- Finding the Historical Christ
Finding the Historical Christ is the third and final installment in Professor Paul Barnett’s “After Jesus” series. The first volume was The Birth of Christianity: The First Twenty Years (2005); the second Paul: Missionary of Jesus (2008). The first two volumes lay some of the groundwork for the volume under consideration. The three volumes represent a notable achievement in Barnett’s long and distinguished career.
The burden of Barnett’s latest book is to show that Jesus regarded himself as the prophesied and awaited Messiah, or Christ, of Jewish expectation, and that his disciples so regarded him as well. Put negatively, Barnett argues that Jesus’s identity as the Christ did not arise after and on the basis of the Easter event. To make his case, Barnett reviews the evidence—the New Testament Gospels, as well as some of Paul’s letters.
In chapter 1 Barnett reviews the task, assumptions, method, and the like, concluding that the task is not impossible, for the documentation is sufficient. [End Page 863] In chapter 2 the New Testament Gospels are treated. Barnett underscores the importance of their antiquity, dating to a span of time no later than the last three decades of the first century. He notes too that these Gospels made use of earlier sources (cf. Luke 1:1–4), sources that circulated in the lifetime of the first generation of Jesus’s followers.
In chapter 3 Barnett reviews the evidence of what he calls the “hostile sources,” the writings of men who viewed the Christian movement with no sympathy. These include Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian and apologist, and two early second-century Romans: Tacitus the historian and Pliny the Younger, governor of Bithynia. Barnett argues that Jesus’s execution as the Christ implies that he was known as a messianic claimant before his arrest and crucifixion. This in turn explains why within a few years his followers become known as Christians (Christianoi ), after the Roman fashion of naming followers after their leaders.
In chapters 4 and 5 Barnett labors to show that lying behind the Gospel of Mark is genuine Petrine tradition, as second-century Papias and other church authorities believed. If the claim of Papias can be trusted, then the Gospel of Mark, on which both the Gospels of Matthew and Luke rely, contains important eyewitness testimony. Barnett’s assessment of the Papias tradition is not jejune; in most respects it is compelling. However, aspects of his assessment of Mark are problematic. The presence of names and details probably do point to authentic, eyewitness-based testimony (as recently argued in Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses ). But to claim that stories featuring nameless characters do not name the characters because their names are well known strikes me as special pleading.
Chapters 6 and 7 treat the Gospels of Luke and John. Barnett rightly focuses on Luke’s incipit (Luke 1:1–4), in which the evangelist alludes to eyewitnesses and previously circulated writings about Jesus and his movement. Accordingly, he inquires into what persons and sources these may have been. Barnett rightly regards the Gospel of John as literarily independent of the Synoptic Gospels. Notwithstanding the distinctiveness of the tradition in this Gospel, including its unusual style, Barnett is able to identify a large number of approximate parallels in both the teaching of Jesus as well as his various activities.
In chapter 8 Barnett considers the Christology of Paul. He tries to show how the apostle’s Jesus tradition grows out of Petrine tradition (hence, the overlap between the Gospel of Mark and the letters of Paul). The evidence is suggestive, but far from conclusive. One of the problems is that it is not always easy to distinguish between Paul’s experience of the risen Christ and what he has learned about the historical Jesus from his first followers. [End Page 864]
Barnett returns to the Gospel of Mark in chapter 9, where he reviews the standard criteria for judging the...