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Saturday, July 08, 2006 

My Top Ten Historical Jesus Works

Currently I am finishing up James Dunn's Jesus Remembered (Christianity in the Making: Volume 1). Since this is the last book on the historical Jesus that I will probably read for quite some time (I will be reading much literature on biblical theology to prepare for a future class) I wanted to give my own, as of right now, top ten personal favorite books on the historical Jesus.

10.) Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millenium by Bart Ehrman. I include Ehrman's very short work on the historical Jesus because it was one of the first books I ever read on the subject and was important in stimulating my interest in historical Jesus research. Its chief drawback is that it is written for general audiences and so lacks interaction with important sources in the field of historical Jesus research.

9.) Jesus of Nazareth by Gunther Bornkamm. Though Ernst Kasemann is generally credited as being the catalyst for the so-called "Second Quest" for the historical Jesus, Bornkamm's was the first actual detailed work on the subject from this renewed quest. I found this to be a most refereshing read but the work ultimately suffers from very little interaction with sources and still exhibits a Jesus who was constantly in conflict with the terribly legalistic Jews.

8.) The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant by John Dominic Crossan. As far as an overall reconstruction of the historical Jesus, Crossan's is the least persuasive on my list. However, Crossan's work is still highly valuable not least for its detailed inquiries into the anthropological and sociological structures of the Mediterranean world.

7.) Jesus and the Victory of God (Christian Origins and the Question of God, Volume 2) by N.T. Wright. Some of my Wright fans will wonder why this work is far down my list. Though Wright's piece on the historical Jesus is very informative, a pleasant read, and very engaging but I remain unconvinced of Wright's overall picture of the Historical Jesus, namely his grand-narrative approach (the theme of exile) which forces Wright to see more continuity between the Israel and Christian story than there actually is.

6.) The Christology of Jesus by Ben Witherington. A valuable work in that it seeks to understand Jesus' self-consciousness via the various relationships that he had with both his allies and those who opposed his mission. A weakness of this approach is that it inevitably leads one to infer things from these relationships that do not necessarily follow.

5.) Jesus Remembered (Christianity in the Making: Volume 1) by James D.G. Dunn. The significance of Dunn's work is indicated by its title, Jesus Remembered. Rather than attempting to reconstruct the historical Jesus in the sense of the actual Jesus who lived and walked in Galilee and Judea, Dunn is more concerned with the impact Jesus had on his disciples and the early believers. Dunn also emphasizes the neglect of the role of oral tradition in historical Jesus studies in favor a predominately literary pardigm and states his work is meant to focus more on this oral aspect and thinks oral tradition offers a better way of reconstructing the tradition than does a literary one. An obvious weakness of Dunn's work is that he goes to the opposite end of the spectrum of those whom he criticizes and so winds up stressing the oral dimension of tradition to the extent that he neglects its literary aspects.

4.) The Quest of the Historical Jesus by Albert Schweitzer. Schweitzer work was of monumental importance in that it brought to a halt the so-called "First Quest" by exhibiting how the various scholars of that quest formed Jesus into their own likeness and introducted the apocalyptic dimension of Jesus thought and mission. Unfortunately, Schweitzer was rather uncritical of his sources and built much of his interpretation of the Jesus tradition stemmed from Matthew 10 and the so-called Messianc woes.

3.) Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet by Dale C. Allison. Those of you who read my blog regularly know I plug Allison quite a bit. This is one of my favorite works by this scholar. The value of this work is that it takes a refreshing, skeptical view on the various so-called criterion that are often used in a mechanistic manner to construct the historical Jesus. Allison also has a very detailed and persuasive critique of Crossan's work on the historical Jesus.

2.)A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus by John P. Meier. This is without a doubt the most comprehensive work on the historical Jesus and still remains unfinished awaiting a fourth and final volume. Unlike many historical Jesus works Meier extensively interacts with his sources. The amount of information contained in his endnotes is mind-boggling and overwhelming at times. Another plus of Meier's work is its sections that are dedicated to the miracles of Jesus. Too often much historical Jesus research tends to exclusively focus on the words of Jesus rather than his deeds. This criticism certainly cannot be leveled against Meier. Meier's work would probably be my number one choice on my list but isn't for three reasons:

a.) It still stands incomplete and so we as of yet do not have Meier's take on Jesus parables, self-understanding, the passion events, and his execution. All of these we can expect in the much anticipated fourth volume.

b.) Meier at times uses his criterion too mechanically even after warning against such appropriation in his first volume.

c.) Meier's reconstruction is much to0 dependent on the hypothetical Q document. The reason this is problematic for me is that I have recently become a Q skeptic thanks to Mark Goodacre's persuasive arguments in The Case Against Q.

