Bauckham’s thesis: there’s strong evidence the four gospels are “closely based on eyewitness testimony of those who personally knew Jesus.” The whole book forcefully and, let’s say, nonchalantly (can’t think of a better word) lays out a compelling case. I don’t call this a book review, because the author of this book is very much a scholar, and it would take someone else of that scholarly caliber to truly review the book.
But here are a few other things I liked:
~Proper historical argumentation. Bauckham argues purely as a historian, not as a theologian or even a Christian apologist. I wouldn’t be able to tell if he was a Christian on this book alone (as an aside, he is), even though his thesis, arguments, and conclusions are very compatible with it. As a history major myself, he writes exactly in the ideal of how I was taught to write: Masterful use of primary and secondary sources, tight analysis, studious citations, and attention to detail. ( Some folks criticize it as having too much detail, or “weeds” – but this is dead wrong. Don’t we have enough other sloppy pop-history with more holes than swiss-cheese already? I didn’t find unnecessary “weeds” of detail in this book.)
~Oral history. Bauckham brings a good deal of clarity to the oral background of the gospels. Scholars of every stripe agree that the gospel’s content was told orally before it was written down. Bauckham argues that these ancedotes shouldn’t be considered in the genre of “oral tradition,” as many scholars have done, which disengages the stories from the historical events they are meant to tell of. The term “oral tradition” refers to stories that happened in prior generations, perhaps going back centuries. Since the stories were told and re-told frequently within the same generations as the events, and getting the actual facts about Jesus right was important to early Christians, the stories should be considered as oral history. He gives good evidence and nice surveys of relevant literature on this… as with everything else.
~First century name statistics. He demonstrates that what we now know of 1st century names fits well with the name statistics in the gospels. The proportions of common and rare first century names in Palestine are the same as those in the gospels, in some cases to 1% difference. This suggests that the gospels were first century literary creations concerning real first century people in real first century events.
~Comparisons between the gospels and ancient historiography. The charge against the gospels as being written by people biased toward Jesus with a biased agenda would be very odd by ancient history standards. For ancient historians, hearing from someone who actually lived and experienced the events was what was valuable, not being a dispassionate observer. By these historiographical standards, the gospels have a definite weight to them, though the format of the gospels has some differences from other histories of the time. Bauckham argues the early Christian historian Papias held John’s Gospel as the prime example of a piece of polished history, while other synoptic gospels, particularly Mark, were still in the form of a historians’ rough notes and anecdote-collections rather than polished history. Which leads us to:
~Mark’s Gospel from accounts of Peter. Bauckham argues that Mark’s Gospel is really the collection of stories from Peter, which Mark wrote down. He reveals that Peter as a character is more heavily involved in Mark than any other gospel, and through Mark’s utilizing of the literary technique of inclusio (Peter is the first disciple to show up in the story and the last one mentioned), he demonstrates Peter to be the source of the material. Bauckham notes that Mark’s unusually frequent plural-to-singular constructions fit perfectly with Mark writing down Peter’s spoken-word stories. For example, Mark 11.12: “On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he [Jesus] was hungry.” This is exactly how someone would tell the story if they were there with Jesus: “One the following day when we came from Bethany, he was hungry.” Mark would simply have changed the plural from the first person to third person. Bauckham spends some time on Matthew and Luke as well.
~John’s Gospel as Testimony. Bauckham points out that John’s Gospel is very comparable to what ancient historians would shoot for. It is sharply organized, in chronological order, and very smoothed out compared to the somewhat looser collections of anecdotes in the synoptics. He demonstrates that the author of this gospel meant for this to be an eyewitness account to Jesus: for instance, the numerous hints that he is the ideal witness to be telling these things (a witness to the cross itself), and again, the inclusio technique – he is the first and last disciple mentioned in the book.
~Memory. He has a great section on studies old and new on memory – how reliable it is, what people tend to remember, and how this compares with the gospels. He notes that gospels contain stories of things we would expect people to remember vividly – people tend to remember unusual events, events connected with strong emotions, monumentous/life-changing events, etc. His case-study comparisons between holocaust testimonies and gospel testimonies were fascinating.
… There’s more, including the unreasonableness of the form criticism method in gospel studies, the importance of testimony in epistemology, etc. but I can’t reproduce the whole book for you. On the other hand, some cons:
~Light on Matthew and Luke. Bauckham doesn’t spend as much time on Matthew and Luke as I expected. He dwells on Mark and John a bit more. Indeed, those are the most important two to focus on, since Matthew and Luke were based off of Mark anyway, and John is its own unique piece. But I would like to have seen more on Luke especially.
~Thin threads of arguments. A lot of Bauckham’s arguments depend on certain interpretations of things that may be easy to break down or dismiss. For example, he does excellent analysis and argumentation from fragments of Papias, but some of it seemed tenuous. That said, a lot of ancient history is well-reasoned guesswork anyway, this book was no exception. I had a difficult time coming up with counterarguments to even his more tenuous threads.
