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Bruce Fisk has written a very interesting travel guide for students making their way through the study of the historical Jesus. It’s a fascinating and very creative book. Fisk is both master of the field of historical Jesus studies and a skillful teacher.
Studying the historical Jesus is fraught with challenges for many students. We have the four-fold Gospel witness in the Christian canon, but the Gospels are theologically-shaped historical narratives. Because they speak of historical events that anchor the Christian faith, they invite historical investigation. Differences between them, however, cause us to inquire whether we can find the “real” Jesus.
Scholarly methods and proposals for such quests can bewilder and overwhelm students. Engaging the discipline can shake one’s faith to its foundations. This is where Fisk’s book is so very helpful, navigating students’ discovery of this entire field of inquiry. In this, it is more of a guide to historical Jesus studies, and not so much a guide to Jesus himself.
Fisk introduces us to Norm, a religious studies student seeking to come to grips with his faith and the complex character of the Gospels set against the literature of the ancient world. “I had to know whether historical inquiry could also deepen my faith, whether studying Someone from the past could enrich my worship in the present” (p. 41).
Norm sets off to Israel to satisfy his questions. As he does so, he lays out the challenges to understanding the Gospels. How does one reconcile differing Gospel accounts of various events? How do modern readers, situated squarely within a scientific conceptual world, reconcile miraculous accounts that assume belief in the supernatural?
The book is basically Norm’s journal in which he records his thoughts, conversations, studies on these matters, and even sticky notes of quotes from scholars. Further, Norm corresponds via e-mail with his skeptical professor and includes these conversations in the book/journal.
It’s important to note that this is not at all an artificial device but inherent in the entire project of historical Jesus studies. Scholars who seek to get behind the canonical witnesses to the “real Jesus” invariably construct a Jesus in their own image. Just as the quest to satisfy faith’s doubts is personal, so too is wrestling with tensions between history and canonical testimony.
Another aspect of the book is the “live” experience of Norm’s traveling around Israel. His descriptions of Jerusalem and it’s smells and sounds are vivid and quite captivating. I can nearly smell the Jerusalem bagel that we enjoyed in an alleyway and hear the sounds of the city pulsing with busy-ness. Norm encounters the tragedy and beauty of that land—its connection to the past and its passions and current travails.
Again, this is faithful reporting. Those who have gone to Israel with passionate convictions about Judaism, the Jewish people, the nation of Israel, and the plight of the Palestinians, usually have those convictions upended by personal encounter. There’s so much more to say about this, of course, but Norm’s powerfully transformative experiences are typical of those who have travelled there.
Norm several times bumps into historical Jesus scholars and engages them in conversation while in Jerusalem. This might strike the reader as slightly unrealistic, but it rightly portrays many of these scholars as serious and quite curious students themselves. While there may be a few who have grown tired of being hounded by the general public so that they’re now inaccessible, many of these scholars receive and respond to correspondence, especially when they sense a fellow inquisitive traveler.
There’s much to commend in this book. For those on a quest to satisfy doubts and questions that arise from historically considering Jesus and the Gospels, I can hardly think of a better place to start. For courses on Jesus and the Gospels, this is a “must” for helping students process the methods and aims of historical study.
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