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Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence (Studying the Historical Jesus) Paperback – April 13, 2000
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From Publishers Weekly
This book's aim is promising: to evaluate the evidence we have, outside of the Christian scriptures themselves, for the life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. Van Voorst is a capable guide to this territory, which ranges from citations in Roman correspondence to the early Christian writings often called the "New Testament Apocrypha." His lucid and judicious account of the state of scholarship will be most helpful to seminary students and others beginning to engage this material. Unfortunately if inevitably, the different sources are treated unevenly, with the very well-known classical quotations from Tacitus, Pliny and the like receiving extensive treatment while the more lengthy--and debated--proto-gnostic texts receive scant attention. Van Voorst devotes a surprising amount of energy to refuting the idea that Jesus never existed. He also includes a long and inconclusive chapter about what we can learn from the assumed sources of the New Testament itself, which is more a tutorial in 20th-century scholarship than evidence from "outside" the New Testament. Seminary professors will want to consider assigning this book, but those looking for revelations about Jesus of Nazareth will be disappointed, since after much scholarly muckraking the author himself concludes that the New Testament is our best evidence after all. Better to turn to works like John Meier's A Marginal Jew for more fully considered and provocative accounts of the historical Jesus. (May)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.
From Library Journal
Van Voorst has written a comprehensive, rigorously focused survey of the evidence for the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as manifested by the written sources other than the New Testament. He has translated all relevant passages into contemporary English and presents the most important issues in their interpretation. After a brief survey of the history and principles of historical Jesus research, he takes up the evidence from Classical writers, Jewish writers, the "sources" of the gospels, and Christian writings after the New Testament. He finds that while some of the Classical and Jewish writings are not useful or reliable, others are surprisingly helpful albeit quite sketchy in details. The "sources" are controversial, while the writings subsequent to the New Testament are derived from the New Testament and therefore of no value as historical witnesses. Van Voorst (The Ascents of James) is an established, careful scholar who has adopted a critical but responsible middle-of-the-road stance. This very well-organized and -written book fills a comparative void left by the deluge of historical Jesus books. It will be valuable for those interested in the historical grounding of their faith.DEugene O. Bowser, Univ. of Northern Colorado, Greeley
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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sources for the historical Jesus and I gave it a 3-star rating because though
I thought it was very valuable and interesting, the author does present the
evidence of the chronicler Thallos in such a way so that an uninformed
reader might think that a mid-first century date for Thallos,and his knowledge
of the Christian passion tradition,are quite probable.
But attempts to extend Thallos' chronicle down to 52 C.E. are completely
conjectural,and a date of 92 is just as likely.But this Thallos is apparently
the same Thallos referred to by the Christian writer Theophilus c.180,so that
even Craig Evans,one of Van Voorst's secondary sources,acknowledges
that certain dates for the Thallos' allusion to the crucifixion darkness range
anywhere from 29 C.E.to 221 C.E.
For the assessment of Evans,who tends to exude the same atmosphere
of plausibility regarding a mid-first century date for Thallos,see "Studying
The Historical Jesus",edited by Craig Evans and Bruce Chilton,p.454-5.For
a more sober evaluation,see the revised Schurer:"History Of The Jewish
People In The Age Of Jesus Christ",vol.3,p.543-4.
Man Of Blood: On The Last Days At Jerusalem
In the classical area, Van Voorst examines the traditional Pliny, Suetonius, Tacitus, and Celsus writings, but he also includes such lesser known authors such as Thallos, Serapion, and Lucian of Samosata. In the Jewish writings he covers just about every reference there is to Yeshu, ben Stada, Balaam, and "the certain one". It's a tour d'force.
Curiously enough, while Van Voorst is unsurpassed in his presentation and interpretation of material, it's his conclusions that I find wanting. For example, he discusses all the reasons why the mention of Jesus in Josephus is regarded as a later addition, then concludes that he "present(s) an independent account of Jesus" (p. 103). His main reason for discarding all the contrary evidence is his disbelief that the later interpolators could describe Jesus in less than glowing terms. Hardly convincing for me. Similarly, he concludes that references to Balaam cannot be references to Jesus because Balaam was traditionally the "prototype of the deceitful prophet from outside Israel" (p. 116) and Jesus, after all, was a Jew. True, but to the people who wrote the Talmud, even in Tannaitic times, Jesus was accused of being deceitful and was then outside Israel. So the use of Balaam can be accepted as referring to Jesus.
My disagreemeents with Van Voorst's conclusions notwithstanding, this is an excellent book and belongs on the shelf of any scholar. Much of the material is generally unavailable elsewhere, and Van Vorost scholarship is exceptional.
Of the fragment of Thallos used by Julius Africanus, he observes, "Julius argues that ... the eclipse [at the time of Jesus' death] was miraculous, 'a darkness induced by God.' Thallos could have mentioned the eclipse with no reference to Jesus. But it is more likely that Julius... was correct in reading it as a hostile reference to Jesus' death." (Pg. 20-21) Of the "Wise Jewish King" reference in Mara bar Serapion, he comments, "The results for study of the historical Jesus are slim. Mara's letter is not an independent witness to Jesus... it obviously links the life of 'the wise king' with his movement and its teachings, making it possible that Mara learned about the wise king from Christians... its assertion that the Jews killed Jesus is dubious at best." (Pg. 57)
Of Suetonius' reference in The Twelve Caesars to a 'Chrestus,' he says, "nothing in this sentence or its context explicitly indicates that Suetonius is writing about Christ or Christianity... The simplest understanding of this sentence is that Chrestus is an otherwise unknown agitator present in Rome... Moreover, in Nero 16.2 Suetonius spells the closely related word 'Christiani' correctly, and so he must have known that its founder was ChrIstus, not ChrEstus." (Pg. 32-33)
Of the famous apparent reference to Jesus in Josephus, he observes, "the wording of some sentences suggests that the whole passage may be a Christian forgery... Although several Christian apologists of the second and third centuries knew Josephus's works... they did not cite this passage despite its obvious usefulness. Less of an argument from silence is the evidence from Origen. Origen twice wrote that Josephus did not believe that Jesus was the Christ... At the very least, this means that he did not have a text of Josephus which contained the phrase, 'he was the Christ.'" (Pg. 91-92)
Of the hostile rabbinic references, he says, "All this raises the issue of how the rabbis gained this information about Jesus. Did they have independent chains of tradition on Jesus, passed from rabbinic master to rabbinic disciples, reaching back into the first century? The evidence points to a negative answer... the third century rabbis seem to have had no traditions about Jesus that originated in the first century." (Pg. 120) Similarly about the 'Toledot Yeshu' [Life of Jesus], "Because of its medieval date, its lack of a fixed form, its popular orientation, and its highly polemical purpose, the Toledot Yeshu is most unlikely to give us any independent, reliable information about Jesus. It may contain a few older traditions from ancient Jewish polemic ... but we learn nothing new or significant from it." (Pg. 128)
This is an excellent, up-to-date reference, that will be of great value to Christians (or others) studying Jesus and Christian origins.