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?