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Top 10 Books on the Historical Jesus

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There is simply no end to the deluge of books written about Jesus. The author of the Gospel of John already opined, at the end of the first century, that the world could not contain them!

This list is one person’s choices. It represents fixed points to which I find myself returning, with profit. I’ve presented the titles not in chronological order,[1] but in a suggested order of approach. One can start anywhere—but whatever you do, steer clear of the conspiracy theorists, the paranoid style of American pop-Jesus-research that goes by the name ‘mythicism’, and operates with the same absurd historiographical sensibilities as holocaust deniers and Templar enthusiasts.

1. Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz, The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide  (1998)
In the grand German tradition, this introduction does what it says on the tin: it offers a comprehensive guide to the sources, context, activities and message of Jesus. Those who seek an answer to the question, ‘Why would we seek for a historical Jesus behind the Gospels in the first place, and how might one go about doing that?’ will find a learned induction here.

2. Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus (2nd German edition 1913; English, 2001)[2]
This great polymath achieved the seemingly impossible in writing a sprawling history of Jesus research in the 18th and 19th centuries that ended up as one of the most fascinating books on Jesus ever written. Relentlessly pointing to the flaws in the work of his predecessors, Schweitzer presented his own vision of Jesus, relying heavily on Matthew’s Gospel, as a failed apocalyptic prophet who announced the coming of the kingdom of God but died in disappointment at its non-arrival.

3. Martin Kähler, The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic, Biblical Christ (1964)
Writing in the 1890s, Kähler rejected the very possibility of doing historical Jesus work since the Gospels are entirely invested in presenting Jesus from the standpoint of Christian faith. Kähler’s project found important twentieth century heirs in scholars like Rudolf Bultmann and Luke Timothy Johnson

4. E. P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism(1985) and The Historical Figure of Jesus (1993)
These two books – the former more scholarly, the latter less so – offer a vision of Jesus firmly grounded in the Judaism of his day. Sanders proposes that Jesus be seen as a proponent of ‘Jewish restoration eschatology’, and sees Jesus as attempting to achieve a restoration of Israel’s theological-political fortunes.

5. John Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (1991)
This ambitious undertaking—five volumes and counting—is the most rigorous application of a criteria-based approach to authenticating the words and actions of Jesus in the gospels. He applies his criteria for historical verification—multiple attestation, embarrassment, discontinuity, coherence, and rejection & execution—with vast erudition and subtlety. Even those who disagree with Meier’s conclusions benefit from his learning and his engaging style.

6. Chris Keith and Anthony Le Donne, eds., Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity (2012)
The search for authenticity and the role that authenticating criteria have played in historical Jesus research, come under critical consideration here. Particularly focused by the turn to memory in recent historiography, these scholars pose acute questions about the nature of human subjectivity as it bears on the task of historical reconstruction.

7.Dale Allison, Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History (2010)
Together with his brief volume of lectures The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus, this book offers the mature synthesis of one of the leading scholars of the historical Jesus. Allison proposes a move toward considering ‘recurrence’ in the tradition as a sort of macro-criterion to help us grapple with the impact of Jesus in the memories of his earliest followers.

8. Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony(2nd ed., 2017)
Bauckham re-investigates the role of named bearers (e.g., Matthew, John) of the memories of Jesus in the early church. He finds more reliability in some early patristic testimony than has often been allowed, and rejects a long tradition of viewing the gospels as the end-product of a long process of anonymous shaping of the tradition.

9. Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth (2007-2012)
Not a conventional work of historical Jesus scholarship (some of my colleagues will roll their eyes in seeing this here), these three volumes offer a remarkable attempt to make a serious use of the results of historical scholarship for the church. On the historical front the results are mixed; yet, one should recognize that these books would have been an unthinkable a century ago.

10. Shawn Kelley, Racializing Jesus: Race, Ideology and the Formation of Modern Biblical Scholarship(2002); Susannah Heschel, The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany(2010); Halvor Moxnes, Jesus and the Rise of Nationalism: A New Quest for the Nineteenth-Century Historical Jesus (2012)
Finally, this trio of works, each in its own way, considers how the study of the life of Jesus has served ideological programs. Together, they offer a salutary caution about the motivations for and uses of historical reconstruction.

