Book Review: The Historical Jesus in Context

25 Dec

The Review

Before I get to the review for this book I want to throw in a few quick comments (click on the above link if you want to skip this). First, it has been over a year since I posted a review. The reason for this is fairly simple. Ever since I began a concerted effort to read about Early Christianity I have largely encountered books I feel unqualified to write a review of. I’ve offered comments as something has caught my attention but for the most part I haven’t felt myself able to give an opinion on the quality of a book.1

Second, more related to the review which will follow is that I have never doubted the existence of a historical Jesus. My reasons, not being a Biblical scholar or even highly familiar with first century AD religion or source material discussions, have centered around one basic fact. He is too frequently mentioned in sources dating from a period too close to his death for him to not have existed. I have read/heard arguments such as, “We have nothing he wrote himself,” or, “There are no monuments or inscriptions dating from when he was alive with his name on them,” or even, “Nothing was written about him by someone who knew him personally.” This last is more debatable but it’s generally believed that the Gospel and other source authors were not among Jesus’ disciples.2

These are unrealistic standards. If we were to judge the existence of all people mentioned in source material similarly, history would be an empty thing. Non-elites didn’t write, or have monuments built to them. If we need to strike Jesus from history as someone who actually lived, then history will need to be rewritten in terms that will eliminate the existence of most non-elite individuals, and many elites. By the standards used to judge the probability of someone’s existence, there is plenty of evidence that a man named Jesus, a traveling teacher/preacher/rabbi in Judea, existed near the beginning of the first century. Within 10-15 years of his death, accounts of Jesus were told to large numbers of people who would have had every reason to be skeptical of this individual’s existence if they had not been pretty certain that he had lived. From a historical perspective, there are literally buckets of references to Jesus, chronologically close enough to when he lived to make his existence highly probable.

This does not mean that he is identical to the person we meet through the Gospels. As with any other source of that period, particularly written several decades after the subject lived, we have almost certainly been presented with an idealized Jesus(though I don’t buy arguments that he didn’t at all resemble this portrayal). The Gospel authors had their biases and must be evaluated with this in mind. Much of what is included in them is likely based on oral traditions which are generally less reliable (though numerous oral traditions that generally agree with one another should be viewed as another factor in favor of his having lived). Individuals in the 2nd or 3rd centuries may have redacted the Gospels to add additional details. And I have never had any urge to publicly debate the miracle stories. If you were to ask me if it is possible for a person to walk on water, feed thousands of people from a few loaves of bread and a couple of little fish, heal people without ever meeting them, or rise from the dead I would say no. I would also say I have no problem with anyone who wants to believe these things(and for all you know I may believe these things). Those are matters of faith and I try very hard never to argue with someone over faith, except very close friends.

When it comes to Jesus, I find myself more interested in questions such as whether he actually ran the moneylenders and shopkeepers out of the Temple (let’s face it – he did something to piss the establishment off, to the extent that they executed him). How radical was he, with his devaluation of some matters of Jewish Law? And I enjoy discussions of how apocalyptic Jesus was or whether much of this was entered into his life by the authors of the Gospels, writing as they did (likely) shortly following the destruction of the Temple by Roman authorities.

So with all that out of the way, let’s get to the review.

The Review


Levine, Amy-Jill, Allison, Dale C. Jr. and Crossan, John Dominic, eds., The Historical Jesus in Context, Princeton, Princeton University Press (2006). ISBN: 978-0-69100-992-9.

This is a collection of 28 essays designed to, as the title says, provide a context for Jesus’ life. As Levine says in her introduction, this book, “… provides information on cultural contexts within which Jesus was understood and perhaps even understood himself.” (1) How does Jesus, the man, teacher, rabbi and messiah fit into first-century Jewish and Roman society? Is he a radical outlier or can parallels be drawn between him and others of his time? How do the concepts, themes and ideas found in the Gospels compare with prominent themes from Jesus’ period? Where might some of these concepts, themes and ideas have originated from?

