Baker Academic

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

My Review of Bauckham's Jesus: A Very Short Introduction

Richard Bauckham
Oxford University Press, U.S., 2011
144 pages
ISBN-10: 0199575274
11.95 USD

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


  1. Is Prof. Bauckham of the view that Jesus claimed divinity or identified himself as the God of Israel? or associated himself with God ?

    I find it rather confusing after reading his books that at one hand he says early Christians were strict monotheist like Jews but at the same time used to include Jesus in the Shema and used to worship him !! how is that possible ?

    1. ali, one thing to keep in mind is that the "strictness" of Jewish monotheism in the 1st century is a topic of lively debate these days! An excellent resource on this topic is Larry Hurtado. I think the mainstream view is that the monotheism of Jews in the 1st century included belief in many divine or supernatural beings, some of whom had something like "free will" and functioned something like lesser gods. A good example is Enoch from the book of Genesis, who in the Jewish imagination was "taken up" by God without having died, and who was seen as playing a role in God's court.

      It is possible that the Christian understanding of Jesus after his death began with a notion that Jesus was similar to Enoch, in which case the Christian understanding would have been compatible with Jewish monotheism.

      If you're very brave, you can also look at recent work of Daniel Boyarin, who argues that 1st century Judaism contained a sort of binitarianism. I personally agree more with Hurtado and less with Boyarin, but Boyarin argues in an interesting way that there's not such a wide gulf between 1st century Jewish monotheism and early Christian christology.

  2. I found it interesting when reading a small segment of Bauckham's work, when he says that if it was not for the resurrection Jesus would be considered another failed Messiah (pg. 109). There are so many other messengers before Jesus who were rejected and murdered because they went against the social regime of their time. So why was it that Jesus was more special than the others? I don't have a specific answer, but I think it was all part of the "plan." Also as I was reading this segment, I wondered what branch of religion would be the most prevalent today? I would like to open this question up to anyone who has an opinion.

  3. I am currently reading Bauckham's, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, and Bauckham does not divorce history from theology. In fact, he uses history and theology to support one another. There is a tendency to divorce history and theology since the Enlightenment; just as First Principles have been divorced from Philosophy. Unfortunately, that cannot never happen. The Bible is one genre that is 100 percent history and 100 percent theology; just like Jesus (fully human and fully God). To divorce history from theology and theology from history in the Bible is to destroy all.