K:JNWTS 29/1 (May 2014): 15-19

Book Review

Delbert Burkett, ed., The Blackwell Companion to Jesus. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2011. Cloth. 576pp. ISBN: 978-1-4051-9362-7. $49.95.

The Blackwell Companion to Jesus is a helpful disappointment. It is helpful in that it exposes most readers to unfamiliar perspectives on Jesus. It is a disappointment in that the majority of entries represent the far extreme of liberal Biblical scholarship. Here we are referring to those articles that deal with the Jesus of the New Testament and modern Christology. We are not as surprised that those entries which discuss the perspectives on Jesus from other world religions do not represent the historical Jesus. For they discuss each religion’s re-creation of Jesus in the image of its own religious convictions. But this is also overwhelmingly the case with many of the entries that are supposed to come from the Christian perspective. This degree of freight given to the critical far left is not representative of all the Blackwell Companions, such as the one on the apostle Paul. But it is here in spades. This is not a volume for the lay reader.

With the size of this volume, our review will necessarily be selective. As Delbert Burkett indicates in his opening introduction, this companion deals with Jesus in the New Testament; Jesus beyond the New Testament; Jesus in world religions; philosophical and historical perspectives on Jesus; modern manifestations of Jesus; and Jesus in Art, Fiction and Film. The first section on Jesus in the New Testament offers articles on Jesus in each of the four gospels, in Q, Paul, the general epistles, the book of Revelation and the Hebrew Bible respectively. Of the articles on each of the gospels, the only one that presents several stimulating comments on the literary/thematic aspects of its gospel is that on the gospel of John by Mary L. Coloe. The other three are primarily a morass of higher critical evaluations of the text. The article on the Jesus of Q shows the reductionism of this scholarship; the others are not particularly helpful either.

The section on Jesus beyond the New Testament includes several articles. The first on Jesus in the Apocryphal gospels (such as the infancy narratives) may be useful as an introduction for those not familiar with these texts.  Other chapters include: Jesus in the Gnostic gospels; the history of the Christology of the creeds from Nicaea (325 A.D.) to the second council of Nicaea (787 A.D.); and a concluding chapter on theories of the atonement from the Old Testament including liberal critiques of penal substitution. These last two have some value as historical overviews. 

Because most Christian readers are unfamiliar with their subject matter, perhaps the more useful articles are those exposing the reader to the perspective of Jesus found in other world religions. Such understanding can be useful in Christian witness. The perceptive reader will notice that those religions that present a positive assessment of Jesus remake Jesus into the ideals of their own religion. Thus, in Buddhism, Jesus is a Bodhisattva; in Hinduism he is a Yogi and one of many ways to God; in Islam he is a prophet. All of this has become more familiar to Christians in this multicultural age and further investigating these matters beyond the surface can be useful. For instance, the Jesus of the New Age movement is simply the Jesus of classical Hinduism. As missionaries in India once found the people impervious to their witness (since Christ was viewed as simply one more way to God), so it is with those to whom we speak who have accepted the New Age perspective on Jesus. And the emphasis in Islam on God’s sovereignty and mercy should not mislead us. Muslims do not believe in the total moral inability of human beings before a holy God. Thus, they do not see the necessity of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and his resurrection. What should be clear to all Christians who read these accounts is that all these other religions make Jesus into an enlightened moral teacher or prophet. None see him as the unique God-man who has satisfied the eternal righteousness and wrath of God by his obedience and penal sacrifice. Thus, for them, he is not the one who has been justified in his resurrection. These religions are essentially Pelagian and reimage Jesus in their own moralistic likeness. Such a Jesus provides no hope for the conscience which knows itself to be under the wrath of God. It provides no transition, by God’s grace, from wrath to eternal peace in the presence of the Almighty.

