Historical Jesus Book Recommendation – Rabbi Jesus by Bruce Chilton

This was originally a comment on Frank Viola’s blog, wherein he interviews Jesus scholar Craig Keener. I thought I’d re-post it for my readers here, and in the process I expanded it a bit.

Thanks for this interview, Frank. I haven’t read Keener yet; I’ll have to check him out. I find it refreshing when scholars who believe in the integrity of Scripture can speak freely about earlier sources, composites, et al., without seeing it as compromising our faith. I think part of the reason that we’re in some of this conservative vs. liberal mess these days is because ivory-tower academics and clergy, for the longest time, didn’t think that the person in the pew could be ‘trusted’ with the ongoing dialogue and questions being asked in their world. Now we’re realizing that God’s people are indeed capable to handles such honest discussion. Imagine that!

This is a timely interview, as for the past six months I’ve been reading historical Jesus books continuously – they’ve been like devotional reading for me. All of them are to be taken as enlightened, educated guesses, with the requisite grain of salt. It always amuses me, for instance, when scholars from the more ‘progressive’ end of the spectrum confidently assert what Jesus can and can not have really said or done, and what must have been later editorial flourishes. As if the writer of the Gospel can make a parabolic point by, say, having Jesus in the wilderness for 40 days to parallel Israel’s 40 years, but God could not have been the author of such cleverness. :)

With that caveat, I just finished – and highly recommend – Rabbi Jesus by Bruce Chilton. Chilton’s look at Jesus reads like a novel; he’s probably the most skilled at writing-as-craft of any historical Jesus scholar I’ve known. His book illuminates the Jewish character of Jesus, as the title implies, but not in a one-dimensional way. He richly illustrates the diversity of Judaism in Jesus’ day, and the unique syntheses, as well as dissensions, Jesus makes as he navigates those currents. He illustrates more clearly and understandably than anything I’ve yet read the various Roman-Jewish political arrangements linking Pilate to Caphias to Herod Antipas to the Sanhedrin. Of particularly interest to me was his explanation of the tradesmen/food bartering status in villages of his day – and if you’ve ever wondered why Jesus particularly associates food and feasting as a tangible sign of God’s in-breaking Kingdom, Chilton paints a compelling portrait.

He also illustrates a proto-Trinitarianism between Abba God, the ‘one like a person’ (aka ‘Son of Man’), and Ruah, the personification of Wisdom. Most significantly, Chilton sheds some much-needed light onto the possible spiritual and devotional practices of Jesus, including ‘meditation on the Chariot’ – an ecstatic practice based on Ezekiel 1 that was apparently popular among mystical Judaism in his day. Chilton puts this as a major devotional/trance practice of John the Baptist and Jesus; NT Wright says that the Chariot meditation was a significant practice of Paul of Tarsus, and what he was in all likelihood doing whilst on the Damascus road when he had his visionary experience of Christ. I want to know more..!

What are your favorite historical Jesus books/scholars?

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17 thoughts on “Historical Jesus Book Recommendation – Rabbi Jesus by Bruce Chilton

  1. ‘meditation on the Chariot’ Purest speculation that Paul was doing this on his way to Damascus or that it was a favorite interior mind sport of John the Baptist, even if it is speculations by conservative scholars! Though perhaps Paul realized when he met Jesus that experience was like Ezekiel’s and he was meeting the same Person and helped Paul to process it – ditto for John’s vision of Christ in Revelation 1 which is even more overtly Ezekielish than the Acts description of Paul’s meeting of Jesus. Right now muslims across the world are pulling Ezekiels and meeting Jesus in dreams and visions. My nextdoor neighbor an elderly Jewish woman, grand daughter of an Orthodox rabbi was converted to Christ through a vision of him. She told me she saw him and felt his love settle along her shoulders like a stole and she exclaimed “You love me like I loved my first grand child!”
    I think the ultimate prrof that the Jesus described in the New Testament is the historical one, is when you to your shock you meet that same Person in the Spirit, present to you now! Such delicious love. power, flesh and bone Jesus of Nazareth humanity and eternal Son of God Godhood all in one extraordinary package.

  2. Well of course it’s speculation – that’s what history is! :) Does it bother you epistemologically that some people – including biblical figures – may have had particular entrees into their spiritual experience? To me, this doesn’t dilute the initiative of God, it simply shows that we can make ourselves more (or less) open to such encounters.

    Fascinating anecdotes, re: the Jesus dreams. I’ve heard about these a lot in recent years…

    • I had to look up “epistemology” to make sure I understood your question. My thoughts – God makes unsolicited phone calls and he also responds to people who reach out to him. I can see both of these in the Bible, my own life and in the lives of others. What does bother me is when Christianity is presented as a form of a Buddhistic eightfold path where through application of a set of spiritual methodologies and behaviors – unlike Buddhism the number varies – you become spiritual, cleansed,enlightened.
      Jesus said “the work (the real spiritual discipline?) is to believe (trust in , rely on, adhere to-according to my Young’s Concordance, a definition of the Greek for ‘believe”) in the one God sent” Paul said – “I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave his life for me” I think Jesus is to become ever more real – history right now, and more and more the life giver – this is our lifelong discipline and means of access, the Living Son of God.

  3. Hi Mike… thanks for the post. “Rabbi Jesus” has been on my list for a bit … now I want it sooner! The book by Bart Ehrman, “Misquoting Jesus” was a good read. I think some are turned off because Ehrman lost his faith but to me it was really affirming … because I could hear Jesus’ voice in what was presented in the book. I always take writers’ speculations with that ‘grain of salt’ and read for what truth is there in spite of the author’s biases. Another such book is “Keys to the Kingdom” (about Jesus and Kaballah), very informative, even if you have to do a good bit of wading.

  4. “Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes” by Kenneth E. Bailey is very informative & interesting. It’s a text recommended to me from a friend at Oxford.

  5. fascinating…Thanks! do you have a reference/source on Wright linking Paul to chariot meditation? Must’ve been something he said at Soularize, since that’s where you linked…i do have some video of hum there (On Acts)..

  6. I have just finished reading the book, I found it endearing and a must to read for those who seek Jesus placed in his time.

  7. Michael, I just starting reading Rabbi Jesus. So far I think Chilton overplays the mamzer angle. Also, I find the usual unfortunate scholarly fudging: e.g., James did not write the epistle named for him and his depiction in Acts is a fictional construct, yet Chilton’s James nonetheless conforms to those constructs (based on, hmm, what?). Maybe I’ll have more engaging feedback once I finish.

    Can you recommend a good book that lays out a reasonable criteria or methodology for determining (albeit in a speculative way) what N. T. text may represent an authentic tradition from later interpolation? A. N. Wilson is not bad, but I feel he overplays or oversimplifies the Jew/Roman dichotomy/animosity.