Jesus Outside the New Testament is a scholar's discussion for the generally-informed reader of all the extant non-New Testament texts which are, or have widely been claimed to be, historically relevant to the first century Jesus. If that sounds a qualified introductory sentence, it is: Van Voorst is a careful sifter and has drawn lines judiciously about what he covers, but these lines differ for different kinds of text.
He is relatively strict in regard to classical Roman sources. Pliny, Suetonius and Tacitus will probably be known to most readers, though Mara bar Serapion, Lucian of Samosta and the reconstructed Celsus are less known. He quotes the last three extensively, since their works are comparatively less available, and subjects all to textual interrogation. Nothing later than the second century is considered.
His defining lines are loosest in his discussion of Rabbinic references, largely because some critics have been willing to see a wide range of references as codes for Christ. Subjecting them to the same kind of interrogation as the classical authors, he dismisses essentially all of the non-explicit references, though not without argumentation. He reprints samples of the kind he dismisses, and reprints extensively those he accepts.
His discussion of Josephus is relatively complete. Rejecting the extreme theories at either end (accepting the entire disputed passage / dismissing it entirely as an interpolation / replacing it with a reconstruction not based on the text), he considers the neutral and negative reconstructions, before settling on the neutral reconstruction. There is a slight element of theatre here, because he only introduces the crucial evidence for the neutral reconstruction, which is the quotation of an otherwise non-extant Josephan textual tradition in Agapius, after he has more or less completed the discussion — this despite an earlier extensive treatment of the spurious Slavonic interpolations.
Additionally, he surveys source criticism of the canonical Gospels, and concludes with Christian agrapha and a review of non-canonical Christian writings, giving extensive space to the Nag Hammadi Codices, as well as the earliest apocryphal gospels.
In the main, this is a book which covers its scope well, reviewing text, source, authenticity and implication for each fragment that he treats, and reprinting those which are generally hard to find. He does not give extensive consideration to non-Gospel Christian writings, both canonical and non-canonical, though he does mention some in passing.
It is hard to fault Van Voorst's judicious discussion. His conclusions are not revolutionary: his view is that it is hard to seriously doubt the historicity of Christ, but, at the same time, the non-New Testament sources tell us very little about him. What might perhaps have improved this book, for a modest increase in length, would be to included appendices printing all of the sources in original and in translation. This would make his book the definitive reference work on the subject, and give it a longevity beyond his discussion of the theories current at the time of writing.
This is a good scholarly look at the evidence for Jesus outside of the New Testament. As an introduction, van Voorst gives a brief history of the Christ-myth theory, stemming from the Enlightenment to modern times. This is not quite up to date, however, as van Voorst ends this history with the theories of G. A. Wells. Unfortunately it does not include the views or works of Robert M. Price or Earl Doherty, considered to be the most prominent Jesus-as-myth theorists. This is not van Voorst's fault however, as this book was published before price and Doherty's prominence. Van Voorst also gives a brief account as to why the mythicist theory (or theories) has not been widely accepted in scholarly circles.
Subsequent chapters look at the witnesses to Jesus in Roman, pagan and Jewish writings, such as Pliny, Suetonius, Tacitus, Thallos etc. Given Jesus' latter fame, this is not surprisingly few and far between, at best Jesus has one, or two, paragraphs, in Josephus' works, and at worst possibly a few cryptic mentions in the Talmud. None of the witnesses can be termed contemporary.
Later chapters deal with the sources of the New Testament Gospels, such as the Q source, the M sources and the Signs source. Some of the Gnostic texts, such as the Gospels of Thomas and Peter, are also examined, as are the 'agrapha' (unwritten sayings of Jesus).
In short, this is a recommended reading for anybody interested in the question of Jesus' historicity.
This is a very readable introduction to texts, other than the New Testament, in which Jesus is mentioned. The author includes everything from Pliny The Younger, to Jesus in the Rabbinic Tradition, to the Nag Hammadi Scrolls. He writes with an unbiased outlook and honestly assesses each text for authenticity. Lots of footnotes, 3 indexes and a full bibliography to aid further study. I cannot over- emphasize how readable this volume is- he has packed in so much but managed to avoid a lofy theological style. If you are interested in the ancient evidence or Christology, you will miss out if you do not have this one on your bookshelf.