After a long wait, the library here got their copy of a new book about the historicity of Jesus by professionals called Is This Not the Carpenter? by Thomas L. Thompson and Thomas S. Verenna.
Unlike other books about the historical existence of Jesus, such as the works of Earl Doherty, this volume of essays does not try to conclude if Jesus was a real man or not. Instead, this is an attempt to look at the evidence and try to approach the subject in a fresh way without a historical Jesus as an assumption or necessary conclusion. And after three quests for the historical Jesus, it’s what we need!
I won’t review all the book now, but a few chapters at a time and in no particular order. I will start off with the chapters by Thomas Verenna and James Crossley. Why these chapters? Tom deals with Paul, our earliest biblical source about Jesus, while James deals with the Gospel of John, one of the latest, and both consider how useful these sources are for finding the historical Jesus.
First off with Tom’s chapter on Paul we are given an overview of the literary concepts of mimesis and intertextuality. This has been a fairly hot topic in Gospel studied recently, such as with Dennis MacDonald on Mark and Homeric literature, but here those methods are turned to Paul’s letters. The argument here is about Paul’s dependence on the Old Testament.
Now that may not sound novel. Obviously Paul, a Jew, will find solace in the Hebrew Scriptures. But Tom’s point is that all his knowledge of Jesus is couched in literary terms from the OT, and the apparent biographical details of Jesus are nothing of the sort. His best case probably is with respect to Galatians 4:4 which states Jesus was “born of woman, born under the law.” Most commenters just see here a confirmation of Jesus’ humanity, but Tom notes the much greater context of the letter. Paul has put Jesus into a metaphor about the wives of Abraham which Paul uses to delineate a concept of those who are saved and who are not. Under one woman, there is bondage/slaver, under another is salvation. So when Paul talks about Jesus being born of woman, he isn’t giving us biological information (and besides, who isn’t born of a woman?), but instead it is all a part of the greater narrative Paul is creating. Similarly with Jesus being born “under the law.”
Tom applies this methodology to other passages, such as Romans 1:3, the Eucharist from 1 Corinthians 11:23-6, and other places, along with considerations of the hellenized social context. This sort of approach has considerable value, and I think it does the works of Paul more justice than past research that does more proof-texting for a conclusion than the greater contextual situation.
To mix it up, Tom’s chapter has an opposing conclusion as the previous chapter in the volume by Mogens Mueller who calls Paul the oldest witness to the historical Jesus. So there is dialogue to be had just from this volume. I would also point to the complimentary work from Gerd Luedemann in Sources of the Jesus Tradition who also considers the value of Paul in knowing anything about the historical Jesus (or even his existence). I should point out that Tom does not argue that Jesus didn’t exist, just that for Paul Jesus was a mythical being known through revelation and scripture. That’s a more modest proposal, but it certainly will affect the probability of historicity. How that plays out will need further argument.
Part of that is to see how well intertextuality can explain all the details in Paul’s epistles. I’m not convinced at this point about the interpretation of Rom 1:3 in part because it is generally thought of as a pre-Pauline creedal statement, so if Paul in bringing in other materials it may not fit necessarily into his approach to interpreting scripture. Then again, I have been wondering how well this bit of creed fits into Paul’s letter to the Romans at all, but that I will save for another time.
Nonetheless, I think Paul scholars need to seriously consider the approach Tom has brought to the letters; it seems very fruitful, and it will probably help uncover more about the intellectual context of the first Christians than previous methods. Maybe it means we loose sight of the ‘real’ Jesus, but we should not bias our results to make sure our favorite historical figure turns out as expected.
Moving on to James’ chapter on the Gospel of John, it has what first got me as a clever title. When he says he will defend a “traditional view”, it made me realize there was a bit of a pun here, since James is actually talking about the traditional view of G.John not being useful to understanding the historical Jesus. In many ways the chapter is an examination of the efforts of Richard Bauckham about eyewitness testimony and the Gospels. James also gets to the heart of the push for making John part of the quest for Jesus, that there appears to be a drive for having our miraculous cake and eating it too. The chapter is useful for summarizing Bauckham’s main points, especially about getting the ‘gist’ of a story from witnesses (something that also seems to come up recently in Dale Allison’s Constructing Jesus).
Nonetheless, James shows the difficulty in using John as a source even if he did have eyewitness testimony at times (and that is far less than certain). He also points out that the methods involved seem to suggest that the results about the historical Jesus comes from analysis of the Synoptic Gospels but then gets corrected by a later tradition found in John, making John less a source than something to get us to a Jesus fitting later traditions and theologies.
James is sympathetic to the Johannine chronology, though not explicitly supporting or refuting it, and there may be something to it, but my own research makes me think it’s given weight because of the failures of the Synoptic tradition to match to a Passover date which is based on astronomical calculations (the calculations are fine, but there are assumptions that exclude dates compatible with the Synoptic tradition that are not justified, such as the Passover having to happen on the first full moon after the equinox). James also notes that there may be a glimmer of reality in things such as the events of Bethsaida, not that anything in particular happened there according to John, just that it was an important town initially for the Christian message; but that is really, really weak tea, and even that could be due to it being important after Jesus’ death (assuming historicity). So overall, James comes down against the general utility of John as a source for the historical Jesus. And I say it is more than a modernist assumption, but the best one with all the evidence we have, even given the efforts of people lick Bauckham.
I’ll review more chapters at a later time, but here we can already see the utility of the volume. I actually wanted the book in large part because of Tom’s chapter about Paul, and it is worth getting. The other chapters are becoming more obviously useful to my own research and to the project of either determining if Jesus was a historical figure or not, and if so perhaps determining anything about him. I can already say, this volume is worth having in a library that cares about historical biblical criticism. But I’ll save an overall rating for later.