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5.0 out of 5 stars
An excellent addition to the series, 17 Jan 2013
Helen Bond is Senior Lecturer in New Testament at the University of Edinburgh and Director of the Centre for the Study of Christian Origins based there. Her latest book is a welcome addition to the excellent Guides for the Perplexed series published by Continuum. This series is aimed at upper level undergraduates and interested readers with no specialised knowledge of the subject matter. Bond succeeds admirably in distilling a wealth of scholarship into the book's 200 pages. This reader was so captivated by the easy writing style that he read it from cover to cover in one sitting.
The book consists of thirteen chapters in two parts. The first part consists of background information in two chapters covering the 'quests' for the historical Jesus and the sources for him. The second part consists of a number of 'snapshots' exploring key elements from the life of Jesus: historical context; birth; Galilean origins; John the Baptist; Jesus' message; Jesus as healer and exorcist; his family and supporters; the question as to whether Jesus encountered opposition in Galilee; Jerusalem; trial and execution; and resurrection.
Like many historical Jesus books, Bond begins with a summary of the various quests for the historical Jesus. She rightly recognises that the now conventional division into three quests with a long period of 'no quest' between the 'first quest' and the 'new quest' is problematic in that there are many overlaps and, in particular, the period of 'no quest' actually saw significant works on aspects of the historical Jesus from scholars such as Dodd, Manson and Jeremias and Jewish scholars including Montefiore, Klausner and Eisler. In this first chapter Bond spends some time highlighting the views of a number of significant contemporary scholars: Vermes, Sanders, Horsley, The Jesus Seminar, Crossan, Flusser, Meier, Wright, Dunn and Allison. She brilliantly summarises the work of each of these scholars leaving the non-specialist reader with just enough information to understand the position of each scholar examined. In the second chapter, Bond carefully dismisses the often overplayed significance of the Roman authors Tacitus and Suetonius, stating that they add no new information. After a brief mention of the third century b.sanh 43a from the Babylonian Talmud, she turns to the famous Testimonium Flavianum by the Jewish historian Josephus and accepts the prevailing view that this paragraph from the Antiquities of the Jews is authentic but has been subsequently reworked by Christian copyists. The majority of the Christian apocryphal gospels are then rightly dismissed as of no help in the quest for the historical Jesus but Bond does take seriously claims for both the Gospel of Peter and the Gospel of Thomas but concludes that the Gospel of Peter is not early and is of no historical significance and judiciously concludes that Thomas 'although possibly containing one or two older forms of Jesus' sayings, is not to be regarded as a major source for the life of Jesus' (p. 46). Finally, Bond turns to the biblical material (recognising that Q, if it existed, is now to be found scattered throughout Matthew and Luke). Paul is considered first as the earliest NT source but his main interest lies with Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection and there is very little about Jesus' life contained in Paul's letters. So the canonical gospels remain by far our main sources for the life of Jesus. Here Bond recognises them as biographical in genre, is prepared to accept some historical traditions in the narrative sections of John (particularly the trial narrative), but views the synoptic gospels as our primary source. Bond is sceptical of the methods of the 'new questers' in trying to strip away the outer layers of the gospels to arrive at a historical core. Instead she acknowledges that the broad contours of the Synoptic portrait of Jesus - his links to John the Baptist, proclamation of the kingdom of God, healing ministry and crucifixion - 'seem to be historically grounded.'
Bond's method in the second part of the book, where she presents a series of snapshots, is to accept that, whilst recognising that the gospel writers creatively worked with their traditions, 'in general, the Gospels are a broad indicator of the types of things Jesus' earliest followers remembered him doing and saying' (p. 54). The Jesus who emerges from this series of snapshots is a Galilean apocalyptic prophet who proclaimed a message of the coming kingdom of God and began as a follower of John the Baptist but started an independent ministry after John's imprisonment. He was the son of Joseph and Mary (no virginal conception), born and raised in Nazareth. Jesus was also a healer and exorcist but his so-called nature miracles are probably post-Easter inventions to highlight Jesus' divinity. Jesus finished his ministry in Jerusalem where his actions in the Temple prophetically symbolised its forthcoming destruction and this was what led to Jesus' arrest by the chief priests and his subsequent trial. Jesus was then handed over to Pilate probably as a matter of political expediency. Pilate had Jesus crucified as a political agitator. The final chapter of the book deals with the question of Jesus' resurrection. This is a bold move for a book on the historical Jesus but Bond, correctly in my view, insists that an account of the resurrection must be given to pay sufficient attention to the effects it had on Jesus' earliest followers even if the resurrection itself is not open to historical investigation. Bond, in the previous chapter, argues that Jesus would have had a dishonourable burial in a poor man's trench grave and here she suggests that woman disciples of Jesus probably did return to that grave and found it disturbed and empty. An empty grave on its own, however, does not necessitate resurrection, this event had to be accompanied by visions of a resurrected Jesus and Bond suggests that it is virtually beyond dispute that the earliest followers believed Jesus had appeared to them alive again. She makes no historical claims about the resurrection itself but argues that such visionary experiences could only be possible in a highly charged apocalyptic context where the imminent end of the world was expected.
This is a fine, excellently researched book which time and again carefully steers a middle course between extremes in historical Jesus scholarship. Along the way, for example, Bond considers the impact Jesus had on women and, whilst acknowledging that Jesus did attract women followers, rightly states that Jesus said nothing about gender equality and it is an anachronism to regard him as a contemporary feminist. Finally, she recognises that Jesus' proclamation of the kingdom of God had political and social implications but there is nothing in the book to suggest that Jesus' message was explicitly anti-imperial. This is a point that Bond specifically draws attention to in a subsequent web post on ten things she learned about Jesus whilst reading this book.
This is the book to read for an accessible introduction to historical Jesus research. I wholeheartedly commend it.