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Book review: The Jesus Puzzle: Challenging intellectual uncertainty about Jesus by Brenda Watson; Jesus: A life in class conflict by James Crossley and Robert J. Myles

22 September 2023

Henry Wansbrough reviews two books on the historical Jesus

TWO books about the historical Jesus, taking diametrically opposed positions. The former is written by a distinguished Christian scholar, formerly Director of the prestigious Farmington Institute for Christian Studies, and seeks to show that the Gospel accounts are basically historically reliable. The latter is written from a Marxist viewpoint, presenting Jesus not as “a Great Man of history”, but as a religious organiser, formed by and emerging from the peasantry of Galilee and Judaea, the vanguard of a new political party with its own politburo, a dictatorship to serve the interests of the non-elite peasantry, but also with a mission to the rich.

Both books start with a review of the classic three quests for the historical Jesus, the first emerging from the European Enlightenment and culminating in Albert Schweitzer (1906); the second (between the two World Wars) pioneered by the studies of Bultmann and Dibelius and characterised by the attempt to establish criteria for the historical Jesus; the third led by Géza Vermes’s insistence on the Jewishness of Jesus and bolstered by new archaeological discoveries, such as that of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947.

Watson then proceeds on the basis of two historical principles: first, the grant of the benefit of the doubt, that evidence should be accepted unless there is reason for disbelief; and, second, the uniqueness of historical events. Most sciences aim to establish general laws, but the science of history accepts that historical events are unique. She writes in a delightfully down-to-earth style, with plenty of crisp examples.

The difficulty, however, is what should count as a reason for disbelief. Are the Evangelists writing theology by means of seemingly historical narrative? Is the birth of Jesus at Bethlehem merely a way of proclaiming that he was a second David? Of the three last words of Jesus on the cross offered by Mark/Matthew, Luke and John which is historical or does that not matter? Are minor details inserted to show the fulfilment of scripture?

In this case, what is to count as “minor”? John the Baptist was killed by Herod Antipas. Yes, we have this from Josephus. But is Mark’s story his way of showing that Antipas is a foolish victim of a pretty girl’s charm (Esther 5.3) and his wife a second incarnation of the wicked Jezebel? (Crossley and Myles think it unlikely that this story ever took place.) Did Jesus walk on water, or is Mark 6.48 a theological assertion of his divinity based on Psalm 76.19?

There needs to be more study, not of history as a science, but of the genres of historical writing and their way of asserting the truth, or, rather what truth they mean to assert. It is often the message rather than the details of the story which is important and, therefore, inspired. Several times, Watson uses as an example the hat worn by Napoleon at Waterloo. What is important from the biblical point of view is not which hat he wore, but what the author wishes to convey by mentioning it, nor whether skeletons rose from their tombs at the death of Jesus (Matthew 27.52) rather than the message that this conveys.

With Crossley and Myles, the difficulty is that too often supposition turns into certainty. There is too much of “it is not out of the question to suppose . . .”. To mention just two detailed points: the presentation of the movement as “tough, muscular, hard, and manly” hardly fits Peter’s reaction to Caiaphas’s servant-girl. Nor does the “preferential option for death” accord well with the persistent and emphasised failure of the disciples to accept the message of suffering.

More generally, if the Jewish historian Josephus is the chief witness for the Galilean world of “excessive taxation, discontent, banditry, warfare and violent reprisals”, his own motives for painting this picture for the Romans should be more closely examined. Without such testing, it remains unclear that the Jesus movement was a product of class-conflict and agrarian unrest. When John’s shorthand term for the Jewish authorities in the Passion narrative as “the Jews” is described as a “chilling ‘fascist-like’ tendency”, the reader may be forgiven for assuming that the authors slip too readily into a Marxist perspective.


Fr Henry Wansbrough OSB is a monk of Ampleforth, emeritus Master of St Benet’s Hall, Oxford, and a former member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission.


The Jesus Puzzle: Challenging intellectual uncertainty about Jesus
Brenda Watson
Christian Alternative Books £11.99
Church Times Bookshop £10.79

Jesus: A life in class conflict
James Crossley and Robert J. Myles
Zero Books £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £17.99

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