The Message of Jesus Book Summary

Title: The Message of Jesus: John Dominic Crossan and Ben Witherington III in Dialogue
Author: Robert B. Stewart (editor)

TLDR: This book dives into the heart of Jesus’ message through a dialogue between renowned scholars Crossan and Witherington, accompanied by essays from leading experts. They explore the social, political, and religious context of Jesus’ teachings, his use of Scripture, and the implications of his message for today.

Chapter 1: The Message of Jesus: A Dialogue

This chapter presents a transcribed dialogue between John Dominic Crossan and Ben Witherington III, addressing the heart of the book’s theme: Jesus’ message.

Crossan begins by emphasizing the importance of acknowledging the different perspectives of victors and vanquished when interpreting historical narratives. He argues that the biblical God consistently opposes empires and imperialism, highlighting the tension between God’s kingdom and the Roman Empire in Jesus’ time. He suggests that Jesus’ message focused on the imminent arrival of God’s kingdom, challenging the existing social and political hierarchies through nonviolent resistance. Crossan sees Jesus’ acts of healing and open commensality (sharing meals with outcasts) as symbolic of this radical egalitarianism.

Witherington agrees with Crossan’s characterization of Jesus as a nonviolent revolutionary but suggests that Jesus’ primary concern was not directly opposing the Roman Empire, but rather rescuing the lost and marginalized. He emphasizes Jesus’ role as a sage and storyteller, drawing on the Old Testament narrative world to articulate his vision of God’s inbreaking dominion. He points to Jesus’ parables as evidence of his countercultural wisdom, challenging prevailing assumptions and inviting his audience to engage in transformative praxis.

The dialogue then delves into specific aspects of Jesus’ message, including the nature of God’s justice and mercy, the relationship between personal and social dimensions of the gospel, and the role of the Holy Spirit. Crossan stresses the importance of understanding God’s justice in light of his nonviolent character, while Witherington highlights the centrality of forgiveness in Jesus’ teaching. Both scholars acknowledge the significance of community and collaboration in living out the gospel message.

The dialogue concludes with a Q&A session with the audience, exploring topics such as:

  • Eschatological justice and earthly ethics.
  • The social location of Jesus and his engagement with the tradition.
  • The nature of Jesus’ divinity.
  • The cleansing of the temple and the question of God’s violence.
  • Criteria for evaluating miracles and the virginal conception.

The chapter ends with concluding remarks from both scholars, reaffirming the value of dialogue and the importance of critical engagement with the historical Jesus and his message.

Chapter 2: The Place of Jewish Scripture in Jesus’ Teaching

Craig A. Evans examines the significance of Jewish Scripture in understanding Jesus’ teachings. He argues that Jesus’ message primarily focused on the reign of God and the redemption of Israel, drawing heavily on the prophetic tradition, particularly Isaiah. Evans contends that Jesus was a skilled interpreter of Scripture, able to draw on Aramaic paraphrases and contemporary interpretive tendencies while challenging conventional understandings. He argues for a literate Jesus, familiar with both popular and professional biblical interpretation.

Evans further explores Jesus’ “challenging use” of Scripture, highlighting passages where Jesus subverts conventional interpretations or confronts his contemporaries’ understanding of the law. He provides examples of this subversion in Jesus’ pronouncements on the Sabbath and his reinterpretation of the “Son of Man” figure in Daniel 7.

Finally, Evans addresses the question of Jesus’ relationship with the Judaism of his day, arguing that Jesus accepted the major tenets of the Jewish faith while challenging certain interpretations and applications of the law. He emphasizes Jesus’ acceptance of the Torah’s authority, his innovative interpretation in line with the classical prophets, and his openness to “sinners” and outsiders.

Chapter 3: Standard and Poor: The Economic Index of the Parables

Amy-Jill Levine and Myrick C. Shinall Jr. analyze the parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16) through the lens of contemporary economic concerns. They challenge the conventional view of Jesus as an economic egalitarian, arguing that the details of the parable point to a more nuanced understanding of Jesus’ message regarding economic justice.

