The Question of the Historicity of the Figure of Jesus
Edited by Thomas L. Thompson and Thomas S. Verenna
(Durham, UK: Acumen, 2013; first published by Equinox in 2012, hardcover), viii + 280 pp., $25.00 (paperback)
Reviewed by Victor Paul Furnish
The editors’ aim in publishing the essays in this volume is “to resist the endless production of works on the historical Jesus.” All of the contributors are to some degree “minimalists” as regards the historical value of the ancient sources. And several argue vigorously that Jesus was an entirely mythic figure, created by writers who drew on ancient mythic narratives and rewrote parts of the Hebrew Bible for their own purposes (variously defined).
The essays in Part I deal with problems and issues their authors have with past scholarship. Jim West, representing the view of historical “minimalism,” maintains that historical “maximalism” distorts the “theological message of the text by transforming it into historical source materials” when, in fact, it is not historically oriented and cannot yield historical data. This “minimalist” position is also espoused by Roland Boer, who discusses the contributions of Ludwig Feuerbach, David Strauss and Bruno Bauer; Niels Peter Lemche, who believes that Biblical studies have been burdened by the fact that most Biblical scholars have “a religious background”; and Emanuel Pfoh, an acknowledged “outsider to the field of New Testament studies,” who holds that “[t]he mythic persona of Jesus, created by the Gospels, represents an insurmountable obstacle to any knowledge of a historical Jesus.” On the other hand, Lester L. Grabbe, assessing pagan and Jewish references to Jesus, concludes that, independently of the Christian tradition, the historians Tacitus and Josephus provide “minimal” but “significant” evidence for Jesus’ existence.
Issues with the Pauline letters are addressed in Part II. Robert M. Price holds that the “Christ Myth” promulgated in them was historically prior to the “Jesus epic” developed in the Gospels, the latter “being rewrites of the Old Testament” aimed at counteracting its rejection by Marcion. According to Thomas Verenna, Paul’s Jesus is “not an earthly figure but an allegorical one” that he developed on the basis of the Jewish scriptures; for example, what Paul says about Jesus’ crucifixion reflects knowledge of Psalm 22, not of an actual event. But Mogens Müller, reading the letters quite differently, concludes that Paul “clearly presupposed” a Jesus who “lived the life of a human being on this earth,” and that lying behind his letters, indirectly, “is the Jesus of history, not as a mythic figure but as a charismatic interpreter of the will of God.”
Part III includes three essays on the New Testament Gospels. Over against recent “evangelical and conservative scholarship,” James G. Crossley defends “the major scholarly trend since the 19th century” of minimizing the historical value of the Gospel of John; Thomas L. Thompson, the most prominent and published mythicist represented in this volume, argues that the temptation narrative in Mark 1:12–13 derives from ancient literary tropes concerning the “good king,” which are also evident in Psalm 72 and Job 29; and Ingrid Hjelm, focusing on the parable of the Good Samaritan, holds that the “paradigms for Luke’s composition” were drawn from Old Testament stories and themes. In the volume’s penultimate essay, Joshua Sabih challenges the prevailing view that the ‘Isāfigure of the Qur’an is the New Testament Jesus. And finally, K.L. Noll, writing “from a Darwinian perspective,” argues that both the “invention” of the New Testament Jesus and the development of a “doctrinal mode” were “by a [Christian] leadership intent on establishing and maintaining the authority to dictate the behaviour of hoi polloi.”
The essays in this volume that offer the most constructive contributions, challenges or alternatives to recent scholarship are those by Grabbe, Müller, Crossley and Noll. These are, in general, less ideologically oriented and better grounded exegetically than the others, a number of which are seriously problematic. The mythicists, in particular, summarily dismiss prevailing views about Jesus and the Gospels as governed by religious interests; arbitrarily apply paradigms derived from the study of ancient Near Eastern literature and mythology to first-century Christianity; and mistakenly assume that the presence of mythic and legendary elements in the Gospel narratives makes them ipso facto worthless as historical sources. Moreover, most of the contributors take little account of the role of the Christian communities within which the New Testament writings originated, to which they were directed, and for which they provide, unquestionably, firsthand historical evidence. In sum, while several of these essays provide helpful readings of the ancient sources, or raise provocative questions about using them, nothing that is presented or argued here requires abandoning the evidence commonly offered for the historicity of Jesus.
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