Page 9, 13th August 1999

13th August 1999
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Page 9, 13th August 1999 — Shadow dancing
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Shadow dancing

Dwight Longenecker on the quest for the real Jesus

The Jesus Debate: Modern Historians Investigate the Life of Christ by Mark Allan Powell, Lion £16.99

NOTHING ILLUSTRATES the changing image of Jesus better than the way his life has been treated by film-makers over the years.

For three decades Cecil B. De Mille's austere father figure in the 1920s King of Kings was the reverent norm. Then along came a new crop of film Christs. Pasolini gave us a Marxist preacher, the squeaky clean Jeffrey Hunter was an American teen Jesus in the King of Kings remake, while Max Von Sydow gave us a dour mystic in The Greatest Story Ever Told. These Jesuses were followed by the troubled hippy of Jesus Christ Superstar and the jester of Godspell. Other film versions, including Zeffirelli's masterpiece Jesus of Nazareth were to follow.

It was during the Sixties that such varied interpretations of Christ's life began to flourish; yet, ironically, it was in 1962 that the Protestant scholar Rudolph Bultmann wrote, "1 do indeed think that we can now know almost nothing concerning the life and personality of Jesus". Just when the scholars gave up the quest for the historical Jesus the film-makers took it up.

The "progress" of biblical criticism since the turn of the century had turned the Gospels from solid rock to quicksand. With the shakiness of the evidence and the interpolation of theological assumptions, the whole area of historical Jesus research seemed like dancing with your shadow. As John Dominic Crossan pithily observes, "it is impossible to avoid the suspicion that historical Jesus research is a very safe place to do theology and call it history or to do autobiography and call it biography".

Mark Powell provides an excellent background to the quest for the historical Jesus. As Associate Professor of New Testament at Trinity Lutheran Seminary, he writes from a committed, Evangelical viewpoint but is fair to other traditions. He begins by giving a background of historical Jesus studies, going back to the foundations laid by Reimarus, Strauss, Renan, Wrede and Schweitzer, before reviewing the views of the de-mythologisers of the Fifties and Sixties.

He then goes on to explain the principles and procedures of historical Jesus scholarship, presenting "snapshots" of the different contemporary portraits of Jesus and giving a detailed overview of the six most important historical Jesus scholars of the last few years.

Like the blind men touching the elephant, these six scholars each present an accurate portrait of Jesus from their own point of view. The scholars of the Jesus Seminar give us a peasant sage. John Dominic Crossan sees the social revolutionary. For Marcus J. Borg, Jesus is essentially a religious mystic while EP Saunders sees an end-time prophet. John P. Meier thinks Jesus' main identity is as a marginal Jew, while Anglican scholar NT Wright hails him as the True Messiah. Like the different film portraits of Jesus, all of them are right and all of them are wrong. Because Jesus is the universal man he is too complex to be categorised with a catch-phrase. The beauty of Powell's book is that he brings all the portraits together and is sympathetic and fair, believing that each one helps us glimpse the Jesus of history and illuminate the Christ of faith.

ALTHOUGH POWELL writes well, The Jesus Debate will be challenging stuff for anyone not familiar with New Testament studies.Even so, it is a genuine attempt to get good Biblical scholarship off the dusty shelves of theological libraries and into the hands of enquiring lay people. The heavy pessimism of the post-war Germans has been replaced with Anglo-American optimism.

Powell is upbeat without being triumphalistic. He's listened to all the radical critics, but at the end of the day he probably shrugs, grins and ends up agreeing with Tom Wright's sensible view that "we can know quite a lot about Jesus. Not enough to write a modern-style biography, including the colour of the subject's hair, and what he liked for breakfast, but quite a lot".




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