The essays in this volume are as follows:

  • Introduction by Amy-Jill Levine
  • 1. “Archaeological Contributions to the Study of Jesus and the Gospels,” Jonathan L. Reed
  • 2. “Josephus on John the Baptist and Other Jewish Prophets of Deliverance,” Craig A. Evans
  • 3. “Abba and Father: Imperial Theology in the Contexts of Jesus and the Gospels,” Mary Rose D’Angelo
  • 4. “Miraculous Conceptions and Births in Mediterranean Antiquity,” Charles H. Talbert
  • 5. “First and Second Enoch: A Cry Against Oppression and the Promise of Deliverance,” George W. E. Nickelsburg
  • 6. “Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls,” Peter Flint
  • 7. “The Chreia,” David B. Gowler
  • 8. “The Galilean Charismatic and Rabbinic Piety: The Holy Man in the Talmudic Literature,” Alan J. Avery-Peck
  • 9. “Miracle Stories: The God Asclepius, the Pythagorean Philosophers, and the Roman Rulers,” Wendy Cotter, C.S.J.
  • 10. “The Mithras Liturgy,” Marvin Meyer
  • 11. “Apuleius of Madauros,” Ian H. Henderson
  • 12. “The Parable in the Hebrew Bible and Rabbinic Literature,” Gary G. Porton
  • 13. “The Aesop Tradition,” Lawrence M. Wills
  • 14. “Targum, Jesus, and the Gospels,” Bruce Chilton
  • 15. “The Psalms of Solomon,” Joseph L. Trafton
  • 16. “Moral and Ritual Piety,” Jonathan Klawans
  • 17. “Gospel and Talmud,” Herbert W. Basser
  • 18. “Philo of Alexandria,” Gregory E. Sterling
  • 19. “The Law of Roman Divorce in the Time of Christ,” Thomas A. J. McGinn
  • 20. “Associations in the Ancient World,” John S. Kloppenborg
  • 21. “Anointing Traditions,” Teresa J. Hornsby
  • 22. “The Passover Haggadah,” Calum Carmichael
  • 23. “Joseph and Aseneth: Food as an Identity Marker,” Randall D. Chesnutt
  • 24. “The Pliny and Trajan Correspondence,” Bradley M. Peper and Mark DelCogliano
  • 25. “Imitations of Greek Epic in the Gospels,” Dennis R. MacDonald
  • 26. “Narratives of Noble Death,” Robert Doran
  • 27. “Isiah 53:1-12 (Septuagint),” Ben Witherington III
  • 28. “Thallus on the Crucifixion,” Dale C. Allison Jr.

Each chapter follows a similar pattern. It discusses a particular facet of ancient Jewish or Roman life, talks about source material related to that facet, and then provides translated sources demonstrating what was discussed. Occasionally these may be full sources but more often they are a selection. These materials are then compared and contrasted with how Jesus was portrayed, primarily in the Gospels.

The book is not what I’d call a popular history but it is written at a fairly basic level. I don’t know for sure but it looks like something designed for use in an introductory undergraduate course on source and textual analysis in Early Christianity. A negative of this book is it’s not footnoted though most sources are referenced in the text. As I do not intend to deeply explore issues related to this topic, this was less of a negative for me than it would be for some books.

As can be seen from the Table of Contents, the breadth of topics is considerable. The portrayal of Christ as a messianic figure, his use of parables as teaching tools, comparing his miracle stories with others of the period, exploring Jesus’ knowledge of Jewish scriptures and how he uses them, and discussions of his lack of concern with Jewish ritual impurity (compared with moral impurity) are covered, as well as other topics. I will briefly touch on some of the topics and essays which were of most interest to me.

Craig Evans analyzed the writings of Josephus to determine how prominently messianic figures appear in first-century Jewish culture. Josephus is negatively disposed to these individuals however he mentions several of them and, in contrast, he discusses John the Baptist in favorable terms. In essence, Jesus as a messiah is not out of place during this time and place.

Charles Talbert’s chapter was one of my favorites. He discusses multiple cases of miraculous conception in ancient literature, some of them fairly prominent such as Achilles as the son of the God Thetis and Hercules as the son of Zeus. Of more interest, and possibly more applicable to the portrayal of Jesus, are figures such as Pythagorus, Alexander the Great, and Plato. Talbert spends some time discussing how divine begetting was often attributed to an individual who had lived a particularly notable life. Arrian, in Anabasis 7.30 says of Alexander, “And so not even I can suppose that a man quite beyond all other men was born without some divine influence.” (84) In discussing a passage from Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of the Eminent Philosophers 3.45 Talbert says, “One could not do what Plato did had he not been the offspring of a God! One reason the ancients used stories of miraculous conceptions and births was as an explanation of the superiority of the individual.” (85) For me, while I was certainly aware of miraculous conceptions in ancient literature, I had never grouped the birth of Christ with these.

