Sunday, 18 September 2011

More Lives of Jesus 2: John Dickson

After the hilarious foolishness of Stephan Huller it's kind of calming to read a book about Jesus as sensible as John Dickson's A Spectator's Guide to Jesus: and introduction to the man from Nazareth.

John Dickson is a theologian and ancient historian, co-director of the Centre for Public Christianity in Sydney, and has a shadow life as a gospel singer.  He is representative of the sort of moderate evangelicalism that permeates the Anglican church and many other mainstream protestant denominations here in Australia.  It would be hard to imagine a more orthodox commentator on the life of Jesus.

The first thing that stands out about Dickson, more than any other writer I have read on the Life of Jesus, is his transparency about his sources.  Indeed there is a 100-page companion volume to A Spectator's Guide entitled The Christ Files which provides a handy summary of the various ancient sources - both Christian and non-Christian - for the life of Jesus.  He is also up front about his approach to these sources, making use of what he terms "mainstream" scholarship (and his "main stream" is quite broad) while largely ignoring both highly skeptical scholarship like that of Robert Funk, and outright apologetics.  

A Spectator's Guide takes these sources and uses them to provide an introduction to Jesus in his times.  Twelve brief chapters deal in turn with Jesus as teacher, healer, embodiment of the nation of Israel, Christ or Messiah, judge, friend, replacement for the Jerusalem temple, saviour, new Adam, Caesar, God and servant.  If you knew nothing about Christianity you would not only come away from this book with a much clearer understanding, you would come away thinking that maybe the faith is not so nutty after all.  Dickson is very careful not to overclaim on his evidence, but is clear about his own stance as an orthodox believer and presents a highly orthodox interpretation of the data.

It would be unfair to ask too much of an introductory book like this.  In 160 pages you have to drastically simplify a very complex set of information and analysis, and Dickson does this with great aplomb.  Nonetheless, it is worth pointing out a few things.

The first is that although he is very conscientous in citing his sources, he makes no attempt to evaluate them.  For example, he quotes Tacitus's brief description of Christians, written in the late first or early second century, as an example of early non-Christian corroboration of some key details in the Gospels.  However, he does not address the question of how we should interpret this reference.  Where did Tacitus get his information from?  Why does he report it in this way?  In fact, it seems that Tacitus is not really that interested in Christians and even less in Jesus, who he calls Christ, indicating that his information comes ultimately from Christians.  Rather, he is telling a story about the emperor Nero, the point of which that his cruelty was so horrific that it even made people feel sympathy towards the despised followers of Christ.

This is even more evident when he comes to discuss the Christian accounts of Jesus.  While he quite rightly suggests that these are by far the richest sources of historical information about Jesus, he does not attempt to assess their value as historical documents.  For instance, while he alludes to the multiplicity of accounts, he makes no attempt to address the different perspectives and emphases of the writers of the four Gospels and of Paul, whose writings he uses freely as the earliest Christian writings we have.  Hence, although he knows better, the New Testament accounts are presented as if they were one account.  The assumption that they can and should be harmonised is not far from the surface. 

Which brings me to my second point.  Much as he appears to claim otherwise, it is hard to read this as anything other than a work of apologetics.  He is careful not to claim too much.  For instance, he is clear that the documents only demonstrate that the early Christians believed Jesus performed miracles - whether we believe the same is a matter of philosophical choice or perhaps (although he doesn't use the word) of faith.  Nonetheless, in his moderate way he makes a clear and compelling case for an orthodox Christian interpretation of the data.  Dissenting voices, if they are heard at all, are extremely muted.

He is also very solidly evangelical.  He is pre-occupied with the traditional evangelical issues of sin and personal redemption, expressed in an individual rather than social way.  Hence, while he wants his readers to be disturbed by Jesus, he misses some very disturbing things.  For instance, although he devotes a chapter to the way in which the rhetoric of the Gospels deliberately adopts the terminology used by the Roman Empire about the Caesars, his reflection on this is thoroughly individualistic, asserting Jesus' claims over "my finances, my career, my politics, my sex life, my leisure, my ambitions and my family".  Yet if the claim to be a greater Lord than Ceasar is not primarily public and political what is it?  It seems Dickson does not notice this challenge to his own individualism.  Nor, in his reflection on Jesus as the "friend of sinners", does he really get to grips with the startling way Jesus redefines the concept of "sinner".

There is a lot to like about this book, and if you are looking for a simple introduction to Jesus you could hardly do better.  But for me his Jesus is a little too tame, a little too 21st century, a little too mainstream.  Dickson's caution becomes Jesus' caution.  Once you have read this book and grasped the basics, move on.  Read NT Wright or Albert Nolan, or even Marcus Borg, and see just how upsetting Jesus really can be.

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