- Book Reviews
The Historical Jesus in Context, edited by Amy-Jill Levine, Dale C. Allison, Jr., and John Dominic Crossan. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006. 440 pp. $22.95.
Most surveys on the Synoptic Jesus fall into four categories: those that are history-oriented and scholarly; those that focus on specific problems of history, literary composition, style, language, redaction, and/or combination thereof; those that are scholarly yet have a semi-popular appeal; and those that present a believers’ Christ from Calvary to the Second Coming. This volume is definitely not of the fourth variety; it is, however, an amalgam of the first three categories. Contained herein are the efforts of twenty-nine scholars, known and not so known, to contextualize Jesus in the Jewish and the Greco-Roman world of his time. Individually, the essayists vary widely in intent and scope, but collectively, they demonstrate methodological perspectives drawn from primary sources, comparative textual interpretation, and cross-cultural study.
The Introduction by Amy-Jill Levine underscores the preference in the Academia for historical-critical methodology in the quest for the historical Jesus contra the creedal authority of the Gospel narratives as believed and preached in the Ecclesia. The “Quest” favors Reason (objectively setting Jesus in an historical and cultural context) over Revelation (creedal statements molding a dogmatic Christ). The history of the Quest is parsed into the old and the new. The “Old Quest” established a distinction between rational ethical religion and historical religion that emerged in a given culture at a particular period of time, and whose claims of truth are not necessarily rational. Many in the original quest deconstructed Gospel miracles, myths, and legends; and reconstructed Jesus into an advocate of late nineteenth-century enlightened rational religion.
Early twentieth-century Form Criticism (structural study of literary units) raised questions about the nature, origin, and transmission of the Synoptic Gospels. It dismissed outright any kernel of historicity in the Gospels and suggested that many of the traditions about Jesus in Scriptures were created later than his historical period to fulfill the liturgical, preaching, and teaching needs of nascent church communities. Each tradition has a Sitz im Leben (“Setting in Life”), which is interpreted in its own right independent of historical validity. Kerygma (teachings about Jesus) has replaced history as the central core for the Christian faith. Indeed, Rudolf Bultman, the leading kerygmatic theologian, argued that the only essential historical teaching is the crucifixion of Jesus, all else is conjecture and interpretation.
The “New Quest” began after World War II. Like the “Old Quest,” it questioned the Gospels but also considered the input of a flesh and blood Jesus. It embraced a variety of approaches (anthropological, sociological, theological, etc.) to understand the New Testament Jesus. These included everything from viewing his eschatological message of the Kingdom of God in terms of existentialist philosophy to seeing him as a Mediterranean Jewish peasant or a wandering cynic-sage. The Quests as a practicum in the university, seminary, and college classroom are the raison d’être of this volume. The Historical Jesus in Context is a sourcebook that incorporates the best of the Quests with a caveat: the historical Jesus is understood first and foremost in a Jewish religio-historical and nationalistic background. The beginning chapters are joined thematically: archaeological contributions to the study of Jesus and the Gospels (J. L. Reed), Josephus on John the Baptist (C. A. Evans), Abba and Father in the context of the New Testament (M. R. D’Angelo), miraculous births and conceptions (C. H. Talbert), a cry against oppression and the promise of deliverance in the Enoch literature (G. W. E. Nickelsberg), and Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls (P. Flint). Next, the Chreia (D. B. Glower), the Galilean charismatic and rabbinic piety (A. J. Avery-Peck), miracle stories (W. Cotter), Mithras liturgy (M. Meyer), Apuleius of Madauros (I. H. Henderson), the parable in the Hebrew Bible and Rabbinic literature (G. Porton), and the Aesop tradition (L. M. Wills). Finally, Targumic material (B. Chilton), Psalms of Solomon )J. L. Trafton), moral and ritual purity (J. Klawas), Gospel and Talmud (H. W. Basser), Philo of Alexandria (G. J. Sterling), and the legality of Roman divorce (T. A. J. McGinn).
The last chapters are independently construed: associations in the ancient world (J. S. Kloppenberg), anointing traditions (T. J. Hornsby), the Passover Haggadah (C. Carmichal), Joseph and Aseneth (R. D. Chestnut), the Pliny and Trajan correspondence (B. M. Peper and M. DelCogliano), imitations of Greek epic in the Gospels (D. R. MacDonald), narratives of noble death (R. Doran), Hebrew and Greek Isaiah 53:1–12 (B. Witherington III), and Thallus on the crucifixion (D. C. Allison Jr.).
Pertinent issues are properly presented and reasonably argued. Informative writing, sound research, and a generous offering of primary material are meant to inform students of Judaism and Christianity to read about the Jewish Jesus and engage his impact (positive and negative) on the Judaisms of late antiquity and on the gentiles of the Greco-Roman world. Purportedly, this sourcebook is written for a wide range of readers, but it may prove difficult for the novice to navigate the in-depth discussion in several genres without an instructor at hand (e.g., Greco-Roman literature). Also, several essayists say too much or too little, but many of the contributors strike an even balance. On the latter, I have in mind the commentators on the rabbinic literature. Though the textual readings and commentary are generally correct, disagreements in scholarship are noted. For example, is it conclusive that the Last Supper was a Passover meal? And if so, did Jesus and his apostles read the Passover Haggada? Why the overkill of the Suffering Servant motif in understanding Isaiah 53:1–12 (Greek and Hebrew variants)? And so forth.
Criticism aside, this is a valuable depository for rediscovering Jesus the Jew and for reassessing the traditionalist biblical portrayal of Jesus the Christ.
Los Angeles Valley College
American Jewish University