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

Part II of my review of Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus (ed’s Stanley Porter and Tom Holmén). Read Part I here.

The fourth chapter in this volume (pp. 91-128) is The Historical Jesus: How to Ask Questions and Remain Inquisitive by James Charlesworth. He starts it off with a look at the history of historical Jesus studies, breaking it down into the following five stages:

  1. 26–1738, Worship of Jesus as the Christ
  2. 1738–1906, The Old Quest of the historical Jesus
  3. 1906–1953, Some denigration of the historical search for Jesus
  4. 1953–ca. 1970, The New Quest of the historical Jesus
  5. 1980–present, Jesus research

Charlesworth then tackles the questions of how were the four canonical Gospels composed and why were they chosen. He then looks at the question of whether we can know anything about the historical Jesus. Naturally this entailed a discussion of the criteria of authenticity. Interestingly, Charlesworth considers the criteria of authenticity to still be useful for the pursuit of the historical Jesus. This is at odds with the growing trend in historical Jesus research which is finding them to be not so efficacious as they were once thought to be (Dale Allison being a perfect example of someone who once embraced them and now shies away from them). Charlesworth singles out the criterion of dissimilarity and the criterion of embarrassment to still be “the two most important criteria for authenticity” (103).

Charlesworth also answers the question of what can be known about the historical Jesus and with what degree of certainty can it be known. He provides a list of twelve aspects of Jesus’ life and teaching that “relatively reliable historically”. One of these aspects which is interesting is the following:

Jesus may not have been a “carpenter,” and his parables connect him more with farming and fishing. This conclusion derives from studying all four gospels, and examining the important variant in Mark 6:3.

The author then lists fifty-five “relatively certain” aspects of Jesus’ life and teaching. Here are a few of the more interesting ones:

He was probably not born into a poor family. If he knew scripture as well as his contemporaries claimed, he must have spent vast amounts of time studying, and that is not possible if he was a peasant.


Jesus spoke primarily Aramaic, but he knew Hebrew, Greek, and a little Latin.


He was obsessed with God. He did not proclaim himself, but was emphatically monotheistic.


Jesus most likely thought he was “the Son of God,” but it is far from clear what that meant to him.


Jesus may have been married; he certainly was close to Mary Magdalene.


Mary Magdalene, not Peter, was probably the first to see him after the resurrection.

The next three essays are pretty much summaries of positions that the authors have written about elsewhere in greater detail. Chapter five (129-158) is from Bruce Chilton and is titled Method in a Critical Study of Jesus. He draws upon his own research of over a decade on the development of Eucharistic praxis within nascent Christianity. He puts forth the six different types of Eucharist he has found in the pages of the New Testament, with an interesting spotlight upon Jesus as Jewish merkabah mystic. Next up is John Dominic Crossan’s contribution (159-181), Context and Text in Historical Jesus Methodology. He basically lays out his methodology in historical Jesus research, in doing so providing his perspective on various issues.

James Dunn then provides us with a chapter titled, Remembering Jesus: How the Quest of the Historical Jesus Lost Its Way (184-205). This essay focuses in on three key methodological presuppositions in historical Jesus research that Dunn has become increasingly dissatisfied with. He says that while these three protests are found in his Jesus Remembered, they are “somewhat scattered and easily missed” in that volume. The three protests that Dunn lists are (in a nutshell):

  • the assumption that the ‘Christ of faith’ is a perversion of ‘the historical Jesus’ due to the post-Easter faith pervading all sources pertaining to the life of the historical Jesus.
  • the assumption that the only way to understand the relationship between the Jesus traditions in the synoptic gospels is in literary terms
  • the assumption the Jesus research must look for a Jesus that is different from his environment – “only if Jesus can be distinguished from his context is he worthy of our attention”.

Dunn goes on to list a series of proposals to each of these points. I liked a lot of what he said in response to the first point. He says: “the quest should start from the recognition that Jesus evoked faith from the outset of his mission and that this faith is the surest indication of the historical reality and effect of his mission … The earliest faith of the first Christians is not a hindrance or barrier to our perceiving the reality of what Jesus did and said and the effect he had. On the contrary, the impact thus made by Jesus is itself the evidence needed by those who want to appreciate the character and effectiveness of Jesus’ mission” (187). Regarding the second point he concludes that “it is possible to penetrate back into the oral period of the Jesus tradition”.

More to come…

One response

  1. Pingback: Is the Criterion of Embarrassment an Embarrassment?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: