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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