Key Events in the Life of the Historical Jesus: A Collaborative Exploration of Context and Coherence

Written by Darrell L. Bock and Robert L. Webb, eds Reviewed By Paul Barnett

Key Events (hereafter KE) is the fruit of the collaborative labours of twelve scholars spanning many meetings between 1999 and 2008. The authors concentrated on twelve events connected with the historical Jesus, rather than his teachings. While they cite numerous authorities who have contributed to the recent avalanche of scholarship focused on the historical Jesus, their study is a singularly appropriate response to E. P. Sanders’s epochal work Jesus and Judaism (1984), which concentrates not on Jesus’s words, but key events. Against Bultmann, who said, ‘we can know almost nothing concerning the life and personality of Jesus’ (Jesus and the Word, 1958, p. 14), Sanders counters, ‘we can know pretty well what Jesus was out to accomplish’ (Jesus and Judaism, p. 2).

In KE each contributor aims (1) to set forth a case for the probable historicity of the event’s core, (2) to explore the sociological contextual information to understand the event in its first-century context, and (3) to consider the significance of the event for understanding Jesus (p. 6).

In the chapter “Jesus’ Baptism by John,” Robert Webb argues that the case for authenticity relies on the Criterion of Embarrassment. That is, the early church would not have included a potentially demeaning portrayal of Jesus in the Jordan among confessing sinners unless it actually happened. Further evidence of factuality may be seen in both John and Jesus having a group of disciple-followers, the latter mirroring the former. Jesus shared with John a call to Israel for renewal and repentance, but in such a way that he was not merely a ‘religious ethicist’. Jesus identified with John in declaring the time had come for God’s saving eschatological act, but infinitely more than that, such saving eschatological action was in his hands.

Craig Evans’s essay, “Exorcisms and the Kingdom of God,” locates Jesus’s expulsion of unclean spirits within a Jewish eschatological-apocalyptic setting where the announcement of the kingdom of God involved the defeat of Satan. The historicity of the exorcisms is confirmed by the Criterion of Multiple Attestation where Jewish and other sources portray Jesus as a sorcerer and the Gospel sources focus on him as the frequent exorcist. The transformation of the possessed to people of sound mind, something that could be seen, was evidence of the in-breaking kingdom that Jesus announced, with clear christological implications.

Scot McKnight addresses “The Choosing of the Twelve,” which he authenticates by the Criterion of Multiple Attestation. John the Baptist had disciples, but Jesus chose twelve disciples, a deliberate act that raised profound questions about his authority and identity. By this, Jesus was mirroring, but infinitely more than mirroring, the origins of Israel. The Synoptics, where the accounts of the choice of the twelve are prominent, are also characterized by their lack of direct expression about Jesus’s identity, something McKnight points to as evidence of the age of the traditions and therefore of their historicity. Furthermore, Jesus’s choice of twelve is an example of similarity (e.g., to John, who had followers) but also of dissimilarity (because Jesus had twelve followers). One feature of Jesus and the twelve is that he alone is the teacher (“he that has ears to hear, let him hear”); they were entirely passive, as learners; they contribute no teaching to Jesus or to one another.

Craig Blomberg’s chapter, “Table Fellowship with Sinners and Outsiders,” depends on the Criterion of Multiple Attestation across the synoptic sources (but absent from John). Blomberg distinguishes Jesus’s meals from the Greek symposia. This essay establishes Jesus’s inclusion of those who had been pushed to the margins of Jewish society (the sinners, the poor, the maimed and the unclean) by religious elitists of that era, a reminder that God had chosen and saved Israel as a poor and marginalised people. The twelve, as drawn from across the spectrum of Jewish society, were further evidence of the mercy of God for Israel overall.

Donald Hagner’s essay, “Controversy over the Sabbath with Jewish Leaders,” establishes that by Jesus’s day the Sabbath was seen as pre-Mosaic, even as a pre-creation institution. Any words Jesus uttered about the Sabbath, therefore, pointed implicitly to his authority and identity especially since such pronouncements usually occurred on occasions when Jesus healed someone. His action and word, then, pointed to the onset of a new era, a permanent Sabbath, the shalom of the kingdom of God.

This essay also raises the issue of the historicity of Jesus’s miracles. References to Jesus’s miracles by Josephus (neutral) and the Talmud (negative) point to their authenticity by the Criterion of Multiple Attestation. Against the objection that acts of Sabbath healing were then permissible, Hagner argues that Jesus’s words were instrumental and operative for an act of healing to occur and were thus powerful pointers to his identity as God’s eschatological agent inaugurating the new age.

Michael Wilkins’s chapter, “Peter’s Declaration at Caesarea Philippi,” points out how the idolatrous effigies at the grotto underscored the confession of Jesus as Messiah in a non-Jewish location. Is the incident historical? Wilkins thinks the ambiguity within the incident as reported speaks against it having been a later church creation. Indeed, the name “Christ” by which he was immediately known post-resurrection points back to this incident. From that moment, however, Jesus radically reshaped current notions of Messiah, especially adding the critical element of rejection, suffering, and death. Jesus’s rebuke to Peter as a spokesman of Satan satisfies the Criterion of Embarrassment and signifies the integrity of the record. Wilkins reveals that Wrede, who claimed the “messianic secret” was Mark’s invention, actually renounced that opinion before he died.

