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Brief histories of Jesus and Thomas Aquinas

13 April 2018

John Court on accounts of Jesus and Aquinas


IT IS no small challenge to write articles for a dictionary or encyclopaedia, or even a very short history of a great figure. It is no easier for specialists in their respective fields, like these two authors. The designated readership is of those approaching the subject afresh; and the perspective is historical, as the title suggests.

First, Helen Bond (a New Testament scholar from Edinburgh) writes about Jesus succinctly and lucidly in a well-structured presentation. There are two parts: the life and legacy of Jesus. The life ends with the burial of the body; the legacy begins with ideas associated with the resurrection. In the life, the historian refutes some popular assumptions: tensions in Jesus’s family; the character of Mary Magdalene; the financial monopoly of the Temple priests; and the reasons for Judas’s betrayal.

The account of the legacy takes seriously not only the rise of the Christian Church, but also the contexts of Islam, Judaism, Secularism, and themes from the cinema. The story concludes with the statue of Christ the Redeemer presiding over the 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil.

There are a bewildering number of introductions to the person of Jesus, for all categories of readership. I have tried to summarise the perspectives of Helen Bond’s presentation as a guide for purchasers. It invites comparison with Richard Bauckham’s Jesus: A very short introduction for the Oxford University Press series, which I reviewed here some five years ago.

Second, Brian Davies (a philosophy professor at Fordham University, New York) uses thirty more pages, but follows a similar structure of history and legacy in writing about St Thomas Aquinas. He begins from a brief account of Aquinas’s life and intellectual context, followed by an explanation of his main teachings.

For the author, Aquinas’s legacy is that of a “fascinating writer with much of interest to impart when it comes to a range of philosophical and theological questions”. Davies assumes that the reader will lack knowledge of medieval thinking or of academic philosophy and theology, and so he sets about introducing them with the techniques of a skilled philosopher. As a thinker, Aquinas is a man of parts: a biblical commentator; a theologian interpreting church doctrine; and a philosopher in the tradition of Aristotle.

Given an output of more than eight million words, and a range of partisan supporters and opponents up to the present, a novice reader of Aquinas must choose his guide with care. Davies uses techniques of philosophy to introduce basic terms and concepts and open a vast world of thought. A religious thinker might prefer T. M. Renick’s Aquinas for Armchair Theologians (Westminster John Knox, 2002) with its splendid cartoons. And Blackwell’s Directions in Modern Theology series offered Aquinas in Dialogue (2004) for the 21st century.

Both books under review are supplied with a glossary, suggested further reading, endnotes (especially numerous in Davies), and index. The covers are striking, with their lurking portrait of the subject; but I am surprised that Helen Bond did not weave this into her short discussion of “Jesus in Art”.

Dr John Court is Honorary Senior Research Fellow in Biblical Studies at the University of Kent at Canterbury.


Jesus: A very brief history
Helen K. Bond
SPCK £7.99
Church Times Bookshop £7.20

Thomas Aquinas: A very brief history
Brian Davies
SPCK £7.99
Church Times Bookshop £7.20

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