What, in my opinion, are the five best introductions to the historical Jesus? This is a more difficult question to answer than one might first assume because most of the significant contributions to Jesus studies in the past one hundred years or so have not been introductions. But this is a good question to ask because writing introductory material is extremely hard—it takes a very good scholar/writer to take complex issues and render them accessible to non-specialists. The question is difficult to answer as well because some books aim to introduce the historical Jesus and others aim to introduce historical Jesus studies/scholars, and some try to do both. I’ll aim to answer the question, though, with the following criteria: the book has to have proven useful in the classroom or discussion with non-specialists; it has to aim for an introductory audience; and it has to aim to introduce the historical Jesus or historical Jesus scholarship. (So, in light of the first point, readers will notice an obvious Anglo-American bent in my list. In light of the last point, I can’t include Anthony’s Historical Jesus:What Can We Know and How Can We Know It?, which is really more about historiography, and a great introduction at that.)
So what are the five best? Here’s my take. I’m sure others will disagree, so make your own contribution to the list in the comments.
Fifth place—Ben Witherington III, The Jesus Quest: The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth
Witherington is perhaps at his best when he is helping a non-specialist audience, and this book is about as good of a student introduction to the so-called Third Quest as I have found. It gets a little long in places, but the footnotes are manageable and it begins with a nice overview of Galilee that manages well the exchange of lack of nuance for accessibility that faces popular-level writers. In other words, of course you could disagree with bits and pieces, and sometimes a lot, but it’s a great book for introducing someone to the dialogue.
Fourth place—Bart Ehrman, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the NewMillennium
Ehrman’s contribution to historical Jesus studies has, of late, been overlooked in my opinion, and his prolific publications in textual criticism and popular-level works have probably been to blame. (Say what you want, and lots of people say lots of things, but for my money there is probably not a better introduction to textual criticism for complete novices than his Misquoting Jesus, despite the sensationalism in which it participates. A close second, though, is Bob Hull’s The Story of the New Testament, which has a different approach and, admirably, no sensationalism.) Ehrman’s Jesus book is on this list for two reasons, though. First, it forward the argument that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet, which is otherwise most strongly associated with Dale Allison in this generation. Second, it is simply fun to read. Bart is a great writer, one of the very best alive among NT scholars in my opinion. He’s like Crossan in this manner—you may disagree with some of what he says, but you’ll really enjoy the process of engaging his work.
Third place—NT Wright, The Challenge of Jesus
Much like the previous two scholars, Wright has perhaps been a victim of his own success when it comes to appreciating any individual work of his in isolation. His New Testament and the People of God is one of the most important works on Jesus in the last 30 years and his contribution to The Interpretation of the New Testament 1861–1986 is also important for Jesus studies. But those are really for scholars. The Challenge of Jesus is written for laymen. There’s an obvious theological bent in it, but there’s one of those in almost any work on Jesus. It’s in third place here for one reason, though—the undergraduate and non-traditional (adult learner) students I’ve taught love it. I don’t mean they like it; they love it. It reaches precisely the audience it aims to reach. They come back into class and want to discuss it ad nauseum. It challenges them critically, but they also want to turn around and write sermons with it.
Second place—Dale Allison, The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus
I consider Allison’s Constructing Jesus to be a landmark. Henceforth, it is one of those scholarly boulders that one simply cannot get around; one has to deal with it. But it’s too much for an introductory audience. Prior to writing it, though, he published The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus. This book clearly is a bridge between his Jesus of Nazareth and Constructing Jesus and he was well on the way to the latter when he wrote it. Much of the substantive contributions in Constructing Jesus appear here in nuce. Allison writes in a very conversational tone that is easy to follow, and it is aimed specifically for students who are troubled by the theological implications of historical Jesus studies. He describes it as “my personal testimony to doubt seeking understanding.” This is one of those books where a scholar drops the charade of objectivity, and it makes for a great introduction to Jesus studies.
First place—Helen Bond, The Historical Jesus: A Guide for the Perplexed
I confess tremendous bias: Helen Bond is my Doktormutter. That being said, I challenge anyone to find a better book than Helen’s The Historical Jesus to place in the hands of someone who asks, “What is all this business about the historical Jesus?” It introduces significant figures, significant methods, and significant stages of Jesus’ life. In other words, it introduces both Jesus and Jesus studies, and does so seamlessly. Helen is a gifted writer, especially with this level of readership. She does not shy away from tricky theological issues but she also does not allow her own perspectives to drive the discussion. Most important, as an introductory textbook, The Historical Jesus does not get bogged down with details and overwhelm novices. I expect this to be the standard introductory textbook for some time; at least it will be in my classroom.
Honorable mentions and why I didn’t include them: Jens Schröter, Jesus von Nazaret (I haven’t used it in the classroom and most English speakers haven’t heard of it—but it’s soon to be translated!!); Dale Allison, Jesus of Nazareth (some of it is too technical for non-specialists); John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus (almost made the list, but too bulky for non-specialists); Anthony Le Donne, Historical Jesus (really about historiography); EP Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (I’ve not used it in the classroom).