What Are They Saying About the Historical Jesus?

“I suggest that any portrait of the historical Jesus must come to terms with Jesus as both an apocalyptic prophet and a prophet of social and economic justice for oppressed people. Any portrait that does not integrate both these aspects generates a caricature of Jesus of Nazareth.” (David Gowler, What Are They Saying About the Historical Jesus? p 142)

Sentiments which echo my own. For years I’ve thought the historical Jesus was a cross between Dale Allison’s millenarian figure and Bill Herzog’s honor-shame prophet. Some see these as contradictory, but like many people Jesus was capable of focusing on apocalyptic visions one minute, and social realities the next.

Gowler’s book is hot off the press, and part of Paulist’s WATSA (“What are they saying about…”) series. He wrote an even better installment on the parables, and I’d recommend both for use in intro courses. The outline to the new book looks as follows:

Chapter 1. The Modern Quest
Chapter 2. The Continuing Quest
Chapter 3. The Jesus Seminar and its Critics
Chapter 4. The Eschatological Prophet and the Restoration of Israel
Chapter 5. The Mediterranean Peasant and the Brokerless Kingdom
Chapter 6. The Elijah-like Eschatological Prophet
Chapter 7. The Eschatological Prophet of Social Change
Chapter 8. Conclusion

So in terms of the scholars covered in the chapters, the breakdown looks like this:

Chapter 1. The liberal quest, Schweitzer, Bultmann
Chapter 2. Kasemann, Fuchs, Conzelmann, Bornkamm, Perrin
Chapter 3. Funk, Borg // Johnson, Witherington, Wright
Chapter 4. Sanders, Allison, Fredriksen
Chapter 5. Crossan
Chapter 6. Meier
Chapter 7. Theissen, Herzog
Chapter 8. Conclusion

Gowler does an excellent job representing the quest-periods and scholars, but I would have organized the material a bit differently. I think Crossan gets way too much attention — a full chapter devoted to him alone (I don’t care how popular he’s been). I think he could have been placed in the Jesus Seminar chapter with Funk and Borg. Nor do I think Meier needs an entire chapter; he could have been grouped with Sanders, Allison, and Fredriksen. And I would have added Richard Horsley to the social-prophet chapter (Theissen and Herzog). So my outline would look as follows (less and longer chapters):

Chapter 1. (As is)
Chapter 2. (As is)
Chapter 3. “The Jesus Seminar and its Critics” (Funk, Crossan, Borg // Johnson, Witherington, Wright)
Chapter 4. “The Apocalyptic Prophet” (Sanders, Allison, Fredriksen, Meier)
Chapter 5. “The Social Prophet” (Theissen, Horsley, Herzog)
Chapter 6. Conclusion

But aside from nit-picking the outline, I think it’s a fine intro book, with a conclusion one can hardly argue with (that Jesus was both apocalyptic and social). It’s not very evangelical friendly, but I think it’s right that Johnson, Witherington, and Wright were only brought in as critics to the Jesus Seminar.


4 thoughts on “What Are They Saying About the Historical Jesus?

  1. Thanks Loren. I’ve had a quick scan through my copy. It’s a judicious and well balanced survey. Everyone will have their own starting points – Gowler kicks off in a major way with the Jesus Seminar. From the UK, in my view, Vermes and Sanders seemed much more significant.Gowler’s tone (though not really the historical judgement) is much, much more personally sympathetic to scholars of the Jesus Seminar, and the work of Crossan and Funk than, say, Meier. Funk is flamboyant, provocative and his analyses often produce brilliant insight whilst Meier’s analyses are often illusory and he is sarcastic and disdainful. Nevertheless Gowler is open both about his own slight connections to the scholars of the Semianr and his theological sympathies.Not everything or everyone can be included in such books. Gowler’s coverage is an excellent introduction. If I were to add one thing, I would have liked to see even a mention of the recent debates about social conditions in Galilee.Finally, I also wish the series included an index. But the price point may dictate its absence.Jacob

  2. Loren and Jacob,Thanks for your thoughtful critiques. Perhaps a few words of explanation might be helpful.1. Loren, in retrospect, I probably would not have cut the section on Horsley. Horsley was the last to be cut (the WATSA word limit is painful!), although I did then place three of his books in the annotated bibliography. I also moved Freyne to the annotated biblio (that section had covered the recent Galilean debates that Jacob mentioned).2. I find a combination of Theissen and Herzog to be closer to my view, so I agree with your Sanders/Herzog combination.3. Jacob, I agree with your view of Sanders. I won’t bore you with the reasons why the chapters ended up in their current order.4. As far as the tone of the sections on the Jesus Seminar and Funk, I wanted–unlike Hays, Johnson, et al.– to disagree in a civil way. I disagree with the Seminar’s presuppositions and conclusions, and I don’t think I really let Funk off the hook (the glass is both “half-full” and “half-empty”; I do also call him on misrepresentation [e.g., p. 37] and other things). Maybe I seem too sympathetic because I wanted to be fair because others had been so nasty and unfair (in response to Funk primarily).5. I also have to admit that by the time I worked my way through Meier’s lengthy three volumes, some of the tone in certain sections were grating. I said he was “sometimes sarcastic” (119), which is true. But I also said that his “thorough analyses are reminiscent of the historical-critical works of such luminaries as Raymond Brown and Joseph Fitzmyer.” I hope I gave him his due.6. Sorry about there being no index. I busted the WATSA word limit by around 15,000 words, so I was grateful to Paulist for letting me do that (The first draft was around 100,000 words, and I cut it to about 50,000).Thanks again for your thoughtful responses. I hope others find the book helpful.With best wishes,David

  3. Thanks David, that all makes good sense. I guess the Historical Jesus debate has been carried out with quite a different tone in the US than in the UK. My perception as an outsider was that provocative language was used by all ‘sides’ in the US debate (Dale Allison being the saintly refrainer!) and the debate was pretty openly part of the ‘church wars’ in the US.Best wishes,Jacob

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