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Jesus and His Death: Historiography, the Historical Jesus, and Atonement Theory Hardcover – October 10, 2005
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"Recent books on the historical Jesus illustrate how compelling scholars and general readers alike find the topic of Jesus' death. But these books also illustrate a major problem-some studies depend upon some grand interpretive theory, while others rivet their attention on exegetical details and disregard developmental questions. Widely read, Scot McKnight does both. He moves back and forth with careful transitions between contemporary hermeneutics and the ancient texts. As he does so, he also provides a rich and often entertaining account of the secondary literature. The volume can be read both as an address of its central questions and as a well-informed introduction to New Testament theology."―Bruce Chilton, Bard College
"This is a brave book. With due awareness of the historical traps and with a mastery of the recent relevant literature, McKnight here asks the crucial question, How did Jesus interpret his own death? His answer, which hearkens back to Albert Schweitzer, does full justice to Jesus' eschatological outlook and makes good sense within a first-century Jewish context. Even those who see things differently―I do not―will enjoy how the detailed and rigorous argument develops and will find themselves learning a great deal."―Dale C. Allison Jr., Errett M. Grabe Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary
"Scot McKnight is fully aware that making claims about the historical Jesus is like entering a minefield. But he combines wide-ranging knowledge of and a willingness to interact with the extensive literature to build a careful, brick-by-brick argument. The sheer breadth of issues covered separates this work from what might otherwise have been its competitors. In ways reminiscent of Stephen Neil, McKnight also has written a book that is never dry or dull."―Joel B. Green, Dean and Professor of New Testament, Asbury Theological Seminary
"McKnight has provided in Jesus and His Death a very dense, scholarly, meticulous discussion of how Jesus perceived his death. His conclusions are largely convincing He is lucid and clear, and I highly recommend it for those who are willing."―Johnny Walker, FREEDOM IN ORTHODOXY Christian Origins, Theology and Philosophy
From the Inside Flap
This is a brave book. With due awareness of the historical traps and with a mastery of the recent relevant literature, McKnight here asks the crucial question, How did Jesus interpret his own death? His answer, which hearkens back to Albert Schweitzer, does full justice to Jesus eschatological outlook and makes good sense within a first-century Jewish context. Even those who see things differentlyI do notwill enjoy how the detailed and rigorous argument develops and will find themselves learning a great deal. Dale C. Allison, Jr., Errett M. Grabe Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary Recent books on the historical Jesus illustrate how compelling scholars and general readers alike find the topic of Jesus death. But these books also illustrate a major problemsome studies depend upon some grand interpretive theory, while others rivet their attention on exegetical details and disregard developmental questions. Widely read, Scot McKnight does both. He moves back and forth with careful transitions between contemporary hermeneutics and the ancient texts. As he does so, he also provides a rich and often entertaining account of the secondary literature. The volume can be read both as an address of its central questions and as a well-informed introduction to New Testament theology. Bruce Chilton, Bard College Scot McKnight is fully aware that making claims about the historical Jesus is like entering a minefield. But he combines wide-ranging knowledge of and a willingness to interact with the extensive literature to build a careful, brick-by-brick argument. The sheer breadth of issues covered separates this work from what might otherwise have been its competitors. In ways reminiscent of Stephen Neil, McKnight also has written a book that is never dry or dull. Joel B. Green, Dean and Professor of New Testament, Asbury Theological Seminary
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Before I sketch out my thoughts here, I'd like to thank Baylor University Press for once again, graciously sending me a copy of one of their volumes. I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to partner with them through my reviews. I am truly impressed by the number of phenomenal books put out by BUP in the last decade. Many thanks!
Now that my adulation is complete, it is time to consider the value of McKnight's Jesus and His Death.
