Book Review: Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus (Part I of Many)

handbookRecently I began to read through the four-volume set Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus (ed’s Stanley Porter and Tom Holmén) and decided to blog a quick overview of each essay. I figured someone might find this useful considering that Brill charges the ghastly price tag of $1300 for it, which probably means not terribly many university and seminary libraries will actually be able to purchase a copy. Kind of absurd that such a feat of scholarship is kept hidden from many students and professors due to an insanely high price tag.

I plan on reading through an essay every day or two and posting a part of this review once a week (hopefully).

The first volume in this set is on how to study the historical Jesus and contains twenty eight contributions [including the introduction (xv-xxi) by the editors]. The first volume is split into two sections, the first being on contemporary methodological approaches to historical Jesus studies (nineteen essays) and the second being on various aspects of historical Jesus methodology (nine essays).

Dale Allison presents the first chapter (3-30) which is titled How to Marginalize the Traditional Criteria of Authenticity. Allison is one of my favorite authors to read when it comes to early Christian studies, so obviously I enjoyed his contribution here quite a bit. As the title suggests, Allison critiques the criteria of authenticity as a valid means of arriving at information on the historical Jesus, while also arguing that a memory approach to the Jesus tradition is called for. Furthermore, the place to look for this memory in the Jesus tradition is not in individual sayings but in more general themes and motifs that recur throughout the sources. This is something that Allison argues for more extensively in his Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History.

Allison concludes his essay with the following:

Where does all this leave us with respect to the many sayings and stories that stubbornly remain in the “possibly authentic” category? I believe that we need to admit that, as historians of the Jesus tradition, we are story-tellers. We can do no more than aspire to fashion a hypothetical narrative that is more persuasive than competing narratives, one that satisfies our aesthetical and historical sensibilities because of its apparent ability to clarify more data in a more satisfactory fashion than its rivals. Such a narrative will inevitably draw upon the various individual sayings and events to illumine points, but we will have to give up pretending to authenticate most of them. That is, “possibly authentic” sayings and events will serve us, not as foundations to build upon, but rather as illustrations of the apocalyptic paradigm and the larger patterns across the documents. (25)

 The next essay (31-56), Fourth Quest? What Did Jesus Really Want, is from the pen of Ernst Baasland. He begins by providing a good overview of the history of Jesus research, showing that the question of Jesus’ motive (i.e. what did Jesus want) has largely been neglected. Baasland then moves onto providing a foundation of a methodological perspective that can answer the question of Jesus’ motive, followed by a brief look at what the Gospel of Mark can tell us in this regards. Baasland’s method involves drawing upon historical, sociological, and the theological perspectives of the text. He presents his case through these four observations: agenda words (“God’s kingdom”), the “I” sayings of Jesus, the theocentric orientation of Jesus, and Jesus’ way of teaching (e.g. through challenges and questions).

Baasland’s contribution ends with a call for a “Fourth Quest” of Jesus research. Important to this quest, he argues, is the search for Jesus’ motives and intentions. Baasland outlines new and improved methods for this new quest which, inter alia, consist of the use of Mark and Q as primary sources, the utilization of social anthropology, sociology, narrative analysis, and rhetorical criticism in the method, and that there be an emphasis on the criteria of consistency/coherence and consequence (Baasland sees these criteria as having a “renewed relevance”). A pretty interesting essay, though I’m a little bit skeptical as to how useful any new and improved methods will be at divining Jesus’ intentions and motives.

The third essay, from Jürgen Becker (57-89), is called The Search for Jesus’ Special Profile. In his contribution Becker focuses on the methodological path that the Third Quest has taken on its many presentations of Jesus. The focal points he discusses are that of the utilization of new sources (e.g. apocryphal gospels, the texts found at Qumran and Nag Hammadi), the new methodological approaches used (e.g. viewing the gospels from the perspective of literary history), the new evaluation of traditional problems (e.g. the relationship between texts and orality), and finally, how contemporary questions help shed light on Jesus (e.g. gender research).

One point of note I thought I would mention is that Becker states that he thinks the two passages in Josephus which mention Jesus (Ant. 18.63-64; 20.200) “are probably Christian interpolations”. I’ve recently been persuaded that Ant. 18.63-64 quite possibly is entirely an interpolation (rather than the typical view that there is an original kernel with later Christian embellishments added to it). The other Antiquities text I haven’t really looked into so far.

More to come…

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