Many of the writings cited were produced decades after Christ died, and not by men who knew him but by those reacting to the stories they heard. The gospels as well were accounts written by men who did not know Jesus directly, and the desire to promote a religious ideal and to help shape the emerging church makes some of these suspect. Many existing writings and stores were brought together in the form we know today long after Jesus died, as was true of many of the Jewish writings cited by Powell, from the Babylonian Talmud. Much of what is known of the historical Jesus derives from the Epistles in the New Testament, notably the letters written by Paul, who has much to say about the teachings of Jesus as known at that time. These accounts have great value because they were written so early, some two decades before the gospels.
Also of great interest is the section Powell writes on how different sources are judged as to authenticity. He notes that writings such as the gospels are suspect because it is clear that they were written so the writers could convey what they wanted to say, which might not match with historical reality. Another way of putting this is that these writers were not themselves historians and had a different agenda than the objective historian.
Powell recognizes that there is no one portrait of Jesus that is accepted and that serves as the historical Jesus. His analysis shows the history of historical attention given to Jesus and some of the sources and methods used to develop different portraits of the man. He offers an in-depth discussion of six major historical accounts, offered by historians John Dominic Crossan, Marcus J. Borg, E.P. Sanders, John P. Meier, N.T. Wright, and the Jesus Seminar, a group founded in 1985 that has produced noteworthy and controversial writings on Jesus as a historical figure.
Before offering an analysis of these specific versions of the story of Jesus, however, he notes some of the trends and the images of Jesus produced by historians. Some agree with Horsely that Jesus was a prophet and fits in the prophetic tradition. Geza Vermes offers the view of Jesus as a Charismatic Jew, a holy man in the Jewish tradition more than a seminal figure in a new religious vision. Morton Smith sees Jesus as a magician, producing controversial miracles that gained followers and created disbelievers at one and the same time. Ben Witherington III sees Jesus as a Jewish sage, differentiating Jesus from the prophetic tradition, though there are similarities between the two images of the man. F. Gerald Downing sees Jesus as a cynical philosopher, and Powell says this is the "single most influential of the nontraditional images associated with Jesus in recent scholarship" (60).
These different contemporary visions of Jesus are filled out even more as Powell discuses the six different contemporary accounts he features in his book. Powell does not see any of the accounts as definitive and notes that the search for the historic Jesus continues and will be developed into different visions of the man over the coming decades. He analyzes the different accounts and discerns certain issues of importance. First, the question of sources remains vital, not only finding sources but determining their value and gleaning what they have to say on the subject and how it relates to other accounts. This leads to the second issue, that of criteria, meaning how it is determined that a given source is credible and has something worthwhile to add to the debate. The third issue is approach, meaning how historical research should proceed and how it should be analyzed. Different traditions exist today which may color the historical analysis, and Powell cites some of these, such as Judaism, the image of Jesus that is preferred, and eschatology, relating to how Jesus viewed the future. Issues such as these extend beyond the question of who was the historical Jesus and veer into ideas about scholarship and about the meaning of the teachings of Jesus. It is clear that having a religion has become more of a spiritual experience in order for a person to become closer to Jesus and have a better understanding of themselves. Powell does a good job of bringing these different elements together and showing how the search for the historical Jesus relates to these questions, utilizes these questions, and leaves even more questions to be answered.
Powell, M.A. (1998). Jesus as a Figure in History. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press.
Powell, M.A. (1998). Issues in Jesus Research and Scholarship. 20 March…