Law Religion Culture Review

Exploring the intersections of law, religion and culture. Copyright by Richard J. Radcliffe. All rights reserved.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Book Review:The Jesus Quest: The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth.

1. Summary of Material

Because Ben Witherington III's The Jesus Quest: The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth largely surveys others’ portrayals of Jesus (see Chapters 2-8), its thesis is not readily apparent or even central to the work. Nevertheless, the book intersperses enough of Professor Witherington’s views for an overall thesis to emerge. Its overall thesis is probably most fairly demonstrated in the following quote:

“[T]he historical Jesus remains elusive. But some roads, even if less traveled, may provide the keys to fruitful further discussion of what Jesus was actually like. I suspect that when scholars finally come to grips with Jesus the prophetic and messianic sage, the embodiment of Wisdom, they will have a clearer understanding not only of Jesus of Nazareth, but also of why his movement developed as it did.” (p. 248.)

In this summary, we can unpack several subthemes. First, Witherington rejects the view of earlier questers (which he usefully surveys in the preface) that the study of the historical Jesus is futile. For example, Witherington writes: “The result of the double salvo by Schweitzer and Kahler was that for much of the first half of the twentieth century the scholarly quest for the historical Jesus was assumed to be dead.” (p. 11.) To the contrary, Witherington believes that an historical investigation of Jesus can lead a fruitful understanding of the actual Jesus.

Second, Witherington argues for a view of Jesus as the embodiment of Wisdom—a perspective he expounds in Chapter 7 (pp. 185-194). For instance, “Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom, or even implicitly about himself is grounded in a story, the story of Wisdom and its progress, acceptance and rejection among and by God’s people.” (p. 195.)

However, to be fair, the book is not advocating for a mere knowledge of Jesus for the sake of academic inquiry. He posits (hopefully) that this investigation will lead to one’s “own pilgrimage toward Jesus—toward both the Jew from Nazareth and the exalted heavenly Christ of Christian faith.” (p. 13.) He continued with this theme in his discussion of Jesus as the embodiment of Wisdom: “We must immerse ourselves in this long-neglected material, and maybe then we will see more clearly, follow more nearly and love more dearly the historical Jesus who came to be revered as the Anointed Anointer of God, the Spirit-bearing, Spirit-sharing Savior, the very fullness of God on earth.” (p. 195; emphasis added.)

2. Critique of Material

Beginning with the beginning, Witherington’s Chapter 1 entitled, “Galilee & The Galilean Jesus in His Social Setting” is probably the finest aspect of the work. In short, this chapter provides a useful survey of the social, economic, political and religious context of Galilee at Jesus’ time. Although the product of quality scholarship, this chapter reads as easily as a novel or other similarly entertaining genre and truly injects material that one would not encounter by just reading the Gospel accounts.

Moreover, this information humanizes Jesus for the reader (without detracting from his deity). As I read through this chapter, I became increasingly optimistic about the pages that would follow. However, the subsequent chapters departed from the direction set forth in the initial chapter, and left me somewhat disappointed.

Chapters 2 through 8 essentially focused on what others have had to say about Jesus. More accurately, they represented what Witherington said they said. As such, they did not flow naturally from the initial chapter. Additionally, they largely did not reflect Witherington’s views of Jesus.

In other words, Witherington expends the vast majority of his work delving into how seemingly everyone else has painted a portrait of Christ (which includes his critique of their approaches).

While Witherington provides a portrayal of his own in Chapter 7, his portrait comes as a mere subset of a larger chapter on Jesus as Sage, and ostensibly places it on par with others’ errant (according to him) his views. I thought his organization detracted from the persuasive power of his polemic.

In addition, Witherington spent considerable time discussing the Jesus Seminar and its major architects or participants, such as Borg, Crossan and (newly deceased) Funk. While I recognize that this emphasis was probably a reflection of the timing of the book (originally published in 1995 in the Seminar’s heyday), one picking up the text now would be under the impression that these are the leading scholars on Jesus, and that they consequently deserve the lion share of one’s attention if one considers himself or herself a serious student of Jesus. As a result, I thought this overemphasis gave them more credibility than they rightly deserved in the study.

Overall, the book was a worthy contribution to the topic, but it was disjointed.