They critique interpretations that depict the landowner as an exploitative capitalist and the workers as disenfranchised victims, arguing that these readings rely on an anachronistic understanding of both ancient and contemporary economics. They also challenge the view that Jewish culture equated wealth with righteousness, highlighting the complexity of the Jewish tradition’s approach to wealth and poverty.

Levine and Shinall suggest that the parable is best understood as a challenge to the wealthy to act as God does, generously providing for the needs of all. They argue that the householder, both as a cipher for the divine and as a model for wealthy disciples, represents the ideal of responsible stewardship and generosity.

The chapter concludes with four key takeaways:

  1. The parable encourages a focus on ensuring that everyone receives a living wage, rather than on maximizing individual profit.
  2. It encourages the wealthy to actively seek out and provide for those in need, rather than simply responding to those who happen to be at their doorstep.
  3. It emphasizes the responsibility of the rich to care for the poor, not simply through handouts, but through creating opportunities for meaningful work.
  4. It highlights the corporate nature of righteousness, whereby the actions of some benefit others, illustrating the interconnectedness of the community.

Chapter 4: Everything in Parables: On Jesus’ Style

Stephen J. Patterson investigates the polyvalent nature of Jesus’ teachings, focusing on his use of parables, aphorisms, and prophetic sayings. He argues that Jesus’ words were often intentionally open-ended and could be interpreted in multiple ways, inviting his audience to engage in active reflection and seeking.

Patterson offers several examples of the polyvalence of Jesus’ teachings, comparing different versions of parables and prophetic sayings across the gospels and the Gospel of Thomas. He argues that this polyvalence is a characteristic feature of oral tradition and that it gets lost as these sayings become fixed in written form.

He suggests that Jesus’ use of polyvalent language reflects his confidence in his audience’s ability to engage in a “hermeneutic of penetration and research,” discovering truth through reflection and critical analysis.

Chapter 5: How Matthew Helped Jesus Fulfill Prophecy

Robert J. Miller examines the fulfillment of prophecy theme in Matthew’s Gospel, arguing that Matthew tailored his stories to fit Old Testament prophecies and retrofitted prophecies to match his stories, demonstrating Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s plan for salvation.

Miller analyzes three scenes where Matthew manipulates prophetic passages to craft his narrative:

  • Jesus’ movements in Galilee (Matt. 4:15-16)
  • Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem (Matt. 21:4-5)
  • Judas’ betrayal and the thirty silver pieces (Matt. 27:9)

He highlights how Matthew inserts details from prophecies into his narrative, effectively creating both the prophecy and the event that fulfills it. Miller argues that this approach reflects a Hellenistic understanding of prophecy that became integrated into Judaism during the Second Temple period, where prophetic words were viewed as coded messages with hidden meanings.

Miller further investigates Matthew’s polemical use of prophecy, arguing that it served to reinforce the faith of Matthew’s Christian-Jewish community and to distinguish them from their Jewish opponents. He suggests that Matthew’s proof-from-prophecy argument was not intended to persuade outsiders but rather to bolster the conviction of his own community that they were the true heirs of Israel.

Finally, Miller argues that the belief in Jesus fulfilling prophecy is an obsolete and dangerous legacy, contributing to anti-Judaism and obscuring the historical Jesus. He concludes by suggesting that Christians have a moral obligation to abandon this belief out of respect for Judaism and the Bible.

Chapter 6: Faith and the Historical Jesus: Does a Confessional Position and Respect for the Jesus Tradition Preclude Serious Historical Engagement?

Darrell L. Bock tackles the challenging question of whether a confessional approach to the historical Jesus can contribute to the scholarly discussion. He acknowledges the skepticism surrounding this endeavor, with critics accusing Evangelicals of historical positivism, maximalism, and apologetics.

Bock defends the value of historical Jesus studies, outlining its limitations while emphasizing its potential for providing insights into Jesus’ life and teachings. He argues that scholars should use the standard criteria of authenticity, while recognizing that the results will be provisional and varied. He further highlights the importance of considering the multidimensional perspectives of Jesus’ followers, as captured in the gospels.

