C. Marvin Pate. 40 Questions About the Historical Jesus. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2015. See here to buy the book.
Evangelical scholar C. Marvin Pate is the author of 40 Questions About the Historical Jesus. In this book, Pate addresses questions about the historical Jesus, the biblical Gospels, and extracanonical Gospels.
Here are some of my thoughts about this book:
When I first saw the title, I was hesitant to request the book. I
thought that it would be rather simplistic and would repeat things that I
had already read about the historical Jesus and New Testament studies.
The book is far from superficial, however. It is almost 400 pages in
length, and there are a lot of words on each page. Pate is very
detailed as he interacts with and critiques scholars. His knowledge of
classic, Second Temple, and rabbinic sources makes this book a virtual
encyclopedia. His ability to draw from that knowledge, and his
knowledge of scholarship, to address questions and arguments is
amazing. Pate also interprets the Gospels in reference to Old Testament
themes, in a manner that is creative and profound. Pate has judicious
discussions about such issues as Jesus' socio-economic status and the
languages that Jesus knew and spoke. This book is far from being a
glorified "Frequently Asked Questions" pamphlet.
That said, Pate does go on rabbit trails and get bogged down on
details. He sometimes does make an effort, though, to tie themes
together near the end. Personally, I learned a lot from these rabbit
trails, so I appreciated them. At the same time, if you are looking for
a book that concisely summarizes what New Testament scholarship
identifies as the distinct themes in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, this
may not be the book for you. Pate had interesting things to say about
Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, but discussion about some of their key
themes was notably absent.
Pate has a maximalist stance towards the New Testament Gospels: he
regards them as reliable portrayals of the historical Jesus. He argues
for the virgin birth and the historicity of the census in Luke 2. At
the same time, he appreciates the Gospels in their diversity. He argues
that Jesus' cleansing of the Temple has a different or a distinct
significance in each Gospel. He quotes a statement by Craig Blomberg
about how the Gospels vary what they say in reference to the situation
of their audiences: some passages reflect a Palestinian setting, whereas
others adapt Jesus' words to speak more to a Greco-Roman setting.
There are times when Pate references scholarship from the 1970's yet
talks as if he is presenting recent trends in scholarship. This was
particularly the case in his discussion about oral tradition. His
discussion was interesting: it challenges prominent scholarly arguments
about oral tradition that I read in preparing for one of my
comprehensive exams! But Pate also would have done well to have
consulted recent studies, particularly about memory. Moreover, while I
acknowledge the possibility that lengthy chunks of oral tradition can be
historically authentic and passed down reliably (as does Pate and the
scholars he references), there also seem to me to be cases in which we
see something different in the Gospels: cases in which Gospel authors
contextualize short sayings differently from each other, or
contextualize sayings in reference to their distinct ideology and
E. Related to C-D, there were
many times when I thought that Pate could have done a better job in
tying things together into a coherent picture. He acknowledges the
diversity of the Gospels yet accepts, overall, their historical
reliability. How does he tie these things together? Can the
creativity, distinct ideology, and agency of the Gospel-authors co-exist
with the Gospels being reliable historically, and, if so, how?
had thoughts about the purpose of Jesus' Kingdom of God, but questions
remained in my mind. What exactly did Jesus' Kingdom accomplish in
terms of the restoration of Israel, which Pate believes was a
significant aspect of Jesus' mission? Was Jesus aiming for Israel's
spiritual restoration, not necessarily its national restoration? Was
the restoration postponed because many Jews rejected Jesus' message?
What was Jesus' aim in casting out demons: if it was to challenge Satan,
why did Satan remain powerful after that? Pate made his share of
thoughtful points that touched on these issues, but there were times
when he sounded like a classical dispensationalist, a progressive
dispensationalist, and maybe even a covenant theologian, schools of
thought that contradict each other, in key areas.
with the New Testament interpretation of the Old Testament and the
charge that the New Testament authors are not entirely faithful to the
Old Testament passages' original meaning. On Isaiah 7:14, he seemed to
argue that it related to the time of Isaiah and Ahaz, yet also had
Messianic significance. He did not exactly offer a coherent picture as
to how this could be the case.
rarely addressed the scholarly view that Jesus expected the end of the
world to come soon. Pate did talk about the differences between
Schweitzer's view that Jesus had a thoroughgoing futuristic imminent
eschatology, and the view that Jesus' Kingdom was already but not yet.
But Pate did not address many of the New Testament passages that appear
to imply an imminent eschatology. He did address Jesus' statement in
the Olivet Discourse that "this generation shall not pass away, till all
be fulfilled," and, overall, he did so judiciously, without artificial
apologetics. Essentially, Pate argued that Mark envisioned Jesus coming
back soon after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, but that
Matthew and Luke, who wrote after the destruction of the Temple in 70
C.E., had different ideas from that of Mark. Unfortunately, Pate did
not wrestle with the theological implications of this insight: Was Mark
wrong? Did Mark simply not see the future clearly? Pate just said that
we should be ready for Jesus to return at any time, then moved on.
Pate did not always strike me as consistent, particularly on using
later sources or concepts to understand the first century C.E.
Sometimes, he seemed to recognize the problems in doing so. At other
times, he did so. Sometimes, he justified doing so, and other times he
did not. I appreciate his rabbinic references, for the book would not
be the same without them. Pate could have done better in terms of
methodological consistency, however. He also could have done better on
consistency when it came to other issues: for example, did he believe
that the Son of Man in the Book of Daniel was Israel, a heavenly being
allied with Israel, or what? Was the concept of a Shaliach around
during the time of Jesus, or not?
had questions at the end of each chapter. The questions are good in
that they can encourage people to review Pate's arguments. At the same
time, they did not particularly encourage thoughtfulness or
exploration. Overall, they were not open-ended, and they assumed that
Pate was correct.
I still give this book four stars because it is informative, and it is also a good book for reference.
received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher,
in exchange for an honest review. Also, while I share the same last
name with C. Marvin Pate, I have no idea if we are related!
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