McKnight commences with a discussion of the nature and purpose of historical Jesus research. As is promised in the book's subtitle, it here that he considers modern historiography and its estranged child, postmodern historical theory. While weighing carefully the anti-positivist critiques of historians like Keith Jenkins, McKnight, unsurprisingly, sides with folks like Richard Evans and Appleby, Hunt, and Jacob. Essentially, he espouses a sort of critical realism like that of Ben Meyer and N. T. Wright. McKnight correctly observes that historical Jesus scholarship has remained decidedly modern in its approach, very few scholars have adopted the postmodernist's colors as their own.
After considering basic historiographical approaches, McKnight discusses the role of historical Jesus research in the theology of the Church. While he affirms the importance of history, like Martin Kahler and Robert Morga, McKnight denies historical Jesus narratives any faith-determining role.
What is clear is that for the person who is committed to the canonical Gospels, or creeds as the church's definitive narrative about Jesus , another narrative about Jesus will not play a faith-determing role. It will not because it cannot. (McKknight, 41)
He still affirms a role for historical Jesus reconstructions, however, that role is certainly limited and is definitely not as the foundation of the Church's theology.
When discussing his specific method for historical judgement, McKnight follows the path charted out in Winter and Theissen's The Quest for the Plausible Jesus. His method is nothing new for those familiar with the Third Quest.
Chapter 2 is devoted to evaluation of Jesus' death in recent scholarship. It was a very engaging account of the history of scholarship, I was surprised by the affirmative judgements of many Continental scholars regarding whether Jesus foresaw and ascribed atonement significance to his death. I was impressed by the vast knowledge of the field McKnight demonstrated, it appeared to be a rather exhaustive treatment, revealing how well read he truly is. Briefly he addresses the significance of the question these scholars have asked over the years. If Jesus did not foresee, or interpret his death, is it justified for Christians to understand it as atoning? While not being too explicit, McKnight seems to answer in the negative - this gives a major clue to the outcome of the book.
Alright, there ends my chapter by chapter analysis. Due to the high number of chapters (17), I will only attempt to map from afar his argument. Actually, his division in Parts will serve well. In Part 2, McKnight discusses whether Jesus' foresaw a premature death for himself. The response is a resounding Yes. Jesus foreknowledge of his grisly end is irrevocably stamped in the memory of the early Church. The key to his insight is likely found in his alignment with John the Baptist. Jesus, as one who embodied much of what John was about, would certainly have connected the fate of his mentor with his own. Once McKnight establishes Jesus' divining of his premature death, he raises the question of if and how Jesus interpreted that death.
Parts 3 and 4 attempt to answer this question. Essentially, there are two major clues to Jesus' understanding of his death's significance. First, addressed in Part 3, is Jesus comment in Mark 10 which deems his death a "ransom for many". In order to assess the authenticity of Jesus' logion, McKnight considers several other questions. First off, did Jesus understand his life and mission in terms of Scripture? If so, what particular Scriptures functioned as his "life script". McKnight answers positively to the first question, regarding the second, he finds a number of narratives Jesus based his life around. For example, Moses, Elijah, the Son of Man, etc. Essential to this discussion is whether Jesus saw himself as the suffering servant of Isaiah - a crucial piece in determining the authenticity of the ransom saying. McKnight cautiously concludes that while Jesus may have seen Himself as the servant, it was minimally so, and thus, Mark 10v45 is likely derived from Mark, rather than Jesus. I must say, I was a bit disappointed. While he renders his judgement provisional and only as "probably not" authentic, I find it more balanced.
Since the ransom sayings is deemed Marcan, McKnight must look elsewhere for Jesus ascribing of atonement to his death. Naturally, he turns in Part 4 to the Last Supper. He offers a detailed exposition of the content and history of pesah, which likely provides the key interpretative lens for the Last Supper's significance. Next, the Last Supper is evaluated in light of the pesah evidence to determine whether it is in fact a pesah meal. McKnight decides that, no, it is not an official pesah meal, he sides with the Johannine chronology placing Jesus death on the day of pesah, however, it would have been understood by his disciples as a quasi-pesah meal. Thus, it maintains its relation to pesah all the same. Thus, McKnight suggests that Jesus understood himself as the passover lamb - like John describes. Thus his death does have saving significance according to Jesus. Like the passover lamb, Jesus' death shields his disciples from the impending wrath of God by absorbing the suffering of the Final Ordeal.
