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Wednesday, September 18, 2013

"Jesus as a Figure in History" (Mark Allen Powell)

TITLE: Jesus as a Figure in History, Second Edition: How Modern Historians View the Man from Galilee
AUTHOR: Mark Allen Powell
PUBLISHER: Lousville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013, (288 pages).

Who is Jesus? Why is it important to learn about the historical Jesus? Well, for a man who has not only inspired the spread of the Christian faith, and for being the reason why Churches gather people from all over, Powell suggest two reasons why it is important to study the historical Jesus. First, we are studying a person who has literally walked this earth. It is not simply a study of faith. It is a study of a person from whom faith is inspired from. Second, we are studying Jesus' claims for who he is, not what theologians make him to be. Key to understanding such projects is this. Conventional Bible study will revere and study the Person of Christ according to biblical material. In the study of the historical Jesus, the Bible PLUS other extrabiblical and historical documents are researched in order to paint a bigger picture of Jesus from a historical science standpoint. It is more science. It is more analysis. It is more modern research based on rationality, historical facts, and scientific techniques, arising from work done in the past three recent decades.

According to the author, the "big six" Jesus scholars are Robert Funk (Jesus Seminar), John Dominic Crossan, Marcus J Borg, E P Sanders, John P Meier, and N T Wright. In his survey of the works of these esteemed scholars, he was able to verify his interpretation with all except Sanders. With his background in journalism and his New Testament Professorship credentials, Powell has provided a comprehensive and fair summary of the various perspectives on the person of Jesus from a modern era.  As a founding editor of a respected Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, as well as the chair of the Historical Jesus section at the Society of Biblical Literature, Powell has solid credentials. If the first edition represents more of an interest rather than an investment by the author, this second edition is an increase in both interest and investment on this matter of importance.

Chapter 1 gives a quick overview of the origins and the early developments of the discipline. There are the efforts to harmonize the gospels when trying to see Jesus through four gospel portraits of Matthew, Luke, Mark and John. The studies examine whether the gospels contradict one another and how to make sense of the differences.  There is Albert Schweitzer whose quest for the historical Jesus turns sideways toward the quest for the "relevant Jesus." Then there is the 20th Century existentialist influence led by Rudolf Bultmann, saying that because what Jesus had done was history, what is needed for modern times is not more historical facts but contemporary relevance. The New Quest relooks at the relevance of history but ends up with pockets of sketchy details instead of a full biography of Jesus. Then there is the "Third Quest" and other quests which make for intriguing reading. With the Jesus studies becoming more widespread, many end up with greater respect for the reliability of the New Testament gospels. Embedded in these quests to look back into history is a profound eschatological orientation of faith, believing that there is a lot of importance and relevance in these studies in order to find out how one man can inspire the birth of great cathedrals and the spread of the Christian faith.

Chapter 2 goes into the sources and criteria of study which tends to become rather technical or academic. Scholars study not just the person but the place where Jesus lived. They use archaelogy. They examine the literary sources from Roman, Jewish, Greek, the Gospels, Q, the noncanonical gospels, and others. Also in this chapter, readers will be interested to see criteria for canonization and the historical reliability of the New Testament which in itself will help us appreciate the research, the scholarship, and the reverence of the people who helped ratify the Scriptures. Note that the canonization process is not an invention, but a ratification.

Chapter 3 is my favourite chapter. It presents snapshots of how modern historians have viewed Jesus to be. Richard Horsley calls Jesus a "social prophet" because Jesus is less interested in political or religious struggles, but more interested to touch lives in ordinary circumstances. Geza Vermes calls Jesus the "Charismatic Jew" because he is the "holy man" who seems to be drawing upon the power of God each time he performs a miracle. Ben Witherington III calls Jesus the "Jewish Sage" as wisdom made flesh. Dale Allison associates Jesus on an eschatological framework primarily because of Jesus constant proclamation of a coming kingdom. These scholars and many more are introduced as a primer for readers to learn about what are the current perspectives among Jesus scholars.

Chapters 4 to 9 launches into the six major scholars and theologians who have been most often cited and referenced. First there is Robert Funk and the famous Jesus Seminar, significant primarily because of their influence on Jesus scholarship. One particular motivation for the seminar is to learn as directly as possible the "first hand faith" from Jesus himself, instead of "second hand" from the disciples like Paul, Peter, and others. Interpretations from Marcus Borg, Burton Mack, Robert Miller, and others enrich the interactions with regards to the pros and cons of the seminar.  Some strong criticisms include that of N T Wright who feels that the Jesus Seminar is less of a historical study per se, but more of a reaction against the extremities of fundamentalism.

The second scholar, John Dominic Crossan, whose six fundamental decisions about the sources form an important springboard for his work: Mark's priority; presence of Q; John depending on the Synoptics; Independence of the gospel of Thomas; Independence of the Didache; and presence and independence of the "Cross gospel." His three categories of operations: the microcosmic, the mesocosmic, and the macrocosmic makes his study even more scientific than many in the Jesus Seminar. Powell closes the chapter with five areas of contention about Crossan's methods and findings.

