In 1987 I was a beginner when I read Jesus: A New Vision: Spirit, Culture, and the Life of Discipleship by Marcus Borg. His book was an early presentation of the contemporary scholarly quest for the historical Jesus. It marked, for me, the beginning of a journey of understanding the historical Jesus and the Christian life in a radically new way. Beginners, who read Linden's book, are most likely to have a similar illuminating experience. He is chairman of the board of directors of The Foundation for Contemporary Theology. A retired partner of the law firm of Vinson & Elkins, LLP, he holds a Postgraduate Diploma in theology from Oxford University. He describes his book as containing "a group of readings for members of the general public who are just beginning to learn about the academic analysis of the Christian Gospels."
In a preface the author shares the story of his experiences at The Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in Houston, Texas, which he believes "could be one possible model for what a church might be if it encapsulates and follows many of the teachings and the life of the historical Jesus." Although his quest for the historical Jesus began long after most of his time at the Church, he found that his experiences at the Church were reflective of "what he later learned about the historical Jesus." Pointing out that the focus of the message of Jesus was the Kingdom of God, he writes that "The community at the Church of The Redeemer was that kind of place where we glimpsed the Kingdom of God."
He describes the historical Jesus as "a collection of the words and deeds that probably can be attributed to the human Jesus who walked the hills of Galilee some two-thousand years ago." He explains that this term is helpful in distinguishing between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith which focuses on the meaning of the life and death of Jesus expressed in the New Testament and formulated in the creeds and doctrines of the Church.
He presents the basics of contemporary Biblical scholarship which is the source of the quest for the historical Jesus. Describing the Bible as a human document which is a combination of history and interpretation, he examines the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke as sources of portraits of the historical Jesus. He devotes a chapter to describing the task of isolating the words and deeds of pre-Easter Jesus in these Gospels, from the post-Easter Jesus voices of interpretation, which originated in early Christian communities.
He then presents four sketches of the historical Jesus drawn by four scholars, Robert W. Funk, Marcus Borg, Marvin F. Cain, and John Dominic Crossan. He makes the point that although the sketches "are not identical they certainly do have much in common. It brings richness to our vision to see the historical Jesus from these four points of view." A sampling of the sketches reveal the historical Jesus as "a comic savant, a "word wizard," "the proverbial party animal," "a spirit person and mediator of the sacred," "a teacher of wisdom," a social prophet," "a movement founder," "a revolutionary teacher in parables and aphorism focused on what he called the Kingdom of God,", a prophet of "egalitarian sharing of spiritual and material power at the most grassroots level"
The author then turns to the question of the relevance of the quest for the historical Jesus for the Church. He uses, as a resource, a book by Bishop John Shelby Spong, Why Christianity Must Change or Die. The thesis of the book is that the central problem facing the Church today, both in America and Northern Europe, is how Christianity can be expressed to comport with modern scientific knowledge. The author proposes that one of the changes in Christianity that can be made is a re-visioning of the Christian Church based upon what has been discovered by the quest for the historical Jesus. He uses the work of Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover, Charles W. Hedrick, Stephen J. Patterson, and Marcus J. Borg to illuminate this re-visioning.
In his concluding chapter, the author states that, "Originally I had intended to confine this book to the historical Jesus alone.... However, Christianity cannot be based solely upon the historical Jesus." Originally, Christianity consisted of the memory of the historical Jesus and the interpretation of his life after his death which was called the Christ of faith. The author stresses that a "re-visioned Christianity must have a re-visioned Christ of faith" but that we substitute "the Spirit of the historical Jesus" for the Christ of faith. He writes, "I suggest there was a certain Godly spirit that enveloped and permeated the historical Jesus that attracted his followers. That spirit lived on after his death." He believes that the Gospel of John, which is not considered a source for the historical Jesus, is a prime example of this combination. He finds this understanding of the Spirit of Jesus in the Eucharist in Christian churches.
This comprehensive and compelling book is a masterful primer of the historical Jesus for beginners. But is also a valuable resource for those who have been on the journey for some years.
A Thoughtful Overview Nov 19, 2008
Not only is this new book on the historical Jesus good for beginners, it serves all students of the subject. The book provides a solid overview of the perspectives of prominent scholars as well as the perspectives of the author. Definitely recommended for the curious among us!
Finding the Historical Jesus Nov 19, 2008
The number of books that have come out of the scholarly search for the historical Jesus can overwhelm the person who wants a grasp of the field. Now, finally, we have a place to begin. Bill Linden's book gives the reader such an introduction, not by summarizing authors' thoughts but by quoting passages directly from their studies. The author tells something of his own spiritual journey at the beginning, and then at the end adds his thoughts on the Gospel of John. This is a thoughtfully constructed book for beginners, and as one quite familiar with the field, I am finding it to be a valuable resource.