy and Boyd provide responses to the likes of Robert Price, Randel Helms, Earl Doherty, and others whose views are not (for better or for worse) taken seriously enough by mainstream scholars for which we are able to find more than a scarcity of resources providing answers to their assertions. In fact, in this sense, it puts one in the mind of the kind of work that James Patrick Holding and Glenn Miller have been performing for a number of years, with some expected overlap of the pertinent material.
The book is divided into 10 chapters, the first of which argues that truly objective historians should be open to the possibility of supernatural explanations for historical data. The second chapter deals with the impact (or lack thereof) that Hellenism had on 1st Century Judaism (and how this may have influenced the formation of a "Jewish legend of Yahweh embodied"). The third chapter deals in the ever-present issue of "parallel legends and/or heroes", with helpful discussions of Sabbatai Svi, Simon Kimbangu, and of course Apollonius of Tyana.
Chapters 4 and 5 deal, respectively, with extra-biblical sources of Jesus (including discussions of the two famous Josephus passages and that of Tacitus, plus others), and the alleged problem of Paul’s silence in regards to details of Jesus’ life. Chapters 6 and 7 deal with the reliability of oral tradition and the role of memory and eyewitness testimony as it relates to New Testament studies. Chapter 8 discusses the issue of Gospel genre, which includes helpful discussions responding to such proposals as "the Gospels as fiction" and "the Gospels as ancient romance novels", etc. Finally, chapters 9 and 10 evaluate features of the Synoptic Gospels themselves and how the sum total of the data should give us the impression of their general reliability.
As one might imagine from the above list of objectives, the scope of the book is quite broad and gives, as a spatial necessity, only enough for a general overview of much of the pertinent data. While it is difficult to find fault in any chapter (given the fact that a thorough traversing of all of these issues might require a wheelbarrow full of pages), certain chapters were more compelling than others given the detail that was included. For instance, I thought that the authors made a very compelling case that truly objective historians should consider supernatural explanations plausible if all naturalistic counterparts are found wanting.
Particularly poignant in this regard was the authors’ demonstration that the so-called "anti-supernaturalistic bias" is not only limited almost exclusively to modern Western culture, but even the majority of those people within this modern Western culture do not share in this bias. Rather, this bias is largely (though not entirely) restricted to a certain scholarly guild and based on questionable assumptions. The authors provide solid defenses of the much-maligned extra-biblical sources of Jesus (particularly those of Tacitus and Josephus), and also deal adequate blows to many of the assertions made by the aforementioned hypercritical authors. Also valuable was the authors’ refutation of the basic assumptions behind "Form Criticism", the school of thought institutionalized by Bultmann and company, the influence of which is still powerful today (even among many conservative scholars). Eddy and Boyd demonstrate, based on the proliferation of studies of many cultures dealing in aspects of oral tradition that have surfaced over the past few decades, that there is no longer sufficient merit behind form critical assumptions and the resultant skepticism that the Gospel authors could have retained accurate historical information and testimony in a purely oral culture.
In fact, this book, along with Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, serves as a great 1-2 punch to form-critical judgments (in my view leaving this school of thought on the ground to remain). The authors include a great discussion on the issue of "contradictions", and I think compellingly demonstrate why the presence of discrepancies (even if actual contradictions) should not steer us away from maintaining the general reliability of the New Testament, as doing so would call into question virtually any historical incident for which we have multiple, independent attestation (though for which the historians studying these other incidents do not typically become skeptical of merely because of such discrepancies).
They also speak of harmonization and how certain features of oral societies (such as those in which the Gospel authors lived) could contribute to such apparent discrepancies (though are, in fact, merely examples of acceptable variations within ancient oral tradition). The authors give a great overview of certain features within the Synoptic Tradition that suggest their general reliability (e.g. the inclusion of embarrassing details/episodes, the Aramaic substratum detectable from many of the Traditions, the inclusion of incidental details, and archaeological corroboration), though the reader may be frustrated by the lack of examples in some of these subsections. I was surprised, for example, that the authors did not discuss the massive archaeological corroboration for the book of Acts (granted that while the authors’ goal was to defend the reliability of the Synoptic Gospels, Luke’s proven general reliability in one document would give us a priori confidence in that of his Gospel as well).
Of course, it is difficult to be too critical in this regard. The book is already 454 pages in text alone, and a wheelbarrow may have been needed to include every possible detail and discuss it in an in-depth manner.
I shudder to imagine the hours of research that must have been poured into this volume by Eddy and Boyd. This is evidenced by the authors’ copious footnotes in each of the diverse sections. In fact, while the material within the book can only give us an overview of many of the pertinent issues, such as why oral tradition behind the Gospels should be viewed as leading to a generally reliable written product penned 40-70 years after the events in question, the footnotes themselves serve as helpful guideposts pointing to locations that serious researchers can go next should they wish to pursue the topic(s) in more detail.
As anticipated, we found the book to be a masterpiece, and one that is essential reading for those immersed in popular theories such as "The Christ Myth", "The Gospels as Fiction", and of course the ubiquitous practice of "parallelomania" (to name but a few). However, in the scholarly world, this book should also substantially contribute to the painfully-slow demise of Form Criticism.