The denial of the resurrection of Jesus is especially evident in the chapter dealing with that subject by Michael Martin. This chapter argues explicitly against the historical veracity of Jesus’ resurrection. We will not take the time here to deal with these arguments. However, we believe that the arguments in this chapter do not present a compelling case and do not deal adequately with all the evidence at our disposal.  Instead, Martin starts with the assumption of unbelief and squeezes selective data in that direction. We leave it to others or another time to deal with these issues in detail.

The section on modern manifestations of Jesus includes chapters on modern western Christology: African and Asian Christology; various liberation theologies (Black, Feminist and Gay); and Jesus in American culture. The articles on these subjects can expose ministers to areas of theology with which they are not familiar, but most of the articles (once again) are not edifying for lay audiences.

Here we will expand our comments beyond the preceding. Modern liberation theologies go back to Jurgen Moltmann’s Theology of Hope. They represent many genuine forms of oppression: the oppression of peasants in South America; the oppression of African Americans by being captured against their wills and shipped off in horrible conditions to America, where many of them experienced harsh lives of unwilling servitude and later lynching; the oppression of women by male chauvinists and the murder and physical abuse of homosexuals. In many cases, the ruling elite, the majority or simply individuals justified this oppression by a form of all too worldly Christianity. In our opinion, the proper response to this oppression is freedom from the bondage of sin and resurrection union with Christ in his free heavenly kingdom. And it involves the recognition that others so united to Christ are deserving of this same dignity and freedom. Thus, even now, we must not oppress them, but treat them in light of the fact that this heavenly freedom has come to them. Christ alone is their Lord. And to the rest of the world, we must represent this freedom by not oppressing our fellow men and women, boys and girls. Instead, we are to show them by our life of service that we invite them to be united to Christ alone as their Lord. Many in the church have taken this road to freedom whether it is Indian peasants from South America, African Americans, battered and emotionally abused women, or homosexuals who have turned to Christ.

However, the modern liberation theologies discussed in this book have formed a different response. They have responded to being dominated by seeking to dominate in return. They do not seek to be united with their oppressors in one heavenly and free communion in Christ. Instead, they seek to harbor an identity focused on commonality by the standards of this world. And they use this identity to oppress their oppressors in return—all this in the name of liberation. Why do we make such sweeping judgments? It has to do with the form of this-worldly eschatology/hope that is the basis of all these theologies. Their this-worldly eschatologies of liberation are the opposite of their oppressors’ this-worldly eschatologies. Their oppressors sought their own this-worldly liberty from suffering and oppression by oppressing others. By using them, they secured their own agendas. Implicitly, all oppressors have a this-worldly eschatology, one in which their hope is centered in this world. This is true of the oppressors even if they control others by telling them to put their hope in another world. It is about power and privilege. This is the difference between a worldly eschatology and a heavenly one. When people focus their hope in the limited resources of this world, they must amass them at all costs, even to the oppression of others. (Thus, even if we say with some economists that raw resources are abundant, still the time required for the labor to develop those resources is limited. And when one refuses to compete honestly with others by cooperation because this world is one’s god, such individuals oppress others, if possible.) On the other hand, the riches of heaven given by the grace of Christ are as limitless and unfathomable as the endless life of God himself. And they are given by God himself. No human being can earn them for us. And all may partake equally in these riches in God without anyone lacking anything. There is no reason for human oppression or privilege when God himself and his heavenly life are our highest aspiration.

It follows that all the oppressors of this world have oppressed their fellows to use them for their own worldly purposes. Or they have oppressed them to gain something they thought they could earn, even if it was an afterlife (a la the Egyptian pharaohs). And thus they have conceived even this afterlife in this-worldly terms. This suggests once again that all oppressors have oppressed others for a this-worldly goal. Thus, as long as people respond to them with another this-worldly eschatology, they, in return, are engaged in the same cycle of oppression. They are simply oppressing and silencing their oppressors. They have become the oppressor. And we believe this has happened in these so-called liberation theologies, even if unwittingly. They cannot truly claim to liberate as long as their theology comes ultimately from the same this-worldly hope as their oppressors. Someone must win this game.

