BOOKS READ JULY 2019
John Dickson: The Christ Files: How Historians Know What They Know About Jesus, Sydney, Bluebottle Books, 2000
Australian John Dickson is an outstanding historian and theologian who manages to say more things in fewer words than any other person I have read. He also manages to communicate without using too much long and inscrutable vocabulary. In just 100 pages Dickson deals succinctly with:
- types of historical scholarship In New Testament studies (the sceptical, the apologetic and the mainstream….The mainstream historians publish in reputable journals open to the criticism and review by their academic and trained peers; such sources are our best guide.
- The references to Jesus in pagan writers ..giving precise detail and analysis of the comments by Josephus, Thallos, Mara bar Serapion, Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, Suetonius, Lucian of Samosata and Celsus.
- The references to Jesus in early Jewish writers – helpful detail about the comments by Josephus, the Talmud, (baraitha Sanhedrin 43 a-b and baraitha Shabbat 104b) and a summary of the Jewish understanding of Jesus (quite detailed when you see the list altogether on p 31f).
- The sources and historical veracity of the New Testament Gospel materials including a very balanced discussion of the priority of Mark and the possible existence of “Q”. This chapter includes a very useful discussion of how a historian goes about the task of weighing up the value a variety of independent historical sources within and behind the New Testament. This analysis included the criteria of coherence, dissimilarity, archaic style (the Gospels were written in Greek, but Jesus spoke Aramaic); the criteria of embarrassment, memorability and date.
- A discussion about Jesus in oral tradition…”Jesus Remembered.” (the title of a useful book by James Dunn). This chapter contains very instructive analysis of two parables of the same story and comments on the differences within them and the possible reasons for the differences.
- A discussion about the background context for the study of Jesus. Obvious candidates here are the Jewish Tanakh (The Old Testament); the Dead Sea Scrolls; the Mishnah; Josephus; Old Testament Pseudopigrapha; Graeco-Roman writers; Archaeology (especially the last 25 years); and the so-called Secret Gospels.
John Dickson concludes in part with this sentence: … I suspect one of the reasons we modern people avoid discussing Jesus and the Gospels is that our last brush with these topics was simplistic and shallow. Sometimes this is because we were six years old when we last gave consideration to Jesus ‘meek and mild’. Other times it is because the Christians we have encountered talked about their faith in facile and unreflective ways. But the Gospels surely deserve a second look!…the influence of Jesus is incalculable..the Gospels were composed after a very sophisticated process of eyewitness reporting, oral traditioning, source examination and critical reflection…tor these reasons and more, the Gospels deserve to be read seriously by believers and unbelievers, scholars and laymen alike. 5 stars and rising!
N T Wright: The Challenge of Jesus: Second Edition, London, SPCK, 2015 (1st edition 2000)
In his new preface to this edition Tom Wright reminds us that in January 1999, nobody imagined..what would happen less than three years later, as planes smashed into buildings and the world changed forever. The Western world , and the Western Church, was embarrassingly unprepared not just for the terrible and wicked deeds of September 11, 2001 but for the world-view challenges that it offered. For far too long, Western Christianity had believed, at least implicitly, that religion and politics were two such separate things that one didn’t really need to think too hard about how they might engage with one another. The reaction to the atrocity was then predictable: meet fire with fire…into this strange, dark new world, we urgently need new light. Jesus of Nazareth brought that light a long time ago. The world, and the Church, has found it too dazzling, and we have done our best to cover it up, talking busily about a private spirituality in the present and a ‘heavenly’ salvation. But when Jesus taught us to pray that God’s Kingdom would come, and God’s will would be done, on earth as in heaven, he actually meant it. (p.ix)
Wright’s solution to this problem is to challenge his readers to think historically about Jesus of Nazareth not theologically. He writes about Jesus as a historian not as a systematic theologian or a Biblical literature theorist. The result is indeed a fresh and startling book although careful readers of his foundational works Jesus and the Victory of God and The New Testament and the People of God, and The Resurrection of the Son of God will be familiar with much of the detail of the defence of these ideas. What has changed from the first edition, apart from the new Preface, is not the content of the first edition but the context …The Western world is rapidly moving into a non-Christian, not to say anti-Christian understanding as the modernist world disintegrates and the post-modern replacement drifts in fits and starts on every vaporous current of ideas that flits past us, bur remorselessly always in a non-Christian direction in a google-saturated world. In this environment Wright calls us not just to be kingdom announcers, modelling the new way of being human, we are also to be cross-bearers. This is a strange and dark theme which is also our birthright as followers of Jesus. (p145). …It is a matter of sharing and bearing the pain and puzzlement of the world, so that the crucified love of God in Christ may be brought to bear healingly upon the world…(p146)…we are cracked vessels full of glory, wounded healers. (p149).
The essence of Wright’s argument about Jesus is summed up neatly in chapter 4 “The crucified Messiah”. Of course we understand that Jesus was a prophet announcing the coming of the Kingdom of God. (Unless you are a disciple of John Crossan’s theory of Jesus the Galilean peasant who was a spinner of whimsical and gnostic tales). But Jesus was far more than a prophet. His teaching (when it is not stripped bare by inadequate, faulty and unsubstantiated mid C20th modernist criticism which reduces his message to a bare thread), is unique, powerful, cutting, incisive and life changing and demonstrates that Jesus was a theologian…a theologian of huge originality and power. But of course, there is more! Was Jesus the Son of God? people ask and Wright’s answer is that this is the wrong question. We cannot study Jesus’s psychology but we can study what he says about his vocation. When we do we quickly learn that Jesus regarded himself at the embodiment of the Jewish Messiah…the longed hoped for saviour of the Jewish people who would free them from exile and slavery.
