Who can we know about the historical Jesus? While according to Barna most Americans (92%) believe Jesus was a real person,1many know nothing about him—or what they know is wrong. As Eugene Peterson puts it, “Rumor, conjecture, salacious gossip, conspiratorial plots, innuendo, and hysterical alarm swirl around the name of Jesus these days.”
Ben Witherington relates an example in the introduction to What Have They Done with Jesus?:
Recently I did an interview with a major network for a Christmas show on Mary and the virginal conception, and the first question out of the chute was, Could Mary have been a temple prostitute in the Jerusalem Temple who was raped by someone there? It was suggested that this is why Luke, in his gospel, has Jesus say, “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” (2:41–52) when Jesus visited there as a twelve-year-old. Inquiring minds want to know: Have we been duped about Jesus and his earliest followers?2
Gain an understanding of key arguments, old and new, and explore the historical Jesus for yourself with these five books:
Craig Keener argues that the earliest substantive sources available for historical Jesus research are in the Gospels themselves. When interpreted in their early Jewish setting, their picture of Jesus is more coherent and plausible than the competing theories offered by many modern scholars.
In exploring the depth and riches of the material found in the Synoptic Gospels, Keener shows how many works on the historical Jesus emphasize just one aspect of the Jesus tradition against others, but a much wider range of material in the Jesus tradition makes sense in an ancient Jewish setting. Keener masterfully uses a broad range of evidence from the early Jesus traditions and early Judaism to reconstruct a fuller portrait of the Jesus who lived in history.
Traditions about Jesus and his teaching circulated in oral form for decades following the writing of the New Testament Gospels. Explore related issues in this collection of 15 essays from James Dunn:
- the role of eyewitnesses and memory
- how the Jesus tradition was shaped by oral usage
- the importance of seeing the biblical materials as living tradition
- and others
Christopher Tuckett, professor of New Testament at Oxford University, says:
As with all of Dunn’s work, the argument is invariably readable, persuasive, and compelling. This will be an invaluable resource for all those engaged in study of the Gospels, their sources, and their witness to the person of Jesus.
3. Who Was Jesus? by N. T. Wright
In Who Was Jesus, Wright takes on theories surrounding Jesus, like these:
- that Jesus was married and fathered children
- that Jesus divorced and remarried
- that the doctrine of the virgin birth has caused the oppression of women
He outlines these arguments—and presents solid reasons for discounting the theories.
Written from the standpoint of professional biblical scholarship yet assuming no prior knowledge of the subject, Wright shows convincingly that much can be gained from rigorous historical assessment of what the Gospels themselves say about Jesus.
4. What Have They Done with Jesus? Beyond Strange Theories and Bad History—Why We Can Trust the Bible by Ben Witherington III
With leading scholars and popular purveyors of bad history in his crosshairs, Witherington reveals what we can—and cannot—know about the real Jesus.
Using a fresh “personality profile” approach, Witherington highlights core Christian claims by investigating the major figures in Jesus’ inner circle.
In what amounts to a vigorous defense of traditional Christianity, What Have They Done With Jesus? offers a compelling portrait of Jesus’ core message according to those who knew him best.
This critically acclaimed work argues that the four Gospels are based on the eyewitness testimony of those who personally knew Jesus. Noted New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham challenges the prevailing assumption that the stories about Jesus circulated as “anonymous community traditions,” asserting instead that they were transmitted in the names of the original eyewitnesses.
To drive home this point, Bauckham draws on internal literary evidence, the use of personal names in first-century Jewish Palestine, and recent developments in the understanding of oral tradition. Jesus and the Eyewitnesses also taps into the rich resources of the modern study of memory and challenges readers to end the classic division between the “historical Jesus” and the “Christ of faith,” proposing instead the “Jesus of testimony” as presented by the Gospels.
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- Ben Witherington III, What Have They Done with Jesus? Beyond Strange Theories and Bad History—Why We Can Trust the Bible (New York: Harper San Francisco, 2006), 2.