Luke Timothy Johnson, The Real Jesus
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Although the Jesus Seminar has been out of business for a while now, and this book is even older, it remains a classic. Johnson offers a sensible, scholarly voice from a moderate perspective (one that cannot be accused of adherence to "fundamentalism," the "televangelical" form of which he is just as critical) criticizing both popular theorists (such as Spong) and scholars (such as Mack, Crossan, and at the far fringe, Thiering). Johnson pulls no punches here; readers will find his evaluations (such as to Spong's "narcissistic self-referentiality") refreshing and candid.
Johnson's book is more than a scholarly critique, however. It is also part social analysis (looking at the clash between Seminar-types and fundamentalists in social terms, and looking at the former in terms of an agenda that drives them) as well as a critical analysis of the state of scholarship. Readers will find familiar, via comments on this site, Johnson's comments about how ultra-specialization  has created Biblical scholars who write inferior work devoid of broader contextual study. Johnson also offers discussions of historical epistemology, and explains how the Seminar and related theorists fail to adhere to proper models.
One aspect that may be found disagreeable is Johnson's inclination to put all Christian eggs in a basket of "faith". However, this is not a significant part of the book and readers will benefit greatly from Johnson's observations.
Stanley Porter and Stephen Bedard, Unmasking the Pagan Christ
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I wish this book were LONGER. And some of you may balk at the price. Please don't. We need more books like this, so buy a few. Maybe don't rent a forklift as I said for Reinventing Jesus, but try to get at least a large wheelbarrow full.
In this volume, two NT scholars give Tom Harpur the rebuttal in print he's neeed since he wrote The Pagan Christ. Porter and Bedard survey the positive evidence for the historical Christ and also briefly undermine the credibility of Harpur's favorite sources, Kuhn and Massey. I wish they'd have done more on these guys, but having done a few articles on them myself I can understand why they wouldn't want to.
Porter is a name readers may recognize: I have used his work on rhetoric in the NT and also on Luke's census. These two authors produce quality, and you won't go wrong with them (even if much of the information will be familiar to readers of this site). The chapter on Egyptian religion is also helpful.
Buy it for two reasons: To counter Harpur and to show your support for MORE stuff like this to be on the market.
Robert Van Voorst, Jesus Outside the New Testament
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The references to Jesus outside the NT are a specialty interest of mine, and I found some good material in this book that I have added to my article on it. Not that I agreed with all that Van Voorst has to say. I think he undervalues the references by Tacitus and Lucian on quite inadequate grounds, and misses a lot of data that could have helped his case. His material on the Jewish references is much better.
On the other hand, this is one of those books I'd have liked to tear down the middle and pay only half for. The material on the Gospel of Thomas, Secret Gospel of Mark, and alleged pre-sources (Q, L, Signs source, etc.) rest so much on speculative source material that they are practically useless. I get the impression that Van Voorst did these chapters only to make the book longer. Certainly I would have preferred more critical analysis of GThom rather than a full recounting of it's text.
Overall, I was disappointed with this book, which could have accomplished much more. We recommend it as a minor supplement.
Ben Witherington, The Jesus Quest
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Everywhere we look these days we find a different Jesus being foisted upon our imaginations: Jesus, the Cynic sage. Jesus, the Eastern swami and international traveller. Everything, it seems, but the most frightening, Jesus the Savior. Ben Witherington does not look at all of these alternative Jesuses, but he does examine some of the major players, notably the Jesus Seminar's "Talking Head" Jesus, Mack and Crossan's cynic Jesus, and - indeed so - the Jesus who is our Savior. The result is a top-flight introduction to the current "Third Quest" to "recover" the historical Jesus.
Witherington's careful and sober analysis, his clear and often humorous writing style, combine to make Jesus Quest both scholarly and entertaining. This is one of the best general interest items to come out on the subject in recent years, and you won't regret taking the time for it.
N. T. Wright, Who Was Jesus?
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This tiny book reminds me of a strange sort of sandwich: The slices of bread are very thin and get soaked through by the juicy meat inside.
For indeed, there are only five chapters, and the first is a breathtaking tour of the modern Jesus Quest in 18 pages, while the last chapter is a likewise whirlwind preview of arguments that Wright will make in his enormous books elsewhere. It is what you find in between these slivers that make the book worthwhile, as Wright deconstructs in turn the three following modern portrait-painters of Jesus:
- Barbara Thiering, who reads the New Testament like a modern gossip magazine. Wright argues against Thiering mostly by incredulity, but that's really all he needs to do.
- A. N. Wilson, who accuses Paul of paganzing Jesus.
- John Shelby Spong, the religious version of a shock radio jock. Spong likes any idea that turns people's heads; the more controversial, the better, never mind the scholarly support.
This book is a delightful little read --- even if you never have had occasion to run into one of the three persons above.
N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God
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Those who have read my writings know that I am not easy to impress. Let it be noted, then, that Wright's Jesus and the Victory of God is a work I consider to be the best work on the historical Jesus in existence. If you buy only one book this year, make it this one.
The book starts with the expected survey of Jesus research, but after that, where we enter upon Wright's key thesis, we are in for sheer delight. Using the very tools of critical history that have so often been wielded to mold a Jesus that is a Cynic sage or a political patsy, Wright shows that the most likely identification of Jesus is as one who viewed himself as God's agent for bringing the Kingdom of God to earth and as the Messiah. Wright's assembly of the pieces for his conclusion is remarkable and completely believable, and made all the more effective by the wealth of detail he amasses to prove his case.