Baker Academic

Monday, January 12, 2015

Best Jesus Books by the Decade (1890-2015)

A few days ago Wayne Coppins informed me that his book group (the Athens Historical Jesus Group) had assigned my little Historical Jesus: What Can We Know and How Can We Know It? I immediately thought, "What a waste! There are so many good books on Jesus out there!" Wayne then informed me that his group liked to take breaks from reading good books periodically. So I affirm and bless their commitment to keep a sabbath, so to speak, with my book.

My chat with Wayne got me thinking of the books that I might recommend for such a group. I then had the idea to pick a single book from each decade that might be read over the course of a year. I ended up with a baker's dozen. The following list is not a survey of what was happening in historical Jesus research with a focus on German scholarship. In this way, I have not followed the standard "three quests" mythology. That said, many of these titles were indeed written by Germans and one hasn't yet been translated (*ahem* Wayne?). This list represents what I think are the best Jesus books written in their respective decades:

1890s: Martin Kähler, Der sogenannte historische Jesus und der geschichtliche, biblische Christus (1892) trans. The so-called historical Jesus and the historic, biblical Christ
Kähler's important text is generally relegated to a footnote of Bultmann's legacy. This might have something to do with the fact that it predates Schweitzer's celebrated treatment of the discipline, as well as the turn of the century (we tend to prefer neat numerical demarcations). It also might have something to do with the fact that Kähler fits better within the so-called "No Quest" years of scholarly mythology. Kähler perhaps voices better than anyone the paradigmatic distinction between the "Christ of faith" and the "Jesus of history." This almost becomes a mantra in the years that follow.
1900s: Albert Schweitzer, Geschichte der Leben-Jesu-Forschung (1906) trans. The Quest of the Historical Jesus
There is perhaps no book more influential to modern historical Jesus research. We continue to argue along the contours drawn by Schweitzer and continue to make his mistakes too.
1910s: Gerald Friedlander, The Jewish Sources of the Sermon on the Mount (1911)
Friedlander situates Jesus within contemporary Judaism, argues that his ethics have been borrowed and Christianized. He critiques the NT's antagonistic portraits of the Pharisees et al.
1920s: Joseph Klausner, Yeshu ha-Notzri (1922) trans. Jesus of Nazareth: His life, times, and teaching
Klausner offers a material advance on the work of Friedlander and expands his study to include Semitic backgrounds of the Jesus tradition. Both Friedlander and Klausner tend to be overlooked by contemporary surveys of Jesus research. I'll leave it to you to figure out why.
1930s: Rudolf Bultmann, Jesus (1934) trans. Jesus and the Word
This is a short book and well worth the read. It will explode any notions that Bultmann wasn't interested in the Jesus of history. It should be said however that this book doesn't represent Bultmann's legacy within New Testament studies.
1940s: Solomon Zeitlin, Who Crucified Jesus? (1942)
Zeitlin rightly questions the longstanding Christian accusation that "the Jews" are ultimately to blame for Jesus' death. Zeitlin's own legacy (both in accomplishments and in missteps) overshadows this important book.
1950s: Günther Bornkamm, Jesus von Nazareth (1956)
Bornkamm's book demonstrates the impact that the conversation between Bultmann and Käsemann had on German scholarship. Bornkamm labels the obstacles that confront Jesus historians but brings Jesus into conversation with Christian theology more so than was the norm in Germany between Kähler and Käsemann. This book provides a helpful window into German scholarship at the time.
1960s: C. E.  Braaten and R. A. Harrisville (eds.),  The Historical Jesus and the Kerygmatic Christ:  Essays on the New Quest for the Historical Jesus (1964)
This collection of essays gives several snapshots of Bultmann's impact on the field by putting him into conversation with adherents and detractors.
1970s: Ben F. Meyer, The Aims of Jesus (1979)
Meyer offers the most sophisticated historiographical treatment to date by adapting the work of Bernard Lonergan. Honorable mentions to Martin Hengel, Victory over Violence: Jesus and the Revolutionists (1973) and Geza Vermes, Jesus the Jew (1978).
1980s: E. P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism (1985)
It gets extremely difficult to pick only one book for each decade from the 70s onward. Among the many important books during this period, Sanders' achievement stands out as the most influential. He combines the continued "Jesus the Jew" themes of previous decades with a focused appreciation of first-century Judaism in particular. Sanders brings this theme into the mainstream of NT scholarship. If I could sum up Sanders' thesis in one line it would be: if it aint Jewish, it aint Jesus. Honorable mentions go to Harvey, Borg, Horsley, and Fredriksen.
1990s: Dagmar Winter and Gerd Theissen, Die Kriterienfrage in der Jesusforschung: Vom Differenzkriterium zum Plausibilitätskriterium (1997), trans. The Quest for the Plausible Jesus: The Question of Criteria
I am aware that I've committed the sin of marginalizing the massive tomes (and massive influence) of John Dominic Crossan, John P. Meier, and N. T. Wright. If this list was a "best books of the century" list, these guys would get a long, hard look. Indeed if you were to create a who's who of the 1990s in Jesus research, those fellows would top the list. But in retrospect no better Jesusbuch was written in the 90s. Winter's thesis was original and game-changing. Her mastery of the history of research was comprehensive. She anticipated several directions the field would take in the next millennium. 
....sidebar: For a look at how the "Jesus Seminar" interfaced with mainstream scholarship during the 1990s, see the essays in Robert J. Miller (ed.), The Apocalyptic Jesus: A Debate (2001). Dale Allison interacts with a few folks from the Seminar.
2000s: Jens Schröter and Ralph Brucker, Der historische Jesus: Tendenzen und Perspektiven der gegenwärtigen Forschungen (2002) 
The essays by Schröter, Moxter, and Dunn are worth the hefty price of this book. Few other books were more important for me as I wrote my The Historiographical Jesus: Memory, Typology, and the Son of David. Schröter launches what Chris Keith has called "the memory approach." Honorable mentions to Allison, Dunn, Levine, and esp. Schröter's Von Jesus zum Neuen Testament (2008). 
2010s: Dale C. Allison, Jr. Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History (2013)
In a way, Allison's book culminates a lifetime of research. But this book is also a departure from Allison's previous research. Allison demonstrates that the "memory approach" is in full swing and that the traditional authenticity criteria are no longer privileged. Cf. Keith's thesis and the essays of Keith, Schröter, and Allison here: Chris Keith and Anthony Le Donne, Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity (2012). Allison puts forth a unique methodology that I have called "impressionism." Cf. Dunn's "characteristic Jesus" and Dodd's unique application of multiple forms alongside a cross-sectional overview of the larger Jesus/Gospels tradition.
I am sure that I've made a few mistakes here. My list is probably idiosyncratic. I'd be interested in hearing how others might change this decade-by-decade list.



