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.
Victor Paul Furnish is distinguished professor emeritus of New Testament at the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.
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@FurnishIsDelusional a fragment of the Gospel of Matthew was found in Egypt dated to 48AD – and obviously it is not the original – so it could have been written about 10 yrs after Jesus. However we lost a lot of material during all the wars and Islamic book burning, its so sad to consider the huge amount of Classical Roman, Greek, Persian, Egyptian, Jewish, Indian, etc., as well as Christian thought that went up in smoke.
The gospels were responses to Marcion?? That’s like saying Thomas Jefferson was refuting Abraham Lincoln’s arguments. Such anachronism…
Contributors of comments that tend to dismiss all support for the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth would do well to pay attention to historian Lester L. Grabbe’s assessment of pagan and Jewish references to him. Grabbe is noteworthy for his consistently _historical_ evaluations that show no inclination to bow to religious opinion. His conclusion, as stated above, that “independently of the Christian tradition, the historians Tacitus and Josephus provide ‘minimal’ but ‘significant’ evidence for Jesus’ existence” is quite reliable.
Thank you for confirmation of your ignorance regarding the historicity of Jesus,
Firstly, there is NOT “a deluge of contemprary evidence for the existence of Jesus”.
Secondly, The Gospels WERE NOT written within a decade of the supposed resurrection of Jesus.
Thirdly, Josephus and Tacitus are NOT “contemporaneous accounts” but were written several decades after-the-(non)fact.
Fourthly, anyone using Josephus and Tacitus as “evidence” does not know the subject matter.
Fifth, the “readily accepted by the academic community” are primarily deluded believers of Christianity (like the writer of the review).
Furnish: I enjoyed your fallacious association of “communities”…”provide, unquestionably, firsthand historical evidence”. Typical BS from a biased “theologian”.
In closing, too many undereducated, misinformed believers and biased (deluded) scholars regugitating the standard and all-too-routine outdated information and platitudes.
Compared with the documentary evidence for Julius Caesar, for whom there are no contemporary records and a single document written circa 300 – 400 years after his death.
There is a deluge of contemporary evidence for the existence of Jesus. From the earliest gospels written within a decade of his resurrection to the rapid spread of Christian communities throughout the then known world. The two contemporaneous accounts of Josephus and Tacitus add independent weight to the argument. It is easy to ignore the fact that there is much more evidence to support the existence of Jesus Christ than there is for many historical figures who are readily accepted by the academic community
…and mistakenly assume that the presence of mythic and legendary elements in the Gospel narratives makes them ipso facto worthless as historical sources….’
‘This material is obviously the product of a pious and devout Christian imagination, but it contains no semblance of historical actuality and can thus be dismissed as a valid source of information on the historical Jesus.’
From ‘Introduction to the Bible’ by John H. Hayes.
This sort of absurd dismissal is all too common.
[…] Testament scholar Victor Paul Furnish wrote the following in the conclusion to his review of a volume featuring mythicist and minimalist scholars’ perspectives on Jesus: The […]