Book Write-Up: 40 Questions About the Historical Jesus

C. Marvin Pate.  40 Questions About the Historical Jesus.  Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2015.  See here to buy the book.

Evangelical scholar C. Marvin Pate is the author of 40 Questions About the Historical Jesus.  In this book, Pate addresses questions about the historical Jesus, the biblical Gospels, and  extracanonical Gospels.

Here are some of my thoughts about this book:

A.  When I first saw the title, I was hesitant to request the book.  I thought that it would be rather simplistic and would repeat things that I had already read about the historical Jesus and New Testament studies.  The book is far from superficial, however.  It is almost 400 pages in length, and there are a lot of words on each page.  Pate is very detailed as he interacts with and critiques scholars.  His knowledge of classic, Second Temple, and rabbinic sources makes this book a virtual encyclopedia.  His ability to draw from that knowledge, and his knowledge of scholarship, to address questions and arguments is amazing.  Pate also interprets the Gospels in reference to Old Testament themes, in a manner that is creative and profound.  Pate has judicious discussions about such issues as Jesus’ socio-economic status and the languages that Jesus knew and spoke.  This book is far from being a glorified “Frequently Asked Questions” pamphlet.

B.  That said, Pate does go on rabbit trails and get bogged down on details.  He sometimes does make an effort, though, to tie themes together near the end.  Personally, I learned a lot from these rabbit trails, so I appreciated them.  At the same time, if you are looking for a book that concisely summarizes what New Testament scholarship identifies as the distinct themes in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, this may not be the book for you.  Pate had interesting things to say about Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, but discussion about some of their key themes was notably absent.

C.  Overall, Pate has a maximalist stance towards the New Testament Gospels: he regards them as reliable portrayals of the historical Jesus.  He argues for the virgin birth and the historicity of the census in Luke 2.  At the same time, he appreciates the Gospels in their diversity.  He argues that Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple has a different or a distinct significance in each Gospel.  He quotes a statement by Craig Blomberg about how the Gospels vary what they say in reference to the situation of their audiences: some passages reflect a Palestinian setting, whereas others adapt Jesus’ words to speak more to a Greco-Roman setting.

D.  There are times when Pate references scholarship from the 1970’s yet talks as if he is presenting recent trends in scholarship.  This was particularly the case in his discussion about oral tradition.  His discussion was interesting: it challenges prominent scholarly arguments about oral tradition that I read in preparing for one of my comprehensive exams!  But Pate also would have done well to have consulted recent studies, particularly about memory.  Moreover, while I acknowledge the possibility that lengthy chunks of oral tradition can be historically authentic and passed down reliably (as does Pate and the scholars he references), there also seem to me to be cases in which we see something different in the Gospels: cases in which Gospel authors contextualize short sayings differently from each other, or contextualize sayings in reference to their distinct ideology and themes.

E.  Related to C-D, there were many times when I thought that Pate could have done a better job in tying things together into a coherent picture.  He acknowledges the diversity of the Gospels yet accepts, overall, their historical reliability.  How does he tie these things together?  Can the creativity, distinct ideology, and agency of the Gospel-authors co-exist with the Gospels being reliable historically, and, if so, how?

Pate had thoughts about the purpose of Jesus’ Kingdom of God, but questions remained in my mind.  What exactly did Jesus’ Kingdom accomplish in terms of the restoration of Israel, which Pate believes was a significant aspect of Jesus’ mission?  Was Jesus aiming for Israel’s spiritual restoration, not necessarily its national restoration?  Was the restoration postponed because many Jews rejected Jesus’ message?  What was Jesus’ aim in casting out demons: if it was to challenge Satan, why did Satan remain powerful after that?  Pate made his share of thoughtful points that touched on these issues, but there were times when he sounded like a classical dispensationalist, a progressive dispensationalist, and maybe even a covenant theologian, schools of thought that contradict each other, in key areas.

Pate interacted with the New Testament interpretation of the Old Testament and the charge that the New Testament authors are not entirely faithful to the Old Testament passages’ original meaning.  On Isaiah 7:14, he seemed to argue that it related to the time of Isaiah and Ahaz, yet also had Messianic significance.  He did not exactly offer a coherent picture as to how this could be the case.

F.  Pate rarely addressed the scholarly view that Jesus expected the end of the world to come soon.  Pate did talk about the differences between Schweitzer’s view that Jesus had a thoroughgoing futuristic imminent eschatology, and the view that Jesus’ Kingdom was already but not yet.  But Pate did not address many of the New Testament passages that appear to imply an imminent eschatology.  He did address Jesus’ statement in the Olivet Discourse that “this generation shall not pass away, till all be fulfilled,” and, overall, he did so judiciously, without artificial apologetics.  Essentially, Pate argued that Mark envisioned Jesus coming back soon after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, but that Matthew and Luke, who wrote after the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., had different ideas from that of Mark.  Unfortunately, Pate did not wrestle with the theological implications of this insight: Was Mark wrong?  Did Mark simply not see the future clearly?  Pate just said that we should be ready for Jesus to return at any time, then moved on.

G.  Pate did not always strike me as consistent, particularly on using later sources or concepts to understand the first century C.E.  Sometimes, he seemed to recognize the problems in doing so.  At other times, he did so.  Sometimes, he justified doing so, and other times he did not.  I appreciate his rabbinic references, for the book would not be the same without them.  Pate could have done better in terms of methodological consistency, however.  He also could have done better on consistency when it came to other issues: for example, did he believe that the Son of Man in the Book of Daniel was Israel, a heavenly being allied with Israel, or what?  Was the concept of a Shaliach around during the time of Jesus, or not?

H.  Pate had questions at the end of each chapter.  The questions are good in that they can encourage people to review Pate’s arguments.  At the same time, they did not particularly encourage thoughtfulness or exploration.  Overall, they were not open-ended, and they  assumed that Pate was correct.

I still give this book four stars because it is informative, and it is also a good book for reference.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.  Also, while I share the same last name with C. Marvin Pate, I have no idea if we are related!



About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. I study the History of Biblical Interpretation at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, as part of its Ph.D. program. I have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting.
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