Capes, David B., Rodney Reeves and E. Randolph Richards. Rediscovering Jesus: An Introduction to Biblical, Religious and Cultural Perspectives on Christ. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2015. 272 pp. Hb; $30.00. Link to IVP
In Mark 2:6 Jesus tells a young man hoping to be healed that his sins are forgiven. Since only God has the authority to forgive sins, some of the teachers of the Law wonder just who Jesus thinks he is. This is exactly Jesus’ question to Peter at the turning point of the Gospel, “who do people say that I am?” (Mark 8:27-30). Peter’s response is mostly correct, “You are the Messiah.” He understands Jesus as Messiah, but as the rest of Mark makes clear, he did not understand what the Messiah intended to do in Jerusalem.
Each chapter of Rediscovering Jesus attempts to answer Jesus’ question “who do people say that I am?” Rather than limited the answer to only the four Gospels or the New Testament itself, the authors include four post-biblical views of Jesus (the Gnostic Jesus, the Muslim Jesus, the Historical Jesus, and the Mormon Jesus) as well as two contemporary views of Jesus (American Jesus and Cinematic Jesus). For each of these views, the authors hope to demonstrate the unique understanding of Jesus but also to ask the important question, “what if this was our only view of Jesus?”
The book includes a series of text boxes entitled “What’s More…” which expand on some of the details of the chapter. For example, “Is Matthew Anti-Semitic” or “Was Jesus Married?” In addition, there are boxes labeled “So What?” in each chapter which attempt to draw out some implications of the image of Jesus described in the chapter. For example, under the heading of “I’m Saved. Now What?” there is a short challenge to the reading to think more deeply about the implications of Paul’s view of salvation. Chapters conclude with a brief additional reading section and a series of discussion questions.
A short introductory introduces the reader to a serious problem for people who study Jesus: creating a Jesus who looks exactly like the reader. This has always been a problem for the Church and one that Albert Schweitzer pointed out in his Quest for the Historical Jesus more than a hundred years ago. Rediscovering Jesus recognizes this as unavoidable, everyone who seriously studies Jesus will see something different, therefore the book presents various images of Jesus.
The first major section of the book concerns Jesus in the Bible, beginning with four chapters surveying each gospel writer’s understanding of Jesus. Beginning with the Gospel of Mark, the authors point out Mark’s Jesus is not a warm and fuzzy person. Rather, he is “driven by the Spirit” to fulfill his messianic calling. He is a miracle worker more than a teacher. Matthew’s Jesus, on the other hand, is the “consummate teacher, a prophet like Moses” who was deeply committed to the Old Testament (52). Luke’s Jesus is the king from very beginning of the Gospel. His birth announcement is royal and he is God’s son and Lord. Although the chapter mentions Acts briefly, the authors do not focus on a unique picture of Jesus in Acts (and there is no chapter dedicated to Acts). As is often observed, John’s Jesus is very different. The authors point to John’s view of the kingdom as “not of this world” and consider John’s gospel less interested in the ethical demands found in Matthew (86).
In their conclusion to the chapter on Paul’s Jesus, the authors are struck by his lack of interest in the life and teaching of Jesus. Paul, they say, is “obsessed with things that we think really do not matter” (105), yet Paul’s interpretation of the cross is the “greatest contribution to our understanding of Christ (101). For Paul, Jesus is the crucified one, whom God raised from the dead and exalted to the highest place (Phil 2:6-11). They speculate that if Paul were our only view of Jesus, we would focus more on the return of Christ and perhaps even care less about social justice, thinking it would all be sorted out when Jesus returns. This is in fact a real danger for readers of the New Testament who lack a clear view of the canonical context when reading only Paul’s letters.
