Good and not so good books about the Jesus of history

The last time I watched a DVD of the Alpha course the section I found most unsatisfactory was the one about the historicity of Jesus. It was full of special pleading and non sequiturs-implying that St John’s Gospel is a highly reliable source for historical data about Jesus and his world, rather than as is most probable the most theological and furthest removed from the events it describes of all of the gospels, and that because there are more surviving texts of the Gospels than the works of Julius Caesar they surpass the latter in reliability!

Many works about Jesus are works of devotion, amongst them the one that the Pope has recently published, called simply enough, Jesus of Nazareth, which does not mean that they are not worth reading, just that they require a cautious approach. A couple of years ago we were visited by the eminent Roman Catholic scholar, Gerald O’Collins, who had recently published his own work of devotional biography and he chose the more appropriate title, Jesus – A Portrait. This seemed to acknowledge the personal nature of the work and proclaim its status as a work of creativity, which told a story and contained truth and insight, just like any other portrait, but had no pretence to pure historical objectivity.

Last year a retired professor from Sheffield University, Maurice Casey, who admits to being a non believer, produced his own Jesus of Nazareth. A hefty volume with an equally hefty price tag and its own inevitable biases, it does provide a reasoned and open reflection on the evidence. And because the author does his thinking out loud and examines all the sources and their contexts is a good read for anyone wishing to explore the subject for themselves. Certainly I will be drawing on it for the forthcoming Exploring Christianity course which begins on the 4th May.

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