Books: historical Jesus

March 26th, 2013 in Belief. Tags: , , , ,



I have recently read two very different books about Jesus and history. One was long, one short; one was by a retired academic, the other by a rising star; one was a detailed analysis of all the things we can objectively know about Jesus’ life, the other a postmodern explanation of why our knowledge is necessarily subjective.

Both were worth reading.

Jesus of Nazareth – Maurice Casey

Maurice Casey is an experienced historian of the New Testament, now retired. He is a non-believer, and stresses his “independence” compared to both believers and sceptics. This becomes one of the book’s strengths, but also a weakness.

Worth reading

Casey is an expert in Aramaic, the language Jesus almost certainly spoke. This enables him to reconstruct the Aramaic behind the Greek of the New Testament, and provide some very worthwhile insights into Jesus’ original meaning. This is probably the book’s greatest value.

This leads him to have a high regard for the Gospel of Mark, which he believes was written very early, based on Aramaic sources which Mark translated somewhat roughly. He believes significant parts of Mark are “perfectly accurate”. He also respects Matthew and Luke, who he regards as probably being written by the traditional authors.

As a result of this respect for the synoptic gospels, Casey believes we can be confident of most of the reports of Jesus’ ministry, including:

  • his teaching on the kingdom of God;
  • his miracles of healing and exorcism, which Casey compares to “traditional healers” using natural powers;
  • his teaching on the Fatherhood and nearness of God, and his willingness to always forgive repentent Jews;
  • his conflicts with the religious establishment over interpretation of “halakah” (Jewish law);
  • his belief that his death and resurrection would usher in a new age.


Casey unfortunately tends to dogmatism on occasions. This results in some unattractive, and sometimes personal, criticisms of both Jesus-sceptics and conservative christians, and a tendency to occasionally make more definite statements than seem warranted from the evidence he presents. For example, Casey regards Jesus as having been an observant Jew and the greatest in a long line of prophets, so he rejects things in the gospels that suggest Jesus may have been more than this:

  • He sees Jesus as a prophet, healer and teacher, but not as Messiah or divine.
  • He interprets apparent messianic and claims of divinity in ways that would be true of a normal observant Jew, but which beg the question of who Jesus was and who is followers believed him to be.
  • His believes when Jesus called himself “son of man”, he was using an Aramaic idiom that made no claims to divinity, but has to work around some problems with that view.
  • He regards Jesus’ teaching on the coming of the kingdom of God as being mistaken, because it didn’t happen. But we can only say it didn’t happen if we assume Jesus was expecting a physical kingdom like his fellow Jews. But if we regard it as a spiritual kingdom, which began with the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, then Jesus was not mistaken.

In the end, he gets the Jesus he assumes at the start, and writes off any “higher” claims.

Historical Jesus – Anthony Le Donne

Anthony Le Donne is a rising New Testament scholar who recently lost his job at a US christian university because of views expressed in this book, though most critics I have read think this was unjustified.

What is history?

This book, whose subtitle is “What Can We Know and How Can We Know It?”, is really about a “postmodern” approach to historical analysis using the life of Jesus as an example. It is hard to pin down exactly what he means by this, but probably his main point is that no-one actually records history, but their perception and interpretation of it. For, he argues, it is impossible to think without interpreting, and the more we reflect on what we remember, the more we modify those memories.

So, he argues, the history that we know isn’t exactly what happened, it is what has been remembered. Therefore the historian’s task includes asking why these particular events and sayings were remembered, and not others? And he introduces some psychological theory on memory to try to answer this.

He points out, not originally, that the gospels don’t claim to be neutral reporting of the facts, but the choice and interpretation of facts was aimed at helping the reader believe in Jesus. This doesn’t make the gospels less historical, for all documents have their aims and viewpoint. But it does, he argues, mean that we cannot have certainty, though we do have criteria which we can use to test if these are honest memories.

So where does this leave us?

Most New Testament scholars have tended to address questions about the factual historical Jesus. For conservative scholars, this means accepting the gospels as, well as “gospel”. For critical scholars it aims at trying to find the historical Jesus behind the interpretation of the gospels. But Le Donne suggests we should indeed accept that the historical Jesus is found within the memories.

In the end, this book was worth reading for its reminder that the gospel eyewitnesses and writers were human beings who interpreted what they saw or heard. I don’t think it is quite as important or useful a book as most reviewers found it, but I don’t see it as a threat to faith. Historical evidence can only take us so far, and in the end it requires faith as well as evidence to believe in Jesus. Le Donne’s arguments don’t change that.

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