Comprehensively Questing for Jesus?


Mark Goodacre


The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide, Gerd Theissen & Annette Merz,
SCM Press 1998, pp. xxix + 642, pb 25.00

This review article first appeared in Reviews in Religion and Theology 6 (1999), pp. 116-20.
It is © Blackwell Publishers Ltd., 1999 and is reproduced here with permission.




The Quest of the Historical Jesus is big business, currently the most profitable area of New Testament research. Introductory paperbacks are selling in vast numbers; the internet is buzzing with interest in Jesus, and there are television appearances at stake, both in the UK (Lives of Jesus, BBC, 1996) and in the States (From Jesus To Christ, PBS, 1998). Even the scholarly monographs seem now to be marketable not only to scholars and students but also to keen amateurs.

One does not have to look far to see the origins of the upsurge in interest. As scholars began to realise that stories of the demise of the Jesus quest had been greatly exaggerated, the publishers made the dream discovery that we are living in a period somewhere between the actual date and the official date of Jesus' two-thousandth birthday. The flow of books shows no signs of abating. Some are even saying that the quest is only now beginning to get going properly, a perception reinforced by the fact that we are currently further from consensus than ever. For no sooner had the so-called "third quest" happily established a new cross-Atlantic approach, with important agreements on method, perspective and results (an eschatological Jesus within Judaism, reached by paying careful attention to bedrock data) than it was challenged by what N.T. Wright has labelled the "renewed new quest", a North American affair with an equally distinctive profile (a non-apocalyptic Jesus, not so firmly within Judaism, and a stress on stratifying and analysing wide-ranging source-material).

While the quest does not yet show any signs of degenerating into impasse, the proliferation of literature and disagreement even over essentials calls for someone who can speak with authority, someone who can help the students through a maze in which they might otherwise have got lost. Who better than Gerd Theissen, now joined by Annette Merz, and what better genre than that of the textbook, a comprehensive guide that "sets out to present the way in which scholars study Jesus -- not only the results they arrive at but also the process by which they acquire their knowledge" (p. vii)?

The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide is an English edition of Der historische Jesus. Ein Lehrbuch (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1996), translated by John Bowden, with bibliographies revised and updated by Robert Morgan. In over 600 pages, this textbook often succeeds where others fail. It is not afraid of the liberal use of bullet points, summaries, charts and extensive quotation of both primary and secondary sources. A variety of "Tasks" devised by Merz (p. ix), some of them quite stiff, are interspersed throughout the book. Typical are attempts to get the reader to identify or comment on quotations from key scholars, some of whom (e.g. Haenchen, p. 238) are unlikely to emerge favourably. This is a fine technique to get students engaging in the quest, discouraging them from a lazy or passive use of a resource that is indeed "comprehensive".

But comprehensiveness does not come at the expense of liveliness. It is encouraging to see the kind of imaginative asides all too often lacking in the literature, one of the most surprising lapses in a discipline that, one would have thought, would require the use of the imagination in order to stimulate that of the reader. We hear, for example, that:

"Jesus was a charismatic who had an almost inexplicable aura: fascinating to followers, provocative to opponents. He already provoked his family to such a degree that they thought him 'mad' (Mark 3.21) . . . Nevertheless he owes perhaps part of his charisma to his family: they may have considered themselves descendants of David and thus -- willy-nilly -- encouraged the expectation that Jesus could be the expected Son of David who would restore Israel." (p. 235).

This may be nonsense, but if so it is all the better for being imaginative nonsense. Likewise, Theissen and Merz's balanced and erudite section on the Last Supper features a nice imaginative aside on the possible motives for Judas's betrayal:

"The understanding of the last supper as a symbolic action which is the founding of a cult that is a substitute for the temple cult, now eschatologically devalued, could also explain Judas's action: he could have refused to follow Jesus from the moment Jesus' message led to a dissociation from the existing temple cult . . . Judas could have realised that the germ of a deep division could lie here." (p. 435).

The authors know that this is "conjectural", but happily, unlike many others in the guild, that does not deter them from firing the readers' imagination by discussing the possibility.

For all its virtues as a textbook, it has a couple of disappointing drawbacks. An author index and a centralised bibliography are missed, all the more so in that the bibliographies distributed section by section are so useful (something, perhaps, for future editions?). Also unhelpful is a certain wavering in Theissen and Merz's conception of their readers. Sometimes the implied reader of this book is quite ignorant of Jesus research (e.g. see many of the "Tasks"), yet s/he knows Greek as well as technical terms like "anti-docetic" (p. 494). And while the reader is often helpfully guided through the primary literature and the critical methods, at other times s/he is given no indication at all on what grounds a decision is being made. We are told that "the Logia source" featured four authentic, "original beatitudes" which Matthew "spiritualized" (pp. 253-4), but the methods (or citations of authorities) for arriving at this conclusion are not given. Or we discover that "the obligation to pay tithes was unimportant" to Jesus "by comparison with the fundamental ethical demands of justice, mercy and faithfulness" (p. 229). The text is given (Matt. 23.23) but we are not told the grounds for accepting this at face value. Such judgements may, of course, be right, but all too often the student is deprived of the means of discovering the basis of the decision. These are shortfalls that are all the more striking in the light of Crossan's highly influential attempt to write a life of Jesus (The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (Edinburgh: T & T Clark and San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1991) on the basis of a careful itinerary of the data, each piece allocated its place in a complex chronological stratification of the tradition.