Peter Flint compares how Jesus is portrayed in the Gospels with passages found in the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Essenes had several messianic figures and in many ways their lives parallel the account of Jesus. However they differ in a couple of key points and Flint disagrees with prior analyses which describe an Essene precedent for either a killed Messiah or a sacrificial crucifixion to redeem man from sins.

Gary Porton, Bruce Chilton and Herbert Basser discuss prominent Jewish literature elements and their use by Jesus in the Gospels. Porton discusses parables found in rabbinic literature and believes that, “… one would expect the ‘historical’ Jesus to have taught throughout his life by parables.” (209). Chilton talks about a type of literature known as Targum. These are scriptural paraphrases where the general meaning of Hebrew scripture is rendered into the Aramaic most commonly in use in first-century scripture. He demonstrates that Jesus was well aware of and extensively used this literary form, indicating an extensive knowledge of Hebrew scripture. He also discusses one particular instance where the Greek translation provided by Luke misrepresents the Aramaic original. In Luke 4:16-30 Jesus is nearly stoned after speaking in a synagogue. Based on Luke, Jesus appears to provide a fairly traditional interpretation of Isiah however based on pronoun confusion, he is actually proclaiming himself not just as a divinely inspired preacher but as a full-on messiah who will personally see to the redemption of the souls of men from captivity. (252-4) Interestingly, Chilton describes a Jesus who knew and used Targum however he almost never used identical language and how he used scripture, “… shows that an innovative tendency is characteristic of his style of teaching.” (252) Basser describes how Jesus followed talmudic and rabbinic forms of teaching and argument, however his message in the Gospels is different from Judaic teachings.

A very useful chapter for me was authored by Jonathan Klawans. He discusses the difference between ritual purity and moral purity and how Jesus emphasized the importance of the latter but was not as concerned with the former. Ritual impurities are those which do not represent sin. For example, a woman is ritually impure during menstruation, however this does not demonstrate sin, just that she should avoid the temple during these times (interestingly, male genital emissions are also considered ritually impure). An individual who helped bury someone is ritually impure but not sinful – the dead must be cared for and buried – he or she must ritually cleanse him- or herself before entering the temple. In contrast, moral impurity such as sexual transgressions, bloodshed, and idolatry are sinful and result in long-lasting defilement which may not be removed simply by a ritual cleansing. Throughout the Gospels, Christ expresses little concern for ritual impurity. He and his disciples eat without first washing their hands, heal on the Sabbath and gather grain to eat on the Sabbath, all items prohibited under Jewish Law. Yet he is very concerned with greed, murder, adultery, etc. Klawans provides a useful analysis of Mark 7:1-23 in discussing this.

There were a few essays I considered less useful. I found Dennis MacDonald’s argument that the Gospels made extensive use of Greek epics unconvincing. The fact that Hector and Christ both died is certainly true however I do not see where the denial by Achilles to grant Priam his body resembles the account of Christ’s death, burial and resurrection, similarly the death of Turnus in the Aenid. Marvin Meyer’s discussion and translation of the Mithras Liturgy was interesting, however he failed to adequately connect it to first-century Judaism which left me wondering what the point of the chapter was.

This is a good book. For me, it did what it was intended to do – provide me a contextual basis from which I could draw more insight into Jesus’ life, or at least his life as it is portrayed in the Gospels. Jesus comes across as a man of his times, a preacher/teacher who uses traditional Jewish literature, teaching methods, and whose messages are, in many cases, traditional. However he also comes across as a remarkable individual, even accounting for possible later redactions of the Gospels. While he uses traditional methods, much of his message is innovative. While bathing to remove ritual impurity is an every day aspect of Jewish life, the Gospel accounts provide a new, one-time-only, “baptism for life” for the remission of sins. Jesus breaks with Jewish authorities on what constitutes impurity. Once one recalls that in Rome, Emperors were commonly worshiped as deities, Jesus’ famous “Render unto God what is God and unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” becomes a subversive denial of the Emperor’s divinity. Christ, depending on your viewpoint, was either an innovator or a radical, perhaps both. He was enough of each to earn the enmity of the Jewish establishment to the point of being executed.

There are areas left unexamined. In particular, I would have appreciated an account of Roman judicial practice in Judea during the period and an examination of how Christ’s trial, sentence and execution compared with normal judicial procedures. I have read where the trial and sentence is considered to have taken place very quickly and would have enjoyed a discussion of this. I would have also enjoyed more discussions such as Bruce Chilton’s discussing Aramaic/Greek translations and how this impacts determining the origin of Gospel accounts.3

This book will be valuable for a person who is just beginning his or her examination of first-century Christianity. My one recommendation is that you first read the canonical Gospels. These are frequently referred to and the Gospel accounts are compared and contrasted with other examples of ancient literature throughout.

