Contemporary Historical Jesus Scholarship: An Annotated Bibliography

Two recent conversations with friends have prompted me to write this post. One was with a seminarian whose dissatisfaction with the methodology of The Jesus Seminar, had turned him off completely to the historical study of Jesus. For what it’s worth, I think my friend was right to question some of the methods employed by The Jesus Seminar and I told him as much. But, if it is in fact Jesus’ whole life that is redemptive, then wouldn’t it be important for us—not least for an aspiring minister—to explore from every possible angle what Jesus actually did and said while he was here as well as the meaning of those word and actions? Of course, historical Jesus scholarship is like anything else in theology: one should soberly and prayerfully consider the arguments being made and then take what seems wise and fruitful and leave the rest behind.

The second conversation was with a lay person who, after reading Marcus Borg’s account in The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions (co-authored with N. T. Wright), was relieved to find a biblical scholar who affirmed her suspicion that some of what she read in the gospels was embellished or even invented make a point, but that she did not, therefore, have to leave the whole thing behind. Imagine how she perked up, then, when Borg suggested that most “mainline Jesus scholars” agree on at least the foundations of his picture of Jesus, (a claim that could be true depending on how broadly or narrowly one defines “mainline”). “Who are these ‘Jesus scholars’?” she wanted to know.

That is the question that I have set out to answer all too briefly in this post: Who are these “Jesus scholars”? And what is the landscape of contemporary historical Jesus scholarship? For the most part, I have refrained in the present post from making judgments about which constructions of the historical Jesus I think “get it right.” This is not because I don’t have an opinion. To the contrary, there is quite a lot in contemporary Jesus scholarship that I find to be poor history supporting and supported by poor theology. But even with the presence of what I find to be a wrongheaded theological perspective, I think the historical Jesus quest itself is extremely important. Moreover, I have found almost all of the contemporary Jesus scholarship with which I am familiar to be, in one way or another, very enlightening. So, I have tried to keep most of my opinions to myself because what I hope you will do with this post is not agree with my judgments, but actually read some of the books!

A fair warning: you will not agree with everything you read about the historical Jesus. You can’t—I don’t care where you are on the theological map—because the pictures of Jesus that contemporary scholars present are far too varied and disagree between one another at too many points. What you will do is dive into the texts of the gospels and into the world of first century Palestine and you will come out on the other side, I have no doubt, with a deeper and richer understanding of what the man Jesus of Nazareth did and who he was. And that brings us to one place where I just have to tell you my opinion: The more you know who Jesus was and is, the more you’re going to like him! So, if St. Augustine was right—any interpretation that leads to greater love of God and man is a good one—then all historical Jesus scholarship must be worthwhile!

Let’s dig in! There are three classic texts that everyone cites because together they got the ball rolling on the contemporary quest for the historical Jesus: Albert Schweitzer’s The Quest of the Historical Jesus, Geza Vermes’ Jesus in His Jewish Context and perhaps most importantly E. P. Sanders’ The Historical Figure of Jesus. Each of these books is, among other things, a reminder that Jesus was a first century Jew and that we must, therefore, understand everything he thought, said and did within the matrix of first century Judaism. The cumulative effect of their arguments was enough to convince everyone and thereby to open up a whole new set of questions for Jesus scholarship. Because so much of what was innovative about these works is taken for granted in recent writings, my judgment is that if you’re reading the later stuff you really don’t need to read these unless you really want to dig deep into the quest.

Probably the work that best represents the majority of mainline American contemporary Jesus scholarship is The Jesus Seminar, a collective of about 150 mostly liberal biblical scholars, historians and lay people who got together to try to peel back the layers of Christian tradition and construct an historically accurate picture of Jesus of Nazareth. Their first accomplishment was a really interesting, modern American-English vernacular translation of five gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and the Gospel of Thomas, complete with curse words and racial slurs. The translation is published in their book The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say? in which they also vote (based on historical criteria which you can find on their website) on whether Jesus really said something like the words in these gospels, line-by-line. In a second volume, The Acts of Jesus: What Did Jesus Really Do? they vote on what they think Jesus really did.

