The Historical Jesus

Gerd Theissen, Annette Merz, Fortress, 1998, reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

        Here is a massive 650-page treatment of the Jesus quest, summarizing the ways in which scholars study Jesus, not only the results they arrive at but also the process by which they identify their knowledge.

        It summarizes two centuries of historical critical study of Jesus, including the sources (the canonical gospels) as well as the apocryphal gospels, the Christian texts that mention Jesus, but also the non-Christian ones.

        There are frequent methodological and hermeneutical reflections in the book that identify the issues of research. Each section begins with a short introduction and contains a survey of texts and problems relating to the topic in question; each main part concludes with a summary.

        The section, ‘The Quest of the Historical Jesus’, begins with Reimarus and Strauss, citing five texts by contribution to the task. Then follow Christian sources (synoptics, gnostic writings, extra-canonical sources) and non-Christian sources (eg Josephus, Pliny). The section concludes with an evaluation of the sources.

        Material discussed includes the miracles, parables, apocalyptic preaching, Jesus’ ethics; also treated are specific issues such as ‘Was the last supper a Passover meal?” and a discussion of titles (messiah, Son of Man, Son of G-d).

Vern Ratzlaff is a pastor and professor of historical theology at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.