Jesus and Biblical Archaeology: Very Short Introductions

Biblical Archaeology: A Very Short Introduction

Biblical Archaeology: A Very Short Introduction

By Eric H. Cline

(New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2009), 168 pp., $11.95
Jesus: A Very Short Introduction

Jesus: A Very Short Introduction

By Richard Bauckham

(New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2011), 144 pp., $11.95
Reviewed by Leonard Greenspoon

Oxford University Press has published more than 300 “short introductions” to almost every imaginable topic (and some, frankly, that I never would have imagined). Among them are the two diminutive volumes under review here. Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether such books are really needed, and for whom, I will briefly (as, I suppose, befits short texts) look at each.

On the whole, Cline’s book is expertly written, covering an amazing amount of material—the history of Biblical archaeology from the 19th century to the present and the wisdom (or, alternatively, lack thereof ) of applying the results of archaeology to the text of the Bible—without leaving the reader breathless or puzzled. There are ample illustrations, a good working bibliography, and a helpful index. Throughout Cline also provides some straight and sober thinking about the need to detect and root out the “fantastic forgeries” that so tantalize the public and exasperate the professional.

In my view, Cline should have devoted at least a page, and not a phrase, to G. Ernest Wright, and I wish that he had been clearer and more up-to-date in his discussion of text types. From another perspective, minimalists will be maximally discomforted by many of his conclusions. But, let’s admit it, no book on Biblical archaeology can please everyone at every point. In my considered judgment, Cline has done as well as, if not better than, anyone could do given the constraints under which he wrote.

Bauckham’s very short introduction to Jesus looks very similar to Cline’s volume (it is clear that Oxford has packaged the entire series so that these books can be displayed next to each other, perhaps on tiny bookshelves); it is in fact even shorter (by 15 or so percent) than Cline’s. But its content and approach could not be more different. Declaring that form critics have essentially kidnapped New Testament scholarship for more than a century and that extra-canonical “gospels” have almost no light to shed on Jesus’ activities or identity, Bauckham concentrates the entirety of his efforts on the canonical gospels, with an appreciative nod here and there to Paul. For Bauckham, these gospels are good history, relying on and shaped by eyewitnesses to the events being narrated. He acknowledges the interpretive element in these accounts, but rather than diminishing their value, interpretation actually serves to enhance it by providing several perspectives, all valid, for viewing Jesus.

Along the way, Bauckham has little, if any time (at least in this volume) to engage with scholars not sharing his viewpoint (the bibliography does, however, provide a wider range of resources). He does, nonetheless, have the time to refer inexactly to Pontius Pilate as governor rather than prefect; to project anachronistically the rabbinic enumeration of 613 commandments into Jesus’ day; and to proffer questionable observations—among others, “the chief priests were running the Temple and the sacrificial system as a profit-making business” (p. 79) and “It was clear that to go to Jerusalem would be to walk into the hands of [Jewish] authorities who had the will and the power to have him [Jesus] executed” (p. 98).

No reader of this review can miss the point that I much prefer Cline’s approach to his topic over Bauckham’s to his. But there is a larger point. While I have come to appreciate these “very short introductions” as a pleasant and productive way to meet or brush up on a given subject, I don’t see how these two, so different in their presuppositions and approaches, belong in the same series. Perhaps, what is most needed is some sort of meeting, whether very short or elaborated, to introduce the editors and authors of this series to each other and to exactly what they are all about. Without some common intellectual framework, readers can count only on the length of the introduction, not on its quality or stance.

Leonard Greenspoon holds the Klutznick Chair in Jewish Civilization at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, and he writes BAR’s “The Bible in the News.”

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