~Which John? He spends two chapters defending John the Elder as the author of the Gospel of John, not John the son of Zebedee. This isn’t really a con I suppose, I just disagreed in the end. I must say, it is the best case for this view I’ve ever read. He argues that this John was indeed a disciple of Jesus, probably from Jerusalem, who was not one of the Twelve but among those other close disciples of Jesus. Whichever John wrote it, they’re giving eyewitness testimony.
~Slow going. My main problem with the book is this: it is often very difficult to read. Many sentences are long, dense, and awkward. Stringy sentences are a little too common. Nothing grammatically wrong (that I found anyway), just things like prepositional phrases in weird places, etc. I wish the editor would have smoothed it out a bit. I read it best when I had a few focused hours straight to get into the mindset of his writing style.
This book is a worthy read. I recommend it ideally to anyone who is a good reader and has some prior background in some of these things. But these things are important enough for anyone. So, whoever you are, take on a challenge!
Here are some quotes (though the nature of the book doesn’t lend itself to many good short quotes):
“As I shall argue in this book, the period between the ‘historical’ Jesus and the Gospels was actually spanned, not by anonymous community transmission, but by the continuing presence and testimony of the eyewitnesses, who remained the authoritative sources of their traditions until their deaths” (8).
“Only by failing as a disciple could Peter come to understand the necessity for the Messiah to take up the cross.” (179).
“Good historiography has two main characteristics: truth and artistic composition, and Papias claims both of them.” (218)
“We may conclude that the memories of eyewitnesses of the history of Jesus score highly by the criteria for likely reliability that have been established by the psychological study of recollective memory.” (346).
“Participant eyewitness testimony has a special role when it comes to events that transcend the common experience of historians and their readers. The more exceptional the event, the more historical imagination alone is liable to lead us seriously astray. Without the participant witness that confronts us with the sheer otherness of the event, we will reduce it to the measure of our own experience. In such cases, insider testimony may puzzle us or provoke disbelief, but, for the sake of maintaining the quest for the truth of history, we must allow the testimony to resist the limiting power of our own experiences and expectations.” (492).
“Eyewitness testimony offers us insider knowledge from involved participants. It also offers us engaged interpretation, for in testimony fact and meaning coinhere, and witnesses who give testimony do so with the conviction of significance that requires to be told. Witnesses of truly significant events speak out of their own ongoing attempts to understand.” (505).
I didn’t know what to expect in picking up this book. I believe N.T. Wright’s theology has some serious deficiencies, but I really appreciate his excellent scholarship on some things (especially on Christ’s resurrection). But overall, I’m very glad I read it.
The Challenge of Jesus basically addresses the issue of the quest for the historical Jesus (Jesus the man, the historical figure rather than the Jesus of dogma and theology), as well as how this directly and freshly relates how we live our lives today. Wright believes that investigating Jesus in his historical context does no violence to the Faith: Jesus “has his feet solidly planted in first-century Palestine and yet rings deeply true to the resurrected Christ of Christian belief, worship, and experience” (backcover).
I liked the entire premise of the book – that Christians should pursue seeing Jesus as the man of history in his first-century world in order to know God more deeply and learn how to live in our postmodern age. Wright argues that because of God’s glory revealed in Jesus, Jesus’ centrality to Christian mission, and our imperative to pursue truth and loyalty to Scripture, we’re obligated look to the real Jesus of history. I was a history major in college, thus I’m always frustrated by theologians who downplay the importance of history and narrative, instead focusing on the abstractions and philosophical categories of theology. Just because people misuse history to diminish Jesus does not mean we cannot use history to discover more truth about Jesus. After all, the historical Jesus is the same Jesus we worship.
I liked how Wright counter-acted revisionists of the historical Jesus — while at the same time mostly ignoring them! He only occasionally mentioned the “Jesus Seminar” authors, but using the internal character of the Gospels, Second Temple Judaism literature, and other background knowledge, Wright decisively rebuts their theories. This is a very nice feature and puts a positive face on the book that will make its message and truth appeal to more people (in particular, those who dislike the whole idea of “debate”).
I did learn some valuable things from this book I did not know before. The contrast between Jesus and the Jerusalem temple was a powerful and very compelling evidence that Jesus believed himself to be divine. The Jewish self-understanding of exile and Kingdom/Messianic hope was also informative, as was his chapter on the resurrection (not surprising, that being Wright’s forte). Furthermore, he describes biblical and theological truths in an inspiring and rich vocabulary (in contrast to some theologians who seemingly even try to sound boring).
