Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Review: 'Jesus: A Short Life' by John Dickson

John Dickson, Jesus: A Short Life (Lion Hudson, 2008)

The introduction of the book acts on its title – Why the Headlines Almost Always Get Him Wrong. The premise of the question is that the headlines do usually get it wrong and that is a statement I wholeheartedly agree with. The issues of the Talpiot family tomb has been raised the past few Easters without fail; the hype of the so-called ‘Lost Gospels’ (and more recently that of Judas) constantly raises its head; the sensationalism of Barbara Thiering and her Dead Sea fiction and many others which have received such media attention are, and in my opinion, will always be at the edge of the scholarly field. The headlines play their part – sensationalism that rocks the foundations of religion – or even our political leaders.

Specifically in this book Dickson sets up the field to interact with the popular published works of the so-called ‘Nouveau Atheists’ as well as John Shelby Spong’s recent addition, Jesus for the Non-Religious. Here I would like to note that Dr Dickson has earlier interacted with the pseudo-historical claims of Hitchens, Onfray and Dawkins in a paper presented to the Society for the Study of Early Christianity at the May 2008 Conference. (The paper may be found in the June 2008 Society Newsletter.) Similarly, Bishop of Durham N.T. Wright in his little 1995 book Who Is Jesus? has also interacted with the earlier works of Spong.

Dickson then addresses the issue of the mainstream and margins of academic scholarship. Namely, the mainstream is established through scholarly peer-review and acceptance whilst the margins are often self-representative individuals. The mainstreams are generally silent in the media as opposed to the margins (reminiscent of the Jesus Seminar publicity of earlier days in North America, for example). I must note that the mainstream – or at least scholars more in line with the mainstream are not always quiet. For example, some more conservative North American scholars seem to be doing a good job such as L.T. Johnson, Ben Witherington , Darrell Bock, Daniel Wallace and others. And the European scholars even have a go from N.T. Wright to James D.G. Dunn. And from here is whence Dickson arises – to bring the silence of the mainstream to the more popular level. (p.12) This is something that I believe he has achieved in his Life of Jesus production which was aired on Channel 7 in modified form.

Dickson sets down a caveat – that is, he will be re-presenting the works of leading experts with his “historian’s hat” on. He drops the presuppositions of inspiration and claims to treat the text as just that – a text by various authors from the first century as one should approach any other ancient source. Dickson will attempt to examine what we can know, historically, about the life of Jesus from the most objective standpoint he can bring himself to. As a result, Dickson emphasizes, he will not be able to fill in all the gaps of what he believes about Jesus as historical methodology (multiple attestation or the presuppositions against miracles to just name two examples) would place these beyond historical certainty.

In chapter one, Jesus on the Margins of History, Dickson begins with the basics of ancient historical inqqury. He emphasises that we can only reliably reconstruct history on the evidence we possess – and that evidence is generally scant and random. We must account for this in our reconstructions. Regarding the Gospel Dickson makes use of the Pool of Siloam of John 9 that I myself am so fond of. (pp.16-17) In previous days, namely pre-2004, the mention of the pool within the Gospel was interpreted as a construct by the author (which fits in with the often repeated claim that the Gospel of John is scantly historical). However, excavations that subsequently discovered the pool have had to throw such metaphorical interpretations out – there really was a pool. From here we see the truth in the mantra that the absence of evidence does not equal evidence of absence.

Dickson applies this method to Jesus and comments that we are lucky to have both independent Christian and non-Christian witnesses to the small Jesus movement of first century Palestine. This is something which those marginal persons arguing for the non-existence of Jesus take for granted – and in the case of people such as Earl Doherty, dismiss without reason. Dickson briefly outlines some of the external evidence such as the second mention of Jesus in Josephus’ Antiquities (he makes no mention of the Testemonium Flavium) among others.

Chapter two is dedicated to ‘How Historians Read the New Testament’ and is concerned with how scholars view the New Testament as a historical source. I wholeheartedly agree with Dicksons emphasis with regard to how scholars view the New Testament documents. Many attacks on the Bible and historicity of Jesus make two generally fatal mistakes. The first is that they set a caveat that the New Testament cannot be used as a historical source. This criteria is simply nonsensical in the eyes of the historian – the New Testament contain 27 texts, by numerous and independent authors. There is no reason to dismiss this as evidence. The next mistake is the claim that supporting the New Testament with the New Testament is circular. Such a claim does not account for the above, namely, that the New Testament contains documents independent ancient witnesses which were often produced with “no knowledge of the other texts that would end up in the volume Christians came to regard as sacred.” (p.24)

Dickson then treats the Gnostic gospels rather fairly as a series of texts that help us understand later Christian diversity but not primarily the historical Jesus. (p.27) He moves to the earlier sources, the Pauline epistles, and notes some of the historical features of Jesus we can know from the texts – although biography was clearly not their purpose. (To be continued...)

On the Bibliography

The extensive selected bibliography of the book was great. However, I do have some problems with it. Namely, as the book is for lay readers, how does one know which of the books lay outside of the mainstream. What comes to mind when going through that list would be The Five Gospels etc which directly undermine Dicksons book with the numerous unqualified appeal to the majority of a minority (i.e. the Jesus Seminar). What books I appreciate in the list are the standards – James D.G. Dunn; E.P. Sanders; Richard Bauckham; John Dominic Crossan; Marcus J. Borg; N.T. Wright, etc. To those I would add the works which aren’t directly historical Jesus but have done the ground work such as Martin Hengel’s work into the canonical gospels, The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Christological issues addressed in The Son of God as well as the slightly more apologetic (yet still scholarly) The Real Jesus of Luke Timothy Johnson.

However, I do also believe the bibliography is missing a few books I would see as essential such as Ben Witherington’s The Jesus Quest. Witherington’s interaction with the number of historical Jesus studies such as those ‘standards’ listed above would be the next step for the individual interested in moving on from Dickson’s little book. A mention of Craig A. Evan’s Ancient Texts for New Testament Studies or a book of that nature seems to be missing from the list. Furthermore, I am not sure as to how Dunn’s 129 page The Evidence for Jesus missed out

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