4 Stars Out Of 5
Falls Short In Spots, But Interesting On The Whole
October 1, 2013
Age: Over 65
This is a book by a former investigative journalist and legal affairs writer. The author's academic background includes graduate work in legal analysis, a point with which thoughtful readers will immediately connect. He attempts to build up a case for the idea that Jesus is exactly who he says he was, laid out as a point-by-point presentation in the manner of legal evidence, in particular, the testimony of expert witnesses (respected scholars in specialty areas of biblical research). Properly, he begins with the scriptural texts themselves, since, obviously, no analysis of Jesus will be valid if the texts upon which it depends are unreliable. In a sense, therefore, this is the most important chapter in the book. It is also here that the weaknesses show most evidently. The author calls on the expertise of a well-known textual scholar to argue that the New Testament materials, to the extent that they purport to be authentic reports of the words, acts, and events in the life of Jesus, are trustworthy. The crux of the problem, in particular, the gospel "biographies" of Jesus, is that they are redactions from oral reports. The author's expert attempts to dismiss the idea that because oral transmissions from one person to another are inherently distortable, therefore the accuracy of the later written redactions of them are in question. This particular scholar notes, as a primary reason against such a view, that oral transmission, especially of religious materials, is a refined art among the Jews of Jesus' time. He cites, among other reasons for this assurance, that the ancient rabbis developed the art to such a high degree that transmission of the oral law remained the same from teacher to pupil down through the generations. The problem with this argument is that the people who attended Jesus' sermons and witnessed his acts were largely the uneducated or under-educated "people of the land", unlearned in both the written and the oral law, for whom the learned Jews (scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees) had little but contempt. Yet it is these people, not skilled practitioners in oral transmission, who would likely be the background sources for the later written accounts of Jesus. The idea that there might be among them those who would correct distortions in the rendering of any story about Jesus simply begs the question. More significantly, however, is the existence of different oral traditions concerning one point or another in the life of Jesus, the evidence for which is the differences in detail in the gospels themselves. The logical conclusion is that by the time the gospels take written form, divergent recollections of the same teaching or event are already present. It is also known that each of the gospel writers draws from available material for different purposes, assembling and editing to fulfill that purpose. How much gets emended or omitted is simply not ascertainable. The better approach to the analysis of the texts is simply to take them as they are, and to assume that their portrayals of the essential characteristics of Jesus' life and teachings are true, absent compelling evidence to the contrary. This approach is better than arguing, say, that because copies of the gospels are far more numerous than other ancient texts, and mostly in agreement, therefore they are more accurate in their portrayals of Jesus. That is rather like arguing that because photocopies of a document all agree, therefore the original document from which they were reproduced is correct. I most appreciated the very end of the book, in which the author candidly states that no amount of scholarly research can ever resolve every single issue concerning Jesus, regardless of how detailed and sophisticated it may become. He urges those of us who would continue to study the issues, and to think critically about the truth concerning Jesus, to consider this undertaking to be the calling of a lifetime. As another scholar whom he quotes says: "We ourselves, and not merely the truth claims, are at stake in the investigation." With these sentiments I heartily agree.