The Caesarea Philippi incident is highly significant. It brings into clear focus all the divine judgment John the Baptist had anticipated, but not the service, and made sense of all that Jesus had done to that point—the proclamation of the kingdom, the exorcisms heralding the defeat of Satan, the healings, the welcome to sinners, the calling of twelve, and the Sabbath acts. The accumulated impact of these prompted Peter to recognise Jesus as the Christ, a recognition that Jesus must modify as the Son of Man who must suffer.

The next key event is “Jesus’ Entry into Jerusalem” as reviewed by Brent Kinman. This is one of those events that appear in all four Gospels, which, however, points to more than one source thus satisfying the Criterion of Multiple Attestation. Kinman suggests that the acclamation of the king arriving would not have involved a sufficient number of people to attract the attention of the authorities and lead to Jesus’s arrest. He suggests that we should think of the Palm Sunday entry as “a-triumphal,” capturing the majesty/meekness paradox. On the one hand, it evoked Solomon’s regal entry (1 Kgs 1:33–37), but on the other, it fulfilled the humble entry of Zech 9:9.

Closely connected is “Jesus’ Action in the Temple” in Klyne Snodgrass’s study. Snodgrass sees the event authenticated because it is multi-attested on the assumption that Mark 11:15–19 recounts the same event as John 2:13–22, a view that not all hold. It was not at all an event the early church would have invented since it was implicitly subversive, something the first Christians were rightly sensitive about. From one viewpoint the ‘cleansing’ was an enacted protest against corrupt practices within the temple, which in turn cast the die for Jesus’s arrest, trials, and execution. From a more profound outlook, however, this was an act of profound eschatological and christological importance. Jesus, Messiah of Israel, was reconstituting the temple as a “gathering place for all nations” (Isa 56).

In “Jesus’ Last Supper with his Disciples,” Howard Marshall argues that Jesus deliberately changed the Exodus liturgy to point exclusively forward, pointedly sharpening its eschatological and christological edge. Jesus himself is the messianic deliverer who will die as representative and substitute for his people and their sins. The two forms in which it is found in the NT established the authenticity of the tradition: the Matthaean-Marcan version (emphasising the ‘blood of the covenant’) and the Lucan-Pauline version (emphasising its ‘newness’).

Was it a Passover meal? According to Mark 14:1–2, it was, but according to John 18:28, it was not, at least not an authorized Passover. Marshall speaks of the Last Supper occurring within the ‘mood of the Passover season’ and that it took place ‘on the edge of the Passover’. Of the acts of Jesus the Gospels narrate, none exceeds the Last Supper in revealing Jesus’s sense of messianic identity as the suffering One who would establish the new age. Only the immediate disciples were present at the Last Supper.

Darrell Bock’s study on “Jesus’ Examination before the Jewish Leadership” establishes that it was not a formal trial since only the Romans had the authority to execute someone. The core part of this event is the High Priest’s two-edged interrogation of Jesus (“What is it these men testify against you. . . . Are you the Christ?”) and Jesus’s reply (“You shall see the Son of man seated . . . coming”). That reply combines Ps 110:1 and Dan 7:13, texts that individually point to Jesus as the heavenly judge, but even more so when combined as they are in his reply. Accordingly, Jesus claimed equality with God or at least a shared authority with God. A higher court would judge these judges. Because a charge of blasphemy would be meaningless to Pilate the Roman, the High Priest converted it to a charge of sedition against the Pax Romana in Judea, and for this Jesus was executed.

The question of the historicity of the incident is important; there were no disciples present. However, proto-disciples like Nicodemus and Joseph were there, and they may have been the sources for this report. Furthermore, the young zealot Saul may also have been aware of these details.

Robert Webb’s essay, “Jesus’ Roman Examination by Pilate and his Crucifixion,” suggests that when we move backwards from the titulus “King of the Jews” we are able to identify Jesus’s “crime,” but also his identity which has increasingly been recognised. Based on the High Priest’s allegations, Pilate crucified Jesus for sedition on the basis that only Caesar could confer kingship. Obliquely this indicates that Jesus was no mere prophet. The historicity of the complex of events—beginning with the High Priest’s trial, continuing with Pilate’s trial, and ending with the crucifixion of Jesus as ‘king of the Jews’—is confirmed by Josephus Ant., xviii.63–63, fulfilling the Criterion of Multiple Attestation.

Grant Osborne’s essay, “Jesus’ Resurrection as Vindication after a Certain Death,” concludes the collection. It provides useful information concerning burial practices and reasons the early church would not have invented the resurrection of Jesus.

In conclusion, this is a splendid collection of essays by highly respected scholars that should find a place in every seminarian’s library. It reflects superior knowledge of the primary texts, but also of the extensive secondary literature. The book is worth having for its bibliographies, but more than that for its convincing historical argumentation and uniformly high exegesis of the gospel texts. The authors are to be thanked for what is a monumental achievement.

Paul Barnett

Paul Barnett
Macquarie University; Moore College; Regent College
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia; Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

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