Book Review: 40 Questions About the Historical Jesus (40 Questions Series) by C. Marvin Pate

40 Questions About the Historical Jesus (40 Questions Series) by C. Marvin Pate,

2015, 395pp.

Over the last twenty years I have read a slew of books on The Historical Jesus. I was already familiar with Pate’s book Communities of the Last Days: The Dead Sea Scrolls, the New Testament & the Story of Israel. It has been a nice addition to my collection of books on the Dead Sea Scrolls. Anyways, given that the publisher has provided a series with 40 questions about a specific topic, Pate covers plenty of ground with his book 40 Questions About the Historical Jesus. Part One is a section on Background Questions about the “Historical” Jesus. For over 100 years, there has been a quest to identify the historical Jesus and differentiate between the Jesus of history and the Jesus of faith

The First Quest Period (1778-1906) operated on the assumption that the historical Jesus is not one and the same with the portrait found in the four Gospels. This was first championed by H. Samuel Reimarus in his article, written anonymously, “On the Aim of Jesus and His Disciples.” For Reimarus, the real Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher whose expectation of the soon arrival of the kingdom of God met with stunning disappointment. Christianity would have died were it not for Jesus’ disciples, who falsely claimed that Jesus arose and preached his future return and establishment of the kingdom of God. Reimarus’ study initiated the first quest for the historical Jesus, a search that spawned the writings of hundreds of books in an attempt to recover the sayings and miracles of the authentic Jesus. A traditional response consisted of conservative accounts of the life of Jesus such as J. J. Hess’ three volumes on The History of the Three Last Years of the Life of Jesus (1768–72). However, this quest also was marked by some who saw the life of Jesus from a liberal, or anti-supernatural, perspective. This was espoused  by Friedrich Schleiermacher, David Friedrich Strauss,  and J. E. Renan,  to name a few. -pg. 40-41.

Also, during the 1920s, Rudolf Bultmann’s form-critical program attempted to fill the void created by the demise of the first quest for the historical Jesus. Form criticism was pioneered by F. L. Schmidt, Martin Dibelius, and Rudolph Bultmann. Schmidt’s The Framework of the Historical Jesus (1919) claimed that the framework of the gospel stories was created by the evangelists for their own purposes and was historically invalid. Martin Dibelius’ From Tradition to Gospel (1934)- pg. 43.

In what is called “The Second Quest Period” (1953-Late 1960’s), It is generally agreed that Ernst Käsemann’s celebrated paper delivered at a Marburg reunion of Bultmann’s former students in 1953, “The Problem of the Historical Jesus,” initiated the second, or new, quest for the historical Jesus. In that paper, Käsemann challenged Bultmann’s radical divide between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith, arguing that the early church held the two together—the exalted and humiliated Lord. To do otherwise was to invite the label of Docetism (the heresy that said that Jesus was divine but not human)- pg. 43.

In  the “Third Quest Period”  (1970 and on), biblical scholars have embarked on what  has been characterized as “the Jewish reclamation of Jesus.” Rather than saying Jesus broke away from Judaism and started Christianity, Jewish scholars studying the New Testament have sought to re-incorporate Jesus within the fold of Judaism. In this study, scholars have placed a great deal of emphasis on the social world of first-century Palestine. The scholars of the Third Quest have rejected the idea that the Jesus of the New Testament was influenced by Hellenic Savior Cults. Since Ben F. Meyer’s insightful study, The Aims of Jesus (1979), a third type of study of the historical Jesus has emerged, that of rooting Jesus in the Jewish culture of his day. Meyer has been followed by both Christian scholars, e.g., E. P. Sanders (Jesus and Judaism, 1985),9 G. Theissen (The Shadow of the Galilean, 1983), James Charlesworth (Jesus Within Judaism, 1988),  and especially N. T. Wright (Jesus and the People of God, 1992 and Jesus and the Victory of God, 1996),  and John P. Meier (A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus; Mentor, Message and Miracles; Companions and Competitor), as well as Jewish scholars like Geza Vermes, whose Jesus the Jew (1973) and Jesus and the World.-pg. 50.

 The Jewish reclamation of Jesus is also a response to The Jesus Seminar. Among the seventy scholars and laypersons that have comprised the Seminar (some are deceased now),  are Robert W. Funk  (co-chair), John Dominic Crossan (co-chair), and Marcus Borg (Oregon State   University). For most of those in the Seminar, there is a dichotomy between the “Jesus of history” and the “Christ of faith.” The “Christ of faith” is seen as a figure of the early church who was elevated to a divine status by the use of early Christian creeds and through the mythological embellishment accounts of the Gospels that were written later.

Pate also mentions that there have been been different views on Jesus. Some have viewed him as an apocalyptic preacher, Gnostic teacher, or Cynic sage. Pate thinks the evidence demonstrates that Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher. However, Jesus is the Messiah who announced the dawning of the kingdom of God in his life and ministry—a kingdom that will be fully unveiled at his parousia- pg. 66-67.

Pate’s next section is about the sources we have for Jesus. He discusses the oral tradition (my favorite chapter), the Old Testament expectations for a coming Messiah, the canonical Gospels, sources outside the New Testament, the Apocrypha and Gnostic Gospels, archaeology, and what I can tell us about Jesus,  Paul as a source for Jesus, etc. I should note that in the chapter on oral tradition, Pate mentions the work of Richard Bauckham and others who have shown the failings of the form criticism model espoused by Rudolph Bultmann and others.  He notes that “the Jesus of history and Christ of faith—are one and the same; this owing to the reliability of the oral tradition that informs our canonical text.”- pg. 111.

The remaining sections/chapters are about the historical life of Jesus. The reader gets to learn about the birth of Jesus, the family of Jesus, the miracles of Jesus, the actual teachings of Jesus, his temptations, transfiguration, his cleansing of the Temple, death, and resurrection, ascension, His message about his return, etc. Pate also gives the reader a snapshot of the Four Gospels by discussing the “main message” of each one.

A book on 40 questions means each chapter is short. But despite the length of the chapters, I think Pate gives the reader some fine starting points to chew on. There are also reflection questions at the end of each chapter. In the end, I would call this book a “comprehensive” treatment on the topic. While this is an excellent starting point for anyone new to the topic, it is also a wonderful resource for those who are looking to add to their collection on the topic.  

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