by James H. Charlesworth
(Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2008), 131 pp., $18 (softcover)
Reviewed by John Merrill
This book, part of Abington Press’s Essential Guide series, is intended to be a substantive, but brief and accessible introduction to the historical Jesus. This requires pulling together hundreds of scholarly books and papers and making some sense out of the often divergent points of view.
Professor James H. Charlesworth has succeeded in this Herculean undertaking about as well as one could hope. With perhaps a few exceptions, he has distilled an enormous amount of scholarly work—textual analysis, historical and sociological commentary, archaeological findings and theological perspectives—into 150 pages of well-written, balanced and comprehensive coverage. Charlesworth has organized the discussion around 27 key questions—a sort of “Everything you wanted to know about the historical Jesus (but were afraid to ask)” treatment. This approach runs the risk of over-simplifying some of the issues, but given the complexity of the subject and the goal of brevity, it turns out to be as good an organizing principle as any.
The author begins by explaining why scholarly research on Jesus’ historical person is necessary, useful and possible. The Gospels, he demonstrates, are not first-hand accounts and often contain contradictory reports. Nevertheless, scholars have developed methodologies, including archaeology, for analyzing the textual material, along with non-gospel sources. The result is that modern scholarship allows us to infer with confidence a great deal about Jesus’ life and thought, albeit not without some disappointments along the way and a few issues that, at least for some, remain unresolved.
The discussion on where Jesus’ beliefs and practices fit within Palestinian Judaism is one of the best argued and best presented parts of the book. Charlesworth demonstrates that many of the ideas commonly considered distinctly “Christian”—concepts like grace and forgiveness, belief in resurrection—were actually well-developed within Jewish thought by the time of Jesus’ ministry. Thus, as Charlesworth states in conclusion, “What was once called Earliest Christianity is now perceived to be a Jewish phenomenon.” Despite the many points of correspondence between Jesus’ views and Judaism, however, Jesus for Professor Charlesworth remains a unique figure who cannot be identified with any particular Jewish group: Zealot, Sadducee, Essene or Pharisee.
Although this Essential Guide fulfills its stated objective of providing an accessible introduction to the historical Jesus there are, still, a couple of gaps. For example, the discussion of the relationship between Jesus and the Essenes, especially the Essene views reflected in the Dead Sea Scrolls, seems superficial and incomplete. This is especially disappointing in that the Dead Sea Scrolls are of great interest to general readers, and a subject on which Professor Charlesworth has much knowledge to share.
While the state of knowledge about the historical Jesus has greatly advanced in recent years, there are still some gaps and disappointments. Contrary to nativity traditions, Jesus was probably not born in Bethlehem. We may never know with certainty whether Jesus was married. Moreover, since Charlesworth is providing his own view of scholarly consensus, there will inevitably be dissenting opinions from qualified experts. But these problems seem small in comparison with how much progress has been made in advancing our knowledge: from textual analysis, from examination of new evidence such as the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi codices, and from a continuing stream of new archaeological discoveries and insights.