1 It’s sheer coincidence that I’m posting something about Jesus on Christmas Day. I happened to finish this book over the weekend. Funny how that works out.

2 This is the biggest change in my preconceptions; that the Gospel authors were not Jesus’ companions. In essence, while some believe that Mark (considered the earliest Gospel) may have been written around 50 AD, most place it closer to about 70. The real disqualifier is that the Gospels were written in fairly high quality Greek. Jesus’ companions are unlikely to have known Greek and even more unlikely to have been able to write it.

3 One of the ways historians try to figure out when something in a Gospel account originated is by trying to reverse translate it from Greek into Aramaic. There are passages in the Greek which make no sense in Aramaic demonstrating, probably, something which was added a bit later, up to when the Gospel was written (later redactions are an entirely different matter). And there are stories which appear to make much more sense in Aramaic, indicating a fairly early origin. Of course most make sense both ways. And quite often the Gospels and Paul retain an original Aramaic word or phrase.


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2 responses to “Book Review: The Historical Jesus in Context

  1. Larry Swain

    January 4, 2013 at 3:19 pm

    Heya Curt,
    Catching up on some blog reading and hopefully will do some blogging of my own. Sounds like a good collection of essays overviewing the state of the field, more or less. I don’t have details to hand, but I think Bart Ehrman has recently published a book on the question of the Historical Jesus that might address some of your queries too.

    A few comments: Chilton, Basser, and Evans have long had an impact on my own reading of the questions. RE: targums and Greek translations etc, one of Chilton’s early books compares the words of Jesus (esp. in G of Matthew) with in particular the Targum of Isaiah. Good stuff.

    I’m a little surprised that at this point we still have people saying that lower class fishermen from Capernaum would not have known Greek. Linguistic studies and the degree to which a market town like Capernaum was a multilingual place have shown that it is quite likely that Jesus’ disciples, if not Jesus himself (though as a craftsman working in Capernaum) knew at least functional Greek and that Galilee and Jerusalem were multilingual and inhabitants to varying degrees would have known two or even three languages. Now knowing how to write Greek is a different story.

    Delighted to read your reaction to McDonald. He did a very fine piece of work if memory serves on the Acts of Andrew being a “redone” Homer. It is a very convincing piece of scholarship in most of its arguments. But then he seemed to want to see Homer everywhere in Christian documents and came out with the book arguing that Mark was a retold Homer. We attempted to engage him on one of the listservs and pointed out several problems with his reading at which he simply sniffed contemptuously and airily dismissed Still, there are significant problems with his readings of the gospels as Homeric mimesis and glad to see a careful reader such as yourself notes some issues as well.

    RE: Mithras, I’m not sure that there is a direct connection between Mithras and 1st century Judaism. Much of 1st century Judaism is influenced by the still sizeable community in Babylon….Persia, where “Iranian Mithraism” is also born. Roman Mithraism derives from the latter, but has different features. I think the question is more indirect: Roman Mithraism and 1st C. Judaism share Persian features; Christianity and Roman Mithraism develop in the Greco-Roman world and context; Christian liturgy is borrowed from 1st Judaism and influences Roman Mithraism (used to be claimed that it was the other way, but liturgical historians have laid that one to rest).

    Some great issues covered in this book, thanks for bringing it to my attention….now on my list.

  2. Curt Emanuel

    January 5, 2013 at 11:30 am

    Thanks Larry – I’d forgotten how much you know about this area. The 1st century languages in this region seem rather poorly explained once I’d read a few books. Some write about Hebrew and Aramaic as if they were synonymous, others like they were two different languages (or at least dialects). It would make sense that those areas would be bilingual. The Jews were part of the Empire; at least some and maybe a high portion would have had to have been bilingual, at least enough so as to be able to communicate the essentials of their specific trade. Plus Greek-speakers were known to attend Jewish worship as in Alexandria. Hard to believe the bilingualism didn’t work both ways. Thank you for making me think about this.

    I did a quick perusal to see where I read that (likelihood of Disciples knowing Greek in note 2) and didn’t find it. It’s likely something I read some time ago and retained as a valid argument regarding authorship of the Gospels.

    A lot of what’s in this book is probably pretty basic to someone such as yourself. OTOH, so long as most of the information is basically sound it looks like it would make a good textbook for an introductory class on Christian origins/Early Christianity. As a novice, I enjoyed it.


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