In “The Priestly Jesus” (chapter 6) the authors describe Jesus according to the book of Hebrews. Hebrews is the only book describing Jesus as a priest, so the obvious focus on this chapter is the book’s comparison of the Old Testament sacrificial system and the sacrifice of Jesus. The following chapter (“The Jesus of Exiles”) covers the letters of James, Peter and Jude (The epistles of John appear to be included in the Gospel of John chapter). This chapter understands the language of exile in 1 Peter and James as a metaphor for the church akin to Paul’s “body of Christ” (131). I would rather take these references as more or less literal references to Diaspora Jews and read 1 Peter and James as a Jewish Christian interpretation of Jesus. Although I agree Lordship of Jesus is a key issue in these letters, I think an opportunity to describe a Jesus more agreeable with Second Temple period Judaism is lost by forcing “exile” into a metaphor for the (later) Gentile church. Finally, According to the book of Revelation, the work of Jesus is an accomplished fact and an irreversible force (145).
Part two of Rediscovering Jesus concerns “Jesus Outside the Bible.” Following a chronological pattern in an attempt to describe how some have attempted to explain who Jesus was from an often radically different perspective from the New Testament. They begin with the “Gnostic Jesus.” This very basic introduction to Gnosticism dispels any “conspiracy theories” about the suppression of Gnosticism and shows Gnostic Jesus as revealer of hidden mysteries. The Muslim Jesus (chapter 10) a kind of “patron saint” of asceticism (184) and prophet who was not the son of God nor divine, and was not crucified. In the “Historical Jesus” (chapter 11) the authors survey various rationalist attempts to explain Jesus in the nineteenth century as a teacher, but not a miracle worker. Since reason proves there can be no miracles, many interpreters of Jesus sought to strip the husk of legend from the Gospels to discover the “real Jesus.” Next the authors describe the sometimes perplexing view of Jesus held by the Mormon Church. Although this Jesus sometimes sounds like the Jesus of the Gospels, there are significant differences in both the nature of Jesus (he is a separate God, not part of a Trinity) and in terms of his post-resurrection appearances.
The final two chapters of the book are fascinating since they are not typically included on academic textbooks on Jesus. In “The American Jesus” the authors suggest several ways American Christians get Jesus wrong: he is a politically correct Jesus who offends no one, or a politicized Jesus supporting your favorite candidate, or a pragmatic, CEO Jesus who coaches you to greater (financial) success, or even a subversive radical hippie freak (queue the Larry Norman song, “The Outlaw”!)
The last chapter looks at Jesus as portrayed in films, “The Cinematic Jesus.” A sidebar lists about twenty films about Jesus since 1905, and there are many more than these. From The Greatest Story Ever Told to Jesus Christ Superstar, from the Passion of the Christ to The Life of Brian, filmmakers have interpreted Jesus as almost everything covered in this book. Ultimately, the authors suggest the Cinematic Jesus is akin to the Gnostic Jesus, a pious religious man revealing some mystery about life, the universe and everything.
Conclusion: My main criticism of the book is the speculation at the end of each chapter, “what if this was our only view of Jesus?” Perhaps this is a rhetorical device intended to provoke the reader into reading the canon of Scripture holistically, but this approach seems to read the way Paul or John are described as fairly negative. It is almost as if they are saying, “Paul did not get it quite right, you need Matthew you really understand Jesus.” I do not think it is the case the authors of the New Testament ever “got Jesus wrong,” although the encouragement to take all of the biblical pictures of Jesus seriously is an important encouragement.
One other small concern is the last of interest in the historical development of Christology. With the exception of flipping the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, the book moves through the New Testament more or less in canonical order. This gives the impression the Gospels pre-date the Pauline letters or even the Book of Hebrews. Since the book is examining the Gospel writers are witnesses to Jesus, their perspective is later than Paul or Hebrews. It might be helpful to recognize this and perhaps use the chronological development to tease out yet another perspective on who Jesus is.
Nevertheless, this book would serve well as a textbook for a college or seminary classroom, especially as a way to confront the tendency to recreate Jesus in our own image. The book is written for a non-academic audience, so it could be used as a small group Bible Study or for personal enrichment.
NB: Thanks to InterVarsity Press for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.