Pate, C. Marvin. 40 Questions about the Historical Jesus. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel, 2015. Pb. 407 pp., $23.99.   Link to Kregel

Historical Jesus studies have fallen on hard times in the last few years. In the mid-1990s there was a flurry of publications responding to the machinations of the Jesus Seminar. These responses were often called a “Third Quest” for the historical Jesus since they evoked the memory of Albert Schweitzer’s Quest for the Historical Jesus. Sometimes these responses were conservative, but many in the academy were uncomfortable with the minimalist Jesus produced by the Jesus Seminar.

Pate-Historical-JesusBut this torrent of monographs and articles as slowed recently. One factor is the demise of criteria of authenticity announced by Chris Keith and Anthony Le Donne. In fact, most scholars who attempt to do historical Jesus work today find themselves defending their method as much as employing it in their study of the Gospels. A second factor may be the rise of Theological Interpretation of Scripture (see a basic introduction, see Daniel J. Treier or Stephen Fowl). By using this approach to the Gospels, historical questions are less important (or completely unimportant) since the focus is at the canonical level rather than the historical level.

Usually historical Jesus studies focus on what we can know about Jesus by using historical methods exclusively. This can be a skeptical approach, doubting everything until proven authentic. The result is often the claim the Gospel writers have created sayings and placed them in Jesus’ mouth in order to advance a theological statement about what they believed about Jesus. Other historical Jesus studies focus on the cultural and social background in order to place Jesus in a proper context.

This is the context for a book like 40 Questions about the Historical Jesus. Pate is solidly conservative, never describing any statement or event in the life of Jesus as non-historical or created by the Evangelists. In fact, I would describe the bulk of the forty questions as background studies for the Synoptic Gospels rather than historical Jesus studies. He is interested in answering historical questions about Jesus from the cultural of the Second Temple period rather than answering questions of how to prove a saying or event as authentic.

The first section of the book begins with a justification for the study of historical Jesus. For Pate, historical Jesus studies support the reliability of the four Gospels in response to the skepticism of historical criticism of Gabler or Reimarus or conspiracy theories made popular by the Da Vinci Code. He argues the Gospels present an accurate picture of Jesus despite the skepticism nineteenth century protestant liberalism, Bultmann, or the Jesus Seminar.

Pate answers several questions in this section on the history of the “quest for the historical Jesus” and the current state of the question. This section includes six chapters on our sources for studying historical Jesus, including the Old Testament, apocryphal gospels, oral tradition and archaeology. Not surprisingly, Pate rejects apocryphal gospels as potential sources for the study of historical Jesus, stating clearly that the “New Testament is our sole authority” for a proper view of Jesus (95). He is also skeptical of the arguments against the reliability of Oral Tradition, although he restricts his comments to classical Form Criticism and does not discuss recent work on oral tradition from James Dunn or Francis Watson.

Section two of the book deals with Jesus’ birth and childhood. Three chapters are devoted to the virgin birth, which I find strange in a book about the historical Jesus. Usually scholars doing historical Jesus work will overlook the virgin birth since it cannot be verified historically, or dismiss it entirely as theologically motivated. Three questions concern Jesus’ family and childhood, another area usually omitted from historical Jesus studies since there is nothing which can be verified. The final question concerns the languages Jesus may have spoken (Aramaic, with some Hebrew, Greek and Latin, but he taught in Aramaic).

In the third section of the book Pate covers the life and teaching of Jesus. This is often the heart of historical Jesus studies. He begins with a short overview of why there are four accounts of Jesus life (Question 20). Typically this is the point where a historical Jesus study would survey the Synoptic Problem and offer an opinion on Markan priority and the (non)existence of a source document like Q, but Pate does not cover these issues except in passing.

Several of the questions in this section concern the beginning of Jesus’ ministry (baptism, temptations, the Twelve), and two concern miracles, including the transfiguration. Once again, some of the material in these sections is not typically within the domain of historical Jesus studies, such as the identity and fate of each of the Twelve Apostles or the meaning of the Transfiguration. That the Transfiguration happened can be a historical question, but the meaning is a theological question. Pate does briefly comment on Bultmann’s claim the event is a misplaced resurrection account (246), but (rightly) dismisses the suggestion.

I think more could have been made of the historical value of Jesus’ miracles, especially since they are routinely rejected in classic historical Jesus studies as creations of the evangelists. He uses two pages for a chart of Jesus’ miracles in each of the Synoptic Gospels; this space ought  to have been used to more fully develop the meaning of miracles in the Second Temple period (which is covered briefly) and to expand on the short sentence claiming miracles were part of Jewish Messianic expectations. A messiah who did not do miracles would have been more anachronistic than the Gospel’s presentation of Jesus as a miracle worker. This criticism is more aimed at the style of the book (forty short answers); Pate is constrained by the format of the book and cannot cover everything which might be important (in my opinion).

Questions 28-32 ask about the main message of the four Synoptic Gospels. The content of these chapters is very good and nothing is radical or unexpected. However, the study of the historical Jesus usually does not concern itself with the theology of the evangelists but rather the words and deeds of Jesus. Question 27 and 32 (the focus of Jesus’ teaching and the Olivet Discourse) are perhaps the best in the section since they do indeed focus on the teaching of the historical Jesus. Pate rightly focuses on the Kingdom of God in these two chapters and he spends significant space comparing and contrasting consistent, realized and inaugurated eschatology before concluding some sort of already/not yet approach best explains the data.

The final section of the book concerns the death and resurrection of Jesus. The events surrounding the crucifixion are one of the more profitable areas of historical Jesus research since the events are narrated in all four Gospels as well as external sources. History and geography can be used to confirm the general flow of the story of the Gospels. Several of the questions in this section are historically plausible (the Triumphal entry, Temple action, crucifixion), although Pate includes a chapter on why Jesus died (question 36). This is not on the crucifixion as a historical event, but on the theological concept of substitutionary atonement. Remarkably he include the Pauline and General epistles, which seems odd for a book on the historical Jesus.

Only two questions are devoted to the resurrection the ascension, events conservative readers will affirm as historical, although many historical Jesus scholars hesitate to comment on the resurrection and routinely ignore the ascension as a theological statement rather than historical reality.

Conclusion. This book achieves the goal of studying Jesus through a historical, albeit conservative lens. For the most part I agree with Pate and much of the book resonates with my own approach to Jesus when I teach a college level Synoptic Gospels class. However, I have some reservations based on the use of the phrase “historical Jesus” title of the book. Pate seems to assume the Gospels are historically reliable early in the book and then develops what the Gospels say about Jesus rather than arguing for the authenticity sayings or deeds of Jesus. Perhaps it would have been better to entitle the book 40 Questions about Jesus and the Gospels since the questions are not always the domain of typical historical Jesus studies.

I think a chapter on parables should have been included since the parables are usually the bedrock of Jesus’ teaching in historical Jesus studies, even in less-than-conservative circles. Pate uses parables in his chapter on the Kingdom of God, but the focus is on what the parables say about the kingdom, not whether they are verifiably the words of Jesus.

Since there are forty questions in less than 400 pages of text, the chapters are necessarily short. I found the chapter on archaeology frustratingly short, but that is the nature of this kind of book. Some chapters have helpful charts or bullet-points to cover details quickly. Pate frequently includes lengthy block quotes as part of his response to questions, perhaps too often. Each chapter concludes with several questions for reflection, so the book could be used in a college classroom or Bible study. Pate provides footnotes pointing to additional resources for the serious student who is interested in going deeper into the issues presented in the book.


NB: Thanks to Kregel Academic for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.