to provide enough historical Jesus study resources to keep readers busy a lifetime.
In my opinion, there are six really exceptional historical Jesus scholars in America* today --
E. P. Sanders (who is agnostic),
Paula Fredriksen (who is Jewish),
Bart Ehrman (now an atheist),
Reza Aslan (who has returned to Islam**),
John P. Meier (a Catholic Christian),
and Dale C. Allison (a Presbyterian Christian).
All these scholars employ excellent historical methodologies in their research, and all are convinced that Jesus was expecting an imminent cataclysmic ending of the present world to be followed by the establishment of God's Kingdom throughout the earth. I am in basic agreement with most of what these scholars say, with one exception:
Four of them reject one matter as not deriving from Jesus, while I think it did. ---Can any of you who have read my novel figure out what that one exception would be?
SPOILER ALERT: I will reveal it below.
* There are also excellent contemporary historical Jesus scholars in Europe (Germany, France, Great Britain, etc.).
** When Aslan produced his historical study of Jesus, a Fox News commentator tried to tell him that he could not credibly examine the historical Jesus because he is a Muslim. Aslan disagreed, stating that because he is a historian, he is committed to objectivity -- so much so that his research compels him to disagree with the Qu'ran's version of Jesus' birth and death (a matter mentioned in my novel). Also, the Islam to which Aslan has returned is, I think, a tolerant form of Sufism.
Note: Aslan's study is interesting, and it is encouraging that he as a Muslim is willing to engage in such an attempt, but he is not of the same scholarly caliber as the other scholars listed above.
HERE ARE SOME 0F THE MOST IMPORTANT WORKS of these six scholars;
John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. 1991-2016 (five volumes so far, with a sixth yet to come!)
E. P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus. 1993.
Also, his Jesus and Judaism, 1985.
Dale C. Allison, Jr., Jesus: Millenarian Prophet. 1998.
[Also, his Constructing Jesus... see below.]
Paula Fredriksen, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews: A Jewish Life and the Emergence of Christianity. 1999.
Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus: Prophet of the New Millenium. 1999.
Reza Aslan, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. 2013.
I can't wait for Meier's final volume, in which he will deal with the really big questions: What was Jesus' view of himself, and how did he regard his death?
Meanwhile, I consider Allison's Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History, 2010, to be a work of major significance, for in it he already deals effectively with those big questions.
Along with the deceased German Lutheran scholar Joachim Jeremias (New Testament Theology, Volume One: The Proclamation of Jesus. 1971), these two scholars, Allison and Meier, have been among the strongest scholarly influences in my life.
-- I am compelled to admit that my novel The Dead Sea Gospel should probably be regarded as nothing more than a sort of introduction intended to whet interest in doing further study. Any of the works listed above could be a good place to start, for they are all intended for a general readership. --However, the works of Meier are extremely detailed and extensive, while Allison's excellent Constructing Jesus might be difficult going for many readers.
As I stated previously, when I consider these exceptionally gifted scholars, especially Meier and Allison, I am forced to regard my own "scholarship" as that of a rank amateur, a neophyte. For that reason, anyone who has doubts about anything that I have said about Jesus will do well to consult the more informed opinions of those highly competent scholars.
In my novel, Brad Chase is critical of a group of scholars he calls The Jesus Forum. In real life, the Forum is based on The Jesus Seminar, a group of strongly skeptical scholars who created quite a stir several years ago.
Here is a list of some of the most noted of their historical Jesus works:
John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (1991).
Also his easier-to-read Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (1994).
Robert W. Funk†, Honest to Jesus: Jesus For a New Millennium (1996).
Stephen J. Patterson, Beyond The Passion: Rethinking the Death and the Life of Jesus (2004).
Marcus J. Borg†, Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary (2006).
One of the most prominent of these scholars is John Dominic Crossan, whose 1991 book caused quite a sensation. I will here indicate a few criticisms I have of that book:
Although Crossan's effort claims to be a major work on the historical Jesus, it does not offer a single reference linking Jesus' teachings to anything in the entire Book of Isaiah, a fact I find not only astounding but illustrative of a regrettable tendency of several Seminar scholars to sever Jesus from his Jewish roots , even while claiming to be doing exactly the opposite by emphasizing his Jewishness.
