historical-jesusThe Historical Jesus: An Essential Guide, by James Charlesworth (Abingdon, 2008), 131 pages.

Who was Jesus of Nazareth, and what can we know about him? Do the Gospels preserve any genuine traditions about Jesus? Was he a historical figure at all? Many people ask these questions, and many scholars try to answer them. The historical figure of Jesus is an elusive one for most scholars, who find him to be quite different from the “Christ of faith,” a distinction prominent since Martin Kähler’s The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic, Biblical Christ (1892).

James Charlesworth is a prominent, senior scholar who is an authority on second temple literature, especially the Pseudepigrapha and Dead Sea Scrolls, and the New Testament. In this guide to the historical Jesus, Charlesworth writes for the student who wants to learn about the major issues in academic research on the historic figure of Jesus. It is a compendium of information about modern research methods, historical issues related to Jesus’ life, Jesus’ message, and other related issues.

Chapter one surveys the quests for the historical Jesus, which leads into the present “Third Quest,” which he calls Historical Jesus research. He highlights the progress scholars have made by moving away from the extremes of positivism and subjectivism. The result of this long history of research culminated in many research methods, explained in chapter two. He mentions five major tools for discerning genuine tradition, such as the criterion of embarrassment, as well as ten other less important tools, such as noting transliterated Aramaic throughout the Gospels.

Chapter three surveys the three important extrabiblical sources for Jesus, which are Tacitus, Josephus, and the Gospel of Thomas. He also explores whether the Gospels are objective biography, which he concludes they are not (this may not be the best question to answer, since no biography is objective, as Charlesworth notes). Chapter four introduces us to the Judaismof Jesus’ time and tries to situate him historically. Most interesting is his “Ten Modern Misconceptions about Judaism during Jesus’ time” section. Many of these are not contentious, although his second misconception is that Jews in Jesus’ day were legalistic, following Sanders. While Sanders has fixed the misconception that they were completely legalistic, the problem with saying they were not legalistic is that one can find many texts that either explicitly or implicitly espouse or presuppose legalism, and there were so many varieties of Judaism, some of which was preserved in writings, and many of which were simply held by common Jews.

The rest of the chapters cover issues related to Jesus’ birth and childhood (ch. 5), his early public life, archaeological evidence for Jesus’ life (ch. 7), Jesus’ proclamation of God’s rule in his parables (ch. 8), and Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection (ch. 9). Charlesworth provides helpful summaries of available evidence in some places, such as his list of archaeological finds from Jesus’ time and culture (87). He also comes to some unique conclusions, for example, that John the Baptist was likely Jesus’ teacher (although other historians have suggested this before, it is not explicit in the biblical texts at all [77]).


The major strength of this book is its inclusion of a mass amount of data and the available evidence that bear on different questions related to the historical Jesus. In that sense, it fulfills its purpose as a guide to students wishing to get a grasp on the various issues up for debate.

The major weakness of this work is its one-sided analysis and exclusion of other positions, even those held by critical scholars. For example, he assumes Markan priority throughout without seriously considering any other redactional theories. Moreover, in the introduction, Charlesworth takes the saying from Mark 9:1 (“there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see that the Kingdom of God has come with power”) and says without any nuance or reservation that the other Evangelists changed the wording because “what Mark reported was embarrassing, and that they had to change what Mark had attributed to Jesus” (xx).

But as great a scholar as Charlesworth knows there are at least five other interpretations of Mark 9:1:

  1. A reference to the transfiguration (cf. Mark 8:4-7), which follows contextually in all three of the synoptics.
  2. The resurrection and the outpouring of the Spirit immediately following it (cf. Mark 9:9-10 and the Matthean parallel). Cf. 28:18.
  3. The judgment of Jerusalem and the destruction of it and of the Temple (cf. Lk. 22:69; Mk. 13; and par. Jn. 2:19-22).
  4. The powerful advance of the gospel in the pagan world.
  5. That both a near and far off reference is intended.

If one makes a methodological mistake in the very beginning and builds his entire case from that mistake, then the entire case will be quite flawed. That is not to say that Charlesworth’s interpretation is incorrect, but it is to say that it seems slanted and biased to omit five other interpretations of the passage that have been advanced and then build his case for historical inaccuracy of parts of the Gospels from that point.

One other gaping lacuna is his omission of any discussion of philosophy of history. We are now at a time when I do not think any sort of historiographical discussion can be had without first discussing the relevant issues from philosophy of history. Charlesworth is attempting to avoid what he believes to be errant extremes, that of positivism and relativism. Such an attempt surely has become popular today, especially since N. T. Wright popularized “critical realism,” building off Ben Meyer. But while positivism surely should be laid to rest, there are many other philosophical paradigms that would allow us to have genuine knowledge of the past through the biblical documents themselves. Redaction surely took place, but Charlesworth’s simplistic acceptance of one critical interpretation over many other possible interpretations at these points of redaction allows for a bleak and overly critical view of the ability to see the historical Jesus through the texts. I think the historical Jesus is much more evident and clearly visible in the biblical text than Charlesworth does.

Nevertheless, this guide will stay available on my shelf for its massive collation of data and clear exploration of the issues. I commend Charlesworth for presenting such a clear guide to the historical Jesus and would recommend this book to anyone interested, with the precautions mentioned.

Find it here on Amazon.

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