Thursday, August 6, 2015

Book Write-Up: Rediscovering Jesus

David B. Capes, Rodney Reeves and E. Randolph Richards.  Rediscovering Jesus: An Introduction to Biblical, Religious and Cultural Perspectives on Christ.  Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2015.  See here to buy the book.

Rediscovering Jesus explores portrayals of Jesus in both the New Testament and also outside of the Bible.  It discusses how Jesus appears in each New Testament Gospel; the Pauline writings; the Epistle to the Hebrews; the letters of James, Jude, and 1-2 Peter; and the Book of Revelation.  In terms of portrayals of Jesus outside of the Bible, the book looks at Gnostic literature, Islam, historical Jesus studies, Mormonism, America, and the cinema.  In its conclusion, the book candidly acknowledges that it did not cover the portrayal of Jesus in non-Western cultures, and it says that one cannot legitimately stereotype the “African Jesus” or the “Asian Jesus” because these regions and their portrayals of Jesus are so diverse.

In terms of its place on the spectrum of scholarship, the book has both conservative and liberal elements.  The conservative elements are that it believes that the Gospels of Matthew and Mark manifest a high Christology (i.e., Jesus is God, and even pre-existent in the Gospel of Matthew), and it maintains that Paul wrote Ephesians and Colossians, that James and Jude the brothers of Jesus wrote the New Testament books that bear their names, and that Peter wrote 1-2 Peter.  While the book makes arguments for Mark and Matthew having a high Christology, it usually (not always, but usually) seemed to assume its beliefs about authorship, without really defending them.

In terms of the book’s liberal elements, it acknowledged the diversity of Scripture.  It even went so far as to dispute that Luke saw Jesus’ death on the cross as atoning for people’s sins, maintaining that Luke had another view about the significance of Christ’s death.  The book also challenged evangelical tendencies to project their beliefs onto the text, or to conflate New Testament texts rather than allowing each New Testament author to speak with his own voice: the book says, for example, that the Gospel of John does not really have a concept of Christians going into the world and evangelizing but envisions Jesus the shepherd bringing new converts into the community; that Paul, too, has a rather inward focus on the Christian community in his letters; and that the Book of Revelation does not even envision God granting people an opportunity to repent during the eschaton.  Whether or not one agrees with the book’s conclusions (and I do not entirely), its wrestling with issues and its willingness to arrive at conclusions that may be unconventional for evangelicals are what make the book interesting.

The book speculates about an intriguing question: What would Christianity be like if all we had was one particular source?  Suppose that we only had the Gospel of Matthew, or the Epistle of James?  This exercise did allow the reader to focus on what each source said, and what it did not say.  It was a valuable exercise, and the book did well to include it.  I have two critiques of it, however, from two opposite perspectives.  First of all, such an exercise may assume that Christian communities operated in a vacuum, when that may not have been the case.  The book holds that, in a number of cases, Christian communities only had one Gospel rather than all four, whereas Richard Bauckham in The Gospels for All Christians challenges that idea.  Second, from the opposite perspective, the book seems to maintain that all of the New Testament writings complement each other, in the end: that, say, Revelation cannot stand alone, but it needs voices from other New Testament writings to complement it so that we arrive at a more balanced perspective.  But I question whether the writings can complement each other successfully, in certain areas.  The book said that, if all we had was Matthew’s Gospel, we would be observing the Torah.  How would that complement Paul’s view that Gentiles did not have to observe the Torah?

Usually, in reading books about Jesus, especially evangelical books about Jesus, I try to observe how the books treat the idea that Jesus in the synoptic Gospels expected the imminent end of the world, and also how they define the Kingdom of God in the synoptic Gospels.  Rediscovering Jesus did interact with these issues, sometimes indirectly, and sometimes more directly.  It quoted Mark 3:27 and said that Jesus in his ministry was binding the strong man (Satan) in order to take possession of the world.  It said that the Messiah in the Gospel of Matthew had something to do with deliverance from Roman oppression.  In these cases, the book did not really wrestle with the question of whether Jesus was successful, but its discussion of the Gospel of Luke did wrestle with whether (and how) Jesus fulfilled his Messianic mission, and it mentioned the idea that the Kingdom of God was already-but-not-yet.  The book said that Luke had a gradual eschatology: God’s reign spreads throughout the world as the Gospel is proclaimed through the power of God’s Spirit, and that this occurs gradually until Christ’s return.  My impression was that the book deemed this eschatology to be different from what is in the Book of Revelation.  In terms of eschatology, some of the book’s discussions were unsatisfactory or incomplete, especially in detailing how Christian believers can deal religiously with passages that may arguably manifest an imminent eschatology; some of the book’s discussions, however, were quite good, especially the one on Luke’s eschatology.

The chapters about Jesus in extra-biblical literature were good, overall, in that they were lucid and informative.  The chapter on Gnosticism acknowledged the complexity of defining Gnosticism, and the chapters on Mormonism and Islam provided useful background information.  The chapter on the American Jesus made some good points, especially about the Jesuses who appeal to women and to men (i.e., romantic Jesus, macho Jesus), but I thought that it could be judgmental, in areas, especially when it was criticizing people who believe in a radical Jesus—-essentially, it was putting words in their mouths and making judgments about what motivated them and what they would do in such-and-such situations.

I had a variety of favorite passages in this book.  The book referred to a historical Jesus scholar who said that Jesus did not multiply the loaves and fishes but rather encouraged people by his example to share their food, something that they were reluctant to do; the book disagrees with this view, and I do not entirely buy it either, but it is a beautiful concept.  In discussing the complexities of portraying Jesus in film, the book was asking if Jesus was carefree and happy when he told the scribe who wanted to follow him that the Son of Man had nowhere to lay his head (Matthew 8:20; Luke 9:58)—-that Jesus was not trying to put the scribe off, but rather was encouraging the scribe to embrace a carefree life of trusting in God to meet his needs.  That reminds me that tone is everything, that maybe the Gospel passages in which Jesus appears to be a jerk can be understood differently.  The book said that one who believes in a masculine Jesus would highlight that Jesus was strong in the midst of his crucifixion.  I personally tend to recoil from attempts to proclaim a macho Jesus, but that passage did resonate with me, perhaps because it highlighted that different views of Jesus can notice different things.  The book said more than once that people try to create Jesus in their own image, but maybe that is not entirely fair: perhaps people notice different things about Jesus that are edifying, based on who and where they are.

The book was written by three authors, and it would have done well to have identified which author was speaking, particularly when the author was telling stories in first-person narrative.

This book is informative, and it would be good for students of the New Testament, or interested learners.

The publisher sent me a complimentary copy of this book, in exchange for an honest review.

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