On the negative side, there was much I honestly didn’t like about the book. While I did enjoy the historical bent Wright took, he uses it to come up with interpretations of Jesus’ parables and other things that virtually no one in church history has taken, and his reasoning for taking those interpretations does not always follow. He lacks tight argumentation. He applies 1st century texts and events to the biblical text and events without giving warrants on why those 1st century backgrounds should be applied in the way Wright is applying them.
Case in point: Wright notes a passage in Josephus’ works where Josephus was telling a brigand leader to “repent and believe in me” to lay down his rebellion against Rome. Wright notes the similarity of the Greek sentence to Jesus’ own teaching of “repent and believe,” and makes the conclusion that Jesus’ kingdom message was one of political bent and against war with Rome. While I find that comparison between Josephus and Jesus’ statements informative and worthy of further study, he makes a big logical jump here.
Wright’s hermeneutics have weaknesses – he leans toward heavily allegorical rather than plain-literal interpretation. The Bible certainly has many parallels, types, and allegories, but may of his connections are a bit of a stretch, and he’s a more dogmatic on them than he should be. He takes some shots at Premilennialists and to my surprise, brings up some of his “New Perspective on Paul” soteriology into the book, which seemed out of place.
Things like this made many portions of the book less helpful, and I was unsure about recommending it until I came to the last two chapters on applying Jesus to today, especially this postmodern world and the chaotic changes going on. The last two chapters are excellently written, wise, and tremendously inspiring. They alone make me want to buy the book now (I borrowed this copy from a library). Wright is strong on practical, all-encompassing applications, the joy and anticipation of the future, what the historical Jesus can bring through us in ministering to people in the postmodern culture, and connecting our vocation with biblical truth. It really impacted me and helped my spiritual life this whole week.
In conclusion, I highly recommend this book, but not to a new believer. If you already have a holistic grasp on the Bible, theology, and hermeneutics will you better appreciate how wonderful and fresh Wright’s insights are… and discern some of his craziness!
Here are some highlights from the book:
“We can categorize the challenged of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment to historic Christianity in terms of its asking a necessary question in a misleading fashion” (19)
“Jesus took his own story very seriously. He would turn the other cheek; he would go the second mile; he would take up the cross. He would be the light of the world, the salt of the earth. He would be Israel for the sake of Israel. He would defeat evil by letting it do its worst to him.” (85).
“The cross is the surest, truest and deepest window on the very heart and character of the living and loving God; the more we learn about the cross in all its historical and theological dimensions, the more we discover about the One in whose image we are made and hence about our own vocation to be the cross-bearing people, the people in whose lives and service the living God is made known.” (94-5).
“If, therefore, Judaism did indeed have a great incarnational symbol at its very heart, namely the Temple, then for Jesus to upstage the Temple, to take on its role role and function and to legitimate this with Davidic claims, meant that Jesus was claiming that he rather than the Temple was the place where and the means by which the living God was present with Israel.” (111).
“My proposal is not that we know what the word god means and manage somehow to fit Jesus into that. Instead, I suggest that we think historically about a young Jew possessed of a desperately risky, indeed apparently crazy, vocation, riding through Jerusalem in tears, denouncing the Temple and dying on a Roman cross — and that we somehow allow our meaning for the word god to be recentered around that point.” (123-4) [very much in the spirit of John 1.18]
“Suppose Jesus’ execution was not a clear disproof of his messianic vocation but its confirmation and climax. Suppose the cross was not one more example of the triumph of paganism over God’s people but was actually God’s means of defeating evil once and for all. Suppose this was, after all, how exile was designed to end, how sins were to be forgiven, how the kingdom was to come.” (162).
“The individual existential angst of the sixties has become the corporate and cultural angst of the nineties. The human beings who could not pull themselves together in the 1960s have become the human societies that cannot pull themselves together in the 1990s… The Christian answer to it is the love of God, which goes through death and out the other side. What is missing from the postmodern equation is of course love. The radical hermeneutic of suspicion that characterizes all postmodernity is essentially nihilistic, denying the very possibility of creative or healing love. In the cross and resurrection of Jesus we find the answer: the God who made the world is revealed in terms of self-giving love that no hermeneutic of suspicion can ever touch, in a Self that found itself by giving itself away, in a Story that was never manipulative but always healing and recreating, and in a Reality that can truly be known…” (170).
“When God does what God intends to do, this will be a fresh act of grace, of radical newness. At one level it will be quite unexpected, like a surprise party with guests we never thought we would meet and delicious food we never thought we would taste. But at the same time there will be a rightness about it, a rich continuity with what has gone on before so that in the midst of our surprise and our delight we will say ‘Of course! This is how it had to be, even though we’d never imagined it.'” (179-180).
“Bearing God’s image is not just a fact. It is a vocation” (183).
“We can and must as Christians within a postmodern world give an account of human knowing that will apply to music and mathematics, to biology and history, to theology and chemistry. We need to articulate, for the post-postmodern world, what we might call an epistemology of love.” (195)