Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Book Review: Jesus and the Logic of History

Have you ever had a book sitting on your shelf for ages and ages? You think you know what it's going to say, and so you leave it to descend in your reading priorities. And then you eventually get around to reading it and wonder why you left it so long? That's been my experience with this book - Jesus and the Logic of History by Paul Barnett.

The big idea behind the book is that we can get to know that the gospel accounts are accurate through the incidental details recorded in the New Testament letters. Just think for a moment. Within the letters, which were written before the gospels, there are details about the person and character and life of Jesus which were already part of the eyewitness testimony. The fact that they are already written down before we get to the gospel accounts must mean that the gospels themselves are authentic and accurate records of the life of Jesus. That's the summary of the book. To discover a bit more, read on!

Barnett introduces his book with the reminder that 'Christianity is a historical religion in at least two senses' - that it is a part of world history, but also because 'Jesus was a real man.' That means that 'the origins of Christianity are not mythical in character.' Yet many scholars are attempting to redefine Jesus historically, casting him in some other light, such as a sage, or prophet, or cynic, or whatever. 'There are as many Jesus as there are people who write about him' - each of them seeing their own type of hero in him. Contrasting with this, 'It is the argument of this book that the 'logic' of history demands a Jesus who is definable and about whom a practical consensus can be reached. By this logic it is argued that the Christ of the early church's faith and proclamation must have borne a close relationship to Jesus the historical figure.'

There is a good discussion of the historical approach to events and facts and the changes in society. This helps us to think through the sources used, and presents a challenge to the 'Jesus Questers' who only use fragments of gospels, rather than the fullsome source material present from the earliest days of the Christian movement. This even more so when they tend to rely heavily on discredited late sources such as the Gospel of Thomas.

From this base, he moves on to examine the references to Jesus in secular histories, again adding testimony to the fact that Jesus must have been (at least) a remarkable man who caused such an amazing influence on so many so quickly. This impact is developed in the third chapter, looking at Jesus in the proclamation and tradition. Given that Paul's letters to Corinth and Thessalonians come soon after his first visit to the cities when churches were planted, the details of Jesus' life found within are illuminating. The churches already know about Jesus, the references are merely mentioned in passing, illustrating doctrine and life. This is then expanded to the other apostolic writings of Peter and John, each of whom make mention of the life of Jesus throughout.

Placing Jesus in his historical context is the task of chapter four. Here, the relationship of Jesus to the other major figures found in Luke 3 is considered - John the Baptist, Herod Antipas, Pilate, Annas and Caiaphas. Each of them are known from extra-biblical sources, so there can be no doubt of their existence.

Jesus in the gospels furthers the idea that any reconstruction of Jesus must contend with the details given by the very earliest churches - in continuation from his ministry. Yet most reconstructions refuse to deal with the 'deity dimension' - a belief which is highly noticeable in the earliest churches. These churches already existed before the conversion of Paul - which can be seen in what he writes to the Galatians (because he was persecuting those self-same churches) and the tradition of Jesus' resurrection which had been handed on to him and which he reminds the Corinthians he had passed on to them (1 Cor 15).

The remaining chapters are at pains to show that the gospels and Acts are reliable testimony and not something mythic or made up. His arguments are convincing, because the logic of the history is so clear. Contained within is a discussion of the process of producing the gospels - from witnesses to publication. Each gospel is seen to come from an author who was either an apostle themselves or else was connected to the apostles - Matthew himself; Mark through Peter; Luke through eye witnesses and associated with Paul; John himself. These weren't late documents produced several hundred years later (as claimed by the Da Vinci Code et al) but within the lifetime of the apostles.

This really is an excellent book. It takes a different angle and approach to the New Testament text, but is logical and encouraging. By looking at the letters in a fresh way, the history contained within is unearthed, confirming the reliability of the gospels, and all because Jesus, the Son of God really did live, die and rise. This will be a great book for anyone seeking to engage in defence and confirmation of the gospel through apologetics, or those seeking greater confirmation of the historical roots of the Christian faith. I'm just sorry it took so long to read it!

Jesus and the Logic of History is available from Amazon.

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