Two more criticisms: At the beginning of his 1991 book, Crossan cites a Gospel of Thomas saying: "Split a piece of wood, and I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there," as if it were an authentic saying of Jesus, yet Crossan's own analysis accords that saying no authenticity at all (p. 504). That, and his claim that even during peacetime, the Roman occupiers of Judea could flout Deuteronomy 21:22-23 by allowing the dead body of a crucified Jew named Jesus to be eaten by dogs(!) suggests that Crossan sometimes goes in for the sensational.
But my main criticism of the Jesus Seminar scholars is that it seems to me they often make the same mistake that was made by many historical Jesus scholars of the nineteenth century: They tend to read themselves into Jesus and thus "discover" the kind of Jesus they are hoping to find. (To his credit, Borg admits as much in The Apocalyptic Jesus , p. 118, see below). For that reason, much of the Seminar's scholarship, when seen against the works of the six scholars I listed above, strikes me as superficial and shallow by comparison -- a terrible criticism to lodge against any scholar, but that is how I see it.
A VERY INTERESTING book is The Apocalyptic Jesus: A Debate (2001, edited by Robert J. Miller), for it presents debates between Dale C. Allison, who is convinced that Jesus was strongly influenced by Jewish apocalyptic thinking, and three Jesus Seminar scholars, Marcus J. Borg, John Dominic Crossan, and Stephen J. Patterson, who argue that Jesus thought of God's Kingdom as already present.
Three against one!
In my opinion, Allison handily wins the discussion.
BEFORE I go any further, I want to say that although I strongly disagree with the Jesus Seminar scholars regarding many of their views of the historical Jesus, I find myself in much agreement with their social and political stances. Also, I recently re-read Borg's Jesus: Uncovering the Life... and found much in it that I like. I even found his view of Jesus as a non-apocalyptic wisdom teacher to be intriguing, though I do not agree with him on that particular.
You might want to read my novel before reading
I'M NOW going to reveal the subject wherein I disagree with numerous scholars, both of the Jesus Seminar, and even some of the scholars I value most.
FIRST, the Jesus Seminar scholars:
All the Seminar scholars listed above deny many of the claims which the gospels make about Jesus, holding that those claims were not part of his original teachings or activities, but were added later by the church. Those scholars do not think that Jesus believed himself to be, or ever claimed to be, the messianic Son of God or the Son of Man who soon would come with clouds of heaven to rule Israel and the world. Nor do they think that Jesus selected twelve special disciples who, he said, would occupy thrones with him in the coming Kingdom. All these claims, and more, the Seminar scholars do not regard as going back to Jesus himself -- and they are even more adamant that Jesus never said that he would die any kind of a sacrificial death.
I must disagree. As I state in my novel, I think it highly likely that Jesus did see his death as having some sort of beneficial sacrificial significance, and one major reason for my thinking that is Mark's narrative of Jesus' agonized struggle in Gethsemane (14:32-42), which I find historically convincing.
Crossan and Borg do not. I have heard Crossan publicly state that he does not consider the Gethsemane narrative to be the least bit historical, and I once heard Borg unequivocally tell an audience that Mark's Gethsemane scene cannot be authentic because “Jesus' disciples were too far away* to hear what he was praying, and besides, they were asleep.” [*but see Mark 14:35]
Patterson agrees: "How can we know what Jesus said? ...the only witnesses, the disciples, were asleep," Beyond the Passion, pp. 6-7
Funk, too, emphasizes the inability of Jesus' disciples "even to stay awake during his prayers in the garden," prayers which, Funk says, "many scholars identify as intrusive---out of place---” [that is to say, artificially inserted into the story], Honest to Jesus, pp. 230, 240.
IT IS CLEAR, then, that not a one of these four Seminar scholars regards Mark's Gethsemane narrative as having any historical veracity at all.
MOREOVER, EVEN WHEN WE TURN to the six scholars I most highly value, it becomes clear that four of them also reject the historicity of Jesus' Gethsemane struggle:
Bart Ehrman and Reza Aslan consider Gethsemane to be no more than the place where, after a meal with his disciples, Jesus went to "hide out" (Aslan) until his opponents came to to arrest him, whereupon some of his followers put up a brief but futile armed resistance before abandoning him and fleeing away (Apocalyptic Prophet, pp. 216, 219; Zealot, pp. 78, 146).