Further, the generally successful attempt at comprehensiveness inevitably leads to some unevenness. The section on "Jesus as Poet: The Parables of Jesus" (pp. 316-46) is perhaps the weakest in the book -- it largely suspends redaction- and literary- criticism and works with what Michael Goulder once called "the homogeneous pool theory", strongly influenced by Jeremias, in which "the parable tradition" (p. 338) is treated en masse without careful analysis of the function of individual parables in their literary contexts in each Gospel. John Drury's Parables in the Gospels: History and Allegory (London: SPCK, 1985) is in Theissen and Merz's bibliography (p. 316) but not in their thinking. Drury's careful dismantling of the Dodd-Jeremias perspective may not be wholly persuasive, but the discussion would be all the stronger for some engagement with it.

Perhaps too the section on "Jesus as Prophet: Jesus' Eschatology" (pp. 240-80) might have had a little more contemporary nuancing. For while there is much useful discussion of the classics (Weiss, Schweitzer, Dodd, Kümmel), there is a mere paragraph on the "recent North American exegesis" typified by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan (p. 245) without analysis or refutation. The lack of engagement with so popular a view will disappoint many of Theissen and Merz's readers. The statement that "both future and present statements about the kingdom of God . . . are usually accepted as authentic" (pp. 252-3), for example, is patently false.

Yet if there is occasionally a dated or provincial feel, the keynote of the work is contemporary and wide-ranging. It is refreshing to see, for example, a nuanced treatment of "Jesus and the women around him" (pp. 219-25), one that steers a steady course to avoid the Scylla of a patronising pat-women-on-the-head Jesus and the Charybdis of caricaturing Judaism to enable Jesus to stand out favourably. Further, Theissen and Merz follow the contemporary trend (to which Theissen's work has in fact been a key contribution) of accepting that Jesus "undoubtedly" had "an extraordinary gift of healing" (p. 312). Similarly, Theissen and Merz are in harmony with the developing trend not to be shy about discussing the resurrection of Jesus in historical Jesus research. "The Risen Jesus: Easter and its Interpretations", pp. 474-511) is the best, most balanced discussion of the subject I have seen in recent New Testament scholarship.

Where, then, does this book fit on the current map? How might we characterise its general approach? Most markedly, Theissen and Merz align themselves with what Wright calls "the third quest" in stressing that "Jesus belongs in Judaism" (p. 572; cf. p. 147) and should not be interpreted against the background of -- or in distinction from -- Judaism. They are influenced strongly and explicitly by E. P. Sanders, whose Jesus and Judaism (London: SCM, 1985) remains seminal. Following the revolution he inaugurated, they take care to castigate those scholars who in the past were all too influenced by what is now seen to be (at best) a caricature of first century Judaism. Indeed, if anything, Theissen and Merz are a little too heavy-handed on this issue. One of the tasks takes a passage from Bultmann and encourages the student to "make a critical comment . . by identifying the stereotyped notions of 'Jewish legalism' which appear and checking where they are justified" (p. 401). Though the attempt to root out such embarrassing and painful episodes in Jesus research is laudable, the reader cannot help wondering what passages in Theissen and Merz might be singled out to be "checked" in forty years' time -- perhaps statements like this one that can all too easily discourage the reader from engaging with the peculiarities in Theissen and Merz's own approach, itself arguably tainted with elements of the old-fashioned distinctions between "ritual" and "fundamentalist" (bad) and "ethical" or "non-fundamentalist" (good; see, for example, pp. 570-1).

In other respects, Theissen and Merz's Jesus bears striking resemblances to Sanders's. Both are baptized by John, both heal and teach, both call twelve disciples, look for the restoration of Israel and are involved in a temple incident leading to arrest and execution. But while this eschatologically-oriented Jesus is quite unlike the Jesus of Borg, Crossan and others in Robert Funk's Jesus Seminar, Theissen and Merz share one important element of methodology with them, an element that is now key in questions about Christian origins: what sources should we use and how should we rate them? Is it pure "canonical bias" to prefer the Synoptics and play down the importance of Thomas, Peter, Secret Mark and Papyrus Egerton 2? Perhaps one of the most important features of The Historical Jesus as a comprehensive guide is that it begins by standing back and surveying all the relevant sources (all of Part 1, pp. 17-124), Christian and non-Christian, canonical and non-canonical, hypothetical, fragmentary and multiply attested.

Theissen and Merz's sympathies stop short of fully endorsing the kind of approach made famous by Dominic Crossan and Helmut Koester (the latter described as running "the risk of reconstructing an 'anti-canonical picture of Jesus'", p. 574), but the extensive discussion of the issue, and its impingement on the reconstruction of the life of Jesus, represents an important triumph for those like Koester who pioneered it. Perhaps too it represents the first fragile steps back towards consensus, from two authors whose third quest sympathies do not apparently oblige them to ignore non-canonical material. It is a small advance, certainly, but where the stakes are so high we will be grateful for even a little progress.

But Theissen and Merz's willingness to engage in discussion of wide-ranging source material is actually a function of their stress on the importance of careful consideration of primary literature. "The answers given by those who research into Jesus are less important than the questions which lead to them" (p. 569); doing the "tasks" is more important than finding the "solutions" to them. It is the kind of attitude that is likely to make this textbook popular with teachers, for happy is the student who is not spoon-fed , and blessed is the book that provokes one to think.


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