- Jesus, A Question of Identity
In this short book, J.L. Houlden traces the history of Christian belief from nascent Christianity to the present day, focussing particularly on theway Christians have sought to explain the basic conviction that 'Jesus is God'. The author envisages a sympathetic readership consisting of both believers and non-believers (2–3), and though at times it seems that his aim is to better inform those who would fall into the ranks of the former group, he avoids any type of apologetic effort in a mainly historical work. I will here briefly present some strengths and weaknesses of this contribution to the academic study of Jesus.
A primary strength of this text is that it clearly communicates the complexity of the historical task. This emphasis runs throughout the study, with Houlden frequently reminding the reader that it is impossible to clearly separate what 'really happened' from what has been added bythe tradition handlers. Despite this, Houlden maintains that the task of tracing how those beliefs formed is still necessary: 'These things happened so long ago; our sources are limited and not wholly or simply amenable to the kind of enquiry that interests us now; but with care we can discover much, even if we must forgo the luxury of certainty' (42). A second strength appears in Houlden's treatment of the Christological emphases of the New Testament authors. As do many other authors, Houlden discusses the various titles applied to Jesus, such as 'Son of Man', 'Son of God', or 'Lord'. Unlike other studies, though, he also incorporates discussions of how each gospel narrative presents Jesus, and thus the Christological emphasis of the gospel text as a whole. A third strength is that Houlden demonstrates how various thought forms such as Hellenistic philosophy or the Enlightenment provided categories for the Church's conception of Jesus at each stage of its history, thus demonstrating how Christianity participated in its larger environment.
This final strength, however, also presents the most prominent weakness of this study. In rehearsing the important factors in the Christian conception of Jesus' identity, Houlden attempts to cover too much historical ground in merely 128 pages. This surface treatment of complex issues makes him prone to overstatements, such as when he describes the Jesus of Paul's writings as 'faceless' and the product of abstract thought in contrast to the Jesus of the gospels who is 'the result of choice and of felt need' (122). On Paul's own account, his Jesus is not the result of having sat and pondered on logical possibilities, but rather the result of an experience on the road to Damascus that left him with only one conclusion. [End Page 287] Finally, Houlden's affinity for compound sentences at times prevents the reading of the text from being as smooth as it otherwise could be.
Jesus, A Question of Identity, despite these weaknesses, is still a competent introductory text. It is most suitable for a Church group wantinga historical study or perhaps an undergraduate New Testament course. Beyond this, however, its contribution would be limited.