Dave Lincicum is Associate Professor of New Testament and Early Christian Studies at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of Paul and the Early Jewish Encounter with Deuteronomy (Mohr Siebeck 2010; repr. Baker Academic, 2013). His research focuses on the reception of Scripture in early Christianity, the strange and unfriendly text known as the Epistle of Barnabas, and the history of biblical interpretation. 

Image: Christ Pantocrator in the apsis of the cathedral of Cefalù, c. 1130. Photograph by Andreas Wahra [via WikiCommons].

[1] Or in the order of the standard division of ‘quests’ for the historical Jesus, which I view as a flawed, German-centered historiographical periodisation

[2] Be sure to read the 2001 translation published by Fortress/SCM Press, which translates the second substantially expanded edition.

Our “Best Books” feature asks a historian to recommend the most important books to read in order to get started in their subject area. All of these blogs will appear here, as they’re posted.

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Top 10 Books on the History of Medieval Europe

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Medieval European history is a vast and ever-growing field, so coming up with a top ten book-list is no small task. To make the job manageable, what follows is a “top ten” of quite a particular kind of book.

To start off with, I’m not including textbooks or popular syntheses. There are of course shelf-loads of these, and many are absolutely brilliant (and have been very influential); but listing them would be an entirely different exercise. So these books are all research monographs, which make original arguments based on the author’s own engagement with the sources.

But they’re not typical academic monographs: they’re books I think A level students (and others) might enjoy as well as profit from, and that don’t require lots of background knowledge. I’m also only including books available in English, which again rules out a great many works.

Finally, this is a very personal list: they’re books that for different reasons, and at different times, have been important for how I think about medieval European history. Every medieval historian would certainly come up with a different set, but these are books that have changed my mind. Perhaps they might change yours…

1. Janet Abu-Lughod, Before European Hegemony: the world system, AD 1250-1350 (1991)
The book traces trade networks promoted by the Mongol empire stretching across Eurasia and which flourished up until the Black Death struck. It may not be the easiest read on this list – but this remarkably bold book was years ahead of its time in showing how global connections mattered, centuries before industrialisation.

2. Robert Bartlett, The Hanged Man. A story of miracle, memory and colonialism in the Middle Ages (2004)
A brilliant piece of detective work, based on accounts of the hanging of a Welsh man named William de Cragh around 1307. This fabulous and evocative piece of microhistory brings out the interconnections between politics, society and religion in medieval society, and does so in stylish prose.

3. Heinrich Fichtenau, Living in the Tenth Century. Mentalities and Social Orders (1991)
This is actually a translation of a book originally written in the Austrian author’s German in 1984. The translation lightened the apparatus, but preserved the freshness of the approach. The book is organised thematically, drawing on contemporary classifications and ways of thinking in medieval Europe’s perhaps most neglected century. It’s guaranteed to make you think differently not just about the tenth century, but about the Middle Ages in general.

4. John Hatcher, The Black Death: an intimate History (2008)
When the eminent economic and social historian John Hatcher retired, he set about writing a book about the Black Death that he’d long wanted to – one where he drew on imagination to fill out his own peerless knowledge of the documentary record for the impact of the Black Death on medieval England. It’s a superb book which combines empirical mastery of the sources with admirable historical sensitivity to fill out what it might have been like to live in a Suffolk village at a momentous, and terrifying, time.

5. Rodney Hilton, Bond Men Made Free. Medieval Peasant Movements and the English Rising of 1381 (1977)
A classic and still unsurpassed study of the famous Peasants Revolt, inspired by the 1960s protests that affected many UK universities, including Hilton’s Birmingham. It’s no wonder that it was re-issued as recently as 2003. There have been plenty of studies on the topic since, but this general overview still definitely repays reading.

