The Quest to Digest Jesus:
Recent Books on the Historical Jesus

Mark Goodacre

This review article first appeared in Reviews in Religion and Theology 7 (2000), pp. 156-61.
It is © Blackwell Publishers Ltd., 2000 and is reproduced here with permission.

[Note: the titles at the top of the article are linked to catalogue information at and].

Clive Marsh and Steve Moyise, Jesus and the Gospels: An Introduction (Cassell Biblical Studies Series; London & New York: Cassell, 1999)

Phillip J. Cunningham, C. S. P., A Believer's Search for the Jesus of History (New York/Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1999)

N. T. Wright and Marcus Borg, The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions (London: SPCK, 1999)

Mark Allan Powell, The Jesus Debate: Modern Historians Investigate the Life of Christ (Oxford: Lion Publishing, 1999) [UK edition]

The quest of the historical Jesus goes in "phases" or "waves", and the business of categorising each of these phases is becoming increasingly difficult. N.T. Wright's recent major study on Jesus modified his earlier diachronic division of the quest into three major phases (first quest ending with Schweitzer; new quest begun by Käsemann, third quest dominated by Vermes and Sanders) by adding a synchronic element, speaking of the "renewed new quest" of Crossan and the Jesus Seminar. Some simply speak of all current work on Jesus as "the third quest". Others are inclined to abandon categorisation altogether. But whatever one wants to call it, there is one clear element in contemporary Jesus scholarship that is becoming increasingly prominent: the quest to digest Jesus, to make the ongoing debate about the historical Jesus available to as wide an audience as possible in as accessible a format as possible. The two giants of the discipline -- E. P. Sanders and John Dominic Crossan -- themselves set this trend in motion, each producing digested, paperback, popular forms of their influential monographs, Sanders in 1993 (The Historical Figure of Jesus) and Crossan a year later (Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography). Now others too are trying their hand at writing digests not only of Crossan and Sanders but also of others involved in the historical Jesus quest.

Mark Allan Powell's The Jesus Debate is the most comprehensive of the books on offer here. It provides an introduction to the discipline (Chapter 1, "Historians Discover Jesus"), usefully contextualising the contemporary scene by introducing the newcomer to key moments in Jesus research this century; it adds a section on "Sorting out the Sources" (Chapter 2) and then provides some "Snapshots: Contemporary Images of Jesus" (Chapter 3) before it begins a series of studies of individual scholars' takes on the debate: the Jesus Seminar, John Dominic Crossan, Marcus J. Borg, E. P. Sanders, John P. Meier and N. T. Wright (Chapters 4-9). The conclusion helpfully draws together some of the important "issues and concerns" under the inevitable title "The Debate Continues" (Chapter 10).

The book is well-written and engaging, essentially a summary and critique of the views of some key scholars, done remarkably dispassionately, often with helpful insights along the way and a keen eye for a good quotation. Powell has the rare gift of being able to elucidate the topic for the uninitiated while holding the interest of the expert. Nevertheless, there are several problem areas. The summaries occasionally lead to troubling generalisations and even errors. It will mislead some new students to describe Schweitzer's work as form-critical (p. 23); Wright coined the term "third quest" in 1986 and not 1992 (p. 29); to say that "most scholars are reluctant to rely too heavily" on L material (p. 46) is not accurate - both new questers (e.g. Jeremias) and contemporary Jesus scholars (e.g. Funk) put a lot of stress on L parables; and the comment that Jesus' miracles "are not reported in Q" (p. 191) is not true (Q 7.1-10, 7.22, 10.13, 11.14).

More importantly, the book typifies but ultimately accentuates too provincial a view of the quest. Among the scholars chosen for special study, only Tom Wright is not based in the U.S.A. There is relatively little mention of German scholarship and nothing on insights that might be gained from non-western scholarship. In spite of the fact that this is a British edition of what was originally an American book (Jesus as a Figure in History, published in 1998 by Westminster John Knox Press), no concessions are made: North America is described as "this continent" (p. 87), understanding of "the effect a few F's can have on a student's overall GPA" (p. 80) is taken for granted, and on one occasion it is even implied that James Bond is American (p. 42)!