Two important critics of The Jesus Seminar, both British, are James D. G. Dunn and Richard Bauckham. James Dunn, who has been on the cutting edge of developments in New Testament studies for the last four decades, argues that one of the seminar’s primary assumptions, that the gospel stories are late developments in the Christian tradition, is faulty because they failed to account for the efficiency of oral tradition in traditional cultures. So, while he grants that the gospels may have been written late in the first century and perhaps even into the early part of the second century, Dunn argues that the stories which comprise them go back to Jesus himself. Dunn’s big, fat scholarly book on this is Jesus Remembered. His shorter, popular-level book is A New Perspective on Jesus: What the Quest for the Historical Jesus Missed.

In his book, Jesus and the God of Israel: God Crucified and Other Studies on the New Testament’s Christology of Divine Identity, Richard Bauckham examines the theological corollary of Dunn’s historical argument. According to The Jesus Seminar, since the New Testament is a tradition that developed over a long period of time, we can discern developmental trends over this time period and, thus, determine the kinds of statements do not go back to the historical Jesus, but are embellished or invented by early Christians. One such trend can be observed with affirmations of the divinity of Jesus. It seems, to seminar scholars at least, that while such affirmations are ubiquitous in John (our latest gospel), they are far less frequent in Matthew and Luke and nowhere to be found in Mark (our earliest Gospel). Bauckham argues, however, that this proposed trajectory is specious and only seems to be the case because we are used to looking for such affirmations of divinity in Greek concepts of ontology. (Jesus is “of one being with the Father,” so goes the creed). But when we think instead in Hebrew concepts of identity, argues Bauckham, we find that the New Testament is teeming with affirmations of Jesus’ divinity. The trajectory, in other words, is not increasingly insisting on Jesus divinity, but doing so in increasingly Greek language.

If we stopped there, it might seem like all Jesus scholars fit neatly into two camps: on the one hand a groups of liberal American historians in The Jesus Seminar who deconstruct the biblical narrative to re-construct a historical picture of Jesus of Nazareth, on the other a handful of conservative British New Testament scholars who trust that the gospel stories offer and an early and reliable picture of Jesus. But, of course, nothing is that easy! The fact is that there are historians plotted at almost every point along a massive scale of how much of the material in the gospels can be attributed to Jesus himself and, even when they agree on which word and actions are historical, they cannot agree on their meaning. There are as many pictures of the historical Jesus as there are historical Jesus scholars. Below I have listed a few of the most important (or at least the most widely read) of these scholars. If you want a more thorough introduction to the diverse views within contemporary Jesus scholarship, the best place to start is Mark Allen Powell’s Jesus as a Figure in History: How Modern Historians View the Man from Galilee.

If the classic texts were a catalyst for the study of Jesus’ Jewish context, John Dominic Crossan has done the same for his Roman context. Palestine was after all under the controlling arm of the powerful Roman Empire during Jesus’ life time. As it turns out, Jesus had quite a lot to say to and about these powers. Crossan has done as much as anyone to help us see this aspect of Jesus’ ministry. Corssan’s big, fat, scholarly and frankly almost-impossible-to-read book is The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. His slim and very readable, popular-level version is Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography.

To Crossan’s account, the archeologist Jonathan Reed and adds an interesting perspective, employing a host of first century artifacts in Excavating Jesus: Beneath the Stones, Behind the Texts, (co-authored with Crossan).

Bishop N. T. Wright synthesis the Jewish-Roman matrix with an implicit trust in the reliability of the New Testament documents to construct a picture of Jesus as a Jewish eschatological prophet declaring that both God’s final judgment of Israel and God’s promised return to Jerusalem had in fact come in Jesus’ own life, ministry and death.  Wright’s big scholarly book on this topic is Jesus and the Victory of God, the second in a four-volume series on Christian origins. His smaller, popular-level book is The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was & Is.

Finally, Marcus Borg broadens the conversation by adding to historical Jesus research the cross-cultural study of religious mystics, healers and charismatic leaders. Borg’s most complete book is Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary.

This is by no means a comprehensive list, but it should get you started. Happy reading!

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