Historical Jesus Pick List

Here’s my revised pick list of Jesus books. Aside from the crown of Allison’s trilogy, they’re no longer rated in order of preference; the scholars are now grouped by theme. All have important contributions. Some are well acclaimed; others under appreciated. Neither John Dominic Crossan nor Tom Wright finds a home here; this isn’t a popularity contest, and who wants a historical guide polluted with egalitarian fantasies and apologetic whitewashes of Jesus’ delusions?

“The Unknown One”

Dale Allison. Millenarian Prophet (1998); Resurrecting Jesus (2005); Constructing Jesus (2010). Allison grounds the deluded prophet in view of millenarian movements, outlining the characteristics of apocalyptic groups and cargo cults which happen to fit the Jesus movement like a glove. Against George Caird and Tom Wright, he shows that Jesus’ apocalyptic language, about which he was wrong, was intended literally. He locates Jesus as an ascetic (a celibate), a notion many people find as unattractive as eschatology, and more than most scholars allows Jesus his natural contradictions and inconsistencies. Jesus was strangely proclaimed to be risen from the dead, most likely on account of the empty tomb in conjunction with visions, since the disciples would have otherwise had no reason to revise standard Jewish beliefs about resurrection. As egocentric as it seems to us, Jesus had exalted thoughts about himself and embraced martyrdom. He may have even thought he had a heavenly alter-ego: the Son of Man. Allison’s trilogy adds up to the finest and most persuasive work on the historical Jesus to date.

Albert Schweitzer. The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1906). Who isn’t chilled by the famous conclusion, “He comes to us as one unknown”? Hopelessly dated (most of Schweitzer’s targets are straw men by today’s standards), like Jesus himself, this classic won’t let us go, its influence simple and direct. It’s a delight opening the book to a random page; reading the prose is like savoring Glenlivet: “As of old Jacob wrestled with the angel, so modern theology wrestles with Jesus of Nazareth and will not let him go until he blesses it — that is, until he consents to serve it and suffers himself to be drawn into the midst of our time and civilization. But when the day breaks, the wrestler must let him go. He will not cross the ford with us. Jesus of Nazareth will not suffer himself to be modernized.” Schweitzer’s classic remains the most brilliant and poetic indictment on a plague that always comes back in every era of Jesus studies.

In Cultural Context

Pieter Craffert. The Life of a Galilean Shaman: Jesus of Nazareth in Anthropological-Historical Perspective (2008). Pleading that scholarship is everywhere methodologically flawed, and rejecting both postmodern and positivist approaches, Craffert uses cultural anthropology to reframe questions. He locates the Galilean not so much “underneath” the gospel traditions as “in” them, and finds a shaman who entered altered states of consciousness (spirit/divine possession, ascents to heaven, etc.) in order to heal, prophesy, and control spirits. Across cultures, shamans have assumed the multiple roles of prophets, healers, and sages, enjoined on them by their communities. Their exalted roles owed to personal intimacy and encounters (as they understood them) with their deities, and were not a mark of egocentrism. Craffert’s anthropological framework is the most useful in understanding Jesus as an “alien other” who did peculiar things in the context of visionary possession states.

parablessubversiveWilliam Herzog. Parables as Subversive Speech (1994); Jesus, Justice, and the Reign of God (1999). Herzog sees Jesus as a threefold prophetic type. (1) A popular prophet who attracted crowds with the power to heal and an ability to outwit opponents in challenge-and-riposte; as a low-life artisan with no ascribed honor, Jesus acquired honor by these means: exorcist-healing and shaming his rivals with counterquestions, rhetoric, insults, and scriptural one-upsmanship. (2) An oracular prophet who leveled social critiques through the veiled transcripts of parables. (3) A Deuteronomic prophet who critiqued the Torah while upholding it at the same time, primarily by playing the debt codes off the purity codes. Herzog explores a different way of understanding Jesus’ eschatology, and while he ultimately fails to convince on this point, there is some helpful discussion about the way peasants could perceive time in more cyclical than linear terms. Herzog’s work represents the best comprehensive examination of Jesus as the product of an honor-shame culture in the Jewish prophetic tradition.

The Halakic Jesus

E.P. Sanders. The Historical Figure of Jesus (1993); Jesus and Judaism (1985). Sanders’ robust scholarship situates Jesus as a Jew of the first century rather than a Protestant born out of time and place: an eschatological prophet, obedient to the Torah, ultimately killed for acting against the temple in his belief that God would soon destroy it and raise another in the kingdom of God. Sanders sees most of the gospel reports of Jesus’ conflict with the law as inventions used to vindicate the later Gentile mission. To an extent he’s probably right. It’s hard to believe that Jesus dispensed with some parts of the Torah as reported, since the disciples later had to struggle precisely with these issues; and Paul was unable to cite Jesus’ supposed pronouncements on the matter (save in the case of divorce). But it’s also hard to believe that all of Jesus’ alleged custom-breaking behavior reflects later development. Sanders represents the best attempt to ground Jesus within a framework of covenantal nomism.

