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Learn the mind of Christ

30 August 2013

The Gospels are not the only evidence, says Anthony Cane


Inside the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem: from The Lion Concise Atlas of Bible History by Paul Lawrence (£12.99 (£11.70); 978-0-7459-5532-2) - the Lion Atlas, edited down by Richard Johnson

Inside the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem: from The Lion Concise Atlas of Bible History by Paul Lawrence (£12.99 (£11.70); 978-0-7459-5532-2) - t...

The Historical Character of Jesus: Canonical insights from outside the Gospels
David M. Allen

SPCK £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30 (Use code CT842 )

The Jesus Reader: The teaching and identity of Jesus Christ
Tom Carty

The Columba Press £8.50
Church Times Bookshop £7.65 (Use code CT842 )

Being in Christ
Peter Phillips

The Columba Press £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £9 (Use code CT842 )

THE three books discussed in this review each take a different approach to the haunting question Dietrich Bonhoeffer asked himself, his students, and his readers: Who is Jesus Christ for us today?

The Columba Press titles make a striking contrast. Tom Carty offers a set of readings and reflections about Jesus for those suspicious of "dogmatic teaching", while Peter Phillips's closely argued book is explicitly based on lectures for a Christology course taught at Ushaw College (a former Roman Catholic seminary).

The title of David Allen's fine study needs to be carefully attended to if the reader is not to be misled: "Biblical insights from outside the Gospels" might have made it clearer that he is exploring what would be learnt about the "remembered Jesus" if someone ignored the first four books of the New Testament, and read from the Acts of the Apostles onwards.

Carty's reader is ostensibly aimed at the widest possible audience, and perhaps atheists and adherents of other faiths will use it to explore the "fascinating and attractive" figure of Jesus. If they do, they will find themselves instructed to read Carty's mix of biblical passages and reflections in a rather devotional way. This is not a book of apologetics, but one informed by the author's experience of lectio divina. Carty recommends a focused approach, starting with being physically and mentally relaxed, and reading slowly and meditatively. There are 17 chapters, divided into a first section on the identity of Jesus, and a second on his teaching.

The back cover of The Jesus Reader says that the book "does not try to convert you to any particular beliefs about Jesus". I suspect, however, that it will appeal most to those who already have a measure of faith commitment. None the less, many will appreciate an approach that assumes little prior knowledge and, indeed, has a helpful glossary, a short bibliography, and appendices on icons and group meditation. In that sense it makes an excellent companion to Phillips's more academic but still accessible work Being in Christ.

Phillips is both an experienced parish priest and teacher (both in secondary schools and higher education). This shows in his clear introductions to topics such as the distinctive Gospel portraits of Jesus, and the Christological debates in the Early Church. While the scholarship is not absolutely up to date, Phillips's book manages to cover a huge amount of ground in relatively few pages without ever feeling rushed or superficial.

In its portrayal of Jesus, Being in Christ draw almost exclusively on the Gospels, which is no doubt as Allen would expect. His thought-provoking and original book sets out to show why this neglect matters, focusing on what the other texts of the New Testament contribute to our picture of Jesus. Allen calls his approach "Jesusological", in that he is concerned with the earthly existence of Jesus as remembered and recalled by the earliest Christian communities. He is particularly in- terested in how the identity of Jesus is articulated, drawing out both what is shared and what is distinctive in each text - and what is taken to be singular about Jesus; that is what really matters about him.

Allen's book deserves a wide readership, and a longer review than I can give it here. His carefully argued introduction and conclusion bookend seven chapters on Jesus in Acts, Paul, Deutero-Paul, Hebrews, etc. Unlike the books by Carty and Phillips, there are clear indexes of both biblical references and names and subjects. What is particularly striking is how Allen brings out the ways in which the non-Gospel texts show that Jesus was remembered by doing the kinds of things he did (such as prioritising the poor), seeking to mimic his character (particularly in times of suffering), or recalling incidents in his life (especially those leading up to his death).

Bonhoeffer, I strongly suspect, would see this kind of remembrance as central to discovering who Jesus Christ is for us today.

Canon Anthony Cane is Chancellor of Chichester Cathedral.

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