The God of Jesus: The Historical Jesus and the Search for Meaning

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Topics: Theology & Religious Education. Ages: Adult. Resource Types: Books.

Review & Commentary

One thought on “The God of Jesus: The Historical Jesus and the Search for Meaning

  1. Review

    Why another book on Jesus? That is a question posed by the author who is a Professor at Eden Theological Seminary (United Church of Christ) in St. Louis, Missouri. During the past decade there has been a flood of books on the "historical Jesus." One might think that everything that could be said about Jesus had been said and more than once! But Patterson makes clear that his book is "not another proposal for reconstructing the life and teachings of the historical Jesus." Rather, his aim is two fold: 1) to "present common Biblical scholarship in a way that would be accessible to persons not conversant with its fine points and jargon" and 2) to "pose an additional question that scholars are less and less willing to pose of their work today: what does it mean? "

    He begins with the question, "Who needs the historical Jesus?" Prior to the nineteenth century no one, including theologians, used the term "the historical Jesus." The term became current when biblical scholars made the distinction between the "historical Jesus" and the "Christ of faith," or to use Marcus Borg’s helpful terms, "the pre-Easter Jesus and the "post-Easter Jesus." The quest for the Jesus of history over the past century, using modern historical methods, has been an attempt to distinguish between what Jesus said and did (the historical Jesus) and what the early Church taught about him (the Christ of faith). Patterson became involved with the Jesus Seminar in 1988, because he became convinced that the "twentieth century Christianity was veering dangerously close to docetism, the idea that Jesus’ historicity is not really important." He insists, "it is important, very important. The idea that we have discovered who God is in a real person, in a human life and destiny, is what connects Christian faith so closely to human life and experience." The focus of his book is a working "toward a reconstruction of the historical impression left by Jesus on his followers" and an asking "what it was about this person, Jesus, and their experience of him, that moved his followers to have faith in him and to say that in him they had come to know God in a deeper and more authentic way." Several times he quotes, with approval, John Dominic Crossan’s definition: "Christian faith is always 1) an act of faith 2) in the historical Jesus 3) as the manifestation of God."

    Patterson begins his reconstruction with a chapter on the biblical and noncanonical sources for a quest of the historical Jesus and a survey of the history of the quest from the late 18th century until today. He agrees with the consensus of Jesus scholars that the Empire of God, which he uses in place of the Kingdom of God, is the Gospel of Jesus. Everything Jesus said and did pointed to the Empire of God as a reality impinging upon the present and calling into question the structures of the "social world that dehumanized and made expendable so many human beings of God’s own making." He devotes three chapters to describing the actions, the counter cultural wisdom and the parables of Jesus which point to the reality of the Empire of God "which is neither future nor assuredly present" but "exists as a potential to be actualized in the decision to live out of its audaciously presumed reality."

    He has a chapter on the death of Jesus and the tragedy of anti-Semitism that can result from a misinterpretation of the event. His concluding chapter on the meaning of the resurrection should be required reading in any discussion of the issue. He writes that "The origin of Christian claims about the resurrection of Jesus was the conviction among his followers that he had been right about God." The first commitment of the early Christians "was to Jesus, his message, his gospel." For latter-day Christians, that Jesus was right depends on whether the resurrection is a historical event. This shift if crucial, for it involves a shift in first commitments: from message to miracle, from gospel to power."

    In his concluding chapter Patterson considers what Jesus believed about God, about human community and about what gives life real meaning. He writes, "Jesus experienced intimately a transcendent quality to experience that was more real, more satisfying, more hopeful than what life — even a successful life — can offer. It is this transcendent quality we call God. Its nature is love. That is what Jesus knew." That is what it is all about! This is an illuminating, provocative, and challenging book.

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