  1. I just want to point out that my alma mater, McMaster Dept. of Religious Studies, dominates the 1970s and 1980s on this list (Meyer and Sanders were both teaching at Mac RS when they released the books in question). Just saying.

    1. Indeed! And we lend Sanders and Meyer to Canada, the Americans on this list are surprisingly few, given how America has turned this field into a kind of cottage industry.


  2. Hey now! I said we liked to alternate between longer and shorter books not between good and bad ones! But I'll overlook this self-deprecatory misrepresentation in view of the great list you've put together =).

  3. Hey Anthony,
    Great list, but I would definitely disagree with you about the 1990s. Without a doubt Winter and Theissen's book on the Criteria was a game-changer, but it's decidedly not a "Jesusbuch." It's a "Methodbuch"--and as such, it's one of the most consequential and well-researched method books ever done in the field.

    With that qualification in mind, for my money, the best actual JESUSbook from the 1990s--and by 'best' I mean most well-researched and well-written--has to go to Volume 2 of John Meier's A Marginal Jew: Mentor, Message, Miracles (1994). Although it's method is problematic (esp. in the face of Theissen and Winter), the treatment of Jesus and John, the question of miracles, and the kingdom of God and eschatology, remain Meier's best work to date. Compared with earlier Jesus books--even Sanders!--Meier gives us a (daunting) model for what it means to take Second Temple Jewish primary sources seriously, and he stands head and shoulders above a lot of the research being done at the time for thoroughness and judicious judgment. The primary weakness is methodological, but anyone who's actually sat down and read Meier knows that you will learn a ton about any topic he touches.

    Of course, I'm probably biased, since it was while reading Volume 2 of a Marginal Jew that I decided to pursue doctoral studies in order to be a historical Jesus scholar. :) And, of course, John Meier later went on to be my teacher, so I realize some skepticism is in order.

    1. How did I know that you'd say that?

      No doubt, Vol 2 was him at his best.


  4. Good list. I wish people would engage Meyer's work more than they do.

  5. Just throwing these out there: Israel Abrahams, Studies in Pharisaism and the Gospels (1910s/20s), Vermes (esp. 1970s) and Casey (2010s)...