Review of The Historical Jesus by Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz
by Peter Kirby (June 28, 2001)
The subtitle 'A Comprehensive Guide' is well-earned. Amazon.com incorrectly lists its length as 624 pages; in actuality, it is 642 pages long, and the pages are large. There is plenty of information here on almost every aspect of Jesus research. The book consists of the following sixteen chapters.

1. The Quest of the Historical Jesus

This chapter provides a useful history of Jesus research. It begins with Reimarus and Strauss, proceeds onto the nineteenth century lives of Jesus, tells of the collapse of the quest with Schweitzer and Wrede, continues to narrate the 'new quest' with an emphasis on the criterion of discontinuity, and concludes with the 'third quest', which is characterized by 'interest in social history', the 'place of Jesus in Judaism', and 'attention to non-canonical sources'.

2. Christian Sources about Jesus

Surprisingly, in some editions the authors state that Crossan, in his monograph The Historical Jesus, is an example of one who "denied that the early Christian writings outside the canon have any value for the reconstruction of the beginnings" (p. 20). This is corrected in some translations. The authors themselves side with those who, like Koester in Ancient Christian Gospels, give canonical and extracanonical sources "equal footing" (p. 24). The authors provide a useful overview of Mark, Q, Matthew, Luke, John, Thomas, Egerton Papyrus 2, Secret Mark, the Gospel of Peter, POxy 840, Jewish-Christian gospels, and patristic traditions.

3. The Non-Christian Sources about Jesus

Even if one disagrees with the conclusion (partial authenticity), here we find a good survey of the arguments and positions surrouding the Testimonium Flavianum and the reference to Jesus in Ant. 20.9.1. The authors also briefly investigate a rabbinic source (bSanh 43a), Mara bar Sarapion, Pliny the Younger, Tacitus, Suetonius, and Thallus. As a conclusion, the authors state, "The value of these independent extra-Christian reports on Jesus is twofold. First we must note that both opponents and neutral or sympathetic sympathetic observers of Christianity presuppose the historicity of Jesus and do not indicate a shadow of doubt about it. Furthermore the non-Christian notices allow us to check individual dates and facts in the primitive Christian tradition about Jesus." (p. 85)

4. The Evaluation of the Sources: Historical Scepticism and the Study of Jesus

This is my favorite chapter. Herein the authors identify and refute thirteen arguments for a complete historical skepticism about Jesus. The authors reject the theory of G. A. Wells and other writers that Jesus is a fiction. This chapter should be of interest to participants in the debate over the historicity of Jesus.

5. The Historical and Religious Framework of the Life of Jesus

Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz believe that Jesus is to be understood within Judaism, not against Judaism. The authors state, "All reconstructions of the historical Jesus are dependent on our picture of Judaism at the time of the Second Temple." (p. 147)

6. The Chronological Framework of the Life of Jesus

Here the authors attempt to estimate the time of the birth and the death of Jesus with this conclusion: "Jesus was born in 6/4 BCE, probably before the death of Herod I; his public appearance only lasted for a short time at the beginning of Pontius Pilate's period in office (26-36 CE) and he was probably executed at Passover 30 CE." (p. 160)

7. The Geographical and Social Framework of the Life of Jesus

In this chapter the authors survey the geography of ancient Palestine. They say that Capernaum was the center of his activitiy: "From here he addressed the Jewish countryfolk in and around Galilee who had been made unsure of their identity by Hellenestic city culture. His preaching addressed a world full of social, economic and political tensions. When he went up to Jerusalem he became a victim of these tensions." (pp. 180-181)

8. Jesus as Charismatic: Jesus and his Social Relationships

The authors believe that Jesus' family claimed descent from David (p. 194). Against this, I maintain that John 7:42 and Mark 12:35-37 as well as Barnabas 12:9-11 are best explained if some knew that Jesus was not of davidic descent. The authors argue, correctly in my opinion, for the historicity of the baptism of Jesus by John. The authors explore the relationship of Jesus to his disciples and to his opponents.

9. Jesus as Prophet: Jesus' Eschatology

The authors write, "At the centre of Jesus' eschatological preaching stands the saving message of the kingly rule of God (basileia tou qeou) which is proclaimed on the one hand as already having come and on the other as imminent." (p. 240) The authors explain the understanding of the kingdom of God as presented by Ritschl, Weiss and Schweitzer, C. H. Dodd, W. G. Kummel, Bultmann, and contemporaries (Norman Perrin, J. G. Gager, J. D. Crossan, and M. J. Borg). The authors also discuss the relationship between present and future in the eschatological preaching of Jesus.

10. Jesus as Healer: The Miracles of Jesus

The authors discuss six types of miracle stories. Exorcisms, therapies, and norm miracles are effects of the historical Jesus. By contrast, deliverance miracles, gift miracles, and epiphanies have the Easter faith as their presupposition. The wide variety of forms and sources that attest to the healings of Jesus assure their basis in the life of Jesus. Besides, as the authors state, "it was certainly not the case that in the world of the time of Jesus every charismatic attracted miracle traditions. No miracles were related of John the Baptist." (p. 304) Theissen finds the miracle tradition of Jesus to be distinctive: "Nowhere else do we find a charismatic miracle worker whose miraculous deeds are meant to be the end of an old world and the beginning of a new one." (p. 309)

11. Jesus as Poet: The Parables of Jesus

The authors say, "It is generally agreed that the parables are the characteristic form of Jesus' teaching. . . in recent years research has shown that Jesus and the rabbis drew on the same store of familiar fields of imagery and motifs and create basic narrative structures; while their parables differ in some respects, they are expressions of the same genre." The authors describe several understandings of the parables that have been proposed by modern scholars.

