Book Review: John Dickson, Life of Jesus: Who He Is And Why He Matters

John Dickson, Life of Jesus: Who He Is And Why He Matters. Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2010.  206 p. pb.$12.99.  Amazon

Dickson’s book is ideal for a small group Bible Study.  It is divided into six sections of three chapters each.  Zondervan sells a DVD to accompany the book and offers a study guide for six-sessions. This material could covered in two sessions, making for a excellent thirteen-week quarter studying the Jesus and the implications of Jesus’ life and teaching.  Alternatively, a small group may want to use one chapter per week and stretch the material over a 20 to 24 week period.  The chapters are certainly rich enough to spark good interaction around important topics. The book is easy to read, chapters are brief and illustrated with black and white photographs.  A Participant Guide is also available for small groups.

Part One offers some orientation to the big questions of historical Jesus studies.  The first two chapters are more general, dealing with the question of God and revelation.  Chapter three is an evaluation of some evidence for the existence of Jesus, although Dickson does not get really get into the historicity of the Gospels themselves or evaluating the authenticity of individual sayings or stories.  His concern is the general historicity of the Gospels, as in chapter four where he acknowledges a certain amount of “faith” in the stories as we have them is required.

Part Two claims to focus on the identity of Jesus as a religious leader, but the section never really gets there.  The subtitle given on page 49 is “The Identity of Jesus and his Critique of ‘Religion,’” so I expected Jesus to be described against the political and religious background of the Second Temple Period, contrasted with the Pharisees or Herodians, or perhaps the Social banditry movement.  But that is not what this section is about at all.  Chapter 6 and 7 deal with various views of who the historical Jesus is (military, mystic, etc).  These two chapters could have easily been combined.  Chapter 8 deals with baptism and temptation of Jesus, but it is hard for me to see the connection to the apparent goal of the section.

Part Three deals with the Kingdom of God, “Jesus Vision of the Future and Its Relevance Now.”  After a chapter on Jesus as a Teacher (8) and on Jesus as a miracle-worker (9), chapter 10 is something of a theodicy.  Dickson asks about God’s present activity in the world – why does he allow evil to persist if some sort of future kingdom is coming in which injustice will be answered and judged?  This is a good chapter, but to me it does not live up to the promise of the section’s title.  I understand that Jesus’ teaching centers on the Kingdom of God as present and that his miracles are a taste of the coming kingdom, but this is not really brought to bear on the problem of evil in chapter 10.  Like the previous section, I was left wanting more.

Part Four addresses Jesus and the Religion.  Again, the sub-title (Jesus’ Thoughts on ‘Religious Hypocrites’ and ‘Rotten Sinners’”) gives the impression of a contrast between Jesus and the Pharisees, but that is not the content of these chapters.  In chapter 11 Dickson deals with the contrast between the common view that Jesus taught love and the several “hellfire and brimstone” sermons in the gospels.  He then turns to Jesus and the sinner.  In this all-too-brief chapter he describes the social stigma of the tax-collector and the point of Jesus’ table fellowship.  In chapter 12 Dickson reads the parable of the Prodigal as a condemnation of the Pharisee, but he quickly moves from this to a discussion of contemporary questions about God and justice.

Part Five concerns the death of Jesus.  This is by far the best section of the book.  He begins with a brief overview of crucifixion in the Roman and Jewish world (chapter 14) and then offers a nice synopsis the reasons for Jesus’ crucifixion (chapter 15) and then Jesus’ own view of why he had to die (chapter 16).  He emphasizes the meaning of Passover and how Jesus’ death was foreshadowed in the Exodus events.

Part Six is deals with the resurrection and the application of Jesus’ resurrection to the atonement. Chapter 17 contains several of the typical arguments for a historical resurrection (the empty tomb and eye-witnesses).  Chapter 18 and 19 are perhaps the main point of the book – why does the death and resurrection of Jesus matter?  First, it is the basis of forgiveness of sin. In the atonement, humans can be right with God. Second, the Jesus is the basis of living a new life of forgiveness.

Dickson has an apologetic agenda throughout the book.  He begins by engaging Richard Dawkins and other Atheists on the validity of Christianity and ends with a plea for small steps toward becoming like Jesus.  he frequently cites a critic of the Christian faith and gives an answer to their objections.   This book is not really a “life of Jesus” at all, but a primer for new Christians who have some understanding of current discussions of faith (The God Delusion, etc.)  My criticisms of the book above may be aimed at an editor rather than Dickson as an author since the arrangement of the chapters and descriptions of the contents are often unrelated.  These oddities should not distract from the overall apologetic value of Dickson’s book.

Overall, I can recommend Dickson’s Life of Jesus for a small group or Bible Study, although that group needs to be motivated to read and think deeply about difficult topics.