John, Jesus and History, Volume 1: Critical Appraisals of Critical Views (SBL Symposium Series 44, Atlanta 2007). Edited by Paul N. Anderson, Felix Just SJ and Tom Thatcher


Pp. viii, 330 , $37.95 .

This book is yet another indication of a turning of the tide in exegesis of the New Testament. For a long time scholars have regarded the lofty Christology of John's Gospel (GJ) with some suspicion, at least when it came to squeezing it for indications about the ‘Historical Jesus’. Now the present volume is a collection of papers of the ‘John, Jesus and History group’ of SBL, looking at what it terms the ‘dehistoricization of John’ and the ‘de-Johannification of Jesus’. The aim of the contributors, who by no means all agree with each other, is to bring GJ back into the scholarly conversation about the historical Jesus; and, as Tom Thatcher remarks in his introductory essay, it is certainly an odd thing that the Fourth Gospel, which has more archaeological content and topographical detail than all the other gospels put together, has come to be viewed as ‘unhistorical’.

Not that this book is either a simple vindication of the historicity of the gospel, or an attempt to turn the clock back to the comfort of pre-critical days. This is a thoroughly critical venture, as it should be, asking as it does the question of whether current critical attitudes to GJ are themselves critically based. Paul Anderson offers an admirably careful essay on the strengths and weaknesses of some of the considerations that have led to the widespread view of GJ as ‘unhistorical’, on the grounds that it presents too ‘ideological’ a picture of Jesus. Kyser's essay is a model survey of the English-language treatment of the issue, with a composed response from Marianne Meye Thompson. Jack Verheyden contributes an impressive account of the 19th Century German School (if one may still so call them), with some very illuminating insights. M. A. Powell, who is rapidly rising to a position of eminence in historical Jesus studies, continues the survey on into the 20th century, especially in English; and his paper suggests that we may be on the brink of some startling new possibilities in the study of the Fourth Gospel. Carson's masterly (and very entertaining) essay on he literature speaks, aptly enough, of the ‘balkanization’ of Johannine studies, and of ‘clumps of opinions and approaches that regularly talk past one another’ (p. 151); and he concludes with an interesting suggestion about how to push the debate forward, one which I fear will not be taken up.

D. Moody Smith gives us a splendid survey of the recent signs of a return of Historical Jesus studies to paying attention to GJ, and mentions some important points at which the fourth Gospel seems to have more accurate historical knowledge than the Synoptics. There is a characteristically thoughtful essay by Andrew Lincoln, offering less consolation than some of the other contributors to those who wish to ascribe historicity to GJ. Colleen Conway offers a very lively piece, on the ‘new historicism’, which deserves careful reading, and John Painter draws an illuminating analogy between different kinds of contemporary evidence for the person of Socrates and testimony about Jesus. Then there is a brilliant essay by Paula Frederikson, which nevertheless left me in some discomfort (though not the same discomfort as M. A. Powell expressed in his response).

At the end of the book, one can only admire the level of scholarship displayed, and the care with which arguments and erudition are marshalled, and, particularly, the signs of renewed willingness to take patristic evidence seriously; but that combination alone, quite clearly, does not provide the answer. The conclusions one reaches on, for example, the historical accuracy of GJ, depends, apparently, on quite other, perhaps sub-rational, factors. We look forward, of course to the two volumes that we are promised in succession to this one, but I was left at the end with this nagging doubt: is the ‘historical Jesus’ simply the wrong question to put to the Scriptures in general, and to GJ in particular? While it may well be the case that in the 19th Century scholars turned to the ‘Quest for the Historical Jesus’ because they were weary of lifeless doctrinal readings of the gospels, perhaps the weariness is now on the other foot, and a properly critical stance today requires us, without surrendering any of the gains of the last two centuries, to read biblical texts on their own terms, from within the community of believers.