Robert J. Hutchinson. Searching for Jesus: New Discoveries in the Quest for Jesus of Nazareth—-And How They Confirm the Gospel Accounts. Nashville: Nelson Books, 2015. See here to purchase the book.
Every Christmas and Easter season, sensationalist documentaries come out claiming or implying that the biblical Gospels are historically unreliable in their depiction of Jesus. Some of what they say is also stated by professors in secular colleges and universities. Robert J. Hutchinson, who has a graduate degree in New Testament from Fuller Theological Seminary, argues that such claims are based on outdated scholarship, and that newer research is consistent with the historicity of the Gospel accounts.
I was initially hesitant to read this book, thinking that it was yet another work of Christian apologetics repeating the same old Christian apologetic arguments. But I saw on the book’s Amazon page that it is recommended by biblical scholars as diverse as N.T. Wright, James Crossley, and James Tabor, so I decided to read it.
The book covers different topics. Do the biblical Gospels reflect eyewitness testimony? How can we be sure that the Gospels in front of us reflect what was originally written down? Did Jesus’ alleged hometown of Nazareth even exist in the first century C.E.? Did the early Christians invent the idea that the Messiah would suffer and die as a way to cope with their disappointment about Jesus’ death? Do Jesus’ disputes with the Pharisees reflect what happened historically, or did early Christians project their own disputes with Jewish leaders onto the time of Jesus? Do the so-called Gnostic Gospels, which are different from the biblical Gospels, contain historically reliable information about Jesus, or at least demonstrate that early Christianity was diverse and that the “orthodox” view was only one Christian view among others? Is there evidence that Jesus rose from the dead? Was Jesus a violent revolutionary? Just how early was “high Christology,” the view that Jesus was divine? Was high Christology due to Greco-Roman influence on Christianity, or could it have been present among Jesus’ early Jewish followers, and even in Jesus’ own self-conception?
The book does draw from scholars who would be considered conservative, such as Richard Bauckham, Daniel Wallace, and Larry Hurtado. William Lane Craig is a philosopher and an apologist rather than a biblical scholar, but Craig has argued that Jesus rose from the dead, and Hutchinson refers to his arguments. But Hutchinson also appeals to scholars and thinkers who are not Christian. James Crossley is agnostic, and he argues that the Gospel of Mark could have been written in the mid-30s C.E., which is soon after Jesus’ death, and which is earlier than many scholars have dated it. Israel Knohl is Jewish, and he argues that the idea of a suffering Messiah existed in Judaism before Jesus. Shmuley Boteach is a rabbi, and he maintains that Jesus’ disputes with the Pharisees in the Gospels could have happened historically. Daniel Boyarin is Jewish, and he argues that there were views about God within Second Temple Judaism that could have set the stage for Jesus being seen as divine or semi-divine. Hutchinson also interacts with liberal scholars whose views he does not share, such as Bart Ehrman.
There were chapters in this book that were conservative, and some of these chapters were better than others. The chapter on Nazareth was informative in that it explained why there have been scholars who have been skeptical about Nazareth’s existence in the first century, presented possible archaeological evidence to the contrary, and sought to account for Nazareth’s absence from non-Christian first century sources. Hutchinson did not always explain how more liberal scholars arrived at their conclusions, however. Hutchinson expressed disagreement with the view that Jesus envisioned an imminent end of the world, but he did not really interact with the texts or arguments that lead many scholars to conclude that (or he did not do so adequately). Hutchinson argued against Bart Ehrman’s skepticism (at least in Ehrman’s popular books) about the Gospels reflecting what was originally written, but Hutchinson did not adequately address Ehrman’s argument that ancient Christians altered the text for theological purposes.
Hutchinson name-drops liberal scholars who agree with his conclusions. But one can ask why, if these conclusions support the truth of Christianity, these liberal scholars remain liberal scholars rather than becoming conservative Christians. James Crossley obviously has no problem believing that the Gospel of Mark is early, while also rejecting conservative Christianity. Why? Does the Gospel of Mark being early necessarily mean that conservative Christianity is true?
One can legitimately ask if Hutchinson’s conclusions necessarily make a case for Christianity being true. Many Christian apologists and conservative scholars, after all, have made arguments that are different from the ones that Hutchinson makes, in their own attempts to support the truth of Christianity. Hutchinson argues that Jesus seeing himself as divine was consistent with Second Temple Judaism. C.S. Lewis argued, however, that Jesus was who he said he was because, otherwise, Jesus would have been a liar or a madman: Lewis’ premise was that a man claiming to be God in a first century Jewish environment would have been radical, that Jesus’ claim to be God could be compared to a man claiming to be a poached egg. Hutchinson argues that the idea of a suffering Messiah predated Jesus and Christianity. N.T. Wright, however, argued that Jesus rose from the dead, and one reason is that Messianic movements generally folded after the death of their leader, whereas the Jesus movement went on. Is Christianity true because Jesus was a revolutionary figure in his time, or is it true because there were Jewish precedents to what Jesus said and did, or what early Christians claimed about Jesus? All sorts of arguments can be made for and against the truth of Christianity. What is interesting is that contradictory arguments can be found within both sides, which (in my mind) calls into question whether the arguments truly accomplish what they are intended to accomplish. (I suppose that some skeptical arguments are more damaging than others, and that Hutchinson at least tries to neutralize or discredit the damaging ones.)
There was also at least one occasion in which Hutchinson’s methodology was inconsistent. Hutchinson seemed to maintain that the Babylonian Talmud’s reference to Jesus was historically accurate, even though the Babylonian Talmud is much later than the historical Jesus. Later, however, Hutchinson discusses how Second Temple sources offer a more accurate picture of the Judaism of Jesus’ time than rabbinic sources. Hutchinson compares looking to late rabbinic sources to understand the first century to future historians trying to understand the 1700s by reading people’s tweets (excellent analogy)!
I am still giving this book five stars, however, for three reasons. First, there are many places in which the book fairly and judiciously summarizes different perspectives. The section about the Taipot tomb (where James Tabor says Jesus was buried) was especially good, in this regard. Second, the book is informative in discussing trends within scholarship and in pointing readers to resources. Third, the book is not always conservative. Some conservatives try to make Jesus look superior to his Jewish context, but Hutchinson does not appear to go that route, as Hutchinson favorably summarizes Amy-Jill Levine’s work. Hutchinson dates the Book of Daniel to the second century B.C.E. rather than the sixth century B.C.E., which is when many conservative scholars date it. Hutchinson seems to wrestle with the substitutionary atonement, noting that Jesus forgave and accepted people before his death. Hutchinson does not treat the “evidence” for Jesus’ resurrection as conclusive or fully persuasive, but he does believe that there is something to it. In his Epilogue, Hutchinson refers to the apparent problems with Luke 2:22, namely, the question of whether it accords with the Torah. Hutchinson cites manuscripts in this discussion. Hutchinson does not strike me as a strict inerrantist when it comes to the Bible, but rather as one who sees the Gospels as generally reliable, in a historical sense. Overall, Hutchinson came across as rather conservative, but also as one who is open to different ideas. That is why I enjoyed the book.
I received a complimentary review copy of this book through BookLook Bloggers, in exchange for an honest review.