12. Jesus as Teacher: The Ethics of Jesus

In this chapter, the authors show that Jesus' ethical teachings were clearly grounded in a rich understanding of the Jewish Torah. The authors consider it likely that Jesus could read and participated in disputes over the meaning of the scriptures. The authors state of Jesus' Jewish ethic, "The centre of its content lies in the Torah, interpreted freely, and its motivating framework is that of wisdom and eschatology. Jesus presents it as a Jewish rabbi." (p. 394)

13. Jesus as the Founder of a Cult: The Last Supper and the Primitive Christian Eucharist

The authors believe in the origin of the Eucharistic ritual in the last supper of Jesus. I disagree. I am more persuaded by Burton Mack in A Myth of Innocence, who argues that the Eucharistic ritual developed in Hellenistic circles and was falsely attributed to Jesus. A compromise may be represented by J. D. Crossan, who believes that at least the practice of open commensality goes back to the ministry of Jesus.

14. Jesus as Martyr: The Passion of Jesus

Gerd Theissen mentions his conclusion, elaborated in The Gospels in Context, that a passion narrative was originally formulated during the lives of the apostles (p. 447). Theissen and Merz argue for the well-known thesis that the gospel bias effects a transfer of blame for the crucifixion from the Romans onto the Jews. The authors argue for the historicity of the titulus on the cross on the basis that the reason for execution is occasionally indicated in Roman practice and that the "post-Easter community had no interest in inventing a royal claim on the part of Jesus which would have been open to political misunderstanding and would have caused it difficulties (cf. Acts 17.7)." (p. 458)

15. The Risen Jesus: Easter and its Interpretations

The authors break with convention in Jesus research by discussing the Easter traditions in the same work. The authors describe the history of discussion, from rationalistic hypotheses for the empty tomb with Reimarus and Paulus, to the subjective vision theory of Strauss, through existentialist interpretations of Easter, and into the contemporary debate over the historicity of the empty tomb. I have provided my own analysis of this issue elsewhere (The Historicity of the Empty Tomb Evaluated). The authors themselves ably weigh the arguments pro and con with the conclusion that the empty tomb cannot be either demonstrated or refuted with historical-critical methods (pp. 499-502).

16. The Historical Jesus and the Beginnings of Christology

The authors describe the history of the discussion of Jesus' messiahship. There was no concept of a suffering Messiah in Judaism; therefore, the concept of the suffering Messiah must have been developed by the disciples of Jesus who had messianic expectations during his lifetime and were disappointed by his death (p. 540). The authors state, "Jesus had a messianic consciousness, but did not use the title Messiah. He aroused messianic expectations among the people and among his followers, and because of that was executed as a royal pretender. After Easter his disciples attributed a new messianic dignity to him as the suffering Messiah whose death had saving sifnificance." (p. 538)

Finally, there is a retrospect in which a short life of Jesus is presented.

This work was created with use as a textbook in mind. At the end of each chapter, there are 'Tasks' required of the reader that encourage a direct participation in the interpretation of the primary source materials. While it is suited for use in the classroom, it is also easily adaptable to personal study. Each chapter can be easily covered in a convenient session of a couple hours. There are extensive bibliographic notes for further study in particular topics.

The following historical facts about Jesus emerge from The Historical Jesus:

  1. Jesus was from Galilee (p. 164).
  2. Jesus was baptized by John (p. 207).
  3. Jesus performed exorcisms and healings (p. 301, p. 304).
  4. Jesus was accused of being in league with the devil (p. 76, p. 297).
  5. His family thought him to be mad (p. 570, p. 582).
  6. Jesus rejected an overestimation of himself as 'good teacher' (p. 558).
  7. Jesus preached about the Kingdom of God; e.g., the logion concerning 'Taking the kingdom by storm' (p. 580).
  8. Jesus spoke most of the parables that have been preserved (p. 338).
  9. Jesus said something against the Temple cult (p. 432).
  10. The disciples of Jesus fled at his arrest (p. 428).
  11. Jesus was crucified with the titulus 'The King of the Jews' (p. 458).
  12. The disciples were disappointed that Jesus did not 'redeem Israel' (p. 428).

One possible weakness of the book is that it offers no over-arching explanation or model for the historical Jesus. Rather, the book investigates each aspect of Jesus ('Jesus as...') more or less individually. On the other hand, this may be considered a strength, especially given that the real Jesus himself is not a cardboard cut-out figure but rather an actual human being. This is brought out well in another book by Theissen, The Shadow of the Galilean.

The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide is translated by John Bowden from the German Der historische Jesus: Ein Lehrbuch, copyright 1996 Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Gottingen. English translation copyright 1998 John Bowden.