John P. Meier. A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (1991, 1994, 2001, 2009, 2016, ?), 6 vols. This massive six-volume series (the last still on the way) is the best reference source on the subject. Meier hypothesizes an “unpapal conclave” consisting of a Catholic, Protestant, Jew, and agnostic who must reach a consensus about Jesus — an even-handed if not exactly ideal way to reconstruct a figure of the past. For the task at hand, it works reasonably well, because this is more a reference tool for the Anchor Bible series than an autonomous work. While Meier certainly advances his own portrait of Jesus (a cousin, in many ways, of Sanders’ figure) it is exceedingly cautious and qualified with copious references and footnotes, weighing the pros and cons of rival theories. Meier’s project is an exhaustive, objective portrait of Jesus which employs the (problematic) criteria of authenticity as best as humanly possible.

Maurice Casey. Jesus of Nazareth: An Independent Historian’s Account of his Life and Teaching (2010); The Solution to the Son of Man Problem (2007). Casey’s work offers a cousin of Sanders’ prophet while delving more deeply into sayings, deeds, Torah disputes, Christological titles, and martyrdom issues. His command of Aramaic helps solve the “son of man” problem, particularly by making sense of both an idiomatic and general use of the term. Unlike Sanders and Meier, he takes seriously the pervasive testimony that Jesus’ conflict with Pharisees was enough to be terminal, though also insists that Jesus never actually broke the law. His chapter on healings and exorcisms is one of the best available, and his view that Jesus expected to suffer an atoning death refreshing. While his defense of a completely Torah-obedient Jesus (even in the cases of “let the dead bury the dead” and the prohibition of oaths) isn’t always convincing, and the early datings of Mark and Matthew just wrong, the end result is a decent portrait. Casey’s is in fact the most impressive defense of a halakic Jesus.

Skeptics Corner

Donald Akenson. Saint Saul: A Skeleton Key to the Historical Jesus (2000). A highly polemical book that insists Paul knew more, cared more, and can tell us more about the historical Jesus than the late and unreliable gospels. As a pre-70 writer Paul is a goldmine; we just have to read him in slant. Akenson sees a key to unlocking Jesus in Paul’s “imitation of Christ”: his mission to the Gentiles being a simulacrum of Jesus’ to the people of Israel. The contours of Paul’s life mirrored those of his savior: poverty, celibacy, itinerancy. Both the Galilean and Diasporan were martyred for breaking Jerusalem Rules. Like most apocalyptic figures, they had wild ideas, and the wilder the ideas, the more shrewdly they were able to justify them by scriptural revision. Akenson makes plain that a sharp distinction between Paul’s heavenly Christ and the synoptic earthly Jesus won’t do.

William Arnal. The Symbolic Jesus (2005). Don’t be fooled by the size; there’s substance in this tiny book. And don’t be surprised that it doesn’t advance a portrait of Jesus; Arnal thinks the quest should be abandoned, for “ultimately, the historical Jesus does not matter”. Even if he’s wrong about that, he’s at least right that we don’t need Jesus or his Jewishness to feel good about ourselves. That’s what the book is about: the loaded question of Jesus’ Jewishness; oblique agendas; post-Holocaust biases (resulting in a Jesus who approaches a stereotype of modern Jews); the need to preserve religiosity (a Jesus who believed in Torah, temple, and purity is a bedrock of stability and weapon against the secular erosion of social identity), etc. Arnal’s book is in fact the most important look at agendas since Schweitzer, exposing why scholars want so badly to believe in a Jewish Jesus.

OHJmedium2Richard Carrier. Proving History (2012); On the Historicity of Jesus (2014). Last but not least: the case for no Jesus that should humble historicists. Carrier assesses the NT traditions and non-biblical evidence against a convincing tableau of Jewish and pagan syncretism, and pegs the early Christians as cargo cultists. He argues there was never a man named Jesus who acquired followers in an earthly life and was executed (or believed/claimed to be executed) which in turn led to his status as a divine Christ. Jesus began as a mythic deity who went through incarnation, death, burial and resurrection all in the supernatural realm, and the gospels later gave this figure historical life. Carrier estimates the probabilities of evidence on both mythicist and historicist assumptions, weighs the two, and in the end finds the likelihood that Jesus existed an insignificant .008% (or, being generous as possible, 32%). His key chapter on Paul presents an alternative to the usual apostle we think we know, and you can’t help but envy the interpretations even if you disagree. Carrier shows that Jesus-mythicism is a viable theory after all.

12 thoughts on “Historical Jesus Pick List

  1. Excellent post, thanks. I agree with most of the books here. Casey's being the main exception – you point out its shortcomings, which for me were more than marginal problems, they undermined its arguments.

    I'm half-way through constructing Jesus, and it is awesome. I also have a soft spot for Crossan's Historical Jesus. He is unusual in being so very specific and internally consistent about his method. And although the method might be suspect, and therefore the conclusions also, that deserves credit for the level of explicitness alone.

  2. Hi Ian,

    Casey's book frankly surprised me; I was expecting to be underwhelmed but turns out his work is a solid achievement; certainly the best HJ treatment from a secular scholar.

