The Historical Jesus for Beginners, A Primer of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship

The last few decades have seen a resurgence of the scholarly quest for the historical Jesus–for the words and deeds that probably can be attributed to the human Jesus who walked the hills of Galilee some two thousand years ago. You might not be aware of the recent scholarship, and the reason is simple. For the most part, many scholars write for and talk to other scholars, using their own technical language. This leaves huge numbers of Christians unaware of their discoveries. So even though you may have studied the Bible for years, you still may be a historical Jesus beginner.

After the life of Jesus, his followers began to develop their memory of his sayings and actions. Then, year after year, and century after century, the tradition grew until it became Christianity as it is known in the twenty-first century. What if we could go back in time and delve under all the layers to find what Christianity would be if it were based upon the historical Jesus? If you are a person who would like to begin to be informed, this book is for you.

“This very helpful book delivers what it promises and more. It combines a lucid introduction to the basics of historical Jesus scholarship with extended excerpts from several of todays’ scholars, thus putting the reader in touch with a number of voices. And more: it explores the implications of Jesus scholarship for those to whom it matters most, namely, Christians and churches in our time. Recommended not only for beginners, but also for those who already have some familiarity with this fascinating and important subject.”
– Marcus J. Borg, Hundere Distinguished Professor of Religion and Culture, Oregon State University

“Among the cacophony of voices surrounding the latest phase in the quest for the historical Jesus, Bill Linden is the thinking-person’s guide to the heart of the matter. He knows the literature, the personalities, and the issues, and he knows how to focus our attention on what really counts in the larger scheme of things. If you’re interested in the historical Jesus, but  don’t know where to start, start here.”
—Stephen Patterson
Professor of New Testament, Eden Seminary, St. Louis, Missouri

Review & Commentary

2 thoughts on “The Historical Jesus for Beginners, A Primer of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship

  1. Review

    The last few decades have seen a resurgence of the scholarly quest for the historical Jesus-for the words and deeds that probably can be attributed to the human Jesus who walked the hills of Galilee some two thousand years ago. You might not be aware of the recent scholarship, and the reason is simple. For the most part, many scholars write for and talk to other scholars, using their own technical language. This leaves huge numbers of Christians unaware of their discoveries. So even though you may have studied the Bible for years, you still may be a historical Jesus beginner.

    In his concluding chapter, the author states that, “Originally I had intended to confine this book to the historical Jesus alone…. However, Christianity cannot be based solely upon the historical Jesus.” Originally, Christianity consisted of the memory of the historical Jesus and the interpretation of his life after his death which was called the Christ of faith. The author stresses that a “re-visioned Christianity must have a re-visioned Christ of faith” but that we substitute “the Spirit of the historical Jesus” for the Christ of faith. He writes, “I suggest there was a certain Godly spirit that enveloped and permeated the historical Jesus that attracted his followers. That spirit lived on after his death.

  2. Review

    In 1987 I was a beginner when I read Jesus: A New Vision: Spirit, Culture, and the Life of Discipleship by Marcus Borg. His book was an early presentation of the contemporary scholarly quest for the historical Jesus. It marked, for me, the beginning of a journey of understanding the historical Jesus and the Christian life in a radically new way. Beginners, who read Linden’s book, are most likely to have a similar illuminating experience. He is chairman of the board of directors of The Foundation for Contemporary Theology. A retired partner of the law firm of Vinson & Elkins, LLP, he holds a Postgraduate Diploma in theology from Oxford University. He describes his book as containing “a group of readings for members of the general public who are just beginning to learn about the academic analysis of the Christian Gospels.”

    In a preface the author shares the story of his experiences at The Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in Houston, Texas, which he believes “could be one possible model for what a church might be if it encapsulates and follows many of the teachings and the life of the historical Jesus.” Although his quest for the historical Jesus began long after most of his time at the Church, he found that his experiences at the Church were reflective of “what he later learned about the historical Jesus.” Pointing out that the focus of the message of Jesus was the Kingdom of God, he writes that “The community at the Church of The Redeemer was that kind of place where we glimpsed the Kingdom of God.”

    He describes the historical Jesus as “a collection of the words and deeds that probably can be attributed to the human Jesus who walked the hills of Galilee some two-thousand years ago.” He explains that this term is helpful in distinguishing between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith which focuses on the meaning of the life and death of Jesus expressed in the New Testament and formulated in the creeds and doctrines of the Church.

    He presents the basics of contemporary Biblical scholarship which is the source of the quest for the historical Jesus. Describing the Bible as a human document which is a combination of history and interpretation, he examines the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke as sources of portraits of the historical Jesus. He devotes a chapter to describing the task of isolating the words and deeds of pre-Easter Jesus in these Gospels, from the post-Easter Jesus voices of interpretation, which originated in early Christian communities.

    He then presents four sketches of the historical Jesus drawn by four scholars, Robert W. Funk, Marcus Borg, Marvin F. Cain, and John Dominic Crossan. He makes the point that although the sketches “are not identical they certainly do have much in common. It brings richness to our vision to see the historical Jesus from these four points of view.” A sampling of the sketches reveal the historical Jesus as “a comic savant, a “word wizard,” “the proverbial party animal,” “a spirit person and mediator of the sacred,” “a teacher of wisdom,” a social prophet,” “a movement founder,” “a revolutionary teacher in parables and aphorism focused on what he called the Kingdom of God,”, a prophet of “egalitarian sharing of spiritual and material power at the most grassroots level”

    The author then turns to the question of the relevance of the quest for the historical Jesus for the Church. He uses, as a resource, a book by Bishop John Shelby Spong, Why Christianity Must Change or Die. The thesis of the book is that the central problem facing the Church today, both in America and Northern Europe, is how Christianity can be expressed to comport with modern scientific knowledge. The author proposes that one of the changes in Christianity that can be made is a re-visioning of the Christian Church based upon what has been discovered by the quest for the historical Jesus. He uses the work of Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover, Charles W. Hedrick, Stephen J. Patterson, and Marcus J. Borg to illuminate this re-visioning.

    In his concluding chapter, the author states that, “Originally I had intended to confine this book to the historical Jesus alone…. However, Christianity cannot be based solely upon the historical Jesus.” Originally, Christianity consisted of the memory of the historical Jesus and the interpretation of his life after his death which was called the Christ of faith. The author stresses that a “re-visioned Christianity must have a re-visioned Christ of faith” but that we substitute “the Spirit of the historical Jesus” for the Christ of faith. He writes, “I suggest there was a certain Godly spirit that enveloped and permeated the historical Jesus that attracted his followers. That spirit lived on after his death.” He believes that the Gospel of John, which is not considered a source for the historical Jesus, is a prime example of this combination. He finds this understanding of the Spirit of Jesus in the Eucharist in Christian churches.

    This comprehensive and compelling book is a masterful primer of the historical Jesus for beginners. But is also a valuable resource for those who have been on the journey for some years.

or, use the form below to post a comment or a review!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

* Copy This Password *

* Type Or Paste Password Here *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>