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ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 57, 2009

BEVERLEY R. GAVENTA & RICHARD B. HAYS (eds), Seeking the Identity of Jesus: A Pilgrimage (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008). Pp. xiv + 359. Paperback. $US28.00.

An outgrowth of a collaborative research initiative “The Identity of Jesus Project” (sponsored by the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton, New Jersey), Seeking the Identity of Jesus is a response to the “profusion of conflicting images of Jesus in the church, in the academy and in popular culture” (3). In particular, it is a response to the excessively stripped down representation of Jesus as espoused by the Jesus Seminar. Many of the papers in the collection offering alternate viewings on the identity of Jesus in direct retaliation to the Jesus Seminar’s methods.

The collection has an impressive number of contributors:
  1. Placher (How the Gospels Mean) argues that the Gospels are not fiction, myth nor history-instead, they are “history-like witnesses to truths both historical and transcendent” (38).
  2. Jenson (Identity, Jesus and Exegesis) considers notions of identity and its role in theological tradition over the course of church history.
  3. Blockmuehl (God’s Life as a Jew) discusses how we can reconcile Christian theological ideals, which are based around a rejection of Jesus’ Jewish roots, and the historical reality of those Jewish roots.
  4. Allison (The Historians Jesus and the Church) advocates using “recurrent attestations” rather than close textual analysis to gain a broad overview of Jesus’ identity—that is, seeing what is “in character” for Jesus’ behaviour according to textual sources rather than dissecting those sources minutely.
  5. Watson (How to Get from the Jesus of History to the Christ of Faith without Losing One’s Way) investigates whether the historical Jesus is mutually exclusive to the ‘Christ of faith’—as modern scholarship presupposes—or if the two can be reconciled.
  6. Allison (The Embodiment of God’s Will: Jesus in Matthew) argues that Matthew’s Jesus cannot be understood through his titles, but rather through emulating his actions and obeying God’s will.
  7. Markus (Identity and Ambiguity in Markan Christology) examines how the ‘who’ and the ‘what’ of Jesus are intertwined, and discusses both Mark’s ambiguity towards Jesus as ‘Son of David’ and his deliberate juxtaposition of Jesus as human and divine.
  8. Gaventa (Learning and Relearning the Identity of Jesus from Luke–Acts) sets aside questions of historical reliability in favour of a literary approach, asking how readers “… might learn the identity of Jesus from the way Luke tells his story” (149).
  9. Thompson (Word of God, Messiah of Israel, Saviour of the World) argues that Jesus in John is to be understood from a post-resurrection perspective, as should all the New Testament, as it “… functions both theologically and hermeneutically” (176).
  10. Hays (The Story of God’s Son) demonstrates that Paul had his own perception of Jesus over and against that of others (2 Cor 11:3–4). For Paul, Jesus exists both in his own time and in all times and there is no distinction between the Jesus of history and Paul’s Christ.
  11. Grieb (“Time Would Fail Me to Tell …”) investigates the rich Christological depth of the Letter to the Hebrews and how “deity and humanity meet their fullness in Jesus Christ” (214).
  12. Anderson (Moses and Jonah in Gethsemane) investigates the paradox of Jesus “suffering impassibly” and demonstrates that, far from being new, this idea has its roots in the Old Testament.
  13. Moberly (Isaiah and Jesus) notes that Jesus may not be readily apparent in Isaiah (indeed, Augustine could not find him there), but argues that Isaiah foreshadows Jesus in the themes of exaltation and abasement.
  14. Daley (The Word and His Flesh) examines how patristic debates over the humanity of Jesus are “way stations” in a continuing process of Christian reflection on Jesus’ identity.
  15. Steinmetz (The Eucharist and the Identity of Jesus in the Early Reformation) investigates how understandings of the Eucharist informed the identity of Jesus in different ways for Zwingli, Luther and Calvin.
  16. Sonderegger (The Identity of Jesus Christ in the Liturgy) argues that Jesus the Redeemer is to be found in liturgy, which is in turn found in the twofold Word—both preached and read—and in the Eucharist.
  17. Coakley (The Identity of the Risen Jesus) attempts to map what has been learnt from “modern, historical debates about Jesus onto older, dogmatic debates about Jesus’” (303) person and nature (emphasis Coakley’s).
The range of this study is impressive. The essays do not always agree with one another, but this a strength of the work—it provides a range of interpretations and avenues to stimulate the reader in their own ‘quest for Jesus’ rather than trying to give a hard and fast answer to a question that has none. Nor is the audience intended to be purely theological in their interests—there are implications here for the historical scholar that deserve serious consideration.

Much of the work is heavily technical and some of the arguments quite complex: this is a text for the dedicated scholar rather than the dilettante. Nonetheless, this is a fascinating and stimulating volume for anyone Seeking the Identity of Jesus.

Review by
Bronwyn Naismith
History Program
La Trobe University
Bundoora VIC 3086