Jesus sees in his death the act whereby God will liberate Israel and, for those who partake of his offerinf of himself, offers a pesah-like token of blood sufficient for the imminent judgement. (McKnight, 324)
According to McKnight, Jesus most likely did not speak in terms of covenant, however, this would not be an unfounded connection for the early Church to have made in their liturgical use of the eucharist. In relation to the Temple, McKnight sees Jesus as offering his death to his disciples as a substitute for the Temple Sacrifice. He is not anti-sacrificial, rather, he sees his own death as providing everything the Temple can provide, in a sense, he neutralizes the Temple's significance. Here lies, for McKnight, the key to understanding Jesus' view of his death: the Passover lamb.
McKnight concludes by considering the significance of his study for atonement theory. Essentially, it fits well with what the early Church attributed to it. While the theologians behind the New Testament certainly expanded and expounded the death of Jesus beyond what he claimed of it in his own life, they were acting appropriately and in line with the foundation Jesus laid. McKnight acknowledges a limited, even minimal, place for penal substitution in Christian theology, however, he places "representative atonement" in a role of greater prominence. In this view, Jesus carves the path to God through his death and resurrection - which are rightly connected inextricably. This representative view is more akin to the Christus Victor motif of the Patristics than the satisfaction theory of Anselm. I found his conclusion convincing and I thoroughly enjoyed his discussion of atonement theories.
I'll briefly conclude with my personal evaluation. McKnight has provided in Jesus and His Death a very dense, scholarly, meticulous discussion of how Jesus perceived his death. His conclusions are largely convincing. He is cautious and rarely does he overstate his case. His method is strong and difficult to object to. Though, it was at times overdrawn, at certain places I couldn't grasp the relevance of the subject, he cannot be critiqued for prosaic writing. He is lucid and clear, and I highly recommend it for those who are willing. It is actually a rather suspenseful read, I was unaware of what his conclusion would be throughout. While it's no action-thriller, it was definitely engaging. I must say, I am unsure how any can maintain a stance that denies Jesus' prediction of his own death. McKnight has issued a challenge that I doubt will be answered adequately. Hopefully this volume will spark many more studies on how Jesus viewed his death, their is certainly room for advance, and McKnight has provided a great exemplar for those daring enough to try.
Note: This copy was provided free of charge in exchange for an honest review.
Here is a sample of his writing style: "soon thereafter a big group of scholars (the Jesus Seminar) ignored his sign, came upon the pond, tossed in some lines, and found...authentic" (p 122) saying of Jesus.
As Jenkins and Schweitzer have argued, much of the so-called 'historical' Jesus research of the last two hundred years has added up to..."nothing; we are 'imposing' pleasing narratives about our own ideologies in order to assert our own power" (p 12). And as Schweitzer pointed out so long ago, none of the scholarship has found the truth behind the claims of the church. All it has shown so far is whatever the current fad of the moment is, such as Bultmann discovering the existentialism of Jesus the moment existentialism was a scholarly fad.
So McKnight sets out to discover if Christians for the last 2,000 years have misinterpreted Jesus. Fundamental to that question is how Jesus understood his life and death.
During his lifetime, Jesus was accused of being a drunkard, a glutton, of being in league with Satan, and of breaking Jewish law. And it also seems clear he announced himself king of the Jews, the inheritor of the Davidic lineage,
McKnight concludes that Jesus "thought his premature death was part...of God's providential plan in history" (p 336). Certainly even "prior to Paul" (p 341) the crucifixion of Jess "was perceived in temple imagery and sacrificial terms" (p 341).
The earliest Christians thought of the crucifixion as a victory for God, however it might appear to the world. Jesus became a second Adam, a sacrificial lamb and a new type of Moses.
A book that will interest anyone who enjoys biblical scholarship.