Symptomatic of this is the discussion of source-critical issues (Chapter 2) in which Powell simply asserts majority acceptance of the Two-Source Theory, offering a brief mention only of the American neo-Griesbach theory as an alternative (p. 43). Not only does this offer the new student the misleading impression that dispensing with Q necessarily entails the abandonment of Markan Priority, but further it does not pay adequate attention to the scholars discussed in the body of the book. Powell's statement that "all of the historians discussed in this book . . . believe that the material attributed to the Q source is among the oldest and most reliable material found in the Gospels" (p. 44) is a mistake: two of the five scholars singled out for special consideration do not accept the Q theory, Tom Wright (who is agnostic on the source question) and E. P. Sanders (who has made clear in several publications that he does not accept the Q theory). The mistake on Sanders arises from an oversight on Powell's part -- he has paid extensive attention to two of Sanders's books on Jesus (Jesus and Judaism and The Historical Figure of Jesus) but has neglected the third, jointly authored with Margaret Davies (Studying the Synoptic Gospels), in which there is an extensive discussion of these issues.

These considerations qualify but by no means outweigh the value of Powell's book, which I would certainly recommend to students of the Historical Jesus. Much less comprehensive as well as much less helpful is Phillip J. Cunningham's Believer's Search For Jesus. This will not give the newcomer as rounded a picture as Powell's book, nor will it offer anything like the same degree of insight. Heavily dependent on the work of John P. Meier, from whom he quotes extensively, Cunningham's book is a paperback "journey" through some of the issues in the Jesus quest. One fears that the description of this as "a believer's search" sometimes restrains the author from asking important historical questions, as when he asserts that Jesus was Joseph's "foster son" (p. 25) without any discussion of the historicity of the virginal conception. And sometimes sentiment sometimes clouds judgement, as when Cunningham speaks of Jesus' storytelling ability with the axiom "that you can take the boy out of the country but you cannot take the country out of the boy" (p. 27).

Similar in length, but somehow much more wide-ranging in scope is Jesus and the Gospels: An Introduction by Clive Marsh and Steve Moyise. While the other books on Jesus all nod towards the importance of evaluating the source material carefully, this one does not even begin discussing the historical Jesus until it has surveyed the Gospels, paying attention to the four canonicals (Chapters 2-5) and apocryphal gospels, with a special focus on Thomas (Chapter 6). The second half of the book then focuses on different portraits in historical Jesus research -- "Jesus: prophet of doom?" (Chapter 7), focusing on Weiss, Schweitzer and Sanders; and "Jesus: witty word spinner" (Chapter 8), focusing on Crossan and Borg (adding, somewhat more questionably, Wrede and Dodd to the same discussion); Chapter 9 offers reflections on "Jesus, Gospels and Different Interests", including discussion of musician Nick Cave's view of Mark's Gospel and Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza's feminist reconstruction of Christian origins; and Chapter 10 concludes the book with a section on "How Christology Works: The Gospels in Practice". Much of what Marsh and Moyise say will not be new to most scholars, but that is not the point of the book, which is in many ways an ideal student introduction to some of the key issues, especially for those courses that combine gospel studies with historical Jesus study.

The fourth and final book is unlike the other three in that it does not attempt to digest the views of others but represents an attempt by two of the very scholars discussed in those books to present fresh forms of their own theses in conversation with one another. Marcus Borg and N. T. Wright's The Meaning of Jesus is the product of a friendship and dialogue between these two scholars, slightly miscast in the publicity materials as "a liberal" and "a traditionalist" respectively. Under eight headings, Borg and Wright alternate in presenting their positions on Jesus' birth, life, death, resurrection, parousia and divinity (Parts 2 to 7), framing the discussion with "How do we know about Jesus?" (Part 1) and "Jesus and the Christian Life" (Part 8).

The book is both more stimulating and more frustrating than all of the others we have discussed. It is stimulating not least in its ambition, to draw together under the same cover the views of two contrasting scholars, one a member of the Jesus Seminar and (broadly speaking) an advocate of the non-apocalyptic Jesus, and one a vociferous critic of the Jesus Seminar and an advocate of the opposite view on Jesus, stressing the importance of eschatology. The contrast between the two scholars is made clear in intelligent, well written, thought-provoking essays on well chosen topics. But the book is frustrating for the same reason: in the end the friendship between Borg and Wright seems to get the better of the considerable distance and basic disagreement between them. In a very gentlemanly affair, neither ever really engages with the other's thesis -- neither attempts to force concessions on a given issue, or to exploit potential weak areas in the other's case. Too often we have what amounts to simple restatements of Borg's and Wright's theses in a slightly more popular and accessible format under fresh headings.