6. Maureen Miller, Clothing The Clergy. Virtue and power in Medieval Europe, 800-1200 (2014)
In a beautifully produced, richly illustrated and superbly original piece of scholarship, Miller draws on an unusual kind of evidence – the changing clothing of priests and clerics – to illuminate (and to analyse) enormous shifts in Western European culture, from the soberly dressed origins of Christianity through to the jewel-laden papal monarchy. It’s a medieval history book that I found hard to put down.

7. R.I. Moore, War on Heresy. Faith and Power in Medieval Europe  (2012)
With this book, Moore wanted to write something that might appear in airport bookshops, driving out the Dan Brown-esque nonsense that’s usually to be found there. It’s a book about the way in which a campaign to root out a perceived social problem ironically ended up generating it (a process whose modern parallels Moore does not shy away from). A future classic.

8. Eileen Power, Medieval People (1924)
A book published over 90 years ago in a list made in 2017? But Power’s Medieval People, giving potted biographies of six ordinary(ish) medieval individuals, is still fresh; and it’s no coincidence that it’s been translated into French just in the last few years. I recently set my students one of its chapters (on a Frankish peasant named Bodo), and in an end of year survey, they described it as one of the most memorable things they’d read at university. Find out for yourself (it’s so old, it’s out of copyright!).

9. Jean-Claude Schmitt, Ghosts in the Middle Ages: The Living and Dead in Medieval Society (1999)
Modern society is, generally speaking, uncomfortable with death. But in this wonderful book, originally published in French in 1994, Schmitt shows how people in medieval society thought about matters differently – and how ghosts were essentially a problem of people who refused to be forgotten. A modern must-read of cultural history.

10. Christopher Tyerman, How to Plan A Crusade. Reason and Religious War in the High Middle Ages (2015)
It’s tempting to see the Middle Ages as irrational – and there’s a long tradition of doing exactly that. But in this book, Tyerman shows how reason could often be harnessed towards ends that seem to us deeply unreasonable, in this case holy war. Behind all the ideology was, in fact, a great deal of very practical organisation: and tracking this down shows a very different side to the period.

Charles West lectures in early medieval history at the Department of History at Sheffield. You can follow him Twitter @Pseudo_Isidore.

Image: Medieval text written by Alexander Nequam, 1157-1217, abbot of Cirencester, given to Jesus College [via Flickr]

Our “Best Books” feature asks a historian to recommend the most important books to read in order to get started in their subject area. We think these occasional posts will be of interest to a wide variety of readers, but perhaps especially useful to school teachers and A-level students who are looking for the logical place to start with a new topic. All of these blogs will appear here, as they’re posted.

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Top 10 Books on the History of Latin America

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As I take over as Editor of History Matters from Caroline Dodds Pennock, I’m pleased to introduce our new Best Books feature. Best Books will ask a historian to recommend the most important books to read in order to get started in their subject area. We think these occasional posts will be of interest to a wide variety of readers, but perhaps especially useful to school teachers and A-level students who are looking for the logical place to start with a new topic. All of these blogs will appear here, as they’re posted.

Now, who could possibly be better to kick off the Best Books feature than our outgoing editor Caroline Dodds Pennock?

Happy Reading,
Casey Strine


Last week, a teacher tweeted me to ask about ‘must read’ books on Central American history for an A-level student. And so, I’ve finally got around to putting together my list of the top ten books on Latin American (okay, mostly Mexican) history (or at least the best ten to occur to me!). 1 The following list is entirely subjective and unashamedly the choices of an indigenous-Mexican historian who doesn’t know enough about the modern world, but hopefully should provide some readable starting points. Have I missed your favourite? Please do let me (and everyone else) know in the comments.

1. Inga Clendinnen, Aztecs: An Interpretation (1991) 2
Absolutely unparalleled as a work of cultural history, this offers the most fabulous insights into Aztec life and experience. This book is a big part of the reason I’m an Aztec historian. Read it. And then read all of Clendinnen’s other books.

2. Hugh Thomson, Cochineal Red: Travels Through Ancient Peru (2006)
I learned a lot about Moche archaeology from this book, which strikes a great balance between accessibility and expertise. Written from a personal perspective – following Thomson’s own archaeological expeditions – this also sheds light on ancient Peruvian cultures which are often neglected in English-language writing.

