Oxford University Press, U.S., 2011
The Very Short Introduction series put out by Oxford University Press aims to package important subjects in slim, concise books written by experts. Richard Bauckham’s recent introduction to Jesus hits exactly this mark. Bauckham takes one of the most traversed topics in history and religion and offers a thoroughly sane and balanced treatment. He begins by discussing the cultural history of Jesus in the western world and ends by discussing the implications of Jesus’ impact for Christian theology. But the torso of this book is an introduction to Jesus as an historical figure. Bauckham introduces Jesus’ culture including his (ethnic/religious/national) Jewishness, his political context in Roman occupied Jewish Palestine, and his contemporaries. He discusses the source material (inside and outside the Christian canon) that historians generally use to reconstruct his life and teaching.
Where the book soars is in Bauckham’s introduction to Jesus’ central prophetic speech concerning “the kingdom (or rule) of God.” In chapter four, Bauckham moves past the cliché portrait of Jesus as passive teacher of ethics. While he affirms that Jesus did teach on ethics, he reminds us that Jewish prophets were known to act out their teachings symbolically. Thus Bauckham’s portrait shows Jesus to be someone other than familiar to modern, western eyes. This portrait makes sense of Jesus along the long trajectory of Hebrew Bible prophets, against the backdrop of imperial Rome, and in light of emerging Christianity.
One point that deserves criticism is the inclusion of an image of the Alexamenos Graffito on page 96. The image included in the book is pale, blurred, and will be unrecognizable to those unfamiliar with this etching. This etched depiction of Jesus with the head of a donkey is an important point of historical data to illustrate the embarrassment caused by his crucifixion and deserves to be rendered visibly.
Some readers will chafe at Bauckham’s overtly Christian agenda in his treatment of early belief in Jesus’ resurrection. His move from a primarily historical subject to a primarily theological conclusion will distract many readers, especially those who prefer to keep the two topics neatly separated. However, to omit discussion of the perceived supernatural in the life and death of Jesus would have been conspicuous. Readers interested in an introduction to Jesus by a scholar highly respected both in the Church and the Academy will find none better than Bauckham’s. There is a very good possibility that this becomes a standard text in university courses on Jesus and Christianity.
Anthony Le Donne