I found 'The Jesus Debate' during my visit to Cambridge, while seeking refuge in a small store for Theology and History books. I've read just enough to be intrigued ' it was only when I read it back in Israel that I realized I stumbled upon a fine introduction to the scholarship of Jesus.
'The Jesus Debate: Modern Historians Investigate the Life of Christ' focuses on scholars who depict Jesus in the late 20th century. Its style reminds me of 'Explaining Hitler: A Quest to the Root of His Evil' by Ron Rosenbaum. Both demonstrate how an important historical figure can be seen through many different angles, and, significantly, both owe an acknowledged debt to Albert Schweitzer's classic 'The Quest of the Historical Jesus'. Both also discuss exclusively American and to a lesser extent British writers, with an almost complete disregard to Historians from the rest of the world.
The most useful chapters in the book are the early ones, where Powell goes through some of the basics of modern biblical studies. I finally figured out the differences between the synoptic gospels, the apocryphal gospels, and the reconstructed Q Gospel. There is also an interesting historiography of modern Jesus studies, from the late 18th century till the middle of the twentieth, and discussions of various criteria of Authenticity of parts of the NT.
Chapters 4-9 depicts the various attempts to explain Jesus. There is a chapter about the 'Jesus Seminar', an attempt of multiple scholars to vote for the authenticity of sayings and events depicted in the Canonical Gospels and in the Gospel of Thomas. Powell explain well both the value and the weaknesses of the Seminar, and stresses that the Seminar did not really rule out much of the Gospel as unreal. Rather, the Seminar decisively went for a minimal reconstruction of what Jesus said and did. Even a few Black votes (officially a black vote would mean 'I would not include this item in the primary database', or 'There's gotta be some mistake' colloquially) could drag down a passage into the Grey zone ('This information is possible but unreliable' or 'Well, maybe'). Therefore, that the Seminar found almost 20% of Jesus's saying in the Gospels to be authentic does not seem so revolutionary.
The rest of the chapters vary, although they are all interesting. In each one, Powell represents a point of view (i.e. John Dominic Crossan's 'Jesus the Social Revolutionary' or Marcus Borg's 'Jesus the Religious Mystic'), and also includes criticisms and implications of these perspectives.
Basically, the current Jesus debate ranges between two axis ' on the one hand, there are those, like John Crossan, who see Jesus as a Hellenised Jew, highly influenced by the ideas of the gentile environment. On the other hand, Scholars like John P. Meier see Jesus as very much the traditional Jew, working and thinking along classical Jewish lines, although not necessarily without innovations. The second axis is about the content of Jesus's message ' was it primarily secular, focusing on the here-and-now (The Jesus Seminar) or was Jesus Eschatological, a Mystic or some sort of prophet of the apocalypse?
One weakness of the accounts is that Powell tends to overstate the confidence we can have in conclusions about Jesus. 'A Hundred and Fifty Years Ago '[one could] maintain that the person Jesus never existed. Anyone who says that today ' in the academic world at least ' get grouped with the skinheads who say there was no holocaust and the scientific holdouts who want to believe the world is flat' (p. 180).
Hardly. What is the evidence for the existence of Jesus? A few words of Josephus, which may be later additions, and which anyway were written decades after the fact, and a series of immediately suspect religious texts, which were also written many years after the alleged Crucifixion. Although it is likely that Jesus did in fact exist, to say that we are as sure about it as we of the Earth being round (approximately) is ridiculous.
As a consequence, it seems almost impossible to differentiate between the various contradictory accounts of Jesus. Strangely, I found the most appealing aspects of the narrative to be the contradictory stories of Crossan and Wright ' one an egalitarian philosopher, the other a self proclaimed Messiah (who was right in all of his prophecies). Both figures are fascinating ' but is either of them true?
the author's methodology decides to a large extent which is the true Jesus. Whether Q is much older and more reliable then Mathew and Luke, and whether John and Thomas are relatively recent myth or early, authentic tradition, makes all the difference. Curiously, Powell ignores the question of the authenticity almost entirely. A one page discussion declares Mark the oldest, and Mathew and Luke to be later traditions. The vital questions about the antiquity of Q and Thomas are never addressed.
So who was Jesus? John Dominic Crossan sums it up best in a quote that appears on the back-cover:
'It's impossible to avoid the suspicion that historical Jesus is a very safe place to do theology and call it history, to do autobiography and call it historiography'.