Baker Academic

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Why this book is such a great choice for the classroom - Le Donne

Okay, yes, I write a chapter in this book, so I am not the most impartial of judges. But in my defense, my name was a last minute addition to this otherwise "who's who" roster and I had nothing to do with the idea or the layout. It is in these two areas that this book shines brightest. Also, I should point out that I get no additional scratch for good book sales.

1. The brilliance of the idea:

One can only know of a historical figure insomuch as one can explore his/her relationships. Jesus only makes sense when he is defined against his contemporaries. This book draws out the many and varied relationships in Jesus' life like no other I've read. Stuckenbruck's original contribution on the characterizations of demons in the Gospels is worth the price on the cover. Helen Bond's masterful chapter on the politics in Jesus' context is perhaps the most well-balanced treatment I've encountered. I have used Warren Carter's discussion of the "12" disciples multiple times in my classes. Almost everything by Richard Bauckham should be required reading.

For most of us who teach "Jesus" in the classroom, there is always the tension between (a) discussing the literary features in the Gospels and (b) Jesus as a historical figure. This book balances both elements with aplomb. Indeed, and I must gush a little, this book takes seriously the necessary marriage of literary forms with historical episodes. One does not find this often in a book that is so accessible.


2. The brilliance of the layout:

As my good friend Michael Cook pointed out, it is a bit awkward to place "the Jewish leaders" (my chapter) in the "Enemies" section. Perhaps not for what is said of these "leaders" but what is implied by this placement. I've included an excerpt below of this chapter. But what makes this layout work is that one can see Jesus in both positive and negative relief. The result is that Jesus' relationships are portrayed with depth. When reading this book, one gets the sense that Jesus is a real person and not just a flannel board cutout hovering over a bunch of socially inept, bumbling and argumentative halfwits.

Keith and Hurtado have given us the perfect primary text book for courses like "The Life and Teachings of Jesus" and "Portraits of Jesus" and "Gospels". I should point out that Prof. Keith's introductory chapter on "Jesus himself" could stand alone as a worthy treatment of Jesus both in and outside the Gospels.

Here is a brief excerpt from my chapter:

In all four Gospels, Jesus‘s authority is on display. When dealing with the demonic world, Jesus is shown to be of heavenly status. When Jesus is dealing with Caiaphas at his trial, Jesus is shown to be allied with the heavenly Judge, and ultimate authority. In the Gospels, each adversary occupies a different battleground. The battlegrounds occupied by the religious leaders are Scripture, worship, and purity. Each group claims to have the authority to interpret and guard what is holy in the life of Israel. The Pharisees use issues of ritual to gain leverage over Jesus (e.g. the proper keeping of Sabbath). The scribes quote Scripture to gain leverage over Jesus.

In both cases, Jesus is shown to be superior. As Jesus wins debate after debate, the story-tellers demonstrate his authority to govern both the interpretation of Scripture and the practical keeping of this Scripture. Another feature of narrativization in the Gospels involves the movement of the plot. Jesus‘s opponents are integral to the story being told. The narrators let us peek into the motives of Jesus‘s opponents to have Jesus killed. Mark 14:1 narrates: “Now after two days was the feast of the Passover and the unleavened bread: and the chief priests and the scribes sought how they might take him with subtlety, and kill him.”

Without the Jewish leaders, according to the Gospels, Jesus would not have been executed by the Roman authorities. In short, without these “enemies,” there would simply be no story. Imagine Othello without Iago, or Star Wars without Darth Vader. The stories about Jesus hinge on the words, motives, and actions of the Jewish leaders. It would be impossible to tell the story of Jesus without them.

Yet the portrait of the Jewish leaders in the Gospels is not monochrome. Some scribes are "not far from the Kingdom of God" (Mark 12:34). Some Pharisees call Jesus a teacher "come from God" (John 3:2). Some rulers seek healing from Jesus (Luke 18:18). This is not to downplay the predominant antagonism portrayed in these stories. However, these exceptions hint that this good guy/bad guy contrast does not reflect the more complex history behind these stories. Indeed, these exceptions are the best evidence we have that the story-tellers behind the Gospels did not simply invent all of these controversies. First-century Judaism was rife with conflict. Nothing in the Gospels is more historically plausible than hostility among like-minded fellows.


  1. "one gets the sense that Jesus is a real person and not just a flannel board cutout hovering over a bunch of socially inept, bumbling and argumentative halfwits." So it makes you forget everything about gMark, eh?

    "One can only know of a historical figure insomuch as one can explore his/her relationships." On one level, this can't be true. Do I really need to know about Ike's relationships - to his wife, his secretary, FDR, his subordinates - to know of him planning D-Day? But on another, it's a truism. Everything we do involves other people and thus our relationships.

    1. Mark, to answer your questions: No and Yes.