In other words, their desire to push their own agendas lead them to miss some useful opportunities to criticise the other. Borg, for example, might have made more of the question of canonical bias, particularly given Wright's tendency to talk about what the New Testament says (e.g. p. 171) or what "the early Christians all" believed (e.g. p. 162). Or Wright might have tried to engage with Borg's views about the non-historicity of all the future "Son of Man" sayings, one of the most striking elements of Borg's thesis (shared with others in the Jesus Seminar), but instead he spends most of his chapter on "The Future of Jesus" (Chapter 14) explaining his own, singular view. The latter is interesting, and no doubt merits this extra exposure, but those already familiar with both Borg's and Wright's theses might have hoped for something more nearly approaching the term "debate" that is flagged up in the publicity materials.

This is not to say that the book is not useful. There are several places where both Borg and Wright clarify their respective theses and explain the implications, and there are even occasions where they admit to shortcomings, as when Wright discusses the topic of healing both in Jesus' life and in the contemporary Church (pp. 222-5). Further, I can imagine occasions when it would be profitable to set students some reading from the book: a chapter from Wright and a chapter from Borg on a given topic might usefully orientate students and help them to think critically about the issues. All in all, though, what we have here is appropriately characterised as the Two Visions of the book's subtitle. This is a book expounding two distinct visions of Jesus, not a book in which two scholars engage with one another with a view to finding degrees of consensus. The authors come to "understand" each other and to "avoid misrepresenting" each other, but there are barely the remotest signs of any movement by either Wright or Borg in the other's direction, no point where either modifies his views in the light of criticism, and this in spite of the authors' "hope to shift logjammed debates into more fruitful possibilities" (p. ix).

The current quest to produce summaries, critiques and overviews of historical Jesus research gives the scholar the chance to stand back and have a look at directions in which the discipline seems to be heading. There are some troubling elements and some seeds of something more promising. Perhaps most troubling is the extent to which the international dimension of the quest is getting played down -- it is increasingly being cast as primarily a North American phenomenon, with N. T. Wright allowed as an honourable (and still English speaking) exception to the rule. The signs in other recent books, like den Heyer's Jesus Matters, that a broader range of scholarship, utilising insights from all over the globe, might be beginning to impinge on historical Jesus scholarship are only dimly (where at all) in evidence in these books. On the other hand, more promising are the signs that scholars are beginning to take seriously Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza's challenge to re-imagine Christian origins from a feminist perspective -- Marsh and Moyise (Jesus and the Gospels) and Powell (The Jesus Debate) do at least have short discussions of her work.

A further troubling aspect is the sometimes superficial attitude to source-critical questions. While the scholars all recognise the extent to which they are dependent on their prior source-critical assumptions, it is arguable that some of them simply do not allow enough room for doubt. What if they are building on sand? What if the critics of the supposedly solid conclusions of yesteryear turn out to be on the right track? Yet the encouraging element here is that the profile of the source questions is becoming more marked even where the detailed discussion is lacking. There is agreement, for example, that we should at least discuss the place of the Gospel of Thomas as a source for historical Jesus material (Jesus and the Gospels, Chapter 6, The Jesus Debate, pp. 50-2, The Meaning of Jesus, p. 12).

The difficulty with summary books is that they cannot help being prescriptive as well as descriptive. By pronouncing on the state of the debate and by making certain selections, they inadvertently but inevitably lead students in particular directions, closing down some important avenues, at the same time influencing the way that scholars view the contemporary scene. Yet the consciousness of these shortcomings might ultimately reinforce the need for a corrective, guaranteeing -- no doubt -- that the quest to digest Jesus, like the bigger quest that spawned it, will continue well into the new century. Under such circumstances, it may become important to ensure that the laudable desire to communicate the results of scholarship with a wider public does not give birth to a slump into sloppiness and superficiality over the way we do our research. As the millennial fever dies down, the fresh challenge will be to re-examine the foundations on which so much Jesus research is getting built, and to think again about new methods and fresh approaches to re-imagining Christian origins.

Mark Goodacre

University of Birmingham

Return to Mark Goodacre's Publications

This file © 2000 Mark Goodacre