Paula Fredriksen, too, considers the garden to be simply the place where Jesus was arrested (Jesus of Nazareth, pp. 257-258).
E. P. Sanders thinks it "probable" that Jesus was aware that he was facing death, and that he may have hoped God would intervene to spare him from execution. "In any case he did not flee. He went to the Mount of Olives to pray and to wait -- to wait for the reaction of the authorities and the possible intervention of God." Jesus' prayer to be spared, while "reasonable," took place, Sanders says, "completely privately" (Historical Figure, p. 264).
THUS, FOUR OF THE SCHOLARS I MOST HIGHLY VALUE reject the historicity of Jesus' struggle in Gethsemane, and they do that because they are convinced that any claim that Jesus was expecting to die a redemptive death is an inauthentic addition to the Jesus story put forward by later believers in their attempt to explain why the Messiah had to die, an idea totally repugnant to Jewish sensibilities.
Paula Fredriksen (King of the Jews, pp. 293-294) joins with E. P. Sanders in firmly emphasizing this. She thinks that Pilate's action against Jesus "caught him by surprise" -- an opinion which, she acknowledges, "is not universally shared." The British scholar N. T. Wright, she points out, thinks that Jesus "went to Jerusalem to die [believing that] the messianic woes were about to burst upon Israel, and that he had to take them upon himself, solo" [Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 1996, p. 609].
Fredriksen strongly disagrees: "Against this point of view," she says, "I can argue no more eloquently than Sanders who notes,
'All the sayings which attribute to Jesus the will to die correspond so closely with what happened, and with early Christian doctrine, that the case for their creation by the early church is overwhelmingly strong... One might as well attribute to Jesus the doctrine of the Trinity or of the Incarnation. Further, a historian must be uncomfortable with an explanation which leaves other actors in the drama out of account. When pushed to its limit, this view means that Jesus determined in his own mind to be killed...[and] then imply that he pulled this off by provoking the authorities. It is not historically impossible that Jesus was weird, and I realize that my own [apocalyptic] interpretation of his views may make some twentieth century people look at him askance. But the view that he planned his own redemptive death makes him strange in any century and thrusts the entire drama into his peculiar inner psyche. The other things we know abut him make him a reasonable first-century visionary. We should be guided by them'" [Jesus and Judaism, pp. 332-333].
And to that statement, Fredriksen adds a fervent, "Amen."
ANYONE WHO HAS READ MY NOVEL knows that in it I frequently express my conviction that Mark's Gethsemane scene reflects genuine history when it depicts Jesus' agony in the garden. At this point, however, I want to appeal to the scholarship of Dale Allison whose Constructing Jesus (2010) is one of the more important contributions to current Jesus studies. As Paula Fredriksen observes, the book should be "required reading for ... anyone who wants to understand where this most recent phase of the [historical Jesus] Quest has led us. Once I started, I could not put it down--nor could I stop thinking about its arguments once I finished. This is an important work."
--book jacket blurb [NOTE: I do not know whether Fredriksen's comment indicates that Allison may have caused her to reconsider her position on how Jesus may have viewed his death.]
AFTER A METICULOUS EXAMINATION OF THE NEW TESTAMENT EVIDENCE, Allison concludes that Jesus did expect to be put to death, believing it was God's will that he would die in order to bring about some great good for Israel and the world.
As for Gethsemane, Allison thinks it quite possible that Jesus may have said the words attributed to him: "The standard argument ... that the disciples could not have heard or observed anything in the garden because they were asleep, has always struck me as less than decisive, even lame.... If Jesus and a few of his disciples really went to Gethsemane, did all but Jesus irresistibly fall into slumber the second they entered the place?" (p. 427).
Allison finds abundant NT evidence that "Jesus did not run from his death or otherwise resist it. On the contrary, anticipating his cruel end, he submitted to it, trusting that his unhappy fate was somehow for the good.... Jesus' decision to die, whenever made and whatever the motivation and whatever his precise interpretation, left a vivid impression [in the memory of his disciples]. Indeed, next to the fact that Jesus was crucified by order of Pontius Pilate, his acquiescence to his fate is probably the best-attested fact about his last days. At some point, he determined to assent to his miserable end, accepting it as the will of God" (pp. 432,433).