The third scholar, Marcus J Borg, prefers to use the terms "pre-Easter" and "post-Easter" Jesus instead of the historical Jesus or the faith associated with Jesus. The reason is because Borg asserts the importance of both history and theology. The study is not simply an intellectual pursuit but a very personal one. Unlike Crossan's extensive and meticulous methods of study, Borg bucks the trend by accepting the historical documents as reliable without the need to subject the facts to theories and authentication instruments. That said, Borg too has three steps in his approach. 1) He accepts the documents as they are; 2) The first portrait of Jesus are assembled using the earliest witnesses, namely the gospel of Mark and Q; 3) He fills in the rest of the gaps in the portrait with documents and facts attained from "single attestation" sources. His motivation in the study is to see who the person of Jesus actually is. He ends up with five images of Jesus. The unique contribution of Borg is his "bridging" of the two fields of historical Jesus study; namely, Jesus as a Jew in history versus Jesus as an eschatological prophet. This strength is also a weakness for any such "bridge" easily invites criticisms from all parties.

The fourth scholar, E P Sanders sees Judaism as a covenant of grace. The law is a gift of grace. Adopting the canonical tradition, Sanders considers the historical documents true unless proven otherwise. This is unlike the Jesus Seminar participants who tend to presume the documents are false unless proven otherwise. Deemed most "traditional" among the Jesus scholars, with respect to its closeness to Albert Schweitzer's findings, Sanders also argues for the symbolic significance of the "twelve" people Jesus often speaks to. Together with this symbolic understanding of 12 being a significant Jewish understanding of the twelve tribes of Israel and the full restoration of God's people. That is why Sanders understands Jesus within the context of a "Jewish restoration eschatology." Despite his formidable work and influence, there are at least two chief criticisms of his work. First, Sanders is taken to task for putting Jewish mainly within the context of a Palestine Judaism context. What about the Roman-Graeco environment, the Hellenistic world? The second criticism is about Sanders' emphasis on Jesus as an eschatological prophet. Is Jesus' main concern about the things that are to come? Will that not overplay the kingdom that is to come, at the expense of the kingdom that has come?

The fifth scholar, John P Meier has written the most about the historical Jesus. Like Crossan, he too is Roman Catholic, but he is more convicted than Crossan when it comes to objectivity in scholarship. Where Crossan says objectivity is "spurious," Meier insists that scholars must be committed to "professional objectivity." This means that one may even need to put aside one's religious bias and work with those from other religious associations in getting at the objective. Such efforts put a heavy demand on his methodological and scientific prowess. Calling Jesus a "marginal Jew," he tries to highlight the point that Jesus is more than just a Jew within Judaism. Meier too has some criticisms, chief of which is the lack of association to Jesus' influence in the political and social scene. Just saying that Jesus has no political or social questions in his era makes it uncomfortable for many.

The sixth scholar is the ever popular N T Wright, widely respected by evangelicals throughout the world. Famous for using god in the lowercase 'g,' he masterfully reconstructs the world that Jesus had lived through six volumes of theological works. Calling his own research as "critical realism," Wright basically states a hypothesis and verify it with data. Five major questions must be asked when proposing any Jesus hypothesis:
  1. How does Jesus fit into Judaism?
  2. What were Jesus' aims?
  3. Why did Jesus die?
  4. How and why did the early Church begin?
  5. Why are the Gospels what they are?
In short, it is not historical objectivity nor traditional Judaism, but hypothesis and the verification of the stated hypothesis that determines the way to do Jesus studies. Well read, well researched, and well argued, Wright is certainly a formidable contributor to the historical Jesus study.

Powell ends the book with a valuable summary of all the 200 years of work by the various historians and scholars of the historical Jesus field of study. The three key areas of contention among the various researchers are disputes over sources, criteria, and approach. Even though many agree that Jesus is a Jew, they disagree on the extent of Jesus' Jewishness. Contentions exist in terms of Jesus' eschatological emphasis and political involvement.

So What?

The field of historical Jesus studies is a relatively new discipline. Many of the methodologies employed can be too involved for an ordinary layperson. Moreover, the amount of material to sieve through may take years to be familiar with. Just the works of John P Meier for example may take most of us a lifetime to study. Thankfully, Mark Allen Powell has done many of us a great favour in condensing the key findings of all the significant scholars in a single book. The new material in the Appendices alone is reason for owners of the first edition to get this new edition.

The disputes basically center around how historical studies are made, and the methodological assumptions made. There is also the nagging question of how objective can anyone actually be on a subject that has supernatural and spiritual consequences. Even though people can claim neutrality in their scientific approach, any approach adopted is already a bias. Any assumption taken is already a decision made. It is very hard to convince anyone about anything that is "neutral." That is why it is better not to use the word "neutrality" in our studies. Fairness is a better word. Not all criticisms are bad, but we need to learn to recognize frivolous arguments while maintaining an eye on constructive criticisms that move the researcher closer to the truth, even at the expense of one's starting position. From my standpoint, humility remains the key to anyone seeking truth or making any truth claims. As a Christian, only Jesus is the Truth, the Way, and the Life. Just to say that we want to study Jesus to see how true he is, is already a judgment on that statement. Is it then possible to be totally objective in our studies of Jesus? Personally, I feel more comfortable wth the approaches of N T Wright and E P Sanders, over the Jesus Seminar primarily because the latter tends to doubt the words of Jesus unless proven otherwise. Faith is not about the lack of doubt of something. Faith is the trust in spite of the doubts that surround that something.

Although the material in this book can be rather dense, if readers can work through the book and follow the brilliantly laid out line of arguments, one will certainly be blessed with deep appreciation for all these scholars, some of which have invested a major part of their lives into it. Kudos to Dr Mark Allen Powell for a brilliant piece of work.

Rating: 4.75 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Westminster John Knox Press and NetGalley without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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