Saturday, October 28, 2006

The Jesus Debate: Modern Historians Investigate the Life of Christ by Mark Allan Powell

Well my alternating fiction/non-fiction hasn't quite worked so far but I've been getting through this one in sections in between my tromp through novels. I have a very (at times worryingly) large collection of books from my undergraduate theology and religious studies degree; all of which I love and cannot bear to part with. My academic personality is most definitely schizophrenic - fully involved with my current career in higher education policy, wistfully longing for my days as a scholar of religions and drifting off into sexology on occasion.....

I should, at this point, lay my cards on the table and state that I am not a Christian in any way shape or form. I do, however, have a great interest in Christianity from a historical and sociological perspective - hence why I took a religious studies degree and still read about Christianity now.

Anyway, I remember enjoying this book immensely when I took a module on 'The Historical Jesus' with wonderful Professor Elliot who had proper professor wispy white hair and taught in his academic robe (for those who don't know me, I'm only 26 so that was very unusual!). The book is a neutral point of view survey of the developments over last few decades in the theories of who the historical person of Jesus actually was. Back in the early 19th century many historians declared that Jesus as a historical figure never existed which, even at the time must have seemed ridiculous, as there is more documentary evidence for him than for Julius Caesar - from Christian and non-Christian sources.

Since those heady days of denial the debate has most definitely moved on a fair bit although no real consensus has emerged. The book gives a summary of six of the 'biggest' readings of the historical Jesus that are floating around today - including that of the much vaunted 'Jesus Seminar'.

I like reading about the historical origins of Christianity. A fair proportion of Christians pay no attention to the 'historical' Jesus as they say that their relationship is with the post-Easter, eternal Jesus - fair enough. Another proportion, who take the Bible as the unerring, divine account of events would find the research into the historical Jesus as either blasphemous or extremely worrying as it treats the Bible as a historical source document pretty much like any other and therefore in need of scrutiny not blind acceptance. Many of the scholars of the historical Jesus are committed Christians and therefore do not find the process of picking apart the Bible - investigating how it was written, by whom, and how it was put together, as well as looking at sources that didn't make it - disturbing in the slightest, but actually help them understand their faith.

A wide range of 'Jesuses' (?) are put forward from a totally Hellenised Cynic philosopher with no interest in the supernatural; to a totally Jewish eschatological prophet interested in the political overthrow of the Roman authorities and the restoration of the true Israel. Each theory uses a slightly different set of criteria to decide which pieces of evidence can be deemed 'authentic' which often lead to radically different tellings of the story. Ultimately I think all the 'Jesuses' are interesting to both the Christian and the non-Christian reader. As a Christian who Jesus actually was does (in my humble opinion) matter - if you believe he had to become truly human to take on the sins of humanity. As a non-Christian, Jesus has to be one of the most influential historical figures of all time - just look what has been done, both good and bad, in his name.

All the way through the story of the 'Quest for the Historical Jesus' and the 'Jesuses' presented by current scholars the book is constantly pointing at a sub-narrative - there must have been something about this man that was special, for his memory to last so vividly and have an impact 2000 years after his death. Other Jewish prophets (and prophets of other religions) came and went..... why do we not, for instance, have a world religion based on the teachings of John the Baptist? What was it about Jesus (and Mohammend, and Buddha) that meant his image - no matter how distorted from what he was like as an earthly figure - remains a subject of both veneration and inquiry.

I am perfectly happy to accept among my Christian friends those whose faith is satisfied by a basic acceptance of the tenets of Christianity and supplemented by a personal relationship with God - they have no need of this book. But for those who wish to know who their God was whilst he was on this Earth this is a great way to start and will lead them on into an understanding of how, when and by whom the Bible was written.

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