Review of ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ Part 5 (Finale)

This will wrap up my look at the book Is This Not the Carpenter? edited by Thomas Thompson and Thomas Verenna. You can see my observations of the chapters here:

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4

From those pages, you can see that my assessment of most of the chapters was positive, so now I will give some overall assessment and what I think the value of the volume is.

First off, a fair amount of ground is covered in this one book, from the history of 19th century German scholarship and models for the development of earliest Christianity, to intertextual discussions and non-Christian sources. Fortunately there is a good overall organization. Jim West’s chapter to introduce minimalism does well to basically lay out the approach of the book, applying the methods from OT researchers to the NT. Historical background is also kept in earlier chapters, which serves the introductory purpose for the nature of the volume. It was also probably wise to split the volume on considerations of Paul from the Gospels and other theological works. Ending the volume on how to approach earliest Christianity given Jesus as hypothesis and not necessary for understanding its development was also wise. So, the editors did well on collecting a significant fount of knowledge all relevant to the topic and in a well-organized way. The only chapter that seems to not fit into a place is Lester Grabbe on Jesus outside Christian sources; it doesn’t seem to belong in the history of Jesus scholarship (like Roland Boer’s chapter on 19th century Germans), nor the sections on Paul or the rewriting of Jesus’ life. Perhaps the book needed its own section on just this subject and have two or more chapters, one on Josephus alone, another on Roman sources (and perhaps one on Jewish sources). It would be justified to do that since extra-biblical sources will be a major factor in determining historicity.

Will this volume have an impact on the debate or scholarship in general? It should! Most every chapter either sets in light the debate itself (i.e. Boer, Lemche, Pfoh), advances into a new approach to the texts not well-tried as of yet on the NT (i.e. Thompson, Verenna, Hjelm, Noll), or defends a consensus position (i.e. Lester, Crossley, Mueller). Moreover, the volume should be of use both to those that believe Jesus existed and we can know something about him as well as those that doubt the whole story. There is also dialogue within the volume, most notably when reading Price, Mueller, and Verenna’s chapters together. The book is not taking a position, and the individual chapters do not argue for or against historicity (though Pfoh’s chapter does argue that knowledge of Jesus is pretty much impossible). This means that the book will help create dialogue on the subject rather than battle lines, or at least I hope so. If you are interested in the historical Jesus debate, this book will be of significant interest.

Those that read my review of the chapters will note the only one I found to be weak was Lester Grabbe’s article on non-Christian sources about Jesus. There are books considering individual sources he mentions, so his assessment was too short and limited to have any significant impact on how to assess the evidence. Grabbe probably expresses the mainstream view of what the sources mean to historical Jesus scholars, but he does not do well to show that the mainstream is in the right. Nonetheless, if someone was new to this debate, the chapter is good to know what are the major sources people will point to for non-Christians talking about Jesus.

But the chapter I found the most value in what Thomas Verenna’s. By examining the Pauline corpus in a novel way, along with significant justification for why he tries this approach, this makes the work the most unique of the book’s chapters, and likely to lead to the most debate. Verenna’s chapter is also helped by considering it in dialogue with Mueller’s chapter on Paul and his letters since they have differing conclusions. Here is where the most discussion needs to take place as well, because if Verenna is correct in showing that Paul knows of no historical figure but only a mythical being (and all the assumed mentions of a man Jesus are not as they seem) then that will have the biggest impact on Jesus’ historicity.

There is also much to be argued about. Neil Godfrey had issues with the chapter, and you have to see for yourself if they register. But things that could be argued are the specifics of Paul’s intertextuality or the symbolism of his statements. I think the interpretation of Gal 4:4 can be debated even with Verenna’s approach, for example. The textual integrity of the epistles is also an issue that many of the mythicist camp consider. Are the human-Jesus parts of Paul’s letters interpolated? Discussion is not unwise, but it should not be a go-to for someone wanting to argue Jesus didn’t exist. There is sufficient ambiguity in the passages that we have many avenues to potentially interpret, and Verenna proves that we can and ought to consider these other ways to read Paul. And again, it is almost certainly going to be the case that it will be arguments about Paul’s letters that will make-or-break the historicity of Jesus debate (the considerable arguments between James McGrath and Richard Carrier on Gal 1 and “James, the Lord’s brother” shows this to be the case).

So, I strongly recommend you get this book if you are interested in the debate, either because you want to know about the historicity of Jesus or the history of the scholarly arguments about it. Others have noted there is a significant price tag for the volume, but libraries are getting copies as we speak (and you can request it, then the library will consider getting it). Hopefully a paperback version will come out from Equinox publishing, but that will depend on sales, and even then we may have to wait 6 months/1 year or so. But I have access to a copy, and I am already incorporating it into my own research. So should you! Or get the newest book by Stephen Colbert. Your choice.


5 thoughts on “Review of ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ Part 5 (Finale)

  1. Pingback: On Dracula and Jesus | Fleeing Nergal, Seeking Stars

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  5. Pingback: The Myth of Jesus–My Upcoming Talk | Fleeing Nergal, Seeking Stars

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