As is my custom during Christmas and Easter, I’ve been reading some books related to the holidays. Alongside The First Days of Jesus and The Great Christ Comet, I just finished up Robert Hutchinson’s Searching For Jesus: New Discoveries In The Quest For Jesus of Nazareth. Often, I am skeptical of these sorts of books. After reading it, I would recommend it for the most part, but with a few caveats.
First though, an overview is in order. With the exception of the last chapter, each chapter is framed around a question. They are:
- Is there eyewitness testimony in the Gospels?
- Liar, lunatic, or legend?
- Are the Gospels forgeries?
- Have archaeologists found Jesus’ house?
- Did the Church invent the idea of a suffering Messiah?
- Just how kosher was Jesus?
- Did Jesus have a secret message?
- Was Jesus a zealot revolutionary?
- Did Jesus plan his own execution?
- Do we have proof for the resurrection?
Notice that some of these seem somewhat neutral, while others have a kind of skeptical edge to them. Part of this is because the author’s path to more academic New Testament study runs counter to people like Bart Ehrman. While growing up as a Christian, Hutchinson “just accepted as a self-evident truth that at least some of the New Testament was legendary” (xxiii). In a sense then, Hutchinson started from a position of skepticism related to the historicity of the New Testament and only after moving to Jerusalem, studying the Jewish culture, and then going to seminary at Fuller did he move the more conservative position.
That being said, Hutchinson doesn’t write as an evangelical per se. His book excels when it discusses cultural context, archaeology, and historical documents. When it comes to theology, the atonement for instance, he seems more or less out of touch with the general contours of the traditional doctrine (chapter 9 gets into this and is also one of the shortest in the book). However, his overall focus is not on the theology of Jesus’ teaching and the resulting development of Christianity. Rather, he is exploring what kind of evidence there is for Jesus’ life and work in the first century.
As far as that element of his work goes, his conclusions are more or less in line with the traditional views that Christians have held since basically the first century. The New Testament contains eyewitness testimony, Jesus was neither liar, lunatic, or legend. The Gospels we have aren’t forgeries and in fact were written very early. The church didn’t invent the idea of a suffering Messiah and in fact there is evidence for the idea in Second Temple Judaism. The Gnostic Gospels are not accurate depictions of Jesus, who also was not a zealot revolutionary. The Gospel of Judas is not the best explanation for why Jesus was killed and we do have pretty solid proof of Jesus resurrection (although Hutchinson is a little more fuzzy on this than you’d hope, even after having read Wright).
Hutchinson supports all these conclusions by bringing readers into scholarly discussions in a digestible way. Because of his background, he reads a bit wider than many evangelicals but also stands in opposition to the many radical revisionists when it comes to early Christian history (he debunks quite a bit of Ehrman’s claims in this book). Each chapter contains a short list of recommend books for further study that often include books that are recommendations and books that he gently refutes. For the most part, Hutchinson is interacting with books rather than journal articles. Often, these books are aimed at the popular level public and so it is helpful for a well-educated layman to take on some of their claims and show that the evidence doesn’t always mesh as well as these revisionist authors claim.
On the whole, I’d recommend picking this up if you’re curious about the background for Jesus life and ministry. If you’ve caught wind of some skeptical questions related to Jesus’ existence Hutchinson’s book can provide solid evidence to undermine some more radical claims. He is a very readable author and conversant with a wide variety of sources. It may be a 350 page book, but it isn’t dense academic prose on the subject. From a traditional evangelical perspective, there is much to agree with historically and culturally, but some variance when it comes to theology. However, I think that might be ultimately helpful because it helps readers not only survey the evidence with Hutchinson but can encourage one to be critical in a healthy way regarding some the theological conclusions he makes.
Robert J. Hutchinson, Searching For Jesus: New Discoveries In The Quest For Jesus of Nazareth – And How They Confirm The Gospel Accounts. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, October 2015. 352 pp. Hardcover, $24.99.
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Thanks to Thomas Nelson for the review copy!