Thus, we believe that the form of Black liberation theology represented in this volume does not provide the liberty African Americans or anyone else needs. Whether Jesus was of African descent (as the article appears to argue) or Caucasian descent is unimportant for the liberty he brings to Africans and Caucasians because he does not side with any race over against another. He was certainly a Jew (and probably of a swarthy first century Jewish appearance of neither Caucasian nor African Negro descent). However, this has significance for the fact that he is the fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham and David in the history of redemption. This does not equate to a Jewish liberation theology of power in the present. Instead, Jesus is supremely the seed of Adam, and as such the head of a new humanity in which there is no distinction between Jew and Gentle (or among Gentiles!). That is, as Christ became an infant to save infants, and a young person to save young people, and a grown adult to save grown adults, so he identified himself with all races (by becoming the seed of Adam like them) to save all races in Adam. And so in heaven, he is the head of a new humanity in which there is perfect equality. There is no distinction of privilege among races in heaven, only a harmony of union in Christ. This is the liberating message for African Americans and all peoples in Christ Jesus.

And a similar equality of dignity in Christ (even now) is also the privilege of all women in Christ. And so those in the church are called to treat them with equal dignity even now, as those exalted in heaven. This is where women in Christ find their present consolation and future hope, not in a this-worldly feminist theology of liberation.

The most unbelievable article in this collection is the one by Theodore W. Jennings, Jr., claiming that Jesus was a homosexual. The error of Jennings’ claim is evident even from a historical point of view! There is no reason to believe (as the article argues) that the affection of Jesus for John (who lay on Jesus’ breast in public meeting of his disciples) represented anything more that the public display of a non-sexual affection of a master for his disciple. If the act implied anything different, this would not have been lost on the other disciples, who as first century Jews would have grossly offended, to say the least. Nor would it have been lost on Judas, who would have brought this report to the Sanhedrin. But we have no evidence that Jesus was ever accused of being a homosexual. And it is inconceivable that someone of Jesus’ reputation who was a homosexual in first century Palestine could have avoided this criticism. Someone with so many opponents and such a public life would not have escaped detection within that culture. And Jesus would have been rejected by his fellow Jews as one deserving death. If nothing else, as we have noted, had John’s lying on Jesus' breast indicated homosexuality, it would not have been lost on Jesus’ disciples and Judas, the informant of the Sanhedrin. Jennings’s view cannot stand the weight of the passage he uses to prove it, when that text is considered in its historical context.

The fact that this was the Jewish view of homosexuality is evident to a broad range of interpreters of Paul’s letter to the Romans 1:18-32 (even Robert Jewett in the Hermeneia series). According to such interpreters, this passage lists a number of practices that were considered by first century Jews to be Gentile vices. Tops on the list was homosexuality. This is further supported by the influence of the Hebrew Bible on the Jewish people since it forbids homosexuality, considering it so serious that when Israel’s penal system was ruled by the Hebrew Bible it was a capital crime.

We might also ask why the editor of The Blackwell Companion to Jesus allowed Jennings to appeal to the pericope of the woman caught in adultery in John 8 without explanation. For this text does not appear in any manuscripts of John’s gospel until the fifth century A.D. and is considered spurious by the vast majority of New Testament scholars. 

The volume ends with a discussion of Jesus in literature and film for those literary and film buffs among us. Unfortunately, these portrayals do not always represent the best the literati or cinema has to offer.

On the whole, this companion is highly slanted in the extreme higher critical direction, but some of its articles can be useful for those trained to sift through its skeptical morass. If you choose to do so, you might end by refreshing your soul with the heavenly God-man of the New Testament. Besides the Holy Scriptures themselves, The Coming of the Kingdom by Herman Ridderbos or “Rabboni” by Geerhardus Vos might provide such a refresher.

—Scott F. Sanborn