Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Three reviews of A Hitchhiker's Guide to Jesus

Reviews of my new book are trickling in. So far so good.

For starters, on June 20 Publishers Weekly posted a very positive review of Hitchhiker's. It would make "Norm" (the main character and "author" of the book) happy. He might pretend to be offended when he reads that he is "sometimes the lovable goof but more often a serious student." But yeah, PW pretty much nails it.

Then there’s a nice blog entry by Professor Benjamin Reynolds, posted on June 7 over on his excellent Divinity United. Ben has given the book a careful read, for which I'm most grateful, and he understands very well the kind of hybrid book it is: part Jesus studies, part Gospel genre analysis, part travelogue, part faith journey. He sees that the book is not only a quest for Jesus but also a quest to understand what sort of books the Gospels are. To my delight, Ben plans to make the book required reading in a course this fall.

Third, just this morning New Testament scholar Ben Witherington posted a review on his influential blog, The Bible and Culture. Turns out he likes the book. A lot. I can't resist quoting a few sound bytes from the review:
The greatest compliment I can give to a book is, that I wish I had written it, and this book falls into that category. It is that good.

This book is full of good critical thinking and discourse, and as such can serve as a good conversation starter. It has also got a lot of fresh new insights into key texts as well, which surprises even me who has read far too many books on the historical Jesus.

The book is well researched, interacts with many of the major players in the historical Jesus discussion, comes to carefully reasoned conclusions, and doesn’t fudge the evidence.
I'm particularly grateful for Ben's commendation since the book fails to interact explicitly with his own substantial body of work about Jesus. Insert awkward pause here.

As for criticism, Ben wishes the book had more on the significance Jesus attached to his death, and more on his messianic self-understanding. Fair enough. I actually think Norm ponders Jesus' self-understanding and messianic calling quite a bit. (See pages 109, 132, 135, 142, 147, 156-7, 162, 165, 168-70, 196-201, 212, 224-27.) But I agree: it should probably have been more prominent and systematic. And Ben is certainly correct that I say relatively little about how Jesus' death brought salvation (see pp.237-40, 254-55). Here I'd point out only that the Gospels (unlike other parts of the New Testament) are similarly reticent on the matter (see page 252), a point that counts in my mind in favor of their historical reliability.

Ben is likewise correct that the book fails to do justice to the Son of Man sayings. (See pages 135, 156, 168-70, 172-6, 179, 242-43.) Most unsatisfying for Ben is the way I handle the Son of Man coming on the clouds from Daniel 7. But here I'm puzzled. I think Ben has in mind the sequence on pages 172-75 which presents the view of N. T. Wright and Scot McKnight in which the coming of the Son of Man is understood to refer to Jesus' heavenly exaltation. But Norm is actually attracted to an alternative view (as am I), the one held by James Dunn and Ben Meyer (see pages 176-78). So I think Norm and Ben are on the same side of this debate.

Finally, although the book’s title indicates that it is about Jesus, it is also very much an exploration of the nature of the Gospels: what kind of books they are and how their authors managed to blend historical fidelity with artistic creativity. (See, e.g., pages 77-79, 91-99, 130, 188-89, 217-221, 256-57.) The title of Ben’s review might suggest, however, that the book focuses exclusively on the so-called Third Quest for Jesus. I am hopeful it will also spark fruitful conversations about the nature of Scripture.