Bock then analyzes Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi as a case study, demonstrating how a confessional scholar can engage in historical Jesus research. He defends the core authenticity of this event, arguing that it meets multiple criteria of authenticity, including multiple attestation, Palestinian environment, embarrassment, and coherence. He addresses objections to the scene’s historicity, particularly those stemming from the “messianic secret” motif. He concludes that Jesus likely accepted the messianic designation in a qualified way, teaching his disciples about the suffering that would accompany his mission.

Bock concludes his essay by arguing that a confessional voice can and should contribute to the historical Jesus discussion, provided it engages in rigorous historical analysis and uses shared scholarly methods. He challenges the dismissive attitude towards confessional scholarship, urging scholars to engage with the arguments presented, rather than simply dismissing them based on the writer’s faith position.

Chapter 7: The Historical Jesus from the Synoptics and the Fourth Gospel? Jesus the Purifier

Craig L. Blomberg investigates the potential contribution of the Fourth Gospel to historical Jesus research, a source often dismissed by scholars due to its perceived theological bias and late date. He challenges this neglect, pointing to a growing body of scholarship that recognizes the authenticability of a significant core of distinctively Johannine material.

Blomberg explores specific passages in John’s Gospel, seeking to identify recurring themes and motifs that might supplement the standard historical Jesus portraits based on the Synoptics. He argues that the recurring theme of Jesus as “purifier” is a significant but often-neglected aspect of Jesus’ ministry that emerges from careful analysis of the Fourth Gospel. He cites several examples, including:

  • The water turned into wine at Cana (John 2:1-11)
  • Jesus’ cleansing of the temple (John 2:13-25)
  • Jesus’ dialogue with Nicodemus about being born again (John 3:1-21)
  • Jesus’ offer of living water to the woman at the well (John 4:4-42)
  • Jesus’ healing of the paralyzed man at the pool of Bethesda (John 5:1-15)
  • Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand (John 6:1-15)
  • Jesus’ declaration as the light of the world (John 8:12)
  • Jesus’ healing of the man born blind (John 9:1-41)
  • Jesus’ claim to be the Good Shepherd during Hanukkah (John 10:22)
  • The resurrection of Lazarus (John 11)
  • The foot washing (John 13:1-17)
  • The vine and the branches discourse (John 15:1-17)
  • Jesus’ high-priestly prayer (John 17)

Blomberg argues that these passages, while often interpreted through the lens of Johannine theology, nevertheless contain elements that support the authenticity of Jesus as a purifier, a theme that aligns with his practice of table fellowship with sinners in the Synoptics.

Blomberg concludes by suggesting that the theme of “contagious holiness” may be more central to Jesus’ agenda than previously recognized, challenging his followers to engage in purifying and cleansing society through acts of love, compassion, and integrity.

Chapter 8: Critical Blindness, Wise Virgins, and the Law of Christ: Three Surprising Examples of Jesus Tradition in Paul

David Wenham challenges the scholarly consensus that Paul rarely drew on Jesus traditions in his letters. He analyzes three perplexing Pauline texts – 1 Thessalonians 4:16, Galatians 6:2, and 1 Corinthians 14:37 – arguing that they likely contain echoes of Jesus’ teachings, specifically the parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins and the command to “love one another” found in John’s Gospel.

Wenham argues that scholars’ critical assumptions about the dating and historicity of various New Testament texts have blinded them to these connections. He highlights the importance of recognizing the significance of oral tradition in the early church, suggesting that Paul had access to and relied on this tradition in his letters.

He provides detailed analyses of each Pauline text, offering arguments for their connections to specific Jesus traditions. He addresses objections to these connections, particularly those stemming from the perceived lateness of John’s Gospel and the absence of the “love one another” command in the Synoptics. Wenham argues that the synoptic tradition contains similar themes, emphasizing Jesus’ followers as his family and calling them to love and serve one another.

Wenham concludes by suggesting that Paul’s use of Jesus tradition in his letters is more extensive than previously recognized and that scholars need to be more attentive to the possibility of early, non-Marcan Jesus traditions in both Paul and John.

Overall, this book offers a rich and multifaceted exploration of Jesus’ message, demonstrating the ongoing quest to understand the historical Jesus and his significance for contemporary faith. It highlights the challenges of historical Jesus research, the importance of careful textual analysis, and the need for respectful dialogue between scholars with diverse perspectives.

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