Not James, but Helen. Introductions to biblical and theological topics are ten a penny, but good introductory books are much harder to find. I’ll be commending Helen Bond’s The Historical Jesus: A Guide for the Perplexed both to my students and to interested others as a really good introduction.
Bond covers the ground in an orderly and effective way, beginning with an helpful sketch of how Jesus studies developed, and an outline of the available sources for study. Like most historians, she concludes that the synoptic gospels provide the main sources for any reconstruction.
In the second part of the book she develops what she calls snapshots of Jesus, although each chapter actually offers a reflection on a different aspect of reconstructing the historical Jesus in broadly chronological order, after first having set out a summary of the historical context. She looks at birth narratives (which she finds to be largely theological creations), then at the current state of knowledge of the Galilean context, before beginning her reconstruction proper with John the Baptist.
She goes on to explore in successive chapters the message of Jesus, the healings and exorcisms, the friends and then the enemies of Jesus. An interlude chapter looks at the place and significance of Jerusalem before concluding chapters on the cross and finally the resurrection.
Throughout this journey, she shows herself a thoughtful and informative guide, always insisting on returning to the sources and the most probable facts that a contemporary historian can read out of them. She is sceptical of scholars who either indulge in too doctrinaire a methodology (such as an over-investment on criteria) or who try to select facts to fit a sociological model (eg peasant unrest). Crossan’s reconstruction is the one most often in her cross-hairs, and rightly so.
She acknowledges the problem of clashing world views in trying to ascertain exactly what healings, exorcisms and powerful deeds Jesus carries out, although is clear that the historian needs to say Jesus was widely believed to be an effective and extraordinarily powerful wonderworker. As she notes, some people will draw the line in different places between the actual deeds Jesus did and the way in which they were magnified in the telling. I would, however, have liked to see more stress for the reader new to these questions on the nature of “miracle” as a post-Enlightenment category alien to the texts.
Unusually for a book on the historical Jesus, she finishes with the resurrection, insisting (I would say quite rightly) that the belief of the early Christians, that is the effects of whatever happened to Jesus after the crucifixion in vision, conviction or actuality need to be treated as historical phenomena in their own right. Without fully stating her own answer to that question, she points out how exceptional the category of resurrection applied to one man in the middle of history actually is.
Inevitably, there are quibbles. No two people’s reconstructions of the historical Jesus are the same. For example, I think the continuing career of the Baptist in the early part of Jesus ministry is one of the few instances when the historian should prefer John to the synoptics. Conversely, when the fourth gospel portrays a split between Jesus and his brothers, I am more inclined to see a later division between the Johannine and Jerusalem churches than a split between Jesus and his blood family. I have a larger disagreement about the Pharisees, but she ably represents a medium position between many conflicting views which is certainly plausible.
There are also two typos I noted which are unfortunate in a beginner’s text. The US critic who gave far too much credence to the criterion of double dissimilarity was Norman Perrin, not the more recent and contemporary Nicholas. (p17). And Herod the Great’s dates as king are not 37-34 BCE, but 37-4 BCE. (p59).
However, quibbles and typos aside, I have to say this is a very readable and very reliable guide which will indeed help the perplexed and the beginner alike arrive at a fairly sure starting point for further exploration. It is as good a grounding in a controversial subject as I have come across, delivered in a remarkably succinct and lucid package.