Paul W. Barnett, “Jesus and the Logic of History”

The author, an Australian, is an Anglican bishop.  I sought his book out because it was listed among the “[g]ood defenses of the historical reliability of the Gospels” for further reading by Richard Bauckham in Jesus:  A Very Short Introduction, and I had been impressed by Bauckham (Barnett, in turn, has a brief citation of a different book by Bauckham (151 n.105)).   And I’ll note that, while both men are reach similar conclusions via similar methodologies, I suspect that the two have different politics (in his first chapter, Barnett quotes Paul Johnson favorably and disparages “political correctness” (17)); but that’s really neither here nor there.  The book does make liberal use of footnotes.

I believe that this paragraph in the author’s preface is a good overview of the book:

It is the argument of this book that the “logic” of history demands a Jesus who is definable and about whom a practical consensus can be reached.  By this “logic” it is argued that the Christ of the early church’s faith and proclamation must have borne a close relationship to Jesus the historical figure.

Thus, the back cover states, accurately, “Barnett advocates a reading of history that takes seriously the relationship between the historical Jesus and the movement that came to view him as Messiah and Lord.  He also seeks to redress an imbalance in Historical Jesus studies by giving the New Testament epistles — the earliest documents that relate directly to the historical figure of Jesus — the weight they deserve.”


The book has an “Excursus” at the end of most of the book’s chapters.  An excursus, according to an online dictionary, is “a detailed discussion of a particular point,” and here they are in this book:  “Jesus as ‘Christ’ in the Testimonium Flavianum“; “Summary of information about Jesus in the letters of Paul” (especially interesting); “The quest for the historical Pontius Pilate”; “Overview of Jesus’ ministry”; and “The resurrection of Jesus from the dead.”  The best is the last, and I would flag in particular two passages.  Here’s the first (129, footnotes omitted):

The earliest letters by Paul, written in the early 50s, assume without discussion that both the writer and the readers believed that Jesus had been raised from the dead.  Indeed, Paul simply appeals to their certainty about Jesus’ historical resurrection as something to clinch his argument about their coming future resurrection, which some of them were doubting.  It was because Christ had been raised that they would certainly be raised.  Here Paul appeals to the pre-formed tradition which was the instrument of their creation as a church, a tradition which he himself had received from the witnesses of the resurrection.

And here’s the second (130-31):

The view held by many contemporary scholars, that the disciples were subject to some kind of visionary experiences, is hard to accept.  Two people sharing one bed seldom have the same dream.  The proposal that between five and six hundred people on twelve or so separate occasions over forty days had the same visionary experience is extremely unlikely.

In any case “resurrection from the dead,” a Jewish concept, literally means, “standing up in the midst of corpses” (anastasis nekron).  A resurrection which was not bodily is self-contradictory and has been likened to a circle which is square.  The various subjective or visionary theories of the resurrection are culturally contradictory.

There is only one serious alternative explanation [of the empty tomb].  It is that the disciples stole the body and proclaimed Jesus to have been raised from the dead.  In other words, it was a deception, a hoax.  A number of objections may be raised against this hypothesis.  Apart from the unlikelihood that the perpetrators would call a gospel based on deceit the “word of truth” and repeatedly call for truthful behavior among believers, such a theory is difficult to reconcile with subsequent apostolic history.  Through the pages of the New Testament we are able to trace the ministries of Peter, James and Paul, the leaders of the various mission groups, from the time of the resurrection to their martyr-deaths.  This is a period of about three decades.  It is implausible that all three would have maintained the deception throughout those years and then gone to their deaths without exposing a hoax.  Moreover, there was more than a little friction between these men.  Had the resurrection not been true, it is likely that one or other of these strong personalities would have broken ranks to expose the others.


