Apr 25, 2016

Review of 40 Questions about the Historical Jesus

C. Marvin Pate, 40 Questions about the Historical Jesus (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2015).

That Jesus of Nazareth continues to be a person of much interest after nearly 2000 years is encouraging. But examining his incomparable person and life can present significant challenges for the serious student. On the one hand, there are apologetic approaches that tend to smooth over, flatten, or ignore tensions in the data when approaching the life of Jesus historically. On the other hand, others investigate the subject with an extreme skepticism and tend to present their conclusions in an unnecessarily provocative way. In some ways, Pate’s volume tries to steer a via media between these approaches.

As the title of the book implies, this 408 page work is centered on asking and answering forty questions related to the study of the historical Jesus. The forty questions are divided fairly equally into four parts. In part one, Pate interacts with eleven background-related questions. Part two addresses eight questions about Jesus’ birth and childhood. For part three, thirteen questions examine Jesus’ life and teaching. Finally, part four covers Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.

Overall, this is a decent introductory resource that is conservative in its approach and honors the veracity of the biblical material. Some might argue that Pate’s conclusions are too conservative (perhaps bordering on apologetic) and that many of the tools or criteria that have been developed to explore the issue of the historical Jesus when properly used should reveal a bit more chaff among the wheat than he sees. This issue is one that I wish the author would have addressed. Namely, can or how can one use the tools of critical scholarship designed to identify authentic material from inauthentic material if one holds a high view of Scripture that does not allow for inauthentic material. I think devoting one of the forty questions to this issue could have been immensely helpful. This leads to another point that merits clarification. This book is not predominantly about the quests for the historical Jesus and the criteria used to pursue them. This is really more of a life of Christ or study of the Gospels. These are worthy areas of study, but I wonder whether the “historical” part might be (mis)understood in two different ways. That being said, I agree with Pate’s overall affirmation of the historical veracity of the biblical material.

This work is easy to read and packed with information. There are a number of helpful tables and the reflection questions at the end of the chapter could prove useful for those who want to use this work in a small group study or classroom environment. One might wish for more discussion here or there. For example, in the
section on archaeology, Pate does not mention significant evidence related to personages connected to Jesus in the Gospels. Absent is any reference to the coinage of Herod the Great and Pilate and inscriptions such as the Pontius Pilate inscription discovered at Caesarea Maritima or the ossuary of Caiaphas. But overall I think there was a nice balance in the coverage of the topics related to the questions that were raised.

I would recommend this book as more of a primer to the life of Jesus and Gospel studies more generally. You will get a good presentation and defense of the “historical” Jesus. But, if one is looking for a good introduction to the critical quests for the “historical” Jesus and the criteria and principles that have guided it, then this volume is probably going to leave the reader wanting more. 

You can read an excerpt here.

Thanks to the kind folks at Kregel for providing the copy used in this review.

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