Reclaiming the Jesus of History: Christology Today

Written by A. Roy Eckardt Reviewed By Alan G. Padgett

Following the demise of Bultmann’s historical scepticism, books on the historical Jesus have enjoyed a resurgence in popularity. Eckardt’s book represents a unique contribution to this growing body of literature, though one may find the title somewhat misleading. This is not a book on the historical Jesus, but rather Eckardt’s rethinking of christological issues within the context of contemporary Jewish-Christian dialogue. The author quotes heavily from secondary sources, and his review of Christology and historical Jesus research is shaped by his broader theological concerns.

Without a doubt, Eckardt’s long years of dialogue with Jewish tradition are brought to bear on this work. His desire to reshape our image of Jesus as Jew adds a surprising intensity to a book which relies so heavily upon the work of other authors. The presuppositions upon which the book is written are: (1) the distinctiveness and integrity of the Christian faith; (2) a rejection of Christian ‘traditionalistic imperialism and triumphalism’, that is, the ‘élitism’ of Christianity vis-à-vis other religions, especially Judaism; (3) the crucial role of the Jewish, historical Jesus for Christology, and (4) the insights of modern feminist and liberation theology. He specifically notes that his book has the purpose of focusing on a particular, recent sort of Christology: ‘a postmodernist, post-neoorthodox, postpatriarchal, and post-Shoah [i.e., after the Holocaust] universe of discourse’.

After a short review of the titles of Jesus in the synoptics, Eckardt proceeds to examine five historical images which have been proposed for Jesus of Nazareth by some contemporary writers: countercultural spiritualizer (M.J. Borg), rejected advocate of Israel’s restoration (E.P. Sanders), champion of Israel (Eckardt’s own view), liberator of the wretched (liberation theologians) and liberator of women (feminists). In each case, Eckardt weaves among other writers whose conclusions fit his own announced theological paradigm.

Eckardt’s own view is that Jesus fits wholly within the Judaism of his day. Accepting the conclusions of radical gospel criticism, the author presupposes the general unreliability of the gospel records regarding the person and work of Jesus. Eckardt takes great pains to play down any conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders of his day, placing the brunt of the conflict between Jesus and the Romans.

The remainder of the book surveys four topics: the issues of the plurality of christologies in the NT (‘apostolic writings’, as he calls them, the term ‘NT’ being a hold-over from the élitist, pre-Holocaust, anti-Semitic past); Paul van Buren’s three-volume theology in conversation with Judaism; the subject of Christianity among the religions of the world (mostly in dialogue with P.F. Knitter); and, finally, the resurrection as historical event, in dialogue with J. Moltmann.

With respect to the multiple, conflicting christologies of the NT, Eckardt adopts the position of radical gospel criticism without defending it. His contention that a ‘high’ Christology (‘Christolatry’) leads to imperialism, patriarchy, etc., is dubious at best, especially since most Latin American liberation theologians hold to a high Christology. On the resurrection, Eckardt sets in opposition the spiritual and metaphorical meanings of the resurrection. He accepts only the latter, given the ‘literalist-somaticist difficulties’ of the view that Jesus actually did rise from the dead. Again he assumes, without adequate support, that no-one who is truly modern or post-modern could possibly believe the literal resurrection. He holds that the true, metaphorical message of the resurrection is that God continues to affirm his covenant with Israel (this fits with Eckardt’s view of the historical Jesus discussed above).

This work will disappoint those who are expecting any sort of objective discussion of historical Jesus material. It is rather a summary of Eckardt’s intellectual journey, seasoned by his long years of participation in Jewish-Christian dialogue. The issues he raises are important, not only for contemporary Christology and gospels research, but for the Christian community as a whole. The persistent problem of anti-Semitism, especially after the Holocaust, is an issue which the church needs to examine closely. The concerns of the poor and oppressed, including women around the world, must be addressed more fully in scholarly Christian theology as well as in every local community of Christian believers. Yet it is on these points, where Eckardt proves so thought-provoking, that he is also the most frustrating. Readers who may be compelled by the author’s intense reworking of historical Jesus paradigms are presented with little evidential support for his positions. In this Eckardt has done his readers a distinct disservice.

As a scholarly work in itself, this book has serious drawbacks. The theological paradigm is allowed to dictate the ‘historical’ conclusions reached. Eckardt’s Jesus is someone who fits too well with the theological posture of the author. Although Eckardt asks telling questions of other authors, he too often substitutes assertion for careful historical work. This is a pity, given the author’s obvious insight into potential pitfalls in modern christological debate. Despite its weaknesses, this book remains an important entrée for students into modern christological debate and to crucial issues in the continuing Jewish-Christian dialogue.

Alan G. Padgett

Azusa Pacific University, Azusa, CA