The conclusion of chapter 1 (“Jesus and the practice of history”) (27-28) is a good summary of it, especially:

There is a tendency [among current researchers] to ignore some of the evidence and to place insufficient weight on evidence closest to Jesus, in particular the letters of Paul.  These letters, along with others, deserve special attention since they were not written with the intention of providing historical information about Jesus, but dealt with “the ordinary events of life.”  They none the less bore incidental and implicit witness to the impact of a powerful figure in their recent past.  The failure of scholars to include these epistolary data and to give due weight to them is perhaps the most signal failure of all.


In chapter 2 (“Christ in history”), Barnett suggests that Rome itself may have been the “ends of the earth” referred to in Acts 1:8 (30 & n.5).

Pages 33-34 suggests to me that, since Paul certainly would have felt a need to reassure the Roman rulers that Christians were not a threat to them, his injunction that Christians not challenge political leaders could be read rather narrowly.


In a short section in chapter 3 (“Jesus in proclamation and tradition”) titled “Jesus in Paul:  summary and conclusion” (50, footnote omitted), Barnett writes:

Three straightforward observations should be made.  One is that the churches in Thessalonica and Corinth came into existence as a result of Paul’s proclamation to them about Jesus Christ.  The second is that this proclaimed figure was exalted; he is the Christ, the Son of God the Lord.  Yet, thirdly, this person, Jesus, was one about whom biographical information was known, probably through the process of the initial preaching and “handing over” of various “received traditions” to the churches, and from their questions and answers.  Jesus Christ as proclaimed — the impulse for the formation of the churches in Thessalonica and Corinth — was anchored to a historical figure, Jesus.  This, in turn, is corroborated by notices appearing in Josephus and Tacitus about the connection of Christians with Christ, ….

And here’s what the author has to say about another New Testament letter (53):  “No letter in the New Testament so clearly proclaims the gospel on the one hand, and the reality of Jesus as a figure of history on the other, as does the letter to the Hebrews.  The unknown author, who was not among the original followers of Jesus, writes as one who heard their proclamation.”

Here’s an interesting footnote in the same chapter (46 n.39):  “Paul relatively infrequent quotation of Jesus may be due to his awareness of the Jerusalem apostles’ first-hand knowledge of [His] teaching; over-use might expose Paul to contradiction and call into question his authority.”

In the conclusion to this chapter, Barnett writes (56-57):

Unless historians of the New Testament take seriously the letters in regard to both the fact of proclamation and the connection of the proclaimed figure to the historical figure of Jesus, then the engine driving the New Testament from within — Jesus the Teacher, who, as risen from the dead, was proclaimed as Jesus the Lord — will remain unrecognized.  Failing to discern the inner dynamic which gives the New Testament story its impulse, scholars will continue to tinker at the edges, absorbed in background studies, social and psychological analyses and various forms of textual reconstructions, missing the action in the center which explains everything.  This is the logic of history.


The “Conclusion” section at pages 82-83 is a good summary of chapter 4 (“Jesus in historical context”), which (63, footnote omitted) is mostly a “consider[ation of] the five historically notable persons mentioned in Luke 3:1-2 who form the historical reference for Jesus’ ministry and with each of whom he was involved. These men were his context and he became, in different ways, connected with each of them.  As they intersect with Jesus, these prominent men form “markers” to his story.  But more than that, the uncontrived and incidental nature of the references provides innocent testimony to the historical character of the gospel narratives.”  The five men are John the baptizer, Caiaphas, Annas, Pontius Pilate, and Herod Antipas.

Also from this chapter, and with regard to the “several passages in the gospels and Acts which point to the interlocking historical connections between Jesus and Herod the tetrarch,” the author drops this footnote (75 n.63):  “This is not to suggest that such references are to be accepted naively, at face value.  It is not a matter of casting doubt over a particular reference so much as prudently recognizing that the biblical writers, like others in every era, have their own points to make.  Their overall redactional interests need to be assessed as part of the historian’s craft.”


