The Historical Jesus

Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz, Fortress, 1998

Reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

        It’s an older book but of current relevance.  It is a contextual picture of Jesus, understood in the context of Judaism and the local, social and political history of his time.  The Historical Jesus details the sources for our knowledge about Jesus, and explores the historical and social context of Jesus and his activity.  It’s a book that not only summarizes the ways in which Jesus is studied, but the results of that study and the process by which a fuller picture of Jesus emerges. 

        At 642 pages it’s a large volume that contains not only study of the Christian canon but of the apocryphal gospels and other relevant material.  The book is wondrously inclusive and dialogical, giving key components of the biblical material.  Eg geographical and social framework (Galilee), the activities and preaching of Jesus (including a section on the women around Jesus), concept of the Kingdom of G-d, Jesus’ miracles and parables, Jesus’ ethics, the Passover, the risen Jesus and the beginnings of Christology.

        A key section deals with the Last Supper—was it a Passover meal?  The book grapples with key issues of exegesis and history, but in a way that looks at the major issues, not at arcane concepts of interpretation.

        A treatment that both summarizes the theological continuum of issues and  details the exegetical faithfulness to the text.

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