And the number one on my list is:

1.) Jesus and Judaism by E.P. Sanders. This remains for me the most persuasive reconstruction of the historical Jesus. If I had to pinpoint my viewpoint concerning the historical Jesus it would ultimately be Sanders eschatological restorationist perspective (with a bit more apocalyptic flavor). But since this is my favorite work I want to provide a bit more extensive review of my reasons for thinking so and this I'll do next time. Until then enjoy the list.


Great minds think alike. Last August I did my list of top seven historical Jesus books. I also placed Sanders at #1 (but his follow-up book) and Allison at #3. But regardless of that, it's a nice list. (I would have accorded Schweitzer the #1 position but decided to leave him off entirely for sake of "up-to-date" material.)

BTW Chris, the Marginal Jew link takes you to Dale Allison's book instead.

Freudian slip? ;-)

Thanks, Loren. I don't know how I missed your list before. I haven't read his "The Historical Figure of Jesus" mostly because I was worried it would be a more concise, less scholarly rehashing of his ideas from Jesus and Judaism. But if you accorded it number one on your list then I am best off reading it.

I regret that I've read only a few of the books on your list. I certainly agree with the high marks you gave to Sanders, Allison, and Dunn.

Dunn is my favourite scholar. I'm only part way through Jesus Remembered, so I can't offer a critique of it, but I have gleaned a lot of insight into the historical Jesus from Dunn's other works.

Some time I really need to read Crossan, but he still isn't a priority to me. I know he makes extensive use of controversial sources, and other scholars don't find his conclusions persuasive. But Marcus Borg says Crossan is valuable for his research into the social context of first century Palestine.

I haven't read Jesus and the Victory of God yet, except I've started to read the section on eschatology. I find it interesting that Wright argues against the traditional understanding of the apocalyptic texts. It would be nice if he was right: i.e., that Jesus didn't mistakenly predict the end of the world. But, like you, I often find Wright less than persuasive.

I wonder whether you've read Marcus Borg and left him intentionally off your list. I haven't read anything he's written for scholars, but I have Jesus: A New Vision, and I think he has a lot of valid insight.

An older study that is worth a read is by Leander Keck: A Future for the Historical Jesus.


If I was forced to pick an overall favorite scholar my choice would probably be Dunn as well. The amount of work he has done on such vast topics as Early Judaism/Christianity, Pneumatology, Pauline Studies, Jewish-Christian relationships, the historical Jesus, etc is phenomenal.

As for Marcus Borg's book I have attempted to read both his and Funk's "Honest to Jesus." To be honest I've never had the desire to finish them. Their treatments are low-grade scholarship in my opinion. But I suppose I cannot say that with complete justification unless I've read their works entirely. Still, it is simply hard for me to pick up their books and finish.

Thanks for the mention of Keck's book. It has been suggested to me before and soon I hope to engage with it.

I can't believe you mentioned Ehrman's book. It is his worst as far as I'm concerned. Likewise, I think Crossan is very interesting but entirely misguided. Bornkamm should probably be higher in my opinion and Theissen & Merz should be in there as well. I wouldn't rate Ben Witherington quite so high. I'd put Dunn at # 3 or # 4. I think the names Chilton and Evans are sad omissions too - but then again, you can't have everyone. Interesting list all the same!

Bornkamm was the best of the 2nd Quest, but was too existentialist and individual. From around that era (though not really part of the 2nd Quest), I would have substituted Joachim Jeremias'_New Testament Theology: The Proclamation of Jesus_.
I'm not persuaded at all by Crossan. I'd include Marcus Borg's _Jesus: A New Vision_ which is the best of his books on the subject. Wright should be listed higher, but so should Schweitzer who first saw that apocalyptic eschatology and a Jewish setting were key to Jesus.
Richard A. Horsley, _Jesus and the Spiral of Violence: Popular Jewish Resistance in Palestine_ is essential.
William R. Herzog II, _Jesus, Justice and the Reign of God: A Ministry of Liberation_.

Sanders is excellent in many places, but his attempt to see Jesus as wanting to restore temple worship rather than seeing him as in fundamental conflict with the temple cultus is just odd. What of Geza Vermes many works on _Jesus the Jew_??

Somewhere you need to include the feminist insights of Elizabeth Schuesller Fiorenza, _In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins_ and her later _Jesus: Miriam's Child, Sophia's Prophet_. They have blind spots, but also open up new vistas.

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