THOSE ARE STRONG ASSERTIONS, and Allison as a historian is careful to point out that although Christians may feel encouraged by his scholarly finding that Jesus "did not run from death," such a conclusion, Allison cautions, "hardly constitutes a theory of the atonement. To do history is not to do theology" (p. 462).
I agree. It would be anachronistic to read the atonement thinking of Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Luther, or even of Paul back into the mind of Jesus. Still, we are left to wonder how the historical Jesus could have come to an idea so unexpected and so repulsive to the thinking of his Jewish contemporaries. How could he have come to expect that the "mighty one," predicted by John the Baptist, would have to suffer and die? How could he have come to think that the glorious Son of Man who was expected to arrive with the clouds of heaven, would end up having "no place to lay his head," and be mocked as "a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of sinners," -- a reprobate considered so irredeemably profligate as to deserve death by stoning [Deuteronomy 21:20-21]? How could Jesus have come to expect that he, as the Son of Man destined to receive power, dominion, glory, and honor, and be served by all the nations, would end up dying horribly as servant to the nations? And why was Jesus so utterly convinced that it was his loving heavenly Father's "will" that this should happen to him, that he submitted to the Father's will even when he did not want to?
Those questions and more I have tried to answer in the concluding chapters of my novel, and I have been encouraged by some of the responses to those chapters that I have received from two very different sorts of readers:
First, I am glad to hear from some skeptics, agnostics, and even atheists that my depiction of Jesus has convinced them that he really did exist, and caused them to want to reexamine their thinking about him. That delights me. I am even more delighted to learn that some are expressing an interest in doing further study.
Second, because I have attempted to provide honesty -- one might even say brutal honesty -- concerning some of the more human limitations and mistaken expectations of Jesus, I have been worried that such honesty might cause difficulties for people of faith. For that reason, I was deeply grateful to receive the following response from a believer :
I want to mention that your work, The Dead Sea Gospel, genuinely impacted my life with its theologies and perspectives on the historical Jesus. In fact I can't stop thinking about it, and thoughts of it influence and abide in my Lenten reflections. In sum, I find it liberating -- in no way damaging my faith, but rather enhancing it. Thank you! Your book is a gift. I feel indebted to you. --Linda Thomas
That same person later sent in this review to Amazon:
James Boswell's scholarly presentation of the historical Jesus, inserted in storytelling in his novel, is stunning. His Jesus is radically incarnate, thoroughly and even limitedly human!
I find my faith strengthened, not lessened by that fact.
And, paradoxically, as I encounter Boswell's Jesus emerging in such (human) form, I find myself grasping and embracing the idea and mystery of atonement as never before!
This remarkable novel ... has actually renewed my faith and contributed to my spiritual understanding of Jesus.
I am gladdened and humbled by such responses, whether from skeptics or believers.
It is possible that a nascent scholarly consensus could now be forming that the historical Jesus may himself have regarded his death as having redemptive significance. While we are still waiting to get John P. Meier's opinion on this, we already have Dale Allison's careful analysis in his Constructing Jesus, which seems headed in that direction. Also, the Jewish scholar Amy-Jill Levine has stated that it is "quite likely" that Jesus himself was influenced by "Isaiah's Suffering Servant songs, particularly Isaiah 53." (The Historical Jesus in Context, edited by Levine, Allison, and Crossan. 2006, p. 37.)
In an intriguing interview for a Catholic magazine ("A Jewish take on Jesus: Amy-Jill Levine talks the gospels"), Levine, when asked "If you were to meet Jesus [today], what questions would you have for him?" replies that she would want to ask him whether, as he was dying on the cross, he thought that he was completely "bereft" (abandoned, forsaken by God), or "Did he feel that in his death he was saving his people as an ultimate martyr? Was he [still] convinced of the power of the resurrection? What was he thinking? And what would he want us to do with what he was thinking?" [emphasis added].
That, I think, is the profound question for all who study the historical Jesus today.