This short (only 114 pages of text) book is part of a series on a wide variety of topics published by Oxford University Press. I sought it out because I was impressed by the author’s much longer Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (discussed elsewhere on this blogsite), which I found valuable but daunting in its length and (sometimes) density. One thought I had was that perhaps this might simply be a shorter version, but that turns out not to be not true since — while this shorter book is also excellent — it doesn’t really summarize all that’s in the longer book, and it also includes much that isn’t in it.
Still, there are common themes in the two books. In the preface here, the author describes the book as as taking the approach to
tell it as I see it. Essentially, this means reading the Gospels as versions of the history of Jesus (and by “history,” I mean the sort of history people wrote in the ancient world) in the context of all that we know of the 1st-century context in which Jesus actually lived. I take the Gospels to be based substantially on the testimony of the eyewitnesses who had known Jesus in his lifetime …. Rather than a minimal Jesus, reconstructed on the basis of a rather small selection of data in the Gospels, as represented in many of the current scholarly accounts of the historical Jesus, I have tried to take seriously the different ways in which the four Gospels themselves portray Jesus. I take their differences to be an advantage: they give us more than one angle on a complex figure. … I do think the Gospels give us access to the way Jesus was perceived by those who were close to him, people who experienced the events from the inside and whose own lives were deeply affected by them. ….
Thus, and this point is likewise a principal theme of his longer book (14):
There is no need to suppose that the traditions passed through innumerable hands before reaching the Gospel writers. The latter may well have received many traditions from eyewitnesses themselves, or at least through only one intermediary, oral or written. In fact, this is what the preface to Luke’s Gospel suggests, claiming to record the events “just as they have been delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses.” The probable dates of the Gospels (along with the probability that the authors would have been collecting the traditions long before they completed the writing of their Gospels) make it entirely plausible that the texts of the Gospels as we have them are at no great distance from the reports of the eyewitnesses. These probable dates of the Gospels also make it likely that they were written precisely because the eyewitnesses were dying and their authoritative testimony needed to be preserved in writing. In my view, one of the Gospel writers, John, was himself an eyewitness and completed his Gospel near the end of his life as the fruit of a lifetime of reflecting on his memories of Jesus.
The paragraph that follows the one just quoted is good, too, and there’s a good definition of the “form criticism” that the author rejects in the paragraph on pages 10-11. I’ll just add that the author includes other historical evidence in his discussion of who Jesus was and what He taught and meant.
But, as noted, some themes are new. As an example, I liked this paragraph (42-43), and would add to it the thought that the Resurrection might be viewed as the climax of these miraculous healings:
We should not suppose that Jesus dimly acted out a program set for him by his reading of prophetic Scriptures. Jesus was moved by the suffering he encountered, the manifest forms of deprivation and diminishment of life he saw all around him in the villages of Galilee. He was moved by the faith of the crowds of people who brought their sick loved ones to him. The power of healing they drew from him he understood to be the power of the divine compassion. He saw the healings as signs of the kingdom of God because they were so obviously acts of the God who Jesus understood as above all loving and compassionate. Jesus was enacting the kingdom by enacting the divine compassion. What he saw in the prophecies was that precisely such outpourings of divine compassion were to be expected when Israel’s God came to establish his kingdom. It was not the way everyone read the Scriptures, but it was what leapt out of the page when Jesus read them.
Another thought: It is often noted that Jesus was willing to break bread with the lowly, like tax collectors. But note also that He was even willing to make them disciples. “It is remarkable that we meet as many of them [i.e., the destitute and outcasts] in the Gospels as we do of the elite and their retainers” (49). And “the Gospels are an extraordinary exception [to other, contemporaneous literature]. The many individuals who appear in their pages are spread across the whole social scale” (48).
On page 82, the author notes that “Jesus can hold together the extravagant generosity of God and the same God’s unmitigated condemnation of those who reject it. It is a combination many modern readers find hard to understand, but it is typical of Jesus’ teaching.” He continues:
The dark side of Jesus’ teaching — the warning of destruction — follows from the seriousness with which he takes the mercy and compassion of God that his message makes available. It is the critical moment in Israel’s history. The kingdom is within reach. To know that and to refuse this extravagant generosity of God is to exclude oneself from the kingdom. The judgment is real self-imposed. Jesus could hardly suppose that there could be any way of achieve some kind of human fulfillment outside the kingdom of God. The kingdom is the consummate good that God as provided for all his people. So those who see the door to the kingdom wide open to them but choose not to enter forfeit the one and only human destiny.
This passage puts Paul into perspective (110-11):
It is important to realize that there was never a time, after the death of Jesus, when his followers regard him simply as a teacher who had died a martyr’s death and left them his teaching to live by. From the 19th century onwards, there have been recurrent attempts to cast the apostle Paul in the role of founder of Christianity. Paul, it is suggested, was the first to make Jesus the object of faith and worship. But all such theories founder on the fact that, apart from anything else, Paul did not have sufficient power and influence to invent Christianity. [This point is elaborated on.] … The center from which the early Christian movement developed and spread throughout the ancient world was not Paul, but the Jerusalem church, led initially by the twelve apostles but subsequently by James the brother of Jesus. ….
Finally, the book ends this way (113-14): “It is not too much to say that the earliest Christians incorporated Jesus into their Jewish understanding of the one and only God. This was the origin of the doctrine of incarnation, which in historic Christianity has been the central summary of the way Christians understand Jesus’ relationship to humanity and to God.” The author then says this is an appropriate way to conclude, notes that the word “incarnation” is based on the prologue to John, which ways that “the Word became flesh,” and discusses the Trinity and the fact that Jesus was and is fully human as well as divine, with this final paragraph:
The doctrine of the incarnation was never meant to take believers away from the concrete particularities of the Gospels into a realm of abstract doctrine. Rather, it is a sort of guide to reading the Gospels. It means that in the Jesus of the Gospels Christians find God revealed as never before or since. They find in the story of Jesus God’s loving solidarity with all humanity. They find God identifying with humanity, even to the extent of suffering the extremity of pain, rejection, and degradation on Jesus’ cross and dying his abandoned death. Incarnation means that God has shared in the human plight even at its most extreme in order that he might deliver people from that plight. The Gospels read as narratives of incarnation are at the heart of historic Christian faith.
Note: In “Further reading,” Bauckham lists “Good defenses of the historical reliability of the Gospels” as: Paul Rhodes Eddy & Gregory A. Boyd, The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition (2007), and two books by Paul W. Barnett, Jesus and the Logic of History (1997) and Finding the Historical Christ (2009).