Early in chapter 5 (“Jesus in the gospels”), the author notes (94):

This is information [i.e., from Paul’s letters, particularly Galatians] of remarkable historical importance.  First, these are statements not made in a gospel or in Acts, but in a letter, written quite early in the ministry of the apostle Paul.  Paul’s references were made in passing and they were subject to checking and challenge; their historicity must be regarded as secure.  Secondly, these texts establish the existence of the Jerusalem church from soon after the time of Jesus (and therefore in continuity with Jesus and those disciples who followed him during his ministry) and of other churches soon afterwards.  Thirdly, this, our earliest window into the original churches, show that they held an exalted view of Jesus; they were adherents of “the faith” Paul had been trying to destroy.  Fourthly, the exalted view of their Teacher, owing to his resurrection, nevertheless must have been consistent with his followers’ view of him before the crucifixion.  In other words, the resurrection must have made everything Jesus had said and done beforehand fall into place, as it were, so as to provide the ultimate explanation of his identity.

About midway through, he writes (101):

More could be written [about what we can learn from Paul’s letters].  But enough has been said to demonstrate that Jesus’ resurrection, and also his anterior ministry as Teacher, gave the impetus for the formulation of traditions which would inform the churches and be broadened into various theological statements.  Jesus’ approach to God as abba also carried on into the churches, including those in Galatia and Rome which were geographically remote from Palestine.  Moreover, Jesus’ kingdom preaching to Israel is echoed across the letters of the New Testament.  The tradition that Jesus was “the Christ” and that his death was vicarious (“for others”), which is to be found in the apostolic writings, almost certainly stemmed from Jesus himself.  His extensive prayerfulness is amply re-expressed and enjoined as an example within the letters of the New Testament.  And the prayer addressed by him to abba (“May your kingdom come”) becomes a prayer addressed to him, Maran atha, “Our Lord, come!”  Significant, too, is the apostles’ recognition that texts like Psalm 110:1 were now fulfilled in Jesus’ resurrection and ascension as Lord, at God’s right hand.  Here is a pattern of fulfilment-exegesis which most probably derives from Jesus himself.

And then he says (101-02), “We see enough in the letters to encourage us to believe that the gospels have got Jesus right.”

With regard to two of the gospels, the author notes (103) that “Mark and John set Jesus in different geographical backgrounds.  Mark chiefly narrates Jesus as a preacher and teacher in Galilee, with a ministry also to the north and the east of Galilee; he comes to Jerusalem only once, at the end.  John, however, devotes most space to Jesus in Jerusalem, in public dispute with the Pharisees and in private ministry to his disciples.” And he continues (104-05):

Careful comparison of the texts of Mark and John indicate that neither of these gospels is dependent on the other.  Yet they have a number of incidents in common [list follows, including the anointing of Jesus, his entry into Jerusalem, and his arrest, trial, torture, crucifixion, and burial].  The vocabulary used in these incidents is quite different, yet the details are in such agreement that Mark and John are evidently describing the same events.  Clearly each of the finished gospels arises out of different tradition streams, thus indicating multiple independent witnesses to a significant range of events in the ministry of Jesus.

And then, at the end of chapter 5 (110-11), Barnett writes:

What purposes, then, are served by the historical enquiry to which this book, in part, is devoted?  First, it is necessary from time to time to provide some defense of the intellectual and historical credibility of the gospel record which is the object of faith.  People need to have confidence in the gospel they are called upon to believe. Secondly, it is important to understand that Jesus is a genuine figure of history.  The incarnation, the atonement and the resurrection are not merely redemptive ideas; they involved a real man at a specific time and place.  The gospel is not gnostic, which it would be apart from Jesus’ true rootedness in history.  A gnostic gospel is an obligation-free gospel; Jesus would be one lord among many.  By contrast, according to the Christian gospel, his uniqueness and the claims of his lordship arise out of his historical particularity.

Faith which saves is faith in Christ.  The faith comes by reading about him in the canonical gospels and by hearing about him in the preached gospel.  But this Jesus is a genuine figure of history whose similarity to the one we meet in the canonical gospels can be demonstrated by the logic of history, by identifying the earliest churches’ faith, which we are able to do by a careful analysis of the letters of Paul, in particular.  Such analysis shows that the gospels have got Jesus right; we have not been misled by them.  We can place our trust in Christ with moral confidence.  Our own integrity is not violated in doing so.