3. Miguel León-Portilla, The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico (1962)
I don’t actually believe that this is how Aztec people saw the conquest happen. These are sources from the colonial period, written by indigenous people trying to rationalise how they were conquered. But this hugely famous book is a really readable and accessible way to dip into the primary sources from the conquest from an ‘indigenous’ point of view.

Cortez_&_La_Malinche4. Camilla Townsend, Malintzin’s Choices: An Indian Woman in the Conquest of Mexico (2006)
A hugely readable account of the Spanish conquest of Mexico, told from the perspective of Cortés’s indigenous interpreter Malintzin (also known as Doña Marina and La Malinche). This does a great job of flagging up issues with the sources, our understanding of the indigenous perspective, and women’s roles, without letting it overburden the narrative. 

5. John Chasteen, Born in Blood and Fire: A Concise History of Latin America (2001)
An excellent, briskly written, introduction to the history of Latin America from the European invasion to the present day. Especially notable for including Brazil, which is often mysteriously absent from such texts. Very readable, and a great starting point for students.

6. Earl Shorris, The Life and Times of Mexico (2004)
Covering 3,000 years of history, this eloquent ‘big book’ on Mexican history interweaves history and experience into a far-reaching and very readable history of Mexico, seen through the lives of key figures and personal adventures. It isn’t perfect in every detail, but a great read. (And there’s a surprise appearance by one of my former students in the photos!)

7. Jon Lee Anderson, Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life (1997)CheHigh
An exemplary biography of the extraordinary life of Latin America’s most iconic revolutionary figure. Anderson obtained unparalleled access to Guevara’s personal archives, as well as winning the trust of many people who knew him personally, so this contains a wealth of detail not published elsewhere. A fascinating and balanced account which recognises Guevara’s high points without shying away from his darker moments. 

8. Eduardo Galeano, Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent (1971)
Galeano himself said that he was not experienced enough when he wrote this book, but this is a lively and sharply critical account of the effects of European and US exploitation on Latin America. Even though the author now finds his old writing style a bit ‘stodgy’, it has been hugely influential: Hugo Chavez gave a copy to Barack Obama in 2009, and the book remains a bestseller.

9. Ed Vulliamy, Amexica: War along the Borderline (2010)
This searing account of suffering communities and brutal conflicts is a fascinating introduction to the bloody ‘war on drugs’ along the Mexico/US border. As with any personal ‘journey’, there are omissions, and not everyone will agree with the interpretations (or the Spanish translations…), but this is an absorbing account of a truly horrifying situation.

10. Octavio Paz, The Labyrinth of Solitude (1950)
Hardly an ‘easy read’, but one of the most enduring works on Mexican history, by one of Mexico’s most famous writers. This is a beautifully written reflection on the nature of Mexican identity and attitudes. Maybe a book ‘of history’ rather than ‘about history’, but indispensable for anyone interested in modern Mexico.

Caroline Dodds Pennock is Lecturer in International History at the University of Sheffield. She is the author of Bonds of Blood: Gender, Lifecycle and Sacrifice in Aztec Culture (Palgrave, 2008; PB, 2011). Her current research focuses on indigenous American travellers to Europe in the 16th century. You can read Caroline’s other History Matters blogs here, and find her on twitter @carolinepennock.

Header image: Incunables Biblioteca Personal de Carlos Monsiváis [ProtoplasmaKid via Wikicommons].
Image 1: Hernán Cortés and La Malinche meet Moctezuma II in Tenochtitlan, November 8, 1519. Facsimile (c. 1890) of Lienzo de Tlaxcala [via Wikicommons].
Image 2: Guerrillero HeroicoChe Guevara at the funeral for the victims of the La Coubre explosion [via WikiCommons].

Notes:

  1. Yes, I know the teacher asked for Central American history. Mexico is in Central America. And Central America is in Latin America. So there.
  2. Dates are for first publication. There are often later editions. Links are to publisher websites. Other (cheaper or more local) options may be available.
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