Analysis of second temple Jewish literature shows that large numbers of Jews in the C1st A.D. were longing for their deliverer to come in power, overcome the Romans and bring in the long awaited and prophesied kingdom of God. The Gospels show that Jesus did indeed believe himself to be the Messiah but a very different Messiah from the one the Jewish community was looking for. He was a servant Messiah not a warrior Messiah. Jesus’ violent acts in the temple, his warnings about the coming destruction of the temple, his authoritative offer of forgiveness of sins replacing temple offerings, his parables of the landlord’s son coming to claim ownership and getting killed, his announcements in the Nazareth synagogue when he invoked Isaiah’s prophecy as his task, his courageous establishment of a new covenant in his crucified body and blood and much more besides clearly shows us that Jesus knew quite clearly and determinedly who we was. To ask “did Jesus know he was God?” is the wrong question. Jesus’s vocation was to be God’s Messiah and he knew from Isaiah that the task would involve his death. Of course this is why Jesus’ disciples were so despondent after Jesus’ crucifixion.
As for the resurrection, Wright argues again historically and not theoretically or theologically. He notes there is no evidence for a form of early Christianity in which the resurrection was not the central belief. Wright moves on to show what resurrection belief was not. It was not some sort of “ultimate non-physical bliss” as seen in Philo’s account; nor was it some sort of disembodied existence in some heavenly state as in the apocryphal Book of Wisdom. Wright demonstrates that from the prophecy of Ezekiel 37 and Jeremiah onwards there was a sense in which “resurrection” would mean Israel’s return from exile and the renewal of their covenant in the inauguration of a new age. (p101). For the Jews who did believe in the resurrection (and there were many who did not eg the Sadducees) their view of resurrection was a reembodiment of God’s chosen people… believing Jews – an event for all true Jewish believers. As Wright notes, the early Christian notion of the resurrection of just one person, the Messiah (Jesus or any other Messiah), was nowhere on the second Temple Jewish wavelength. For just one person to be resurrected was a very singular and peculiar thing indeed. The Christian claim that, apart from the earliest appearances noted in 1 Corinthians 15, believers came to know to know the risen Jesus in the breaking of bread and in a sense of the power of the Holy Spirit was also a completely new deal although clearly foretold in Jeremiah’s prophecy. (p107) Of course Paul did go further and write about the eventual “resurrection body” in the future and here Wright explicates well the problems of the RSV and NRSV use of the terms the “spiritual” and the “physical” body and moves us again towards the notion of a renewed kingdom of God on a recreated and redeemed earth.
As I write this I fully understand that this book is full of demanding and difficult ideas and for someone looking for a simple answer when they are asked “Who is Jesus?” they may not have the stamina to stay with this analysis. In response Wright simply returns to the post-modern world outlined above. Evangelical Christianity in particular has tended to “deify” Jesus of Nazareth turning him into a “docetic” Christ… not a normal man at all. But Jesus was in fact a man, a human being… a man sent by God as John writes. And that man, from childhood it seems, had the deepest possible sense of his vocation as the long awaited Jewish Messiah. A Messiah who had to show the Jewish nation that true messiahship must incorporate the prophesied suffering servant of Isaiah rather than the military might of a Davidic King. Jesus of Nazareth was not at all interested in repeating the ultimately doomed fight of the Maccebean rebels against Roman oppression. If we are to be able to explain to non-believers the answer to the question “Who is Jesus?” we must read the Bible historically and not (only) theologically and we may get further. I heartily commend this book. 5 stars.
Alex Miller: The Sitters, Crows Nest NSW, Allen & Unwin, 2003
Interesting and engaging novella by brilliant English/Australian author Alex Miller about art, love and family. This was his fourth novel following his multi-award winning The Ancestor Game which won the Miles Franklin award among many others and was simply a most stunning novel. The Sitters is far less complex but still, as always with Miller, engages he mind with many twists and turn. Ittells an intriguing story of an artist on the brink of fame and his on again off again relationship with university colleague Jessica. As in many Miller novels the action eventually centres on the dreamy and remote Australian rural outback, this time the Araluen Valley in the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales. All of Miler’s trademark skills are in evidence once more including philosophic, artistic and literary references, fine characterisations, complex family relationships and links between Australia and England. A very readable and thoughtful novel, interesting and engaging, without reaching great heights. 4 stars.
Tim Winton: Breath, Camberwell, VIC, Penguin, 2008
Complex and troubling novel by Tim Winton who never fails to surprise his readers with his characters drawn with searing honesty, weaknesses as well as strengths, and who often fall into very deep waters indeed but always finishing with some form of redemption. Bruce Pike’s life story, growing up in a small country town in South Western Australia, his adventures with surfing, school and sex and his adult life as a paramedic provide Winton with a rich array of interesting characters of whom by far the most interesting is the ageing surfing superstar Sando. The “breath” theme emerges in many and unexpected places and the novel also has much to say about changing friendship patterns, deep water writers and scientists Hans Has and Jacques Coosteau and Peruvian American mystic Carlos Castaneda. Winton also manages to interweave Christian themes into his novel as well as reflections on fame, loss and mental illness. The deepest theme of all, however, is the majesty, spirituality, danger and power of the surf and the deep sea and its seemingly endless ability to entice its true believers into ever increasing trials of strength. This is a novel full of very powerful images, some very difficult to delete from the mind. 5 stars.