The Historical Jesus

  • Gerd Theissen, Annette Merz
  • Dec 1, 1998
  • Series: Volume 2 - 1999

Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz, The Historical Jesus, trans. John Bowden (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998; German original 1996). xxxix + 642 pp. Paperback. $38.00. ISBN 08006-3122-6.

As the l990s wind up, it is clear that the two most provocative and publicized works on the historical Jesus of this decade will have been the books by J. D. Crossan, from a more liberal perspective, and N.T. Wright, from a more conservative perspective. This study, by a pair of Heidelberg professors, will doubtless receive considerably less attention. But that will be a pity, because in their own right they have produced a no less significant work. Designed in part as a textbook, this detailed compendium of classic and contemporary scholarship works through all the major historical Jesus issues from a centrist perspective, provides detailed treatment and presentation of other scholars' views quite different from their own (including a remarkable amount of English-language and even occasional evangelical literature), and offers a wealth of references, many of them cited in full, to the most relevant extra-canonical texts from antiquity that shed light on the topics in question.

Theissen is already known as a world-class scholar from his sociological studies of the Jesus and Paul movements and as a delightful writer from his "autobiography" from the perspective of a fictitious first-century observer of the events that proved foundational for the development of Christianity (The Shadow of the Galilean). Merz, a former student of his, demonstrates herself an equally careful researcher in the sections that she primarily penned.

Successive chapters deal with such issues as the history of the quest of the historical Jesus, Christian and non-Christian sources, Jesus as charismatic, prophet, healer, poet and teacher, the Lord's Supper, Passion and Resurrection, and the beginnings of Christology. A four-page retrospect summarizes their convictions about what can be known historically of Jesus and a lengthy concluding chapter gives possible "solutions" to numerous "tasks" assigned to the reader in each chapter, especially involving evaluation of the cogency of ancient and modern perspectives on the issues at hand. As in the body of the book itself, these regularly sum up with admirable clarity all the main competing perspectives on a topic, complete with their major strengths and weaknesses. Helpful charts and diagrams abound. The book is nothing, if not even-handed.

Theissen and Merz determine that major features of the life of Christ can be accepted from the Synoptic treatments, less commonly from John and rarely from any of the extra-canonical literature. Similar to but apparently independent of Wright's "double similarity and dissimilarity" criterion, they develop Theissen's previously published discussion of criteria of "plausibility" as combining "contextual correspondence and contextual individuality." As with Hengel or Vermes, Jesus emerges as an itinerant charismatic who demonstrates implicit Christological claims with his authoritative relationships with others. As with Wright and Sanders, Jesus is also a prophet, who (with Wright and against Sanders) regularly alienates the Jewish authorities, especially the Pharisees, because of his liberal views. Jesus' ethics differ from conventional Judaisms of his day because he combines Wisdom and eschatology to challenge Torah. Thus there is no case, as for Borg, Crossan and the Jesus Seminar, that can be made for separating Wisdom and apocalyptic strains from each other and ascribing them to different historical layers in the Gospel tradition. As with Meier, the cores of most of the healing and exorcism narratives prove to be historical. With almost everyone, the parables and the inaugurated kingdom about which they teach form the bedrock core of Jesus' message. Even citing my own work (!), our authors recognize the inappropriate disjunct of parable and allegory.

Theissen and Merz's discussion of the Lord's Supper includes a helpful taxonomy of the different ways in which divine presence is mediated at sacral meals. In a kind of cross between Schweitzer and Chilton, they conclude that Jesus implicitly substituted the Lord's Supper for temple sacrifices. As for Jesus' execution, the Romans were primarily responsible because of perceived political threats, but he was delivered to them by one group of Jewish leaders, particularly Sadducees, who did not have the legal right except under extraordinary circumstances to implement capital punishment. Some kind of "objective visions" account for the core resurrection appearances, which were then subsequently embellished. Our authors slightly prefer the hypothesis that this involved a real empty tomb to the alternatives. Jesus did believe himself to be a kind of Messiah and used Son of man language that combined and re-interpreted both Ezekielan and Danielic uses. Implict Christology abounds in the authentic Gospel material but explicit titles were multiplied and redefined or re-applied to Jesus (esp. the title "Lord") after his death as well.

The evangelical reader will naturally wish that Theissen and Merz had surveyed even more of the conservative literature and pushed certain historical arguments further in almost every chapter. The two are not reticent to declare inauthentic significant chunks of the gospel tradition. But they also clearly separate that which is believed by faith and that which historians can with some probability defend, and they write as professed believers who are nevertheless committed to judiciously weighing historical arguments and not claiming, as historians, more corroboration than they think can fairly be attained. The book is scrupulously free from polemics; one could wish that those who think historical research can come to more definitive solutions in either a conservative or liberal direction could be as consistently judicious and irenic in their work.

The only glaring factual error I ran across appears on p. 20 where J.D. Crossan's views are miscategorized. Perhaps, they were thinking of J. P. Meier's book that was also published in 1991.

Craig L. Blomberg, Professor of New Testament,
Denver Seminary,
December 1998