This is an excellent brief survey of the development of Christian thought from the time of Jesus to the modern day which should be read by everyone (Christian and non-Christian alike)for its balanced approach to the subject. It questions whether there was unanimity about Jesus in the early Church and suggests that fundamental Christian beliefs were essentially that he was the Jewish Messiah and rose from the dead.
Criticism of both these beliefs was evident from outset and, to some extent, within the Christian churches but it was not until Reimarus in the eighteenth century that the so called quest for the historical Jesus began, developing through the reconstructions of Strauss, Holtzmann, Weiss and Schweitzer who attacked the traditional Christian Trinitarian doctrine in line with secular Enlightenment secularism. Recent expression of this approach is the California based "Jesus Seminar" which tends towards the Unitarian Universalist approach, depicting Jesus as myth created by Paul and others.
The problem with this kind of approach is that it "has produced a Jesus who is not Jewish in his teaching but more like a Greek wisdom teacher or philosopher and he's against sexism, imperialism and the oppressiveness of the Roman Empire. In other words he's a Californian". The second problem is that the theologians involved in this exercise appear unable to recognise that they are creating their own myth by getting away from historical fact. Others - the "Third Quest" - tend to emphasis the Jewish context and present Jesus in terms of Jewish restoration eschatology.
Only anti-Christian historians now doubt that Jesus lived and died. It is also clear from the historical record that his followers believed he rose from the dead and began to preach that message to Jew and Gentile alike. The message of Jesus was recorded in various books and the doctrine about Jesus in letters some of which were deemed by later generations of Christians to be authentic representations of the Gospel message, some of which weren't. In addition there existed an oral tradition of the message in much the same way as preachers interpret that message to their congregations each week.
The authors refer in passing to the various political rivalries that helped shape what became core doctrines of the post Constantine church but the book isn't long enough to do more than whet the appetite for further research.
The essence of their case is that while the authenticity of Jesus, his life, death and continuing presence amongst Christians is not doubt, it is unsurprising that the further away from the historical reality we are the weaker the sense of belief in the way in which it was understood by the early Christian church. They suggest that the imaginative use of theology has the power to bridge the gap between liberal theology (some of which is atheistic in content) and its conservative counterpart including literal belief in the six days of creation).
Their criticism is that both liberal and conservative theologians tend to centre their debates on philosophical arguments, most of which arose from the scepticism of the late eighteenth century "rather than asking the only ultimately vital questions about Jesus - how much can we really know about him as a historical figure and what is his significance for us?".
The book is recommended for its honesty and lack of polemics. The reader is left to research further and form their own opinions.