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Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz bridge a gap between trade book and scholarly discourse with their 642-page tome The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide. This joint effort by Theissen and Merz explores the subject matter of the historical Jesus in light of primary sources, especially relying on the Gospels, both canonical and apocryphal. The book is divided into four main sections, in addition to a meaty Introduction, a "Retrospect" called "A Short Life of Jesus," and two helpful indexes, one of Biblical References and one of Names and Subjects included in the text. The Historical Jesus, published in North America by Fortress Press, was translated from the original German by John Bowden. A full set of sources and collections of sources is provided by the authors at the beginning of the book; moreover, at the onset of each chapter of the book are blocks of bibliography offering the reader a helpful guide for further research and reading. Therefore, the authors do not follow the traditional arrangement of bibliographical information by providing a set of sources at the end of the book; however, footnotes are frequently used. Furthermore, suggestions for further readings are provided at the end of some of the sections. Following the initial source selection is a comprehensive list of abbreviations used within the text. The Historical Jesus is as comprehensive as its title purports; it is also a well-organized, structured, and straightforward piece of accessible scholarship.
At the onset of the introduction the authors immediately address the shortcomings and pitfalls of their ambitious endeavor: "A whole culture has grown up to direct all its thoughts to a single figure, and in this figure to worship the incarnate God, to fear the eschatological judge, and to love the redeemer," (1). In the process of scholarship about the historical Jesus, several issues have arisen that affect the nature of academic inquiry: criticism of the sources; historical relativism; and hermeneutical otherness. Criticism of the sources implies not a question of the accuracy of the texts themselves but whether or not they have caused the historical Jesus to be "surrounded with an unhistorical aura of myth and poetry," (1). Historical relativism refers to the fact that Jesus was "deeply embedded in history and was less singular and absolute than people believed," and "hermeneutical otherness" delves into some of the problems with interpreting the supernatural implications of the available sources and places Jesus within the context of his culture (1). This initial passage sets the stage for the authors' tone and methodology. Their intent is more to provide an outline of existing scholarship, objectively analyzing various approaches, than it is to present a particular viewpoint of the historical Jesus.
Concurrent with the methodological introduction, Theissen and Merz offer an outline of five phases of the quest of the historical Jesus. The first phase the authors present is "the critical impulse toward the question of the historical Jesus by two German scholars, Reimarus and Strauss. The second phase, "optimism of the liberal quest of the historical Jesus," entails the intended revival of Christianity in Europe through a reassessment of the historical Jesus. The third phase is the "collapse of the quest of the historical Jesus," which was naturally followed by a fourth phase: "the new quest of the historical Jesus," and the fifth: the "third quest of the historical Jesus." Sociological, political, and historical realities affected and prompted each of these phases, according to the authors. Their division of the phases is summarized in chart form on page 12 and a quote from source material characterizing each of the phases. The author's phase division offers the reader with some basic outline of the history of scholastic inquiry into the historical Jesus.
Part One of The Historical Jesus, "The Sources and their Evaluation," provides a thorough outline of Christian gospel sources, Gnostic sources, gospel fragments with Synoptic and Johannine elements, Jewish Christian gospels, and further sources including floating traditions about Jesus. The authors take care to note that the age of sources does not necessarily dictate their relative accuracy or relevance in studying the historical Jesus. Moreover, Theissen and Merz emphasize that the relative independence of sources plays a key role in determining their worth to scholarship. On page 18, they state, "The position over sources is good where inconsistencies between the sources guarantee their independence but they can nevertheless be interpreted coherently as evidence of one and the same historical reality." Dutifully in this first portion of the book, the authors define their terms, including "New Testament apocrypha, Apostolic Fathers, and Agrapha. On page 59, a summary chart provides an outline of the basic types of sources described in the section and offers a one-sentence summary of the "picture of Jesus" each provides. For example, the Gnostic gospels paint a picture of Jesus as "mediator of an esoteric revelation," whereas the gospel fragments offer no uniform picture of Jesus. Based on their analysis of the sources, Theissen and Merz determine that these Christian sources at best can only provide pictures of Jesus, not full accounts of the historical Jesus. Synoptic sources, according to the authors, "seem historically more reliable" than Christian or Gnostic sources (61).
The second section of Part One addresses the Non-Christian Sources about Jesus, and is itself subdivided into sections on Roman writings and Rabbinical sources. According to Theissen and Merz, the non-Christian testimonies can be "either overestimated or underestimated," in the sense that they are either idealistically assumed to be nonbiased, while they may offer some independent sources for scholarship (63). The non-Christian sources offer a wealth of information regarding the historical Jesus, according to Theissen and Merz, far more than the Christian sources do in terms of providing actual dates and straightforward facts devoid of theology. For example, from the non-Christian sources information about Jesus' family and the conditions of his death becomes easier to separate from the implicit belief in Jesus' teachings. Moreover, the Christian sources presuppose the existence of Jesus, whereas the non-Christian sources do not. However, Theissen and Merz warn readers that the non-Christian sources should not and cannot be relied on exclusively to provide a comprehensive historiography of Jesus.
Therefore, the following section of Part One lends light on the conflagration of source material. Entitled "The Evaluation of the Sources: Historical Skepticism and the Study of Jesus," this chapter examines the entire gamut of skeptical approaches toward the historical Jesus, from the total denial of the historicity of Jesus (which is based on touting the gospels as artistically meritorious but historically inaccurate) to a theological skepticism that asserts that due to the biased nature of many of the primary sources, only a religious (Christian) faith can evoke historical Jesus. Thirteen main skeptical arguments are subsequently outlined by Theissen and Merz. These include the 'silence' of non-Christian sources such as Philo of Alexandria about the subject of Jesus; the mythical, and therefore non-factual, depiction of the Christ figure in the letters of Paul; and the prevalence of miracle stories that cannot be verified and that might have stemmed from ancient local religious belief systems. The authors present each of these thirteen major skeptical arguments in order, along with strong counter-arguments. Therefore, Theissen and Gerz offer a multi-sided view of the historiography of Jesus.
Part Two is an examination of "The Framework of the History of Jesus," providing the necessary historical context to any erudite historiography. In particular, Theissen and Merz delve into what they call the "multiplicity of Jewish trends and currents" that shaped the historical Jesus. Some of the fundamental Jewish beliefs and theologies are discussed for clarity, including its ethically based and exclusive monotheism; the covenant; and certain rituals and forms of worship commonly practiced. According to the authors, "All reconstructions of the historical Jesus are dependent on our picture of Judaism at the time of the Second Temple," (147). Jesus shared many if not all of the basic convictions of Judaism; collision with Hellenistic culture sparked a revolution of values commonly attributed to the sole work of the one man but which really constituted a cultural upheaval of sorts. Jesus signified and symbolized the transformations taking place within Jewish culture but did not necessarily cause them single-handedly.
Chronology and the eventual universal adaptation of the Christian calendar is examined in the next chapter in Part Two, entitled "The Chronological Framework of the Life of Jesus." Only approximations of dates can be ascertained based on the inconsistencies among different calendar systems and historical accounts in primary sources. Cahpter Seven of the book, "The Geographical and Social Framework of the Life of Jesus," similarly explores the relevance of Nazareth and Galilee to a comprehensive historiography. Geography is particularly relevant, especially since the authors remind readers that Galilee is referred to in the Old Testament as a Gentile land, suggesting that Jesus might have been heavily influenced by non-Jewish traditions, notably Hellenistic. Moreover, the authors probe into the potential social consequences of being from a marginalized territory, one that could have entailed a…[continue]
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