In chapter 6 (“Jesus and the spread of early Christianity”), the author notes (117) that at the A.D. 47 church meeting in Jerusalem, “Cephas had been entrusted with the gospel to the circumcised, while Paul — hitherto unrecognized by the Jerusalem leadership — had been entrusted with the gospel to the Gentiles.” And “[t]his is not to suggest there were no other mission activities.  We know of Barnabas’s journey to Cyprus with John Mark (Acts 15:39) and, less certainly by later hints, of Andrew’s journey to Russia and Thomas’s to India” (121 n.35).

Later in the chapter, the author notes (127), “It is a mark of the integrity of the gospels that they do not address this painful issue [i.e, re the “Judaizers”], refraining from placing definitive words in the mouth of Jesus to resolve the debate one way or the other.”  Likewise (148), “The identities of the gospel authors, apart from John, prove to be rather unexpected, a factor which supports the probability of authenticity.”  (I would add that maybe even John is an unexpected author if we share Richard Bauckham’s view that the John who is the gospel author is not the apostle John.)


From chapter 7 (“From Jesus to gospel text”), I noted two passages.  First (152-53, footnotes omitted):

The ascription in the second century of the four gospels to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John places each of these writers in living contact with the Teacher.  In the case of Matthew and John the contact was direct, with no intermediaries.  Mark was at one remove from Jesus, joined to him by Peter.  Luke, too, was at one remove from Jesus, linked to him by those eye-witnesses and ministers who “handed over” their written traditions to him.

The gospels have come to us by a two-stage process comprising tradition, the “handing over” of various “traditions” about Jesus both oral and written; and redaction, the process of committing to writing the finished work.  The genre chosen by the writers was the bios, the biography; the subject matter was the person.  The writers were not mere editors, on the one hand, or freely creative authors, on the other.  Rather, they were controlled by an interest in biographical history.  Moreover, they were not historically distant from Jesus, but were either eye-witnesses (Matthew and John) or dependent on those who were (Mark and Luke).  Both elements, tradition and redaction, are favorable to an authentic final product.  The tradition was transmitted in a culture in which there was the accurate “handing over” of information.  The redaction was in a form, the bios, which at that time took historical facts seriously.  The redactors were connected with the person Jesus about whom they wrote, either immediately and directly, or at only one remove from him.  Thus the gospels are not distract, dry texts, severed from the Teacher.  Rather, they are living texts, connected to Jesus by those who were with him, and who had served him in the years before the gospels were finally written.

And the chapter’s conclusion section adds (157-58):

In summary, my argument is that the gospel message was spread, and the churches were established, by means of various mission teams associated with leaders such as James, Peter, John and Paul.  Their chosen mode of addressing the issues in the churches was a range of letters.  From the 50s, when they began to appear, these letters apply the apostolic tradition to the wide range of problems which were by then impacting upon the churches.


Here’s the last paragraph of chapter 8 (“Jesus’ death:  a defiance of biography”) (161, footnote omitted):

The Jesus-studies movement, to generalize, has failed completely to account for the emphasis on Jesus’ death as found consistently in both the gospels and the echoes of the proclamation about Jesus in the letters.  To them, the death of Jesus is peripheral, whereas in the minds of the writers of the New Testament it was central.  Why was it central?  The most plausible answer is that it was central to the thinking of Jesus, which he in turn communicated to his core followers, who in turn diffused that belief throughout the earliest Christian traditions and from there into the pages of the literature as we have it.  Jesus did not die as a martyr, but as one who knowingly died redemptively, for the sins of of others, to set people free.


The two-page “Conclusion” chapter consists of nine short numbered paragraphs, which don’t correspond exactly with the book’s nine chapters but are similar.  You can read the chapter here (link: ).

Finally, I will note that, while I do not buy all the books I discuss on this blogsite, I did buy this one.