    Regarding his shortcomings: I can't help but wonder if they're over-compensations for his end result which could be taken as playing into the “anti-Jewish” Jesus he's so careful to distance himself from. Unlike and Sanders and Meier (and more like someone like Herzog), Casey thinks Jesus' legal disputes with Pharisees, scribes, and elders resulted in them seeking lethal punishment — yet he bends over backwards in playing the legalist to find Jesus completely innocent of Torah violations. There's an odd tension here. On top of this, Casey devotes considerable attention to Nazi scholarship at the beginning of the book — another over-compensation?

    But aside from this business, Casey is persuasive about a lot, and he's certainly light years ahead of someone like Crossan. Crossan not only has atrocious methodology, he misuses social models in order to draw conclusions which contradict the direction they lead. You're right, he's thoroughly consistent in his wacky approach, but this isn't an accolade!

  3. Great list Loren! All worthwhile reads, although I share concerns about Casey's book (certainly not enough to replace it with Crossan's questionable monograph, however, as suggested by Ian). The only book which I would add to this list, and near the top, would be Brant Pitre's “Jesus, the Resurrection, and the End of the Exile.”

  4. Looks like my computer went a bit nuts during my post, as well as I made a mistake in the title. Pitre's book is “Jesus, the Tribulation, and the End of the Exile”. Sorry for the confusion. Definitely a worthwhile read for anyone working in HJ research.

  5. I just finished The Symbolic Jesus on the recommendation of it being on this list. Could you be a little more specific about what you feel are the books strengths?

    I have to admit, I was completely underwhelmed. Chapter 1 seemed like filler, bizarre filler at that.

    The core of the arguments/observations are in Chapters 2-4. The author does make a couple of important points which revolve around the basic idea that one's Jewish identity need not be the Jewish identity of a hypothetical common Judaism of Judea. I think that's an important point to make, but to accuse those who advocate for a certain type of Jesus as making that mistake is a straw man at best. Every historical Jesus author I have read goes to great pains to point out the great varieties of 1st century Judaism. And the best historical Jesus reconstructions settle on an apocalyptic Jesus which is not the hypothetical common Judaism of Judea.

    Moreover, I don't see how any knowledgeable scholar who sees Jesus as a Jewish apocalypticist could possibly see that type of Judaism as having much, if anything, in common with rabbinic and post-rabbinic Judaism. I think Neusner agues persuasively that rabbinic Judaism completely rejected that approach to Judaism. Nor have I ever heard of apocalypticism as being a feature of early 20th century East European Jewry (a frequently used example in the book). Thus I don't see those scholars as attempting to make some sort of subconscious attempt to associate the Judaism of Jesus with modern forms of Judaism in an attempt to insulate Christianity from culpability in the Holocaust or from latter day charges of anti-Judaism.

    However even more bizarrely, chapter 5 seems to negate everything that comes before. He explicitly tells the reader to look at argumentation and evidence of Jesus questers, and not at any biases they surely have. If so, what was the point of chapters 2-4 which spent much of the time identifying biases and studiously avoiding extended engagement with argument and evidence? I get that he prefers Crossan and Mack to Sanders, Meier, and Fredriksen. But, wouldn't the best course of action be to follow his own advice and engage their arguments and evidence, ignoring any biases he thinks may have? Or, after engaging the arguments and evidence show that misuse of evidence and bad arguments point towards a specific kind of bias? At least then one would have something to analyze and weigh.

  6. David, I think the best way to explain specifically how I feel about the book is to direct you to my lengthy review. I agree that chapter 1 is a sort of filler, and that 3 is easily the book's weakest. But chapters 2 and 4, especially the latter, are worth their weight in gold — and I say that as an advocate of the “Jewish” Jesus Arnal comes down hard on. I think post-Holocaust biases are far more evident than you grant, but it's harder to spot them precisely because apocalyptic Judaism has so many features alien to modern Judaism. That's why these agendas are more oblique.

    Of course, it is entirely possible to be right about something despite one's possible agendas, as I think advocates of the “Jewish” Jesus (Sanders, Fredriksen, Vermes) largely are. But I until I read Arnal's book, I wasn't aware of the their (possible) biases, or perhaps even my own.

  7. Now that I have read the length review I think I understand better why you consider the book important. I agreed with most of your lengthy review, yet I still feel underwhelmed by the book. I agree that it seems to be the only book attempting to identify biases on the side advocated by Meier, Allison, et al. Perhaps that alone makes the book important.

    For me the most baffling part of the book is the final conclusion, that the historical Jesus is unimportant. He poses the false dichotomy that one studies historical persons because they make direct impact on the world through their action or because of their obvious celebrity. It's curious that he fails to recognize that many persons are of historical interest because of their ideas, and that's why Jesus is important. In fact, one can even posit that Jesus' ideas were instantly warped by his followers, that we only see Jesus “through a glass, darkly,” and still recognize the importance of the historical person.

  8. Thanks for the recommendation on The Life of a Galilean Shaman. I really appreciate the emphasis on viewing Jesus as a foreign other, in a cultural matrix so unlike our own. So many authors acknowledge that Jesus's context would be very different from our own, but then pay it scant attention when analyzing Jesus.

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