There are a bevy of Historical Jesus books published, in pre-publication, and ready to make their way to copy-editing. Do we need another one? It is likely one could complete their research on Historical Jesus scholarship without ever picking up Lee Martin McDonald’s The Story of Jesus in History and Faith: An Introduction; however, their research would remain incomplete if they did not.
This massive volume is divided into three parts. Part One examines the quest, or quests, thus far, tackling luminaries like Bultmann and Theissen. For the lay reader, this introduction is just enough to tackle the issues leading up to where we are now, although it does little to differentiate itself from other introductions. One thing he does do, however, is to give Bultmann, the overly mythologized demon of Historical Jesus scholarship, a fair shake. He makes no final decisions, at least in this part, but allows Bultmann (and Bultmann’s context) to speak freely. Further, he gives a succinct understanding of the criteria of authenticity and engages with current scholarship, namely Chris Keith and Anthony Le Donne’s edited volume (published by Bloomsbury). The only issue I have here is that McDonald simply accepts certain of the criteria (44) without telling us why.
Throughout this part, he is careful to remind us that to understand the Historical Jesus is to acknowledge God’s activity in history. McDonald takes the line that history, while pursued via scientific methods, is not a science in of itself. He does not refer to Hayden White and the discussions about a firmer footing for history and historians, but like others, McDonald repeats the principles regarding history as a non-scientific endeavor. McDonald issues a conclusion may will find difficult to swallow, even those who are devout Christians. He writes, “The Jesus of history, as scholars have reconstructed him, never existed, and the real Jesus cannot be fully known by employing criteria that ignore the activity of God in his earthly journey.” (45). Quite simply, if you do not allow for miracles as a divine narrative around Jesus, then you cannot find the historical Jesus. I tend to, even as a Christian, disagree with him.
The second part examines the evidences of Jesus, beginning with the Gospels. McDonald seems to allow for an Oral Q, and perhaps writings predating the death of Jesus, but in the end, does not hold to mainstream Q scholarship. The glaring problem is that McDonald does not engage, even briefly, alternative theories of Gospel composition, namely the Farrer-Goulder hypothesis. This leads to several audacious statements (such as in Part 3 regarding literary independence in the birth narratives) that simply cannot be proven. The use of the Gospels as evidences of the historical Jesus are circular logic at best. Finally, his exclusion of Paul is troubling.
However, McDonald includes other evidences of Jesus, evidences that send the mythicist scrambling. McDonald is careful in this part, more careful than his use of the Gospels, to careful sift through what may and may not be applied to the search of the Historical Jesus. He uses Jewish and Roman sources, and goes so far as to include a succinct list of parallels between the Gospels as these other sources. This is, perhaps, the most helpful aspect of the book to those who take a critical view towards Historical Jesus research. By showing how those from outside the community viewed Jesus, and in such the viewing becomes evidence of the existence, McDonald provides us with a sounder collection of testimonies to the existence of Jesus and the plausibility of the Gospels than the Gospels. To deny the amount of historical evidence we have of Jesus is to deny reality.
In the final part, McDonald takes a rather serious approach at telling the story of Jesus but with a bit of historical criticism intermingled. Yes, McDonald tackles such issues as the Virgin Birth, miracles, and the Resurrection, but he does so with a constant eye that one cannot simply prove the acting of God in history, that these things are rather a matter of faith. Granted, he does point us to other avenues of consideration for the historicity of these events, such as the number of other important births and wonderworkers during the time of Jesus and how these events were described. These things should give us pause in our effort to demythologize any part of the New Testament. I am greatly pleased to see our author make use of authors known for their hyper-critical approach to Christianity, such as Crossan and Maurice Casey.
There is a deep canyon lacking in Evangelical scholarship, especially in the area of the Historical Jesus. Too much time is spent on defending this or that position, only to allow the entire scheme to slip away. McDonald presents nothing new so as to be groundbreaking, but has built up a virtual library aimed at engaged critical scholarship in the area of the so-called Historical Jesus quest. His charts and other compiled, and simplified, data will remain helpful to all students of the Gospels and their literary sources. His citation and use of secondary material, or material not related to the New Testament, is immediately impressive given that it is not the New Testament that proves the plausibility of Jesus or the message of Jesus, but those who would be his contemporaries. In short, The Story of Jesus in History and Faith: An Introduction is a much needed volume to give us a firm ground on how to explore the quest of the Historical Jesus without letting ourselves get in the way.