*REVIEW* A Hitchhiker’s Guide to Jesus: Reading the Gospels on the Ground

fisk1Bruce Fisk,
A Hitchhiker’s Guide to Jesus:
Reading the Gospels on the Ground

Baker Academic, 2011
267 pages

A Hitchhiker’s Guide to Jesus is Bruce Fisk’s attempt at a postmodern introduction to the study of the historical Jesus. As such, he is wildly successful. It is unconventional, thorough, and honest – most of it has the feel of a Donald Miller-like travelogue written by a New Testament scholar.

The book is the narrative, first-person experience of Norm, a fictional twenty-something who recently graduated from college and set out to tour Israel. After completing an undergraduate degree in religion, Norm’s interests in the historical Jesus and the critical study of the New Testament stir up in him a crisis, an internal tension between faith and certainty, between honest, critical study of the New Testament and carefully held belief. From start to finish the book details Norm tracing the steps of Jesus with a Bible in hand and a genuine, but careful, heart for inquiry.

Fisk cleverly weaves in a substantial amount of historical Jesus information. He doesn’t just have Norm encountering areas of Israel and reflecting on the possibility of the validity of the Gospels; Norm has an impressive amount of knowledge of Greco-Roman history, frequents the library, stays in consistent contact with his favorite NT professor back in the US, and engages in fascinating conversations with (admittedly unbelievable) chance interactions.

This is part of the creativity of the book: Norm runs into John Meier as he’s giving a lecture and stumbles across Jonathan Reed as he’s filming a documentary. One afternoon, as he’s pondering the authenticity of a statement of Jesus, he has a dream that includes a list of names familiar to any student of the subject: James Dunn, John Dominic Crossan, John Meier, Scot McKnight, Dale Allison, Bart Ehrman, NT Wright, and Ben Meyer. While it sounds as if it must be forced or even silly, the narrative rarely feels contrived.

The book itself has a creative format and is full of quotes and references. The surprising thing is how thorough it is, including many in-depth passages from primary sources like Pliny the Younger and Josephus. It is full of scripture quotations and packed with references and quotes from the list of historical Jesus scholars mentioned in the previous paragraph and others like Richard Bauckham, EP Sanders, and Paula Fredriksen. Fisk even takes the reader through the development of historical Jesus scholarship from the 18th century to today.

Through the study of Jesus’ life, in one way or another, Norm considers most of the major questions surrounding modern historical Jesus research: he gets into conversations about the reliability of Josephus on particular issues, explores Qumran, traces the possible relationships between Jesus and John the Baptist, examines and applies the commonly accepted criteria for authenticating the sayings of Jesus, engages the critical comparison of the Gospels, debates the historicity of the miracles, sifts through archeological evidence, and delves into a fairly in-depth examination of the different OT typologies (Moses, Joshua, Samuel, etc.) the Gospel writers employed. There is also a rich discussion concerning historiography and the nature of history in the Gospels.

Any book of this sort inevitably ends up choosing sides in the many debates. While such a thing is unavoidable, this book is much more interested in learning how to begin looking at Jesus as a historical figure than it is in coming to conclusions. It seems the overall tone of the work resembles most the critical skepticism of someone like Dale Allison. The book, though certainly not un-biased (Norm often finds himself not quite able to embrace the more liberal, Jesus Seminar-esque conclusions of his professor), is quite open ended, unafraid to engage and question deeply held beliefs and never comes close to being preachy. The general picture presented is that folks like John Dominic Crossan are on something like the fringe of historical Jesus scholarship while others like NT Wright represent the center. It is, as can be seen, certainly a product of the “Third Quest,” leaning on the Jewishness of Jesus and archeological insight.

While there are always short comings, especially in this type of book, here there are few. Fisk manages to cover an impressive amount of information but still manages to skip over a few important scholars. He never mentions Ben Witherington or the concept of Jesus-as-Sage (or, for that matter, the concept of Jesus-as-Cynic), and he only very briefly mentions Paula Fredriksen, unfortunately the only woman mentioned. Likewise, Fisk never mentions a Jewish scholar, overlooking the likes of Geza Vermes and David Flusser. While Fisk prefers to reference Crossan on the fringe of the assumed more “liberal” side of scholarship, he doesn’t mention a fringe person on the “conservative” side. This raises the question of whether or not he considers anyone to be “to the right” of NT Wright, or whether anyone on that “side” deserves a mention. Fortunately, despite my use of “conservative” and “liberal,” Fisk manages to avoid such distinctions and doesn’t deal too much with “sides.” Lastly, while Fisk addresses most of the parts of Jesus’ life, he doesn’t (compared to other events) address the diversity of views concerning the resurrection.

Those critiques aside, A Hitchhiker’s Guide to Jesus is a very well-rounded introduction to the study of the historical Jesus. Agree or not with the particular perspective that shows through, the information is thorough, the methodology clearly explained, the central questions addressed, and key figures are introduced. I recommend this to anyone interested in or teaching an historical Jesus course. It is accessible, adventurous, and surprisingly well written. The material and the questions come alive in the most creative approach to a topic often mired in footnotes and jargon. Most of all it is to be praised for its combination of scholarship and a sensitivity to the uncertainties and rewards that critical study of the Gospels can bring.

Nick Buck
Manager, Christian Theological Seminary Bookstore
Master of Theological Studies ’14

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